The History of Interpretation of Paul’;s Epistle of the Romans by Paul M. Blowers

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  • As in contemporary interpretation, even the early commentators on the Pauline Epistlesrecognized that Romans stood above the others as a kind of mature “manifesto” of Paul‟s overalltheology and missionary vision. In Romans, the Apostle‟s teaching on Christ, creation, salvation(justification, reconciliation, sanctification, adoption, etc.), the law, grace, sin, freedom, humannature, the church, the destiny of Israel, and the mission to the Gentiles all intersect. The epistleis like a prism refracting multiple beams of light and manifold colors which have been variouslyretrieved and exposited by diligent interpreters throughout the Christian centuries. In probing thehistory of the interpretation of Romans, which is the theme of this seminar, it is fascinating notonly to see the different ways that the letter was interpreted as a whole and in its relation to otherbiblical texts, but also to identify the ways that particular sections or features of Paul‟s teaching in the letter came into prominence as addressing the many new issues (theological and otherwise)that arose in distinctive historical and cultural settings.
  • The history of the exegesis of Romans is, of course, a vast territory to explore, and in this shortsemester we will necessarily have to be selective and representative. There are certainconsiderations which are pertinent to the appropriation of Romans in any given historical setting:

How have various Christian interpreters understood the figure of Paul himself? Lest wedisembody Romans from its author, this is always enormously important. In the early church, Paul‟s nickname was “the divine Apostle” and ultimately his unique inspirationwas unquestioned by most of the Fathers; beginning in the nineteenth century, somehigher-critical interpreters began instead to tag Paul as an arrogant and pretentiousdogmatist who problematized the simple message of Jesus; and between these extremesthere have been many other profiles of him as well.

 What is the primary objective (Greek σκοπός ) in the overall letter of Romans, in relationto which the interpretation of any one passage must be considered? Is Romansessentially an attempt to resolve a conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians in theRoman church? Is it a theological discourse on justification by faith or some other doctrinal theme? Is it a kind of “missionary manifesto” or rationale for the Christian mission to the Gentiles?

 What kind of biblical interpreter was Paul himself? This question has become central inrecent scholarship on Paul, 1 because Paul himself is a biblical interpreter, and yet alreadyin the early church, especially in the wake of the debate over Marcionism, Christian interpreters paid close attention to Paul‟s own use of the Hebrew Scriptures as a key tohow the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” hang together. There are also questionsabout Paul‟s own interpretive methods, and here too, patristic interpreters were alreadyattentive, for example, to the fact that Paul had used “allegorical” interpretation (Gal. 4:22-31).

A comprehensive “survey” as such of the history of Christian interpretation of Romans woulddoubtless reveal much about the “contextualized” reading of Romans in any given age, but the underlying assumption of this course is that, rather than the history of its interpretation beingmerely superadded to the “real” or “original” meaning of the text, that history in fact brings out the meaning of the text in its fullness (the sensus plenior ). Modern higher criticism, after all, does not have the “last word” on the meaning of Romans. Pre – modern (or “pre – critical”— a verybadly coined term) interpretation still has much to teach the church about Romans as ChristianScripture, and the best interpretation is that which keeps the conversation with past interpretersalive and dynamic.

For organizational purposes, it should be helpful to identify up front some of the key develop-ments and salient trends in the history of Christian interpretation of Romans, even though thiscourse will not pretend to comprehend all the major twists and turns in that history.

1. Romans in the Early Church (Patristic Interpretation) Even though the Apostle Paul‟s epistles were the earliest written Christian literature andthe first “NT” encyclicals among the primitive churches, it took time for Paul to be fully received and appropriated as an “apostolic” authority and an interpreter of the Christian gospel. Well into the second century, the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek translationremained the primary Scripture of the churches, and Paul was explicitly mentioned in theso-called corpus of “Apostolic Fathers” by 1 Clement , Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarpof Smyrna. The early second-century apologist Justin Martyr does not appear to cite Pauldirectly, showing a lingering tentativeness about his authority and even dissenting from Paul on some issues. Marcion‟s anti-Judaizing use of Paul did nothing to help matters,but eventually Irenaeus, Origen, and others gave Paul greater and greater prominence as

2 Indeed, Irenaeus and Origen already take many of their theological “cues” from Paul, and Origen for his part composed a major Commentary on Romans that would enjoy asignificant following in the early church and the Middle Ages. For these writers, Romansw as crucial to the whole Christian nderstanding of the “economy” ( οἰκονομία ; Latin dispensatio ) of creation and redemption, and thereby funded theological reflection on allmanner of themes in Christian doctrine and practice.Early on as well, Paul and Romans factored decisively into the first great hermeneutical “challenge” of the church, namely, connecting “Old” and “New” Testament Scripture.

Marcion‟s radical maneuver to cut off the Hebrew Scriptures (other than as foils for the”true” gospel of the “true” God) only served to strengthen the churches‟ adherence tothem, and, along with the increasing zeal to close a “New Testament” canon, theinterpretive “bridging” of OT and NT remained a vital task of the church to clarify Christianity‟s complex relation to Judaism. Had not Paul set a pivotal example in how the Hebrew sacred tradition would be read through the “lens” of Jesus Christ? As the truepioneer in this task, his stock continued to go up in the early church. Patristic interpreterswere intensely interested, for example, in how he handled such ” dialectically ” difficult issues as the relationship between “law” and “gospel,” especially his ability to betray thelaw‟s limitations while also celebrating its provisional utility.

John Chrysostom, theprolific preacher of the late fourth century, who produced a large set of homilies on Romans, envisioned in Paul‟s teaching a radiant model for ecclesial and personal virtue and spiritual devotion.

3 In time, Romans would be seen as a veritable clearinghouse of theological insights on abroad array of themes. Perhaps most famously, it would lie at the heart of early Christian debates about divine providence and “predestination,” about the nature of sin, and about the relation between grace and human free will. Many of these issues came to a sensa-tional head in the famous Pelagian controversy in the early fifth-century, which pittedtwo very different approaches to Pauline theology against each other — an ” Augustinian ” and an ” Origenian-Pelagian “— and set the stage for similar clashes in subsequentcenturies in the Western Christian tradition.

Romans in the Medieval Era and the Renaissance In the Byzantine East, interpretation of Romans continued for the most part to rely on thelegacies of Greek patristic exposition of the epistle, whether gleaned from formalcommentaries, homilies, or theological treatises. In the Western church, however, theshadow of Augustinian interpretation was enormous, as so many medieval theologiansand preachers saw themselves as commentators on Augustine and not just on the Bible.Certainly this is the case with Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, who carefully considered Augustine‟s interpretation of Romans on grace, justification, and other themes, though adding insights of his own. Aquinas referred to Romans as the epistle in which Paul considered grace “in itself” ( in se ), whereas in other letters he dealt with itsvarious aspects and manifestations. Without question, Romans became a pivotal NT textin the maturing of scholastic theology because the epistle continued to be viewed as true manifesto of Paul‟s overall view of grace, sin, and redemption.

Though Augustine‟s reading of Paul remained the predominant influence, Origen‟s Commentary on Romans had itself been translated into Latin since the fourth century, andamong medieval commentators, was substantially used by Peter Abelard in his own Commentary on Romans in the twelfth century. In fact Abelard‟s use of Origen, as well as his own provocative thinking on certain themes in Romans, earned him criticism forhis interpretation on a number of points. Interesting with Abelard is the introduction of the use of “dialectic” (logical demonstration aimed at resolving tensions or disparities) inhis exegesis of Romans, which in some ways fit well with Paul‟s style and diatribe in

Romans.In the Renaissance period too, Romans had a significant afterlife, as Christian Humanistscholars like Jacques Lefèvre d‟E taples and Desiderius Erasmus, fatigued by the debatesof medieval scholasticism, including those over the structural dynamics of grace, justification, etc., began to reimagine Paul himself as a “Christian humanist” whose mission was primarily to give moral and spiritual instruction to the faithful. In some cases this led Humanist scholars to “controversial” conclusions, including casting doubt on the Augustinian reading of Romans 5:12ff that had long been used to adjudicate the doctrineof original sin.

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3. Romans in the Protestant Reformation and Its Legacies

  • The continuity between Renaissance and Reformation readings of Romans was therediscovery, initiated by Erasmus and other Christian Humanists, of the Apostle Paul as aa skilled rhetorical craftsman whose rhetoric (and diatribe) had everything to do with thedelivery of his message about sin and grace. In some sense too, Paul was simply thespokesman of the great divine Rhetor himself. In common with their medieval forbears,moreover, the Protestant Reformers still held great respect for the Augustinian reading of Paul and for the treatment of Romans principally as a manifesto on the dynamics of redemption and justification. Without doubt, the Reformers‟ approach greatly privileged Romans 1 -8, and chapters 3-5(along with comparable passages in Galatians) largely became the locus for setting forth Paul‟s teaching on the justification of the ungodly and the “forensic” doctrine of righteousness wherein the believer, through faith, could be declared righteous whileremaining still a sinner, that righteousness being an imputation of Christ‟s own perfect and meritorious righteousness.

Luther has sometimes been “accused” on this count of being principally a “Paulinist” in his approach to New Testament theology, and yet for him, Paul was the preeminent advocate of the “theology of the Cross” ( theologia crucis )in apostolic literature, and it was especially Paul who had recognized the “foolishness” of the Christian Gospel.Calvin would add his own accents to the interpretation of Romans, reflecting his broadtheological concerns in the notions of law and covenant as well as grace itself. ikeLuther, however, he saw in Romans a manifesto on justification by faith (differing withLuther on some points) and a roadmap through the scheme of divine redemption.Anabaptist interpretation of Romans, while faithful to certain non-negotiables like the prevenience of God‟s grace and the key role of faith in justification, nonetheless tended not to get bogged down debate over the structure of justification, and, not surprisingly(especially given that some Anabaptist thinkers were influenced positively by Christianhumanism) sought to enhance the properly ethical and ecclesial dimensions of Paul‟s teaching in Romans.

Later “Protestant Scholasticism,” which came into its own especially in Lutheran and Reformed traditions in the seventeenth century and still had effects well into thenineteenth and twentieth centuries, looked largely to systematize Christian teaching onelection, predestination, sin, grace, and redemption, and much of the interpretation of Romans in this broad heritage reflects that systematic impulse. By the nineteenth century,we see this pattern in the influential

Commentary on Romans by the AmericanPresbyterian scholar at Princeton Seminary, Charles Hodge.

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Romans as Scrutinized in NT Higher Criticism

  • Protestant Scholasticism was one among other traditions against which biblical highercriticism took a polemical stance beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.T he next great major “phase” in the interpretation of Romans, at least in Western Christian culture (Eastern Christianity being largely untouched by these developments)was the impact of historicism and higher-critical methodologies that looked to renderbiblical texts more transparent to historical and cultural conditioning, and to downplaythe prerogatives of theological interpretation which could now be considered “prejudiced” readings of these ancient texts. In large part, moreover, higher critics tended to give the backhand to “pre – modern” interpretation as lacking any really serious ngagement of Romans. The opinion of Hermann Olshausen, an early nineteenth-centuryNT scholar, was rather typical. Speaking of the Greek patristic commentators, forexample, he wrote, ” the Greek Fathers altogether have, in consequence of theirPelagianizing tendency, been very far from successful in the exposition of the Epistle tothe Romans; the whole purport of the epistle was too remote from them to admit of theirmast ering it.” Of the medieval scholastics, he said, “[they] were especially unfitted by yheir prevailing tendency to a legal system for the profitable illustration of the Epistle to the Romans.”

More radical higher critics and historicists tended to see pre-modernbiblical interpretation at best as a resource of limited usefulness, and at worst as greatwasteland of irrelevant and biased dogmatic interpretation.Higher critical study of Romans early on owed much to the work of Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose Paulus, der Apostel Jesu Christi, sein Leben und Wirken, seine Briefe und seine Lehre (1845) sought to understand the Apostle‟s teaching in the light of concrete conflicts in the background and foreground of his letters, especially the collisionbetween Judaism and Christianity and between Jewish and Gentile Christians. For Baur, however, the “Paul” who wrote Romans and the other “genuine” epistles was actually a Paulinist negotiator between Jews and Gentiles in the church and not actually the sameperson as the Saul/Paul recorded in Acts.Needless to say, many of the critical commentaries on Romans from the nineteenthcentury to our own time have continued the work of trying to understand Paul and hisletter more specifically in the light of his own historical context and controversies.

Critical commentators have differed significantly on their openness to “theological” interpretation, though in more recent decades there have been several commentators whoaspire to find a via media. In this respect we can point to two particularly interesting andinterconnected developments: (1) the historical-critical deconstruction of the predominantly “Augustinian” reading of Romans in Western Christian tradition, with openness to different reconstructions of Paul‟s own mindset and missionary vision; and(2) the so- called “New Perspective” on Paul, which has been based on a new reading of Paul‟s relation to Judaism and thus a revised interpretation of Pauline notions of righteousness, justification, and much more. One of the more dramatic and influential manifestations of the “New Perspective” has been Richard Hays‟s argument that πίστις Χριστοῦ in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2 :16 and 3:22 is not an objective genitive (“faith in Christ”) but a subjective genitive (the “faith of Christ” himself) , which entails keyadjustments in interpreting Pauline soteriology.Another still has been the intensifiedattention to Romans 9- 11 and the whole problem of Christianity‟s abiding relation to udaism, including the question of the eschatological destiny of “unbelieving Israel.”

5.New Lenses: From Modern to Postmodern Readings

  • More recent interpretations of Romans have often been motivated by the desire toreconcile the findings of historical criticism with more theologically- and ecclesially-motivated approaches to the text. The enduringly influential work of Karl Barth in his The Epistle to the Romans (first published in 1919 and then in a thoroughly reworkedsecond edition in 1922, with subsequent editions up to a th ) anticipated this kind of undertaking. We cannot go back to a “pre – critical” age, and must accept responsibility for the valid insights of higher criticism, but at the end of the day, Paul‟s teaching in Romansdoes not simply “belong” exclusively to first-century contexts. It speaks across centuriesand new insights can be drawn from it in new contexts and in current crises. Barth has had no small part in the recent revival of unapologetically theological approaches tobiblical interpretation, including the exegesis of Romans.As well, there have been significant attempts in some quarters to break out of the mold of the older, mainly “Western” Christian exposition of Romans. Post -colonial interpretation,coming into its own with scholars from the “Global South,” has begun to offer its own perspectives on Paul‟s frame of reference in Romans and on how the letter might be read in new ways from outside the conventions of Western Catholic and Protestantinterpretation. Post-colon ial interpretation insists on investigating Paul‟s writings in thelight of the Roman imperial context, the “elephant in the room” which should be a major factor taken into account, for instance, in the reading of Romans 13:1-7 on Christianobedience to civil authorities.


  • Feminist interpreters as well have offered their own perspectives on key themes andpassages in Romans  seeking both to resist “traditional” dogmatic interpretation which have no place for the real concerns of women in the church and in society, and to providenew readings of key themes, such as the relation between justification and justice itself.
  • In our own study of the history of interpretation of Romans this semester, we will not follow apurely chronological sequence but instead focus on certain salient themes with the epistle itself as they have become consistent centers of gravity of interpretation for exegetes in various timesand contexts. This odel, which is used well in Mark Reasoner‟s Romans in Full Circle , has the advantage of allowing more “conversation” between the representative interpreters whom we will be reading and analyzing.


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