Fundamentalist De(con)struction of Romans

In my class on Paul and the Early Church, we worked through several of Paul’s letters, including Romans. As I worked through this famous epistle once again, it seemed to me that the most popular passages for quotation from the letter are not the parts most central to Paul’s argument. Could it be that those who “quote-mine” the letter have, unwittingly, been engaged in a deconstructionist reading of Romans, focusing on tangential elements in a way that allows them to read “against the grain” of the letter?

I’ve long wanted to write a blogmentary (blog commentary) on Romans, to work through these and other issues. Since a blogmentary doesn’t need to be written in order, I’m pondering the possibility of working through Romans backwards: starting where Paul ends up, and then figuring out how he got there. So perhaps it should be called a “Romans Blog Memento“.

Flipping through channels about two months ago, I encountered a typically offensive example of the fundamentalist misuse of Romans. There was a discussion of homosexuality, and which passages in the Bible to read on the subject. The speaker recommended Romans 1, with the assumption that the meaning and application will be clear as long as one prays before reading – no need for a commentary, articles, a comparison of translations to make onself aware of ways in which any given English translation may render the underlying Greek in a way that is not the only possible way, or anything else that recognizes that this is translated literature which reflects a different historical, cultural, and linguistic context and assumptions.

The most offensive part, however, was that deceitfully innocent sounding phrase, “Romans 1″. “Read Romans 1″ is far from a good recommendation. There was no “Romans 1″ in the letter Paul wrote – no chapter division, no versification. By recommending that one stop at the end of chapter 1, it is pretty much guaranteed that the reader will miss the point of Paul’s stereotypical denunciation of Gentile sins in that part of his letter. It wasn’t to condemn the Gentiles, but to get Jewish readers to join in the condemnation and then find themselves condemned in “chapter 2″. But that is how fundamentalist de(con)struction of Romans and other parts of the Bible works. What was a tool Paul used to bring about self-criticism and repentance becomes a weapon to be wielded against others.

As I think about it, fundamentalists tend to focus on the marginal voices in the Bible rather than the mainstream of early Christianity. Of the epistles, it is Hebrews, which made it into the canon on false pretenses, that provides the most support for their particular doctrine of the atonement (even though their most popular one, penal substitution, isn’t found even there). Of the Gospels, it is John, which again did not get into the canon without dispute, which gives the realized eschatology and thus the focus on faith determining one’s eternal status in the here and now.

But that’s another issue. The main point that needs to be made in this post is this: If you think “Romans 1″ can be used as a weapon against homosexuals, you’ve fallen into Paul’s trap. If you use “Romans 1″ in this way, you aren’t condemning homosexuals. You are condemning yourself. I can only hope that the power of Paul’s message (which your way of chopping it up in pieces undermines) may one day challenge you in the way its author seems to have intended. But for that to happen, you’ll probably have to keep reading past the end of “Romans 1″…

  • Drew

    I think this is basically on target. Romans “1″ is a set up. It is to say, this is them, and this is you and you need to understand the difference. Romans 3 then gives you a “not so fast”. Don’t boast because in fact you are really no better than them. And in Romans 5 the message is clear that salvation is for everyone regardless of Jew or Gentile distinctions. The point is that the cross breaks that distinction apart because the law does not save, but condemns. The fact that Paul is so clear about the condemnation of the law is the central piece that fundamentalists cannot seem to get straight. They still want the law so they can boast about their salvation and distinctiveness and this is about as contrary to the message of Romans as you can get. I have worked through Romans a few times and each time it seems to be a more radical message each time.

  • Brian

    You use the phrase “fundamentalist deconstruction”, but I wonder if you actually mean “non-theologan deconstruction”. I say this because most people can’t analyse the original Greek, and do have bibles that break the text into ch/verse, so not only the fundametalist but all Christians who can’t read Greek will have difficulty correctly interpreting the text. This is where the person in the pew relies on the preacher to correctly interpret scripture. Even then, most preachers don’t read Greek, because most pastors are not theologans.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thank you both for your comments. Brian, I’m not yet persuaded that it is simply a case of ‘non-theologians’. It may be a case of conservative Christianity having created a certain culture which is now taken for granted. But reading more than a line of a book, or poem, in order to make sense of it isn’t about theology. It is about basic reading, literacy and common sense. But many of us have been taught, or at least had implied to us, that we should suspend our common sense when we read the Bible. And so things that we would know when reading any other book (e.g. don’t open it at random and expect it to make sense) we somehow don’t apply to the Bible.If there is a problem, it isn’t lack of theological education. It is about pride. People who do not know the original languages and read the Bible in translation never read the introductory notes to their Bible, much less look for something that would explain the text at a serious level, such as a commentary written by a scholar but aimed at a general audience.Of course, older translations like the King James separated each verse. But here too conservative Christian subcultures are the real issue. Were it not for them, no one would still read the barely intelligible KJV when translations in contemporary English are available. But I still think it comes back to pride, to Christians who are sure they know what the Bible says without having studied it in depth and detail, and who oppose rather than listen carefully to anyone who suggests there may be more that needs to be taken into consideration…

  • newenglandsun

    Because in Romans 2:1 Paul argues that his audience is also doing what he is describing that the pagans have done. In other words, if a guy like James Dobson were to use it to argue in favor of his “Biblical family”, he would realize that the bumper stickers telling him to “Focus on [his] own damn family” are actually more “Biblically oriented” than what he is trying to reach at with his business corporation.