Beverly Gaventa’s When in Romans— Part Four

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It is wrong to fault a book which has limited goals and a specific purpose for not addressing every hot button issue connected with Romans. Still, there are things one hopes will be more fully addressed in the forthcoming commentary on Romans. From a social context point of view, much more needs to be made of the fact that Paul nowhere speaks of ‘the ekklesia of God in Rome’ as he does, even of the much-divided Christians in Corinth. Indeed, Paul hardly uses his usual term for the ‘church’ in this letter, the term only occurring in Romans 16, and even then only of a particular house church in Rome, the one meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Clearly, there are real divisions in Rome, not identical to the ones in Corinth, and Paul is trying to address this problem before he arrives in Rome. Something should also have been made of the remarkable and unprecedented greetings in Romans 16 where Paul instructs the Gentile majority church in Rome to embrace the Jewish minority groups ‘with every show of affection’. You will look in vain for Paul instructing his other churches in this way in his final greetings, telling one group in the audience to embrace another one. Further, nothing at all is said in this book about the fact that this letter is written after the death of Claudius and the return of people like Priscilla and Aquila to Rome, a city from which they had earlier been expelled. Paul is concerned about the Jewish Christian minority being fully welcomed and incorporated with the Gentile majority in the Roman church. Hopefully, this issue will be fully discussed in the commentary.

Secondly, while I think the apocalyptic approach of Martyn, Gaventa and others has some merits, there are problems with this view. The view rightly emphasizes the divine initiative of God when it comes to salvation and related matters, and also rightly emphasizes the more cosmic nature of salvation— it is not just humans being redeemed or renewed. It is the cosmos, the creation as well. This is a helpful corrective to the over-emphasis of many modern commentators on the salvation of individuals. Paul is not just interested in new creatures, he is also interested in new creation. Salvation is not a human self-help project, it is a radical rescue, as Gaventa rightly emphasizes (pointing out how little Paul ever says about repentance and pardon). But confession and faith are also emphasized by Paul in Rom. 10 and elsewhere, and when Paul speaks about faith he does not merely mean a gift given by God, though that is included, he means a gift unwrapped and freely exercised by the recipient. That freedom is entailed is made clear in Paul’s reference to ‘those who love God’. Of course, the emphasis lies on God’s love for humankind, rather than the response, but that should not cause us to minimize the necessity of the graciously enabled free response in love.
Problems come however when one starts talking about Sin and Death as ‘powers’, akin to powers and principalities. The personification of sin and death in Romans and elsewhere does not provide a justification for seeing these things as powers on a par with say angels whether benevolent or malevolent, any more than height and depth are viewed as ‘powers’ in the famous list at the end of Romans 8. Mostly, Paul talks about sin as an activity of human beings, albeit an addictive sort of thing. And like all kinds of addictions, one needs external intervention to be liberated from it. Death is viewed not as a power, but as a just outcome— the wages of sin, and as a fact that all fallen mortals must face. It is because God’s life-giving power overcomes death by means of resurrection that death should no longer be something that preoccupies the life and thought of Christians. Furthermore, if death is always and everywhere negative power, it is hard to see how and why Paul puts such a positive valence on the death of Christ as a means of deliverance and atonement. Apparently, death is an event, and Christ’s death a history changing event.
Thirdly, it is disappointing that not a bit more was said about the relationship between election and salvation in Paul’s thought. Clearly not all of elect Israel are seen as saved, and not all the saved are seen as a part of Israel, by which Paul means those of Jewish descent. Israel is not Jew and Gentile united in Christ in Paul’s thought, indeed God is not finished with Israel yet, as Paul says in various ways in Rom. 9-11. But again, we have a right to expect more discussion in the forthcoming commentary. Hopefully she will interact with Chad Thornhill’s fine study on the Chosen People of God. Hopefully, too she will recognize that Paul’s ‘alls’ reflect God’s heart and desire that none should perish, but that Paul does not envision a world in which there will be no final judgment for the rejection of God and his Gospel. Indeed, he fully expects that there will be both final salvation and final judgment in the future, just as most early Jews did, just Jesus did. The divine initiative does not mean the divine coercion, for that would eliminate the possibility that love was freely given, freely received, and freely returned by those who chose to do so.
When in Romans is a splendid book for it asks many of the right questions about Romans and teases the mind into active thought. It barbecues some sacred cows, and prods us all to rethink certain comfortable assumptions about God, salvation, church, and the world. In short, it is an excellent teaser-trailer for the full-length movie version forthcoming in the Romans commentary. Gaventa is an essential dialogue partner in the 21rst century discussion of Romans. More, she is another strong voice in the Christian choir seeking to sing the doxology about God’s great work of salvation. It remains to be seen whether dissonance can be resolved into harmony as in so many great works of music, when it comes to the oratorio called Romans. That of course depends on whether all of us singers are prepared to pay more close attention not only to the notes on the page, but to keep one eye always on the Conductor who inspired the work in the first place.


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