In this “Rereading Paul” series, I aim to persuade you of the insights introduced to the world by Douglas Campbell in his massive volume The Deliverance of God. I add my own twist, of course. I will focus persuading you to abandon the “justification theory” reading of Paul and urge you rather to see him as an apocalyptic, messianic, Jewish thinker.
If you want to experience a revolution in your understanding of Paul, here is a simple exercise. Pick up a New Testament. Turn to Romans 5. Read chapters 5-8 and imagine for a short while that this is where Romans begins. Forget about chapters 1-4 temporarily. How does this way of reading change your preconceived notions about Paul’s letter to the Romans?
Instead of arguing about homosexuality and God as the stern judge in chapter 1, you are reading about God who loved us while we were sinners. Instead of wondering who the hypocrite is in chapter 2, you are thinking about Yeshua reversing the death that came to us all in Adam. All the tendentious arguments about God’s wrath, being saved by works, judgment by means of the law, Jews and Gentiles, the value or non-value of circumcision, the identity of all of us as sinners, and the meaning of justification are absent from chapters 5-8. What we find here is good news.
Love has been poured into our hearts. We have been justified, having been loved while we were enemies, so that we are now reconciled to God. Death has been reversed. A free gift has been given. Justification has happened for all people. The problem of persistent evil inside us has been referred to the resurrection. And then chapter 8 soars into extraordinary promises of unimaginable beauty.
Usually the beauty of chapters 5-8 is undermined during our reading of Romans by concerns about issues from the first four chapters. Reading them as an isolated unit, something changes in our thinking. This good news that Paul wrote about really is good. How has the wonder of these chapters been marred by the disputation of the early section of the book? How can this damage be undone.
It almost seems like two different Pauls. And that, in fact, is an answer not far from the truth. As this series on rereading Paul unfolds, that is where I will begin.
The first point to be made: interpreters keep reading Paul through the lens of Romans 1-4, but Romans 5-8 deconstructs and overwrites Romans 1-4. The two sections don’t read in a compatible manner unless we try and force them to. Why should we prefer Romans 1-4 over 5-8?
Douglas Campbell taught me to see Paul’s authentic voice in Romans 5-8 and to see two voices in Romans 1-4: Paul and a rhetorical opponent. Paul is arguing there with an unseen third party, and some of those words belong to the opponent rather than Paul.
After I have demonstrated this, the second major building block of this rereading will be to deconstruct “justification theory.” I will demonstrate that even in Romans 1-4 much of the text is not part of the justification theory base text. It may just mean, and I will argue it stridently, that justification theory is an inadequate summary even of these chapters.
We have a long road ahead of us in this Rereading Paul exercise. I hope you’ll be with me through it all. In the comments, please feel free to share any thoughts you have when you read Romans 5-8 as if it is the beginning of Romans.