Reading Romans Backwards

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Scot McKnight is a prolific writer on the New Testament. Especially in the last ten years in which he has written fifteen books. Two of these books intersect with my project on the Subversive Church. The first of those is Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. (2013) I found that book of limited value as it is the only one I have run across that disagrees with the many others in my bibliography.

But a second book of his I have read is really imaginative and useful. That book is Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. (2019)

McKnight makes the intriguing suggestion that we will understand Paul’s letter to Rome much better if we read it backward. Don’t take that literally. What he means is that most scholars see the first 8 chapters as the height of Paul’s attempt to spell out a systematic theology.

“Western Christianity has been shaped by Romans like no other book in the Bible: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Hodge, and Barth….

For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1–8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or a set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain.”

And, he continues, most readers when they get to the last chapters, 12 through 16, see this part as Paul moving from the heights of Christian theology down to an add-on to deal with some practical problems that the ‘churches’ in Rome are dealing with.

But McKnight writes, what if you started with these congregational concerns as central to what Romans is all about. Then you read 1 through 8 and 9 through 11 where Paul gives practical theology to support the ecclesial problems that concern him in chapters 12 through 16.

“What follows is an exploration of Romans when one reads it backwards. One might say there are two primary orientations to reading Romans: a soteriological one that finds the message of redemption as the center of the letter and another reading that locates the center in an ecclesial setting—namely, the message of reconciliation and living in fellowship as siblings. The two are related; they are not dichotomies. If the soteriological reading has dominated much of Romans scholarship, there is clearly a trend today to see a shift toward the ecclesial readings. This book is an essay that will side with an ecclesial reading of Romans.”

He sees the central terms in those closing chapters in Paul’s references to the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak. Like what he does with this. He locates the weak as the members of the Jesus gatherings in Rome who are Jews, Jews brought to Rome as slaves and thus are in social status quite low. The strong are the non-Jews in the assemblies, the so called ‘gentiles’. These are not wealthy, but in social status they rank relatively higher in the empire than do the Jews.

“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.

Romans 12–16 is lived theology, and Romans 1–11 is written to prop up that lived theology.

Romans 12–16 is not the application of Paul’s theology, nor is Romans a classic example of the indicative leading to the imperative. What Paul had in focus was the lack of praxis, the lack of lived theology, the lack of peace in Rome, and he wrote Romans both to urge a new kind of lived theology (12–16) and to offer a rationale (1–11) for that praxis.”

I could preach this book! Especially in an age when we are becoming aware of the significance of the issue of White Privilege.


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