Beverly Gaventa’s When in Romans– Part Two

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In the second full chapter, Gaventa argues that ‘Israel is God’s creation and belongs to God’ (p.49). Once again, the stress is on the divine initiative. She insists that Paul does not treat Israel as an ethnic entity, he treats her in terms of creation and redemption. “We construe the question too narrowly when we think of it as having to do with Israel’s belief or Israel’s (dis)obedience.” (p. 49). She insists that overwhelmingly the issue for Paul is about God and God’s redemption, faithfulness, creation. Now it seems to me that this is too strong an either/or. Paul is deeply concerned about Jewish rejection of their own Messiah and again and again he refers to belief and unbelief in Romans 9-11 as the basis of being in, or being broken off from the people of God. So, this is not an either/or matter, but of course Paul’s largest concern is that God and his faithfulness be upheld as reliable. Gaventa is however right to recognize that Rom. 9-11 is no addendum, it is at the heart of Paul’s arguments in Romans. I would say it provides a climax to the theological arguments.

Gaventa makes an important and correct distinction between what Paul says about the Law and what he says about Israel (p. 51). What he says about the one does not necessarily dictate what he says about the other. Further, she is right that one has to distinguish what Paul says about the Law and what he says about Israel’s Scripture. In a lecture given at the SBL in the Fall of 2014 Professor Gaventa convincingly argued that by the righteousness of God, Paul does not refer to ‘covenant faithfulness to Jews’. She rightly showed that adikia— wrong doing is what is contrasted with both divine and human righteousness in Rom. 1-4. She prefers the translation rectification for ‘dikaiosune’, the setting right of something that was wrong and said in that lecture that what Paul is really talking about is fairness, justice. Yes, Paul is talking about more than justice, but not less than justice. The translation justice is inadequate as it ignores the worship context of the discussion in Rom. 1.18-32. In fact, as she concludes in that lecture, justification comes to mean forgiveness, a wholly new meaning for the term. God does not justify ungodly behavior (see Rom. 4.5), he justifies those whose faith counts as justness but it also involves making them just, truly rectifying them. It is not just imputed, it is imparted by the Spirit, actually freeing the person from the bondage to sin. This helps us make better sense of what she says in When in Romans.
Returning to the book at hand, there is the focus on Abraham in Rom. 4. Surprisingly, Gaventa doesn’t really discuss the relationship between this treatment of Abraham and the similar one in Gal. 3. Instead, she emphasizes that Paul omits the discussion about Abraham’s obedience which is prominent of course in Genesis 12-17, and she suggests that too much has been made of the language of covenant, which as she says, does not occur that frequently in Paul. She also demurs from the notion that Abraham is being presented as an exemplum, and sort of proto-Christian whose example Paul wants his audience to follow. “Instead Abraham serves as an example of what God has done, not of Abraham’s own character.” (p. 60).

Once again, this is turning a both/and into an either/or because Abraham’s trust in God and how it was reckoned as righteousness is indeed held up to the audience as something to both reckon with and embrace for themselves. The fact that the language of imitation is not specifically used here, is an argument from silence that is not compelling. But again, it is right to emphasis the divine action of God raising up, miraculously, children from Abraham and Sarah. Again, one needs a both/and reading to do justice to the complexity of Paul’s argument, and one senses that too strong an embrace of an apocalyptic reading of Romans is skewing the reading.

Likewise, in the discussion of Rom. 9-11 (pp. 61ff.) it is right to indicate that God takes the initiative with Israel, saving her again and again through her history, but again the assertion “Israel exists not by virtue of its own faithfulness or goodness but by God’s creative act” (p. 65) fails to do justice to what else Paul says in Rom. 9-11 namely that some Israelites were broken off from the people of God due to their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. In that instance, it’s not about divine initiative but about divine response to human disbelief. We need an account of Romans that while it gives precedent and priority to the divine initiative does not ignore, downplay, or dismiss that some of God’s are in response to human belief or disbelief, obedience or disobedience. This is not a story about God continually creating Israel from scratch over and over again. It is story about God’s ongoing relationship with a difficult people, a relationship that involves a series of covenants as Gal. 4 makes so very clear.

That Israel is God’s child is clear. That the child has no say in its own existence or destiny is another matter. Salvation doesn’t happen by mere divine fiat. That God has a plan for both the remnant and the rest who are at present broken off from Israel, does mean that Reformed notions that equate election with individual salvation are wrong, but it does not mean that the alternative to that is the notion of universal salvation of Israel or of the Gentiles. One does not talk about a ‘full number of Gentiles’ being saved if one simple means ‘everyone’, nor does one talk about a full number of Israel from the remnant and the rest being saved finally by the mercy of God by grace through faith in Jesus, if one means that faith is not required for that salvation. The impiety of Jacob must be turned away before many Israelites can be saved when Christ returns.

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