Predestination and Freewill: Modern Scholars on Romans 7-9, Part I

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Bible CommentaryHaving now viewed Luther and Erasmus’ perspectives on soteriological material in Romans, we turn to a survey of modern Biblical studies concerning the proper interpretation and meaning of Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome. Here we must note the plethora of recent contextual studies, commentaries, and dissertations written concerning all manner of Pauline, theological, or interpretive concerns. The perspectives on Paul and his letter to Rome, along with the potential implications for soteriology and the human will that can be derived from the magnitude of the works in existence, are plenteous to say the least. It must be noted that the general governing assumptions of recent scholarship are vastly different from those of Erasmus and Luther in their context, and some may argue that to compare the perspective of modern scholars to those of the Age of Reformation would not be a fair presentation. However, questions of great importance must be examined in every time and under a variety of presuppositions, and thus to do so here remains wholly appropriate. While an entirely direct comparison of Luther and Erasmus to modern scholarship would indeed miss their unique contexts, we have been dealing in general principles and concerns that will enable us to offer critiques of the positions of both Luther and Erasmus on the soteriological materials of Romans. To best engage modern understandings of Paul and Romans, here will we examine both contextual studies of Paul and his letter to Rome as well as a number of commentaries on the passages of Romans in question.

 

Scholar Robert Jewett believes that to best understand Paul’s letter to the Romans it should be understood as a missionary document and not as an abstract theological treatise encompassing the whole of Pauline theology.[1] Jewett writes that, “Romans is carefully organized, with an introduction in 1:1-15, a thesis statement in 1:16-17, four proofs (1:18-4:25; 5:1-8:39; 9:1-11:36; and 12:1-15:13), and an elaborate conclusion in 15:14-16:24. From the perspective of classical rhetoric, Romans is an ‘ambassadorial’ message in the demonstrative genre that seeks to encourage a particular ethos in the audience so they will support a project that Paul has in mind.”[2] Key to understanding this missionary endeavor, Jewett argues that the modern reader needs to understand several background concerns, including the division between Jewish and Gentile Christians brought about by expulsion of Jews from Rome via the Edict of Claudius in 49 CE, the social differentiation between tenement churches and house churches,[3] and the lack of central organization within the Roman church.[4]

 

For Jewett, “The basic idea in the interpretation of each verse and paragraph [of Romans] is that Paul wishes to gain support for a mission to the barbarians in Spain, which requires that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that are currently dividing the congregations in Rome. In the shameful cross, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, resulting in discrimination and exploitation of barbarians as well as in poisoning the relations between the congregations in Rome. The gospel offered grace to every group in equal measure, shattering the imperial premise of exceptionalism in virtue and honor.”[5] Concerning the letter’s second and third proofs, where Luther and Erasmus draw a large portion of their material, Jewett writes that Paul casts Christ as a new system of honor in righteousness that replaces the quest for status through the law.[6] Paul undeniably affirms a form of election, which Jewett interprets as based upon love,[7] a love that ultimately triumphs in the Gospel’s mission to Israel and the Gentiles.[8] Taking a wide view Romans from Jewett’s perspective, it appears that when reading Romans, one must consider Paul’s mission emphasis and the thrust of the good news of the gospel for all humanity instead of considering all of Paul’s arguments in light of theological abstraction.


 

[1] Robert Jewett. “Romans.” The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Edited by James D.G. Dunn. Cambridge University Press: new York, 2003. 93. [2] Ibid., 91. [3] Jewett believes that there was a form of rivalry or tension between those who met in churches out of workshops or in working class type areas of Rome and those who met in homes or upper class areas of Rome (cx. 16:5). [4] Ibid., 92. [5] Robert Jewett. Romans: A Commentary. Assisted by Roy A. Kotansky. Edited by Eldon Jay Epp. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2007. 1. [6] Ibid., 344-554. [7] Ibid., 531-554. [8] Ibid., 555-723.

 

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