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A Deeper Look at Romans

The August “special study” was the book of Romans. The curriculum ended up consisting of Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives, a really good book on the book of Romans.

In spite of its title, Preaching Romans is not only a collection of sermons, although it does include several sermons, and all of them are interesting ones. The first half of the book comprises an introductory essay by Stephen Westerholm on themes in the letter to the Romans that most or all readers of the text affirm, and summaries of the key insights of four distinct interpretive perspectives on the letter. The authors label these the “Reformational,” New, Apocalyptic, and Participationist perspectives. The collected sermons that make up the second half of the book are organized by these perspectives, and illustrate how those perspectives might shape and show up in preaching.

As a result, reading Preaching Romans was both educational and inspirational. The summaries of the different interpretive perspectives are clear and informative, and point the reader towards critical background reading for a fuller exploration of each perspective. The preaching that takes shape from each of these perspectives is by turns moving, convicting, arresting, and insofar as we can say that preaching is transformative [making the necessary allowances for who is actually doing the transforming], transformative.

Hazarding a guess, most Christian readers will be familiar with the Reformational perspective on Romans, perhaps best summarized as “we are justified by faith apart from works of the law,” backed up by the illustration that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works, when his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. That perspective has traditionally been associated with the idea that Paul, understood as a convert to Christianity, is contrasting Christianity with Judaism. Stephen Westerholm (writing here as well) challenges this interpretation, arguing that Paul’s view of Judaism isn’t the point:

He is not in fact attacking Jewish distortions of the law at all. He is insisting that the law itself – as given, and rightly understood – spells out what people ought to do; accordingly, by the standards of the law, those who do what the law commands are righteous. Conversely, for those who have not kept its commands, the law cannot serve as the path to righteousness (12).

Instead, as Protestants and arguably Jews as well have been saying for centuries, people will have to rely on the grace of God, made effective through faith.

The “new” perspective, which is less new than it used to be, challenges this interpretation of Paul’s treatment of Judaism a bit, envisioning an early Christian church in which there are still-plenty-Jewish Christians as well as Gentile Christians, being addressed by a still-mainly-Jewish Christian Paul. This perspective paints the set up in chapters 1-3 as establishing the “weak” and the “strong” factions in the Roman church, who will later receive instructions to consider one another’s welfare in Romans 14.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Preaching Romans is the section on the “apocalyptic” perspective. Douglas A. Campbell first discusses the underlying epistemology of the apocalyptic perspective, as a challenge to “theological foundationalism” (44), the tendency to establish “truth criteria” external to the revelation of Jesus Christ for assessing the validity of that revelation, or what is valid in or about it. He then proceeds to outline a reading of Romans that makes the revelation that Jesus Christ is the solution to the fundamental human problem – a problem that people might not even have recognized was the problem. This, he argues, is the ultimate centerpiece of Paul’s project in the book of Romans.

Jason Micheli’s sermon “Immortal Combat: Romans 1:16-17 and 5:12-14,” takes aim from this apocalyptic perspective at our tendency to exclude thoroughly repugnant human beings from our associations, for cause. He uses the figure of white supremacist Richard Spencer, and proclaims that the church is exactly the place where someone like us ought to be inviting the likes of Richard Spencer, since church “is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin” (128). This was the sermon that pointed out that “dikaiosynē is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names” (129) and might most literally be translated by “rectification.” That was a new one on me, and an exciting one, as well as food for a lot of thought, assuming Micheli is correct about this.

The apocalyptic perspective feels magnetic, though also a little dangerous, the way appeals to self-authenticating revelation always are. Only truth is truth; everyone knows that. Every criterion for truth, every “touchstone” that’s distinguishable from truth itself, so that it can function as a sign of truth, has the potential to be separated from truth, and so to become a property of untruth, and so to fail as a criterion for truth. Everyone knows that, too, or ought to. So truth’s self-authentication is the only authentication that can possibly work, in the end. But … what those of us who take that position are supposed to say to Mohammad or Joseph Smith is always a little murky to me. And while the One Word of Jesus Christ is self-authenticating, establishing the text of that One Word seems to be a perennial problem for the Christian tradition.

If it weren’t, it would be a whole lot easier for the participationists to come right out and say what it does and doesn’t mean, concretely, to be “in Christ.”

The editors are explicit in their view that none of these individual perspectives on Romans stand alone, in the end. Instead, they suggest that the different perspectives form a “kaleidoscope” of specific possibilities, each trying to follow a different “main thread” of Paul’s letter, all centered around the indisputable central proclamations of the book of Romans: human sinfulness, God’s righteousness, Christ’s atonement, the centrality of grace (169).

Preaching Romans, despite its title, is not only for preachers. It is for anyone who wants to gain some additional insight into the meaning, or possible meanings, of the letter to the Romans – by reading what students of Romans have been thinking recently, and by “listening” to some of the preaching that arises from that.


McKnight, Scot and Modica, Joseph B., eds. Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019.

An aside: Going into a month of “specially studying” Romans, I had good intentions [we know what those are good for] of reading Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, finally, instead of just letting it sit on the book shelf. I did read several pages, in fact: enough to notice that they read like pages out of Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia, to have the thought “Holy Cow, what a Marxist utopian!!” and to finally understand that “the theology of crisis” aka “dialectical theology” which we learned about in Church History and Theological Studies had something to do with that dialectic. For me, this amounts to the intellectual equivalent of realizing something like “I always fall for bad boys,” or “I can’t resist that certain shade of aqua.” Seeing it doesn’t change anything, but it sure explains a lot.

Rembrandt with turban holding a scroll, in chiaroscuro

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