What do we learn from Paul’s argument about Abraham in Romans 4? What do we actually do with it in our own lives? That’s one question we might ask or want to discuss in class as we are studying Romans 4:1-12. [Some notes on the text are here.] Here are a few others:
Do we have any experience with this text – for instance, from Bible studies or sermons in our past? What has that experience been? What do we already know about the meaning of the text, and about its importance in our theologies?
Is there anything we have “always understood this to mean”? What is that?
[More personal] How important is that understanding to us in our lives? That is – what are we already doing with this knowledge? When does it come up for us, in what kind of circumstances? What kind of problems does it seem to help us with? Or – does it create problems for us, and if so, what problems?
[More abstract and theological, maybe] Historically, this part of the letter to the Romans has been very important in the development of Protestant theology. Theological slogans like “justification by faith [alone]” and “salvation by faith not works” have found their support in this text – along with Paul’s larger argument in the letter as a whole. How important does that theological history feel to us? That is – how firmly committed are we to these theological positions, how central do they seem to us, how “identified” are we with them? What is our own relationship to this “Protestant theology” or “Reformed theology”? Why is that, do we think?
In verse 1, Paul refers to Abraham as “our ancestor according to the flesh.” Do we think of Abraham as “our” physical ancestor? Why, or why not? Does that statement tell us something about who Paul is speaking to here? What?
Then in verses 11-12, Paul makes another, longer statement about Abraham being the ancestor of “all who believe without being circumcised and … the ancestor of the circumcised” etc. Do we ourselves think of Abraham as “our ancestor” in any way? Why, or why not? [For instance: VBS?] How important is that way of thinking about Abraham for us, personally? Why is that, do we think?
Can we think of any circumstances in which it would be important to us to be able to claim Abraham as “our ancestor”? What would those circumstances be? [Does that give us any additional insight into what is going on in this text? What insight?]
We think one of the problems Paul was addressing in the Roman church was a complicated argument about who was, and who was not, really “doing things right” in the church, and who did and who did not have status and authority, and why. What does Paul seem to be saying to the 1st century Roman church about that? Why do we say that?
[More personal] Do disagreements like that ever arise in our church? When – under what circumstances? How are they similar to the Romans’ problem? How are they different?
Does Paul’s perspective here seem to help with those at all? How? Or – not? Why?
Overall, it seems important for us to recognize that we are heirs to a long and complex history when it comes to this part of the Bible. This text became part of the argument, early in church history, for the development of a church full of gentiles that ultimately split definitively with Judaism. Then, it became part of the bitter arguments around the Reformation in 16th and 17th century Europe. Let’s not forget that those arguments were literally deadly. So, whatever experience of church we have now, and probably take as a given, comes down to us in part because of specific things Christians have done with this text.
But the church we have now is the one we’re used to. We ourselves may be likely to have reduced all that history to some phrases (“faith not works” is a classic one) that we may not even think about too much. Paying some attention to that might be a good idea. Is this text really of purely historical interest for us, or does it address any matters of current concern for us? If so, what matters are those?
Image: “Reading,” Alexander Moravov, 1913, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons