St. Paul mosaic

Studying Romans 10 5-17

What is at stake for Paul, and for us, in Romans 10:5-17, the text we are studying for Sunday, August 1? In line with the summer’s overarching theme of “confident hope,” we could say it’s Paul’s hope for the salvation of Israel, which is the explicit concern of Romans 9-11. But upon reflection, we could also say it’s Paul’s struggle with the relative weight and operation of grace and of faith in his theological story. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are winding up our four-week focus on the letter to the Romans. By now we’re familiar with some of the background of the letter: in the late 50s CE, the early Christian church in Rome would have been a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles; Jewish Christians probably having returned to Rome after a period of exile, and we presume to a much-altered Christian community, now showing more Gentile influence than before they left town. We imagine – and have some evidence for – tensions around the role Torah observance ought to play in the Christian community; what tolerance ought to be extended to Gentile customs, and to which customs; and who has status in the community.

Paul has spent the first eight chapters of the letter developing a theological argument about the basis of Christian salvation. That basis is the righteousness of God, extended as grace to an undifferentiated humanity. Everyone sins, everyone is reconciled through Christ, and everyone faithful is reckoned as righteous on the grounds of that faith. Works of the law are to no avail when it comes to human reconciliation with God. Fortunately for humanity, though, there is

no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

Unfortunately, though, this raises the question of what happens to those who are not in Christ Jesus. Particularly, for Paul, this means his “kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3), the Jews. [The question recurs, for us moderns, in the ceaseless debates around universalism.] For Paul, the question of the status of Israel with respect to the salvation by grace accessible through faith in Jesus Christ proves intractable, because Israel’s election – which is an operation of God’s grace – entails a different answer with respect to salvation from the one implied by Paul’s own argument in chapters 1-8.

Resolving that theological conundrum is Paul’s project in chapters 9-11.

Once Paul gives up trying to tie his competing theological convictions up in a single neat systematic package, he moves on to the practical, behavioral implications of his gospel in chapters 12-16.

Most of this text is in the lectionary – both on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost Year A (Romans 10:5-15) and on the 1st Sunday in Lent Year C (Romans 10:8-13). Weirdly, perhaps, that makes Romans 10:17 one of those texts that aren’t in the lectionary:

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Romans 10:17 (KJV)

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CLOSER READING: This is a very LOUD and vocal text. There is a lot of saying and calling on and confessing and proclaiming, and a lot hearing, words and names and reports. All this language conduces to believing – or, he hopes it does.

 Verses 1-4 set up our text by stating Paul’s wishes for his fellow Israelites, and the statement “Christ is the end of the law” – that is, the telos of the law, its goal or destination or ultimate purpose.

Then, Paul begins what is, actually, an extended interpretation of scripture – Christian midrash.

Verse 5 quotes Leviticus 18:5 – those who do the law will live thereby.

Verses 6-8 are introduced by a reference to Deuteronomy 9:4, “do not say in your heart,” and then a midrashic reading of Deuteronomy 30:12-14:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Paul’s reading substitutes Christ for the Torah in that passage. [Since he just told us Christ is “the final cause of the law” – and I’m substituting “final cause” for “end” there, imagining Paul would have gone along with Aristotle on that.] The reference to the “abyss” in v7 may connect Psalm 107:26, which features a descent to the depths by those who “went down to the sea in ships,” i.e., crossed the sea.

Verses 9 and 10 make a chiasm: a b / b a.

Confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and being saved cris-crosses with believing in or with the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, and being justified / made righteous.

The verb translated “confessing” here is the kind of con-fessing that involves speaking the same thing at the same time as others. It is confession in the sense of affirming the content of a credal statement, rather than in the sense of acknowledging sins.

Verse 11 seems to refer to Isaiah 28:16, and also back to Romans 9:33, which is a more extended quotation of the same verse. Paul thereby identifies Jesus with Isaiah’s stone that makes people stumble.

Verse 13 quotes Joel 2:32, a reference to the Day of the Lord. Here Paul identifies Jesus with the name people will be calling on. [Because “Jesus” is a lot easier to pronounce than “YHWH.”] Paul’s Greek grammar makes this sentence hard to express in English: the verb is in a tense and mood that indicates conditionality, and action completed at an indefinite time. Being precise about that, rather than elegant, would seem to give something like “Everyone, given they called on the name of the Lord, shall be saved.”

Then verses 14-15 explore that conditionality: the conditions that make calling on the name of the Lord possible. Believing, hearing, proclaiming, sending.

We might have to think a little about who “they” are in these rhetorical questions. We will probably assume “they” are the people of Israel Paul has been talking about all along, at first. But in verse 15, “they” seems to change identity, and become people who proclaim. Although these might overlap. We might notice, too, that Paul seems to be describing his own career here. (See Acts 9.)

Then Paul quotes Nahum 1:15, the image of a messenger reporting victory in a distant battle – which fits, since he’s talking about proclaiming the good news of a cosmic battle with sin and death. With echoes of Isaiah 41:26-27. Or Isaiah 61:1-2. Which fits, since he’s talking about proclaiming the end of humanity’s exile from God.

In v16, the word translated “obeyed” in the NRSV could mean “listened and paid attention” – so, perhaps, “listen” the way Mom means it when she says “listen to me, do this.” And then he quotes Isaiah again, Isaiah 53:1, making Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant implicitly a reference to Jesus. This is more Jewish Christian midrash, along the lines of what Paul has been doing since the beginning of this chapter.

Verse 17 seems to sum up this line of argument: the hearing and the word, in the context Paul has been establishing since verse 5, is the word in scripture. That is, what would have been scripture to his audience of 1st century Christians.
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Paul may not have known he was writing the Bible when he was writing this letter to the Romans. Once this letter became the Bible, though, Christians would use all these references to the “Old Testament” as evidence that all that scripture “really” refers to Jesus. It’s authoritative evidence, too, since it’s in “the Bible.”

Let’s remember that there was a time when this letter was not the Bible yet. There were, instead, different readings of the scripture that was already the Bible, and Paul’s reading of that scripture was the minority one. The Christians hadn’t yet become the Roman Imperial world historical massively more numerous “winners” of the “how to read the Bible” competition, with all the consequences that would follow from that.

Let’s also remember that everything doesn’t always have to be a competition. That texts can have more than one “right” reading. And, that reading the Bible in a way that contributes to anti-Judaism is not one of those.

I don’t think Paul is being anti-Judaic here – not when he’s trying his best to balance his twin theological insights, the one about the radical efficacy of faith and the one about the absolute authority of God’s grace. The idea of the absolute authority of God’s grace incorporates and expands what would have been his older, pre-Acts 9 theology of election.

I don’t think he would support us, his legatees, being anti-Judaic either. Not when he reminds us that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), and “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). It is pretty clear to me from his project in these chapters that he would not mean by “all Israel” some “new Israel” that would exclude the original one. Surely he would mean the original one, that has come to include all these Gentiles. I think that ought always to have been clear to Christian readers. But as it is written, “hindsight is 20-20.”

If Paul, who wrote the Bible, didn’t know how the balance of faith and grace was going to work out for the salvation of all Israel, all the elect, and finally just had to leave it in the hands of God (Romans 11:33-36), then I do not expect to resolve that theological conundrum any better myself.

But I like to speak together with the children of Fatima:

“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.”

And with Heinrich Bullinger in the 2nd Helvetic Confession: we are supposed to have a good hope for all.

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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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