Reading Romans as if for the First Time

Romans as Theology Textbook

I came to faith in Christ as a teenager through the ministry of a congregation in the Pentecostal tradition. When I began to read the Bible as part of learning how to be Jesus’s disciple, I was guided toward Luke-Acts. That was our theological center of gravity. If we dipped our toes into Paul’s letters it was usually First Corinthians, and then mostly only the chapters on spiritual gifts. Romans was too theologically dense and considered Calvinist territory.

In fact, the most traumatic encounter I had with the Bible as a new Christian had to do with both Romans and Calvinism. I confided to a wise mentor who’d been an overseas missionary that I felt burdened for my friends who weren’t yet disciples and were caught up in self-destructive criminal lifestyles. Rather than empathy, or even compassion, he met me with ice cold doctrine. “The reason they aren’t saved and you are is because they are reprobates and you’re elect.” My dumbfounded expression prompted him to read me the entire ninth chapter of Romans. When my anger boiled over and I objected to his assertion, he pointed to verse 20. “See, you are the man who talks back to God.” I vowed that day I’d study theology until I understood the truth about things like “predestination,” “election,” and “free will.”

Even as a Pentecostal undergraduate student in biblical studies, Romans was presented as the closest thing to a systematic theology Paul ever wrote. I was taught that chapters 1 and 2 taught the doctrine of Total Depravity. I was taught that chapters 3 and 4 taught the doctrines of Justification by Grace through Faith and Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Chapters 5 through 8 were important too, but 7 was “controversial.” Professors in my tradition weren’t sure if Paul was talking about himself when he wrote Romans or his pre-Damascus-Road self. They feared that if Paul was talking about struggling with sin as a regenerated person, this would undermine their position on sanctification, rooted in Holiness tradition. Chapters 9-11 were either where debates over predestination and election centered, or they were written off as too complicated. We rarely spent much time at all in chapters 12-16.

My Pentecostal and very Wesleyan professors all seemed to concede Romans to the “Reformed” tradition and gladly read it as a type of systematic theology. It was as if Luke-Acts and Romans belonged to two different Bibles—one a narrative about the move of God’s Spirit through Jesus and the people of God while the other was a theological textbook filled with propositions and doctrines.

This view of Romans was reinforced shortly after I graduated when my fiancé and I began attending a church in the “Sovereign Grace” tradition—a new denomination that combined parts of the Charismatic movement with Neo-Puritan theology. I’d heard that the pastor of the church was a gifted teacher and was dedicating a year to teaching through Romans passage by passage. Just as my professors had taught, he found only doctrines and systematic theology in Romans. By the end of the series, you’d have thought Luther or Calvin wrote Romans, not Paul.

Romans and the King Jesus Gospel

After all this baggage I’d all but given up trying to wrest Romans from the clutches of the Reformed tradition. But one glimmer of hope came in the form of the “King Jesus Gospel.” Theologians and biblical scholars like Scot McKnight, N. T. Wright, and Matthew Bates have successfully refuted the centuries old notion that Romans is about ‘how to get saved.’ The Sunday School idea that the Gospel can be reduced to a few proof-texts—the ‘Romans Road’—has been put to rest by works like How God Became King, Simply Good News, King Jesus Gospel, and Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Each demonstrate definitively that the ‘Plan of Salvation’ or the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith are in fact not the Gospel. Rather, the Gospel is the royal announcement that, in fulfillment of the whole story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world through Israel, the Crucified and Risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is the Lord of all peoples and King of God’s kingdom. But the correction of the Reformed tradition’s distortion of the Gospel doesn’t, by itself, positively answer what Romans is actually about. For that, we needed to read Romans again with new eyes. Enter Scot McKnight’s new book: Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Reading Romans Again as if for the First Time

When I was a Pentecostal undergraduate in biblical studies, I was taught that First Corinthians was an “occasional” writing, meaning Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to address specific circumstances unique to that church at that time. To understand what Paul was teaching that church, we needed to understand some things about the city of Corinth, its culture, its history, etc. To understand what Paul was teaching that church, we needed to understand some things about Greco-Roman rhetoric, about specific factions in that church, and about some members of that church who’d committed certain specific sins. My conservative professors, who all affirmed the divine inspiration of the New Testament and its inerrancy in the autographs, uniformly agreed that interpretation of First Corinthians could easily be distorted if we didn’t carefully consider its historical and cultural context. This contextual approach was however not applied to Romans. When it came to Romans, it was as if Romans dropped complete from heaven.

In Reading Romans Backwards, Scot McKnight applies to Romans the same contextual approach that one would expect any ancient letter to receive. But due to the centuries of theological tradition that have acted as a lenses through which we are constrained to interpret the book, this contextual approach feels far more revolutionary than it should. It’s obvious that we should consider the make up of the church at Rome. It’s obvious that we should consider any conflict they’re experiencing. It’s obvious that we should consider any rhetorical devices Paul might have employed. But when McKnight applies these obvious and necessary contextual hermeneutics to Romans the result for this reader was as if I were reading Romans for the first time.

The simple shift of reading Romans as the letter it is drastically changes its import for preaching. Who are these Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote? What circumstances is he addressing? This contextual approach means more attention is paid to chapters 12-16 than is typical. For most readers of Romans, the “meat” of the letter is all captured in chapters 1-8 with a nod here or there to chapters 9-11. This simple act of paying closer attention to these neglected chapters and the historical, cultural context they supply so completely subverts the traditional Reformed, systematic reading that its like reading Romans “backwards.”

“Backwards” isn’t exactly accurate, as McKnight would admit. It’s more like reading the latter half first. McKnight’s order is:

  1. A Community Needing Peace: Romans 12–16 (pages 3–56)
  2. A Narrative Leading to Peace: Romans 9–11 (pages 57–90)
  3. A Torah That Disrupts Peace: Romans 1–4 (pages 91–140)
  4. A Spirit Creating Peace: Romans 5–8 (pages 141–181)

Reading Romans “backwards” is simply another way of saying reading Romans responsibly. After one has read Romans in the light of its historical, cultural context, there’s no unseeing what has been seen. Readers won’t be able to return to the abstracted and domesticated interpretation they’ve likely inherited. Rather than being stuck on repeat, regurgitating the same stale thoughts that have been recycled since Luther, readers of Romans can now see its powerful critique of empire and its wisdom for a divided church.

Power and Privilege

Placing the themes of power and privilege front and center in the minds of Bible readers is perhaps the most important accomplishment of Reading Romans Backwards. As the demographics of the United States continue to shift away from a white majority, the powers of white supremacy and white nationalism are thrashing in frustration. The masks are off. Hence, thousands of leaders in conservative traditions like the Southern Baptist Convention are questioning the legitimacy of social justice in general and racial justice in particular. By highlighting the social dimension of Romans, Reading Romans Backwards equips the church in America to resist the backlash of recalcitrant racism.

“…our issue is their issue: the issue is the inability of the Privileged and the Powerful to embody the gospel’s inclusive demand and include the Disprivileged and the Disempowered. […]the reality is Privilege and Power used to create and enforce various forms of injustice, including racism. Romans is about Privilege and Power. Paul’s Gospel deconstructs Power and Privilege. Paul’s lived theology turns power upside down and denies privilege. Paul’s lived theology is about Peace in the empire, and it is a radical alternative to Rome’s famous Pax Romana.” (p.xiii)

By emphasizing the conflict between the so called “weak” and “strong” factions, as the backdrop to the entire letter of Romans, McKnight inspires modern readers to confront the disparities of power and privilege in our own congregations. By incorporating the insights of the New Perspective, in particular the ethnic and cultural boundaries markers Paul has in mind when he confronts the “works of the law,” McKnight accentuates the in-group and out-ground dynamics at the heart of what it means to be “in Christ” and “one body.” And by highlighting the theme of “peace” in Romans, McKnight shines a light on the contrast between the alternative society of the church and the false “Pax” of Rome.

For these reasons, Reading Romans Backwards feels extremely timely. Rarely have I felt simultaneously like a book about interpreting the Bible is as revolutionary both for the academy and the church as this one. Not only will preachers be challenged to reconsider what they’ve been taught about Romans in Bible college or seminary, they will also be challenged to consider the sociological challenges that face their congregations and communities, even the wider world. A book like Romans is transported down from the ivory tower of intellectualism and into the real lives of everyday disciples.

Subversive Peace

Ultimately, Reading Romans Backwards is about the power of the Gospel to transform people groups who would normally be at odds into a beautiful glimpse of the future reign of God when all things will be made right. Reading Romans Backwards is about the unity with diversity of the body of Christ acting as a powerfully subversive witness against the powers that be, foiling their attempts to divide and conquer. Reading Romans Backwards is about the exposing of Rome’s false peace and the infusion of God’s true peace into the world through a new way of being human community together—the peace made by Jesus through the Good News of his Scripture-fulfilling life, death, and resurrection, and through his enthronement as King.

Reading Romans Backwards is a new standard in how Romans is to be interpreted. It challenges readers to put on first-century lenses and ask twenty-first century questions. It inspires preachers to not only exegete the Text but to also exegete their congregations and communities. Reading Romans Backwards is essential reading for all contemporary students of Paul’s letter to the Romans.