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NTW Romans Theology

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(Originally published in Pauline Theology, Volume III, ed. David M. Hay & E. Elizabeth Johnson, 1995,

30–67. Minneapolis: Fortress. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

N.T. Wright

Lichfield Cathedral


A JEWISH THEOLOGY for the Gentile world, and a welcome for Gentiles designed to

take the Jewish world jealous. That, I suggest, is what Paul offered his Roman readers,

and I suspect it puzzled them as much as it puzzles us, though perhaps in different ways.

This paper addresses these puzzles by means of a theological reading of the letter; that is,

a reading of the letter drawing out its main theological line of thought, and a summary of

the theology that thus emerges, showing how, and perhaps why, it was deployed in this

fashion. This, I take it, is my assigned topic; I have not forgotten rhetorical analysis,

narrative criticism, historical setting, and so on, but I cannot give them full measure here.

Since this essay is part of an extended conversation, I shall use most of my space

for exposition, not for annotation, which could of course proliferate ad infinitum. History

of research is important in this subject, but must here be assumed, not elaborated.1

Suffice it to say that different ways of reading Romans usually reflect different

understandings of Paul’s whole theology and his place within a history-of-religions

scheme, and the ways in which those two interact. The weight of the letter is deemed to

fall where the interpreter’s theology finds its locus classicus: for Albert Schweitzer, this

was chaps. 5-8; for F. C. Baur, chaps. 9-11; for various Lutherans, chaps. 1-4; for Minear

and others, chaps. 12-16. Sometimes a fresh reading of Romans has itself generated a

new “way of reading Paul as a whole; or, at least, the reading of Romans has played a

vital role, interacting of course with other factors, in producing a totally new

understanding. Ernst Käsemann, I think, provides an example of this. Ultimately, the best

argument for any exegesis ought to be the overall and detailed sense it makes of the

letter, the coherence it achieves. Solutions that leave the letter in bits all over the

exegetical floor do not have the same compelling force, as hypotheses, as does a solution

that offers a clear line of thought all through, without squashing or stifling the unique and

distinctive contribution of the various parts.

But what do we mean by theology itself, in this context? Our many previous

discussions have set a context in which I have developed the following broad scheme.2

All societies, and subgroups within societies, have what may loosely be called a

worldview, a set of assumptions about the way things are, which can be studied in terms

of its four constituent elements: symbols, praxis, stories, and assumed questions and

answers (the latter may be itemized: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s

the solution?). These form the grid through which reality is perceived and experienced;

they themselves, like the foundations of a house, normally remain unexamined and

indeed unnoticed. They generate ways of being in the world that emerge into the public

gaze: on the one hand, aims and intentions; on the other hand, closely related to the first,

sets of basic and consequent beliefs. These can be, and often are, discussed. Serious

debate usually takes place at this level, not at the level of worldview, since then there

would be no fixed point on which debaters could agree to stand. “Theology,” as a topic to

be studied or an activity to be engaged in, normally operates at this level of explicit

discourse about basic and consequent beliefs. It concerns beliefs relating to a god, or

gods, and the world. It is organically and dynamically related to the worldview. This is

where so many of our problems of method have arisen. Explicit “theology” is out in the

open, but if studied piecemeal it remains unintegrated. Some like it like that, preferring

atomistic exegesis to question-begging a priori theological schemes. I can see why I take

it, nevertheless, that the present exercise must involve the tricky attempt to make

inferences about Paul’s worldview, and about the large-scale belief system he held; in

other words, not simply to study Romans as a rag-bag of loci or topoi within Paul’s

hypothetical Compendia or Summa, but to show how the letter belongs within, and

indeed acts as a window upon, Paul’s symbolic world, his nonreflective praxis, his

assumed narrative framework, and his fundamental answers to the key questions. In what

follows I shall regularly distinguish between the actual argument of the letter, which has

its own rhetorical force, and the wider worldview and belief system on which Paul draws.

I shall refer to these two hypothetical entities, in Norman Petersen’s terms, as the “poetic

sequence” and the “narrative sequence” respectively.3

As an example of this abstract model, and as the necessary historical and

theological background to Paul and Romans, we may take a broad description of Second

Temple Judaism. I have elsewhere argued in detail both for the propriety of this exercise

(alongside more atomistic treatments) and for the detail of the following rough sketch.4

The symbolic world of Judaism focused on temple, Torah, land, and racial

identity. The assumed praxis brought these symbols to life in festivals and fasts, cult and

sacrifice, domestic taboos and customs. The narrative framework which sustained symbol

and praxis, and which can be seen in virtually all the writings we possess from the

Second Temple period, had to do with the history of Israel; more specifically, with its

state of continuing “exile” (though it had returned from Babylon, it remained under

Gentile lordship, and the great promises of Isaiah and others remained unfulfilled) and

the way(s) in which its god would intervene to deliver it as had happened in one of its

foundation stories, that of the exodus.5 Its fundamental answers to the worldview

questions might have been: We are Israel, the true people of the creator god; we are in

our land (and/or dispersed away from our land); our god has not yet fully restored us as

one day he will; we therefore look for restoration, which will include the justice of our

god being exercised over the pagan nations.

This worldview, which (I stress) concentrates on that which was assumed by a

majority of Jews in the period, and which of course could be modified within different

branches, generated a wide variety of aims and intentions on the one hand, and on the

other a more or less settled-core of theology. Many Jews aimed to keep their heads down

and remain faithful to their god as best they could, in some cases by intensification of

Torah. Others aimed to hasten the coming of restoration by political, and sometimes by

military, action. As for theology, belief in the one true god remained basic (the creator

god, hence the god of the whole world), as did belief in Israel’s election by this one god

(who can therefore be given a capital letter, “God”; the fact that scholarship uses this

form unthinkingly has not been healthy for discussion of ancient theology). The purpose

of this election is not so often noticed, but is, I suggest, vital. Israel’s controlling stories

sometimes ended simply with its own vindication, but more often than not they included

the idea that its god, in vindicating it, would thereby act in relation to the whole world,

whether in blessing or in judgment or both (e.g., Tobit 13-14). Israel’s vocation had to do,

in other words, with the creator’s plan for the whole creation. God called Abraham to

deal with the problem of Adam. This theme, marginalized in many contemporary

discussions and some ancient ones, is central to (e.g.) Isaiah 40-55, and is visible also in

the final redaction of the Pentateuch. Both, clearly, are passages on which Paul drew


Both, in particular, focus attention on the righteousness of god. Here I think the

main thrust of Käsemann’s point is established, that in Jewish literature the phrase refers

to the creator god’s own righteousness, not “a righteousness which comes from/avails

with god.” But Käsemann’s subsidiary point (that the phrase formed a technical and

noncovenantal term within Second Temple Judaism) is misleading. This divine

righteousness always was, and remained throughout the relevant Jewish literature, the

covenant faithfulness of god. The fact that, as Käsemann observed, this “righteousness”

includes the idea of the justice of the creator being put into effect vis-a-vis the whole

cosmos does not mean that the covenantal idea has been left behind. It should remind us

that the covenantal idea itself always included in principle the belief that when the

creator/covenant god acted on behalf of Israel, this would have a direct relation to the fate

of the whole world, to the rooting out of evil and injustice from the whole creation.

Paul’s Christian theological reflection begins, I suggest, from within exactly this

matrix of thought, with the realization that what the creator/covenant god was supposed

to do for Israel at the end of history, this god had done for Jesus in the middle of history.

Jesus as an individual, instead of Israel as a whole, had been vindicated, raised from the

dead, after suffering at the hands of the pagans; and this had happened in the middle of

ongoing “exilic” history, not at its end. This by itself would have been enough, I think, to

propel a Jewish thinker to the conclusion that Jesus had somehow borne Israel’s destiny

by himself, was somehow its representative. When we add to this the early Christian

belief in Jesus’ messiahship, and Paul’s own exposition of this theme, there is every

reason to suppose that Paul made exactly this connection, and indeed made it central to

his whole theology. The creator/covenant god has brought his covenant purpose for Israel

to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah, Jesus.6 The task I see before us now is

to show how the actual argument of Romans, the “poetic sequence” of the letter, relates

to this underlying “narrative sequence,” that is, the theological story of the creator’s

dealings with Israel and the world, now retold so as to focus on Christ and the Spirit.



Resisting (of course) the temptation to treat Romans as Paul’s systematic

theology, it is vital that we consider the question of what Paul was actually arguing for.

After going round and round this question for two decades, I find myself in the following

position, each element of which is of course controversial but which, I think, makes sense

in itself and in its exegetical outworkings.7 The Roman church, initially consisting most

likely of converted Jews and proselytes within the capital, had been heavily affected by

Claudius’s banishment of Jews in 49. Many of the Christians who were left would

undoubtedly have been erstwhile godfearers or proselytes. Unlike the Galatian church,

these Gentile Christians were not eager to keep the Jewish law, but would be inclined, not

least from social pressures within pagan Rome, to distance themselves from it, and to use

the opportunity of Claudius’s decree to articulate their identity in non-Jewish terms.

When the Jews returned to Rome in 54 upon Claudius’s death, we may properly assume

that the (Gentile) church leadership would not exactly be delirious with excitement. Even

though, as we must stress, not all Jewish Christians were ardent Torah observers, and

even though the church was most likely scattered in different small groups around the

large city, internal tensions, reflecting at least in part a Jew-Gentile split, were inevitable.

But such internal tensions alone do not explain the letter that Paul actually wrote,

any more than it is explained when treated as an abstract book of systematics. All the

inventive mirror reading in the world has not yet produced a convincing account of

Romans in terms purely of the internal problems of the church, except of course for

chaps. 14-15. I suggest that the far more plausible setting for the bulk of the letter, and its

theological thrust, is the tension that Paul can see as at least a possibility in relation to his

missionary strategy. He intended to use Rome as his base of operations in the western

Mediterranean, as he had used Antioch for the eastern Mediterranean. Antioch had,

certainly on one occasion and possibly thereafter, virtually stabbed him in the back,

undermining the theological foundation of his mission by insisting on the continuing

separation of Jews and Gentiles within the Christian fellowship. The so-called Antioch

incident of Galatians 2 reflects Paul’s opposition to any sense that Jewish Christians are

superior to Gentile Christians.

What Paul faced as a serious possibility in Rome was the mirror image of the

problem he had met in Antioch. In making Rome his new base, there was always the

danger, as the rise and popularity of Marcion in the next century was later to show, that

local anti-Jewish sentiment would lead Gentile Christians not only to isolate Jews within

the Christian fellowship but also to marginalize a mission that included Jews. Paul,

therefore, wanted to insist that the gospel was “for the Jew first and also, equally, for the

Greek.”8 How to do this without (a) reinstating exactly that Jewish superiority which he

had resisted in Galatians, and (b) giving any opportunity for proto-Marcionism: that, I

suggest, was the problem that called forth the letter we now have and explains the outline

and the detail of its argument. The strategy that Paul adopted was that of expounding his

own fresh understanding of the terms of the covenant, the original divine answer to the

problem of Adam. What did the promises to Abraham and his family actually say and

mean? How were they intended to work out in practice? The technical term for this whole

theme is, of course, that which he announces programmatically in 1:17: in the gospel of

Jesus, the Messiah, is revealed the covenant faithfulness of god, the


What Paul needed, in order to address the problem of his new home church failing to

understand his missionary strategy, was a large-scale map of the righteousness of god, on

which he could locate the Romans’ particular situation, and in the light of which he could

address other issues, not least those tensions within the church itself which were, so to

speak, the internal reflection of the tensions Paul saw within the church’s external


The poetic sequence of Romans, therefore, consists of a major argument, as is

now regularly recognized, running not just as far as chap. 8 but all the way to chap. 11. A

good deal of this argument, like a good deal of this paper thus far, is a matter of setting

up the terms of the discussion so that they can then be used quite directly when the real

issue is confronted head on. Once the great argument is complete, Paul can turn to other

matters in chaps. 12-16. These are not to be marginalized: 15:7-13, for instance, has a

good claim to be considered the real summing-up of the entire letter, not merely of

14:1—15:6. But the division between chaps. 1-11 and 12-16 is clear enough to allow us

to treat the two sections separately for our present purposes.


The sequence of thought in chaps. 1-11 follows a line that is thoroughly

comprehensible within a Jewish covenantal scheme of thought, granted that the latter has

been rethought in the light of the belief that its future hope has already in principle come

true in the Messiah, Jesus, and is now being implemented by the Spirit.

The full force of the introduction (1:1-17) can best be seen when all else is clear,

and will therefore be left until near the end. This introduction, though reaching a climax

in 1:16—17, merges in fact directly into the first main section (note the repeated

[“for”] in 1:16-18, continuing, with the occasional [“since”] to v. 21). Paul’s reason

for coming to Rome, which grows out of his self-introduction (1:1-5) in terms of the

divine plan, is that he is in the service of the divine covenant faithfulness; but, since the

divine covenant with Israel always envisaged, and indeed was the intended solution to,

the dark backdrop of human sin, Paul’s own exposition of it must restate (and in doing so

reshape) the problem that the covenant itself addresses. The standard Jewish critique of

paganism (idolatry and immorality) is repeated, intensified, and turned back on to Israel

itself (1:18-2:16; 2:17-29). This was pretty much standard practice in Jewish

sectarianism, as is clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls. At this point Paul’s worldview

question, What’s wrong? seems to require the answer: Not only are pagans idolatrous and

immoral, but the people who were supposed to put the world to rights have themselves

gone astray. In 2:17-24 Paul is not trying to prove that every individual Jew is immoral

etc., but simply that, in view of the existence of some immorality within Israel, the

national or racial boast cannot be sustained. Nor does Paul deny that Israel is called to be

a light to those in darkness, and so forth; only that the present parlous state of Israel

means that it is incapable of fulfilling that role.

In Israel’s regular tellings of the world’s story, such an expose of paganism (and

renegade Judaism) would of course be followed, logically and perhaps textually (i.e., in

both the narrative sequence and the poetic sequence), by an account of the true people of

the covenant god in and through whom the evil of the rest of the world would be undone.

For Paul, whose critique of Israel is more biting still than that of the Essenes, a secondorder

problem has been raised. If the covenant was put in place to deal with evil in the

world (this is the presupposition Paul shares with his imaginary opponent in 2:17-24),

then the failure of the covenant people to be the light of the world means that the

covenant itself seems to be under threat. This explains the questions of 3:1-8, which thus

anticipate directly those of 9:6, 14, 17, and 11:1, 11. Israel was entrusted with the oracles

of the creator god (3:2); that is, it was to be the messenger through whom the creator’s

saving purpose would be carried to the whole world. What is the covenant god to do

about the failure of his covenant people (3:2) to be faithful, on their part, to this

covenant? Somehow, this god must be faithful nonetheless; and, unless the covenant

itself is to be dissolved (which would evoke a strong

[“may it never happen”]

from Paul) this means, logically, that there must somehow, after all, be an Israel that is

faithful to the covenant, so that through this Israel the creator/covenant god can deal with

the evil of the world, and with its consequences (i.e., wrath, as in l:18ff). What is

provided in 3:21-31 is just such a solution. “The works of Torah,” that is, those practices

which mark Israel out from among the nations, cannot be the means of demarcating the

true covenant people; they merely point up the fact of sin (3:20, looking back to 2:17-24

and on to 5:20 and 7:7-25). Instead, the covenant faithfulness of the creator of the world

is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Messiah, for the benefit of all, Jew and

Gentile alike, who believe.9

Rom 3:21-31 then expounds this revelation of the divine covenant faithfulness.

The central emphasis of this passage, I suggest, lies not on the human faith/faithfulness,

which, in place of works-of-Torah, becomes the badge of covenant membership, but on

the faithfulness of the Messiah, Jesus, as the means through which the covenant

faithfulness of the creator is enacted.

The means of expounding this double theme is thoroughly Jewish. The supreme

moment when the covenant god acted to deliver his people, because of the covenant

promises, was the exodus. Paul alludes directly to this by saying that people are justified

(that is, are reckoned to be within the people of god) “through the redemption that is in

Christ Jesus.” “Redemption,” of course, evokes the slave-market metaphor, but this lies at

the surface of the word’s meaning. More fundamental by far, for a Jew, was the historical

slave market of Egypt, from which Israel’s god had liberated it. Now, Paul declares, there

has been a new exodus, in which the same god has revealed the full depth of covenant

faithfulness. The covenant was put into place to deal with evil, and that has been

accomplished in Christ the

(“propitiation”). Just as regular Jewish

discussions of the divine righteousness included the theme of the divine forbearance, so

Paul’s exposition here envisages the covenant god as waiting patiently, not punishing sin

as it deserved (cf. 2:1-6). Alongside the fundamental covenantal meaning of the whole

complex, there is, of course, the second-order lawcourt metaphor,

derived not least from the Hebrew Scriptures’ image of the righteous judge: the judge

must decide the case according to the law, must be impartial, must punish sin, and must

vindicate the helpless. Rom 1:18-3:8 made it look as though the creator was faced with an

impossible task: these various requirements are apparently mutually exclusive. Rom

3:24-26 claims that in Christ the apparently impossible has been achieved.

Two important results, one exegetical and one theological, follow from this. First,

although I think it quite possible that in this passage Paul is drawing on earlier traditions,

the main reason why that suggestion has been made in modern scholarship is to be ruled

out. If there was a pre-Pauline Jewish-Christian topos about the covenant coming true in

Christ, Paul is not opposing it. He is affirming it. The compressed nature of the passage

owes more, I suggest, to the fact that Paul has imposed a self-denying ordinance at this

point. The main thrust of the letter is not, in this sense, an exposition of the meaning of

Jesus’ death, of what we would call atonement theology. Paul is content to refer briefly to

the achievement of the cross, and pass on.

Second, the divine “righteousness” (covenant faithfulness) is emphatically not the

same as the “righteousness” that humans have when they are declared to be covenant

members. That idea, despite its often invoking the “forensic” setting of the language, fails

to understand what that forensic setting means. In the Hebrew lawcourt the judge does

not give, bestow, impute, or impart his own “righteousness” to the defendant. That

would imply that the defendant was deemed to have conducted the case impartially, in

accordance with the law, to have punished sin and upheld the defenseless innocent ones.

“Justification,” of course, means nothing like that. “Righteousness” is not a quality or

substance that can thus be passed or transferred from the judge to the defendant. The

righteousness of the judge is the judge’s own character, status, and activity, demonstrated

in doing these various things. The “righteousness” of the defendants is the status they

possess when the court has found in their favor. Nothing more, nothing less. When we

translate these forensic categories back into their theological context, that of the

covenant, the point remains fundamental: the divine covenant faithfulness is not the same

as human covenant membership. The fact that the same word (

) is used for

both ideas indicates their close reciprocal relationship, not their identity.10

The paragraph concludes (3:27—31) with a similarly brief account of the

immediate result of the divine covenant faithfulness being revealed in this way.

Specifically, it rules out a revelation according to the model expected within Judaism,

that is, national vindication. The ethnic “boasting,” of which Paul had spoken in 2:17-24,

is eliminated, in a fashion that leaves two main pillars of Judaism undamaged.

Monotheism and Torah, Paul claims, are enhanced, not undermined, in this paradoxical

fulfillment of the divine righteousness. Rom 3:30 shows that the Shema, the basic

Deuteronomic confession of faith which serves as a summary of Torah, is emphatically

upheld when the one true god declares Jew and Gentile alike to be within his covenant

family on the same terms.

Seen from this perspective, the place of Romans 4 in the argument is natural and

completely coherent. It is not an “Old Testament proof” of “justification by faith,” a mere

prooftexting exercise resulting from Paul’s ransacking of his mental concordance to

produce occurrences of the roots

and (“faith”) side by side. Within

the poetic sequence of the letter, Paul moves on from the specific claims of 3:21—31 to

the wider claim: all this has taken place precisely in fulfillment of the covenant. Genesis

15 was the chapter in which the creator god entered into covenant with Abram and

promised him not only a large family but also that this family would be delivered in the

exodus (Gen 15:13f.). If Paul’s claim is to be made good, that in Jesus Christ the

covenant has been fulfilled, it is vital that he should return to the fundamental covenantal

passage and argue in detail for a meaning to the promises that has now come true in the

death and resurrection of Jesus. In this case the focus is clear: Abraham is indeed the

“father” of the covenant people of the creator god, but he is not the father “according to

the flesh.” He is the father of all, Gentile and Jew alike, who believe in the god who

raised Jesus.

I therefore follow Richard Hays in reading 4:1: “What then shall we say? Have

we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” (Implied answer: No.)11

But I diverge from his reading in terms of what this question means. Hays suggests that

the “we” refers to Jews: “Do you think that we Jews have considered Abraham our

forefather only according to the flesh?” I suggest, rather, that the whole of Romans 4

hinges on the question: Does this (i.e., 3:21-31) mean that we Christians, Jews and

Gentiles alike, now discover that we are to be members of the fleshly family of

Abraham? It is the question, in other words, of Galatians, which explains why there are

so many echoes of that letter just here. Paul imagines that some Roman Christians will

want to say: if you are right, and the covenant faithfulness and promises of Israel’s god—

yes, and the Torah itself—are fulfilled in Jesus, then you must be saying that Christians

belong to the physical, fleshly family of Abraham. Romans 4 gains a new coherence, I

think, when read as the answer to precisely this question. Verses 2-8: no, since “works of

Torah” are clearly not involved as demarcating Abraham (or, for that matter, David) as

god’s covenant people. Verses 9-15: no, for Abraham was declared to be in the covenant

when uncircumcised; after all, Torah was not involved in the process, and could not have

been, since it would nullify the promises by calling down wrath. Verses 16-22, whose

thesis, the real thrust of the chapter, is stated emphatically and cryptically in v. 16:

“therefore by faith, so that according to grace, so that the promise might be valid for all

the family, not only ‘those of the Torah’ but also those by the faith of Abraham, who is

the father of us all.” We have not found Abraham to be our father “according to the

flesh,” but rather “according to grace”; the (“according to grace”) of 4:16 is

the direct answer to the (“according to the flesh”) of 4.1. Abraham’s faith

was in the life-giving god; 4:18-21 echoes 1:18-25, showing by implication how

Abraham s faith is the genuinely human position, over against the Adamic refusal to give

glory to the creator. This clears the way for the QED (quod erat demonstrandum) in 4:23-

25: since “we,” that is, Christians of all racial backgrounds, share this same faith, we will

all, like Abraham, be reckoned as covenant members, on the basis of what the

creator/covenant god has done in Jesus. Looking back to 3:21-31 (i.e., not merely

echoing a randomly chosen pre-Pauline formula), Paul states that Jesus was given up “for

our sins” and raised “for our justification.” Sin has been dealt with on the cross (3:24-26);

the resurrection of Jesus is the vindication for which Israel, the people of Abraham, had

been waiting on the basis of the covenant promises; and now all those who belong to

Jesus’ people, who are characterized by faith in the god who raised him from the dead,

are assured that the same divine verdict is pronounced over them, too.

This reading of Romans 4 suggests that the discussion of “works,” “reward,”

“debt,” and so forth in w. 3-4 functions as a metaphor within the wider categories of

“works of Torah” (i.e., badges of Jewish ethnic covenant membership). Rom 4:3-8 is

sometimes cited as evidence that Paul did after all occasionally write as though he agreed

with Martin Luther, as though (that is) the real issue he faced was the possibility of

people trying to “earn” justification by “good works,” by successful moral effort. The

(“for”) at the start of v. 2 suggests otherwise. The “justification by works” of which

v. 2 speaks is clearly an explanation of something in v. 1; and v. 1, as we saw, raised the

question not whether or not Abraham was a good moralist but whether those who are in

Christ have become Abraham’s family according to the flesh. I suggest, therefore, that

the metaphor of “earning” by “working,” which Paul exploits in w. 3-8, is secondary,

occurring to Paul’s mind not because he is thinking about the propriety or otherwise of

moral effort, but because he has been speaking of “works” in connection with “works of

Torah” in the sense already outlined, and now sees a way of ramming the point home.

From this perspective we can see how, in Romans 1-4, Paul has set out the three

tenses of justification. Justification is the future verdict in 2:1-16: there will come a day

when the righteous creator will put the world to rights, and on that day some will be

declared to be in the right, even though at the moment, within the poetic sequence of

Romans, it is not exactly clear who will come into this category (2:7,10,14-16).12

Justification is also the past verdict pronounced over Jesus in his resurrection: as the

resurrection declared that Jesus was indeed god’s son (1:4), so it declares in principle that

he is the true Israel, the vindicated people of the creator. The famous doctrine of

“justification by faith,” as articulated in 3:27-30 and undergirded in 4:1-25, consists in

the present justification (cf. 3:26,

[“in the present time”]) in which the

past verdict over Jesus is brought forward and applied to those who have faith in the god

who raised Jesus, and in which the future verdict is brought backwards with the same

application and result (cf. 8:1: there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are

in Christ Jesus).

At the end of Romans 4, then, just as in principle at the end of chapter 2, Paul has

argued that the covenant people now consists of a group that is demarcated not by the

badges that signify Jewish ethnicity but by their faithfaithfulnessbelief in Jesus, himself

the faithful one. More fundamentally, he has argued that the creator god has indeed been

true to his covenant with Abraham, in that in Jesus the Messiah the covenant faithfulness

which Israel” should have offered, through which the dark world would have been

enlightened, has now been put into effect. The “oracles of god,” entrusted to Israel, have

come true in Jesus.


From here we gain one of the most important vantage points from which to view

the rest of the letter and its argument. It is not too difficult to see certain theological

questions that need to be raised and that can in principle be answered, from this

standpoint. They can be itemized: (a) How can this verdict properly be announced over a

people that is still not in fact completely renewed and morally whole? (b) What does this

then say about the divine purpose for Israel itself? (c) What are the implications for the

church’s life? It is then (apparently) easy to see what happens: (a) is answered in chaps.

5-8, (b) in chaps. 9-11, (c) in chaps. 12-16.

This is all very well; but does it do justice to the letter itself? The sequence we

have set out may in some respects correspond, in Petersen’s terms, to the narrative

sequence which underlies the poetic sequence of the letter, though this remains to be

discussed. But the ease with which we draw up such lists deceives us into thinking that

we have thereby solved the problem of the rhetorical needs of the letter, that we have

automatically understood its poetic sequence, as though it were after all simply an

abstract theological treatise. If we had lost chaps. 5-16, it is by no means clear that we

would necessarily have come up with such a list of topics as the right or appropriate way

to continue and complete the argument. And without a better understanding of these

rhetorical needs, and the way in which Paul has addressed them with this actual letter, we

are on dangerous ground in deducing a theological under-lying narrative.

Here we must put together our awareness of what Romans 5-16 actually contains

with various possible hypotheses about the rhetorical needs. This could take a lot of

space, which we do not have; so I shall cut the corner and suggest the hypothesis, and

rhetorical strategy, of which I have gradually been convinced over the years. Paul’s main

purpose, I think, is to demonstrate to a largely Gentile Christian audience that (a)

although it is true that the covenant promises, and the Torah itself, cannot now be read in

terms of the validation of Jewish ethnic covenant membership, and that therefore (b) Jews

who have not believed the gospel are therefore, for the moment at least, putting

themselves outside covenant membership, (c) this does not mean that the Torah was a

bad thing, or that the creator god has cut off Israel forever, so that the species “Jewish

Christian” will shortly become extinct. Paul’s strategy in arguing this, I suggest, is as


(1) In chaps. 5—8 he shows that the full restoration of humankind, and of the

cosmos, has in principle been achieved, and that those “in Christ” are the beneficiaries.

This has come about because all the privileges of being the family of Abraham, the

chosen people of the creator god, have been given to the Messiah, and to those who are

“in him”; yet, at the same time, the Torah can be vindicated even in its negative task and

function. This section is not an abstract exposition of “the result of justification”; if it

were that, the detail of several passages, not least the crucial 7:1—8:11, would be

inexplicable. Rather, it is the groundwork for the vital appeal that is to come in chaps. 9-

11, which is later alluded to in the very revealing remark of 15:27: the Gentiles have

come to share in the spiritual blessings of Israel, and therefore have a continuing

obligation toward ethnic Jews. That this line of thought is present in chaps. 5—8 is

strikingly confirmed when Paul, summing up the privileges of Israel in 9:4, produces a

list of the blessings he has just ascribed to Christ and his worldwide people in chaps. 4-8:

sonship (8), glory (5, 8), covenants (4, 8), lawgiving (7—8), worship (5:1—5; 8),

promises (4), patriarchs (4). The Messiah himself (9:5) is the crowning blessing; and it is

the Messiah himself who now belongs not merely to Israel according to the flesh, but

also, and primarily, to the community of all who believe the gospel, Jew and Gentile


(2) In chaps. 9-11 Paul uses the categories developed in chaps. 5-8 in order to

expound the divine covenant faithfulness, the

. The purpose of this

exposition, as suggested earlier, is to show that the divine intention was from the

beginning that Israel according to the flesh should be cast away in order that the world

might be redeemed. What has happened to Israel is not an accident (its god simply lost

control of the situation, or changed his mind in mid-plan because of its recalcitrance), nor

is it a sign that the covenant god has obliterated Jews from his purpose forever. Israel s

rejection of the gospel and its “rejection” by the covenant god are to be seen, as the cross

is to be seen, as the strange outworking of the divine plan to deal with the evil of the

world; and, if that is so, Jews can and must be welcomed back into the covenant family at

any time when they believe the gospel, and such a return must be celebrated as a sign of

resurrection. Here, I suggest, is the main rhetorical thrust of the whole letter. Rom 11:11-

32, focused on w. 18 and 25, states the point toward which Paul has been driving all

along: you Gentile Christians in Rome will be tempted to boast over the Jews, but this

temptation must be resisted. Yes, they have stumbled; yes, the Torah has been their

undoing rather than their salvation; yes, the divine covenant faithfulness paradoxically

involved them in being cast away so that the world might be reconciled (11:15). But all

these things, so far from meaning that Gentile Christians are now the truest sort of

covenant members, means rather that Gentile Christians owe the Jews an incalculable

debt, cognate indeed with the debt they owe the Messiah himself, the Jew par excellence

whose casting away meant reconciliation for the world. And that debt must be discharged

in terms of a continuing mission to unbelieving Israel; indeed, the very Gentile mission

itself has this as one of its sidelong purposes (11:13f.). Thus it is that the “gospel”—that

is, the announcement about Jesus the Jewish Messiah and his death and resurrection—

becomes the power of the creator god for the salvation of all who believe, the Jew first

and also, equally, the Greek; thus it is that the covenant faithfulness of this god is

revealed in this message, on the basis of, and for the benefit of, “faith” (l:16f.). This

overview gives, I hope, the flavor of what is to come. We must now plunge into some



Chapter 5

As is often noted, 5:1-11 anticipates the conclusion of the whole section, 8:31-39.

Its central thrust may be stated simply: if the creator god has acted in the death of Jesus

on behalf of people who were then sinners, he will certainly act again at the last to deliver

them, now that they are already his people. This draws into the center of Paul’s focus the

great theme of the love of this god. A moment’s thought will reveal that this is every bit

as much a covenantal theme as “righteousness”; indeed, it may be the case that Paul

implicitly recognizes that

does not carry all the overtones of

(“righteousness”), and now moves into the realm

(“love”) in order to redress the

balance. Not, I hasten to add, that he is simply working in the abstract; again, it is rather

that the rhetorical needs of his argument demand that this aspect of the divine covenant

faithfulness be brought out more strongly, without leaving the other behind.

If 5:1-11 gives a foretaste of the conclusion to the present argument in the end of

chap. 8, so 5:1-5 contains the sum of chaps. 5-8 in a pair of tight packed sentences.

Indeed, 5:1-2 says it all even more compactly: being justified by faith (chaps. 1-4

summed up), we have peace with this god through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom

we have obtained access to the grace in which we presently stand (the cultic blessing

previously associated with Israel’s temple worship), and we rejoice in the hope of the

divine glory (which Adam lost, 3:23; which is to be restored in Christ, 8:17-30). Already

the great transfer has begun—the transfer according to which Israel s hope is made over

to the Messiah and thence to his people. It was a characteristic claim of sectarian Jews

that the glory of Adam would belong to them at the last.13 Paul fastens on this hope as

the ultimate restoration of genuine humanity which, anticipated in the resurrection of

Jesus, will be given to all the Messiah’s people. The Jew-plus-Gentile church has now

inherited this supposedly Jewish privilege; Paul’s stressing of it throughout this section is

aimed both at showing Gentile Christians where their roots lie and, though perhaps not by

means of this letter itself, “making my fellow Jews jealous and so saving some of them”


The same is true, paradoxically, of 5:3-5, in which suffering itself is claimed as a

sign of hope. The present suffering of the people of the true god, as they await their

divine vindication, is also a Jewish theme now transferred, via the Messiah, to all his

people. The hope that arises out of suffering is certain, because the love of god has been

poured out in our hearts by the Spirit (5:5); not here, I think, the divine love for his

people (Paul comes on to that in 5:6-10), but the love of the people for their god, as in

8:28, within the same sequence of thought (compare 1 Cor 2:9; 8:3). The Shema is at last

fulfilled: in Christ and by the Spirit the creator/covenant god has created a people that, in

return for redemption, will love him from the heart. The people defined as god’s people

by faith are the true covenant people, inheriting all the covenant blessings.

Chapter 5 thus unfolds, in characteristic Pauline fashion, from its tight initial

statement of this result of justification (5:1-2), through a broader development (5:3-5),

into a full statement of the position reached now in the epistle as a whole (5:6-11). This

last draws out, in particular, the correlation between present justification, based on the

death of Jesus, and the future verdict in which the justified people will be rescued from

final wrath. The echoes awakened here include 2 Macc 7:37f.; 4 Macc 17:20-22: the

death of Jesus has achieved what the martyrs (within those retellings of the story) had

hoped to achieve, namely, the turning away of divine wrath from the people of god.

The difference, of course, is that the community thereby rescued is not now the nation of

Israel, but the Jew-plus-Gentile family as set out in 3:21-4:25. And the result is that the

boast that was disallowed to the nation of Israel (2:17-24) is restored to the people thus

created: “we boast in god through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:11). At every point in these

eleven verses, that which is predicated of the true family of Abraham, those who are

“justified by faith,” is that which would have been seen as the privilege of Israel. The

great second paragraph of chap. 5 (w. 12-21) can therefore at last tell the story of the

world at its widest level. In Jewish retellings, Israel, or some subset of Israel, emerged as

the people through whom the sin of Adam would finally be defeated. In Paul’s retelling,

as we might have anticipated on the basis of 3:21-4:25, it is in Christ, not in national

Israel, that Adam’s trespass is finally undone.

Two key modifications in the normal tellings of the story result from this. First,

there is actually an imbalance between Adam and Christ: before Paul can move into the

direct comparison (5:18-21), he must spell out the ways in which Christ does more than

Adam (5:15-17). This is one of Paul’s most complex passages, grammatically as well as

theologically, but I think the right way through it is as follows. Israel’s

obedience/faithfulness should have been the means of undoing the problem of Adam, of

humanity as a whole (2:17-24; 3:2f.); as we saw, the death of Christ (which is clearly the

subject throughout this paragraph) functions as the true obedience/faithfulness of Israel

through which this purpose is achieved. Rom 5:12-21 thus restates, in multiple and

overlapping ways, what had been argued in 3:21-26. Christ has offered not merely

Adam’s obedience, but Israel’s, the “obedience” that was to begin where the “many

trespasses” of Adam left off (5:16). Christ, in other words, did not start where Adam

started, but where Adam (and Israel) finished. Coming into the reign of death, he

reinstated the divinely intended reign of human beings (5:17).

Second, the place of the Torah in the scheme is radically modified. Israel’s

normal tellings of the story would have included Torah as part of the means whereby

Israel, defined as the people of the creator god, were enabled to escape the entail of

Adam’s sin and find themselves constituted as the true humanity In Paul’s summary,

completely in line with 2:25-29; 3:20 and 4:14f, the law functions to intensify the sin of


(“the law came in on the

side in order that the trespass might increase,” 5:20). The story is now complete in Christ

“apart from Torah” (3:21); the Torah functions within the critique of humanity as a

whole, just as it had done in 2:17ff. within 1:18-3:20. This point is vital for understanding

chap. 7 when we come to it in due course. Torah, instead of lifting up Israel to a level

above the rest of the human race, simply throws a bright spotlight on the fact that Israel,

too, is “in Adam,” is “fleshly,” is “sold under sin.”

Is the Torah, then, to be cast off as useless, as a bad thing now happily got rid of?

(“May it never happen!”). “In the very place where sin abounded, grace also

abounded.” Here is the rhetorical argument of the letter in a nutshell. Yes, the Torah

simply intensifies the sin of Adam in the people of Israel. No, this does not lead to

Marcionism. How this is so is yet to be explained; it will take all of 7:1-8:11, and chaps.

9-11 as a whole, to do so. Paul, as ever, states cryptically that which he will later


It seems to me that 5:12-21 thus functions both as the place where the “poetic

sequence” of the letter is summed up and as the place where the underlying “narrative

sequence” of Paul s theology finds its most fundamental statement. Taking the latter first,

and looking forward to our later summary: the story of the creator and the creation, of the

covenant purpose of salvation, of the strange twist that this purpose has apparently

included, and of how that twist is finally resolved, are all here summed up. Taking the

former (the “poetic” or rhetorical intention of this specific letter), it seems that Paul has

deliberately summed up chaps. 5-8 in 5:1-11 in order that, by thus assuming for a

moment the conclusion he will reach by the end of chap. 8, he can now offer this bird’s

eye view of the whole story. This will then enable him to develop specific aspects of the

story in chaps. 6-8. His design at this stage is to give the (predominantly Gentile) Roman

Christians exactly this perspective on the story of salvation, so that they may understand

the positive purpose hidden within the apparently negative purpose of Torah and so may

come to understand the positive divine purposes for the Jews at present hidden under the

negative purpose of which the Roman Christians are at the moment somewhat too

enthusiastically aware.

We should notice, most particularly, what Paul has achieved rhetorically and

theologically at this point. Adam’s story is the pagan story (1:18-32); and paganism, seen

from the Jewish/Christian perspective, is the attempt to grasp at a form of human

fulfillment, at a form of exploitation of the riches of the created world, without seeking to

do so in the context of gratitude to the creator god, and so without proper responsibility.

As a result, the end of the story is death; those who do not worship the life-giving god in

whose image they are made come to share the corruption and decay of the present created

order that they have worshiped instead. Paul’s retelling of Adam’s story, implicitly

throughout Romans 1-4 and explicitly in 5:12-21, is therefore, as well as everything else,

a way of saying: the true fulfillment you seek, the true human life, is to be found in Jesus

Christ. He is the creator’s means of rescuing and restoring, not simply of condemning,

the world of humans and the wider creation. He is the way to recapture the lost glory

(3:23). And he is this because he is the climax of the Jewish story. The glory is regained

by the Jewish route, though not by the Jewish means. Adam’s race, like Israel itself, has

been in exile; Jesus has drawn that exile on to himself. In offering to the covenant god the

obedience that should have characterized Israel (3:22; 5:15-17), he has become the means

of Adam’s rescue. Thus, to look ahead to the rest of chaps. 5-8, Jesus is the means of

Adam’s exodus (chap. 6); he is the means of Adam’s Sinai, Pentecost (8:1-11); he is the

means of Adam’s entering at last upon his promised land (8:17ff). All through, Paul is

telling the Jewish story as the true-Adam story, in such a way as to undercut the stories

both of paganism and of non-Christian Judaism. All that paganism itself had to offer, or

sought to grasp, is relativized by the Jewish story, so that no pagan can boast; and all that

non-Christian Judaism had to offer, or sought to grasp, is relativized by what Paul now

tells as the true-Jewish story, so that no Jew can boast. The consonance of this conclusion

with Rom 11:28-32 provides initial confirmation that it may be a thoroughly Pauline way

of reading the text.

Chapter 6

From this perspective, we can see that chapter 6 is not a detached treatment of

“the basis of Christian ethics,” nor indeed simply a warding-off of the standard response

that was made to Luther’s gospel (“if we are justified by faith, not good deeds, shall we

therefore not do good deeds?”). Rather, it is in effect the opposite question-and-answer to

4:1. If 3:21-31 could have been taken to imply that Christians were to be regarded as

physical members of Abraham’s family, 5:12-21 could be taken to imply that Christians

were simply a new variety of pagans. If the Torah-defined people of god had been shown

to be as Adamic as everybody else, does this not mean that one is simply left in the

category of “sinners,” confidently expecting that grace will come and find one there? Of

course not, replies Paul: the people of god in Christ are marked out not by Torah but by

the death and resurrection of Christ, which can be summarized, in the light of 3:21-5:21,

as “righteousness” (6:16, 18, 19, 20) or, in the light of 5:12-21, as “obedience” (6:16).

Resurrection, the great Jewish hope, has already happened; in other words, the entail of

Adam’s sin has already been broken, and those who are baptized have entered into the

community of those for whom this was true, and can be “reckoned” as true, not by a

supreme effort of moral will but by calculating what is in fact the case (that is the

meaning of “reckon” in 6:11).

This has, of course, the force of a general moral appeal: no longer live like

pagans, since you are no longer “in Adam.” But the overall rhetorical purpose of the

passage is much wider. The “sanctification” or holiness which Israel had thought was its

in virtue of its election is now to be found in the risen Christ and in his people (6:19, 22).

There can be no slide back into paganism, but it is not Torah that checks such a slide. It is

the fact and meaning of baptism itself. Baptism has accomplished, graphically, the

statement of present justification: the death and resurrection of Christ are brought forward

into the present, and the verdict of the last day is truly anticipated. The “old human”

(6:6), which seems to mean “the old Adamic identity,” has been put to death. A new

identity is given in Christ. Those who are thus “in Christ” (which I take to mean

“belonging to the people of the Messiah”) are to be regarded as those who have already

died and been raised. In the context of first-century Judaism, this means that they are the

eschatological people of the covenant god.

Torah has had nothing to do with their being defined in this way. Rom 6:14b

(“Sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under Torah but under grace”)

appears intrusive in the argument—until it is realized that the whole of chap. 6 stands

under the rubric of 5:20—21. Paul is simply locating the church on the outline map of the

divine purpose which he had sketched at that point. Torah, it there appeared, had been the

divine instrument in confirming Israel under sin. Here, since (as the Roman church would

have readily agreed) Christians are not under Torah, the rule of sin need have no

dominion over them. Paul, in allowing this to stand, is of course letting the argument

build up to the moment when he will need to mount his major defense of Torah, that is, in

7:7ff. At this stage he is stressing the general point that coming out from under Torah

does not mean that one is therefore simply a pagan all over again, a “sinner” without the

law (6:lf., 15; cf. Gal 2:17). This is the fundamental point from which he will argue, in

chap. 11, his much more sharp-edged case, that one specific variety of pagan attitude,

namely, anti-Judaism, has no place within the church.

Romans 7:1-8:11

If the material of chap. 6 is drawn from 5:12-21, the same is even more obviously

true of 7:1-8:11. The way through the complex little argument of 7:1-4 is found by

reading 5:20 in the light of 6:6 and 6:14f.: Torah binds “you” to Adam; Adam, the “old

you,” dies in baptism; “you” are therefore free to belong to another—namely, Christ—

without Torah having anything to say about the matter. The problem, of course, is that the

word “you” is made to do double duty; there is a “you” that is bound to Adam by means

of Torah, so that this “you” cannot but bear fruit for death, and there is a “you” that is

now set free from this bondage. For the full import of this to come out, we must remind

ourselves again of how Israel would normally have told its own story. Adam’s sin has

infected the whole world; but (so Saul the Pharisee would have said) the creator god has

given his Torah to Israel, so that Israel, married to this god—with the Torah as her

marriage covenant—may be his people his redeemed humanity. Putting this story beside

Paul’s, we see the following picture. Israel embraces the Torah as the divinely given

covenant charter; but it also, in doing so, is embracing its covenant with Adam, and hence

with sin and death.

This, to be sure, is complex. But such complexity cannot count as an argument

against the exegesis for we meet the identical complexity in the rest of the chapter. In

7:13-20 we find the double “you,” only now in the first person instead of the second. And

in 7:21-25 we find the double Torah: Torah, on the one hand, recognized as the godgiven

law; Torah, on the other hand, recognized as the bond with sin and death. The

picture is the same as in 7:1-4.

What, then, is Paul saying by means of this highly rhetorical picture of Israel

Adam, and Torah? Seven things seem to me to emerge, all of immense importance for

Pauline theology in general and that of Romans in particular.

First, as to the purpose and internal division of the passage. The chapter is a

defense of Torah against any suggestion that it is identical with “sin” (7:7-12) or that by

itself it was the ultimate cause of death (7:13-20). These are the most appropriate

paragraph divisions (despite Nestle-Aland, and some other texts which insert a paragraph

break after v. 13), because of the clear question-and-answer format of 7:7, 12, 13, 20.

One should translate 7:21a: “this, then, is what I find about Torah”: w. 21-25 are the

conclusion to the argument, in which it becomes apparent that the Torah bifurcates,

exactly as, by implication, in 7:1-4. The result is that Torah, the thing after which “I”

strive when wanting to do what is right, also brings evil “close at hand” (7:21b). We

should stress that means “Torah” throughout. Nothing is gained, and everything

lost, by flattening it out into a general “principle”—as though Paul were not discussing

Torah itself in every line of the passage. The same is true as we move into 8:1-7, where it

becomes clear that the Torah is vindicated in and through the action of god in Christ and

the Spirit.

Second, the flow of the argument from 7:7 on may be grasped by seeing it, in its

two main sections, as the demonstration of what happens to Israel as a result of Torah.

Rom 7:7-12 deals with the arrival of Torah as a one-time event; hence the aorist tenses.

Rom 7:13-20 deals with the continuing state of Israel ‘living under Torah; hence the

present tenses. In each case what actually happens could be deduced from 5:20. In the

first case, Israel, upon Torah’s arrival, acts out the fall of Adam; hence the clear echoes

of Genesis 3 in v. 11. In the second case, Israel, continuing to live with Torah, acts out

the death of Adam. Whether or not it is true, as I have cautiously suggested elsewhere,

that in 7:13-20 there are hints of the story of Cain,14 it is clearly the case that the Israel

that lives under Torah continues to carry about the mark of sin and death that results from

being the child of Adam.

Third, the rhetorical “I” is best explained as an advance hint of the position Paul

will take up in chaps. 9-11. It might have seemed all too easy for Paul to speak of “Israel”

as though he himself were not personally involved, as though he had not himself lived in

the position of which he here speaks. That would have been to play into the hands of the

Roman church, ready to pick up any direct anti-Israel or anti-Torah argument and build

their own construct upon it. Rather, he identifies himself with the Israel thus spoken of;

this is his story, the sad tale of the

(“I myself”; compare 9:3). This does not,

however, mean that it is what we would call “autobiography.” As is often pointed out,

Phil 3:6 pretty certainly rules out any suggestion that Romans 7 describes “what it felt

like at the time.” Rather, the passage is (as its derivation from chaps. 5 and 6 should make

clear) a specifically Christian analysis of the plight of Israel under Torah.

Fourth, the frequently remarked parallel between 7:13-20 and passages in various

pagan writers, describing the puzzle whereby virtuous persons finds themselves unable to

accomplish the moral good that they approve with their minds (e.g., Epictetus,

Discourses 2.2615), is perhaps best explained as follows. Paul’s argument all along has

been that Torah, in paradoxical contrast to its apparent intention, binds Israel to Adam,

that is, to ordinary “sinful” pagan humanity. I suggest that in this passage, as a rhetorical

flourish designed to appeal not least to a Roman audience that would have known this

topos within pagan literature, Paul says, in effect: those who live under Torah have as

their crowning achievement just this, that they come up to the level of—the puzzled

pagan moralists. If this is the correct reading, it is actually not just a matter of a clever bit

of rhetorical flourish, designed to put Torah adherents firmly in their place by showing

that they do not in fact get beyond Epictetus, Ovid, or Aristotle himself. Rather, it also

makes the point to the Roman ex-pagans, the point that prepares the way for 11:18, 25:

Do not imagine that your pagan tradition makes you any more special than these noble

Jews, who rightly embrace the Torah only to find that it becomes the unwitting vehicle of

death. If they fail, the level to which they fall back is the level that, outside of the divine

grace revealed in Christ, you yourselves would be proud to attain as the summit of your

moral progress.

Fifth, Paul has so analyzed the failure of Israel and/or Torah that the solution to

the problem lies close at hand. I have elsewhere shown that the reference to the sinoffering

in 8:3 is exactly suited to the plight outlined in 7:13-20.16 The sin-offering was

designed to deal with sins that were committed either in ignorance or unwillingly; and

that, Paul has said, is exactly the sort of sin of which Israel is here guilty. As in 10:3, he

claims Israel’s ignorance as part of the reason why it may now be rescued. It has not

sinned “with a high hand,” deliberately going against the covenant plan of its god. On the

contrary, it has honestly believed that it is following it to the letter. In the same way, the

failure of Torah does not lead to Marcionism. Torah remains “holy and just and good”

(7:12), even though it cannot give the life it promised (7:10). When the creator god

achieves, in Christ and by the Spirit, what Torah by itself could not do, this functions as

an affirmation, not a denial, of Torah and its validity (8:1-11).17

Sixth, the underlying purpose of Torah, the reason why the covenant god gave it

in the first place, knowing that it would have these negative consequences, is here at last

made clear, in a way that, like so much else in chap. 7, points on directly to chaps. 9-11.

This is what I have sometimes called “the good side of the bad side of the law”: instead

of dividing the functions of Torah up into negative and positive, as is sometimes done, it

seems to me that, within what is regarded as the “negative” side of Torah’s work, Paul

sees the most positive role of all. This sixth point needs to be elaborated in a sequence of

moves, as follows:

(a) The covenant, we must remind ourselves, was put in place to deal with the sin

of the world. If Torah is the initial seal of the covenant, this must be its ultimate purpose.

(b) Torah, Paul said in 5:20, came in in order that sin might abound. That is, the

divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full

height precisely in Israel.

(c) This puzzling, “in order that” is repeated and amplified in 7:13. Sin, in order

that it might appear as sin, worked death through the Torah, in order that sin might

become exceedingly sinful.

(d) I suggest that in all of this Paul sees the hidden divine purpose, in a manner

not unlike that hinted at in 1 Cor 2:8, where the “rulers of this world” did not realize what

they were doing in crucifying the Lord of glory. God’s covenant purpose, it seems, is to

draw the sin of all the world on to Israel, in order that it may be passed on to the Messiah

and there dealt with once and for all. “Sin” is lured into doing its worst in Israel, in order

that it may exhaust itself in the killing of the representative Messiah, after which there is

nothing more that it can do. Rom 8:3f. is the great conclusion to this line of thought,

providing one of the most thoroughgoing statements of the achievements of Jesus’ death

anywhere in Paul. Torah could not of itself condemn sin in the flesh in such a way that it

(sin) was fully dealt with. It could only heap up sin in the one place. Nor could Torah of

itself give the life which, tantalizingly, it held out. In Christ the covenant god has done

the former; in the Spirit this god has done the latter. The death of Jesus, according to 8:3,

was the means whereby sin was condemned. (It is not strictly Pauline to say that Jesus

was condemned; rather, sin was condemned in his flesh.) The resurrection of Jesus is the

guarantee that the Spirit, by whom this was accomplished, will also raise to life all those

who are in Christ (8:9-11).

(e) The apparently negative purpose of Torah, therefore, takes its place within

what is essentially the most positive of purposes: the divine plan to deal with sin once and

for all. This line of thought depends, of course, on the nexus between the Messiah and

Israel: as Israel s representative, the Messiah takes on to himself the weight of heaped-up

Adamic sin which Torah had left hanging over Israel’s head. This, I suggest (at the level

of the underlying narrative sequence of the letter), is the central significance which Paul

here wishes to attach to Jesus’ death. The “failure” of Israel is cognate with, and indeed

designedly preparatory for, the crucifixion of the Messiah, without which, for Paul, there

would be no covenant renewal (Gal 2:21).

(f) Israel’s “failure,” therefore, was part of the strange covenant plan of the

creator god whereby this god intended to deal with the world s sin. This, I suggest

(looking ahead once more to chaps. 9-11), is the theme that emerges at two crucial points:

the “predestinarian” passages in 9:14-29, and the theme of Israel’s casting away in 11:11-

15. In the first of these, the “hardening” of ethnic Israel is seen as the strange means

whereby the whole people of the creator god can be saved, just as Pharaoh s “hardening”

was the necessary precondition for the exodus. In the second, Paul speaks of Israel’s

stumble as somehow instrumental in the salvation of the world. The two belong closely

together, and both point to the eventual thrust of his argument to the Roman church: if

this is why Israel has “stumbled”—so that you Gentiles can obtain the salvation won for

you in the death of the Messiah—then you have no room to boast, and Israel has no

reason to regard itself as forever cut off. Its stumble was necessary as part of the

preparation for the crucifixion, both historically and theologically; now that this has been

accomplished, Israel itself can once again be rescued, and indeed attain an honorable (and

not a second-class) position within the renewed people of god. The gospel is “to the Jew

first, and also equally to the Greek.”

These six points about Rom 7:1-8:11 lead to a final, seventh, one. The action of

the creator/covenant god in raising his people from the dead (8:11) is to be seen as the

final great act of covenant renewal and vindication. Resurrection is not, as it were,

merely the glad human destiny for the members of a new religion that has left Judaism

and Torah thankfully behind. In declaring that Israel’s god will raise all those in Christ on

the last day, Paul is explicitly transferring to this Jew-plus-Gentile family one of the

greatest of all Jewish expectations.

Romans 8:12-39

All of this clears the way for 8:12-30, in which the themes of the letter so far are

caught up and developed within a new argument: if the creator has thus dealt with the

problem of Adam, this same god will thereby deal with the problem of all creation. In

many first-century Jewish retellings of Israel s story, as in many subsequent Christian

ones, this dimension of the covenant purpose was often forgotten; but Paul keeps it firmly

in mind.

Before he can turn (in chaps. 9-11) to the specific issue he wishes to address to

the Roman church, he must in this way show them that the entire covenant purpose is

thus fulfilled in Christ and by the Spirit. The Christ-people are indeed the children of this

god (8:12-17), inheriting the title (“son of god”) Israel was given at the exodus; as a

result, they are not to “go back to Egypt,” but to go on through the present sufferings to

the glory that is yet to come, the renewal of all creation, which will follow as a direct

consequence of the resurrection of those in Christ (8:15,17-25).18 Here is the note of

hope which has been sounded by implication so often since it was introduced in 5:2: hope

for the renewal of all creation, in a great act of liberation for which the exodus from

Egypt was simply an early type. As a result, all that Israel hoped for, all that it based its

hope on, is true of those who are in Christ. Those he foreknew, he predestined; those he

predestined, he called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Likewise, all that paganism had to offer, in its deification of the created order, is shown

up as a great parody of the true Christian understanding. The creation is not god, but it is

designed to be flooded with god: the Spirit will liberate the whole creation. Underneath

all this, of course, remains christology: the purpose was that the Messiah “might be the

firstborn among many siblings” (8:29). Paul is careful not to say, or imply, that the

privileges of Israel are simply “transferred to the church,” even though, for him, the

church means Jews-and-Gentiles-together-in-Christ. Rather, the destiny of Israel has

devolved, entirely appropriately within the Jewish scheme, upon the Messiah. All that the

new family inherit, they inherit in him.

Rom 8:31-39, like a musical coda, picks up the themes of the entire letter thus far

and celebrates them in good rhetorical style. The divine love, which has been under the

argument ever since 5:6—10, reemerges as the real major theme of the entire gospel

message. This is covenant love, promised to Abraham and his family, a family now seen

to be the worldwide people who benefit from Jesus’ death. Since this love is precisely the

creator’s love, it remains sovereign even though the powers of earth and heaven may

seem to be ranged against it. Since it is the love of the covenant god, it rests on his

unbreakable promise. The language of the lawcourt and the language of the marriage

contract thus merge (8:33-34, 35-39), with both of them now revealed as vital

metaphorical aspects of the one more fundamental truth, which can be expressed both as

(“righteousness of god”) and as

(“love of god”): the

covenant faithfulness of the creator god, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus

the Messiah and the gift of the Spirit.

I have stressed that much of Romans 5—8 must be understood, within the

poetic/rhetorical sequence of the letter, as deliberate and explicit preparation for what is

to come in chaps. 9-11. Paul is never, in this passage, simply celebrating the Christian

hope (or whatever) for its own sake. The exhilaration of chap. 8, though clearly genuine

and wholehearted in itself, is also at the same time a brilliant rhetorical device. The

Roman readers, like any sensitive modern reader, could not but be swept up and carried

along with the flow of Paul’s discourse and its magnificent conclusion. Reading this

passage (or, more likely to begin with, hearing it read), there could be no thought for

them of lapsing back into the old paganism of 1:18—32. The glory of the genuine

humanity, created in Christ and guaranteed finally by the Spirit, is here presented with the

greatest literary and theological power. This is quite deliberate and prepares the way for

the next section, totally different in mood and yet so intimately connected in theme. The

stark contrast has nothing to do with different sections of the letter being loosely stitched

together, or with a different theme inserted after a long lapse in dictation. The shift in

mood is as much a feature of rhetorical skill as the sustained drama of chap. 8. As we

have already seen, the underlying force of this whole section has been to say: all these

blessings that you have, you have because the creator promised them to Israel, and has

now given them, in Christ, to you. Therefore . . . what are we to say about Israel itself?

It is thus no denial of this poetic/rhetorical point to suggest that, in terms of the

underlying narrative sequence, or theological story, of the letter, Romans 8 stands out as

one of Paul’s greatest, fullest, and most mature summaries of the gospel. Almost any

Pauline topic that one might wish to discuss “would lead to this chapter sooner or later.

Just because we are rightly committed to reading it in context, we should not fail to

notice as we do so the way in which it says, concisely, so many different things that Paul

spells out in more detail elsewhere, and does so with a rhetorical force and flourish

unparalleled even by Paul’s own standards. We may suggest with some plausibility that

we have here a sequence of argument and preaching which the apostle had used on many

occasions, and which he adapted for its present purpose. If anything, it is Romans 8, not

Romans 9-11, that gives us a hint of the sort of well-used sermon that Paul carried around

in his head, or even (as C. H. Dodd suggested) in his knapsack.


If we came “cold” to Romans 9-11, one of the first things that might strike us

would be its story line.19 Paul begins with Abraham, continues with Isaac and Jacob,

moves on to Moses and the exodus, and by the end of chap. 9 has reached the prophets

and their predictions of exile and restoration. Then, in 10:6f., he expounds that passage in

Deuteronomy (chap. 30) which predicts the return from exile, and in ll:lff. develops this

in terms of the “remnant” idea, before reaching, toward the end of chap. 11, the great

predictions of covenant renewal from Isaiah and Jeremiah. He narrates, in other words,

the covenant history of Israel, in a way that, at least in outline, is parallel to many other

great retellings of this story in Jewish literature.

This is already enough to alert us to a feature often ignored by scholars: that the

whole passage is about the covenant faithfulness of Israel’s god. Discussion of this

cannot be limited to the occurrences of the phrase

(10:3 twice); when

that phrase occurs in that context, its force is to sum up the whole argument so far. Israel

was “ignorant of the righteousness of god”; that is, Israel did not understand or recognize

what its god was doing within its history in fulfillment of his covenant purposes. Since

Paul has already spoken of the divine righteousness being revealed in the death and

resurrection of Jesus, it is therefore no surprise that this “ignorance” of Israel is directly

correlated with its failure to believe the gospel, which is, of course, the material starting

point of the whole section (9:1-5) as well as the focus of passages such as 9:30-33. The

divine covenant purposes, it appears, are those that have been put into operation

throughout the story. Israel’s god has been narrowing it down to a point, choosing this

son of Abraham and not that, choosing some of the wilderness generation and not others,

making Israel, in fact, the vessel of his wrath even as Pharaoh himself had been (9:21-

23). This raises the quesion of the justice of such divine action (9:14, 17), which is, of

course, the question of the


This, I suggest, is where the theme of 7:1-8:11 comes most strikingly to our aid.

Paul is not talking about a double predestination of the Calvinist type. He is speaking of

the way in which Israel’s vocation to be the people of the creator god, including

specifically its calling to be the “vessels of wrath,” was the focal point of this god’s plan

to save the world. He can then sum up this theme in those often-puzzled-over phrases in

chap. 11: “by their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11); “their trespass

means riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles” (11:12); “their

casting away means the reconciliation of the world” (11:15); “you have received mercy

because of their unbelief” (11:30); “they have disbelieved on account of your mercy”

(11:31). This repeated emphasis is clearly a major theme of 11:11-32.

It can scarcely be a new idea introduced at that point; it seems to refer to

something already spelled out, which Paul there summarizes. I suggest that it all makes

sense, in itself and within Romans in particular, if we envisage Paul’s train of thought as

running something like this:

(a) Israel’s vocation to be the covenant people of the creator always envisaged

that it would be the means of rescuing the whole world.

(b) This vocation could be, and was, distorted into the idea of Israel s privileged

position over against the rest of the world, but in Christ this distortion has been shown up

for what it is.

(c) The divine intention was, always, to deal with the evil of the world (“sin,”

personified as in chap. 7) by heaping it up into one place and there passing and executing

sentence of judgment upon it.

(d) This “place” was always intended to be the Messiah himself.

(e) The necessary precondition for this judging of sin in the person of the Messiah

was that Israel, the people of the Messiah, should itself become the place where sin was

gathered together, in order that this burden might then be passed on to the Messiah alone.

(f) Israel was thus, as part of its covenant vocation, called to be the “vessels of

wrath,” the place where the wrath of the creator against the wickedness of the whole

creation would be gathered together in order that it be dealt with.

(g) This was never intended to be a permanent condition. Israel was like a bomb

disposal squad called to take the devastating device to a safe place to be detonated, and

then to leave it there. If Israel clings to its status of privilege, refusing to give it up, it is

like the members of a bomb squad who are so proud of their important mission that they

become reluctant to leave the bomb behind.

(h) There can therefore be no covenant future for those Israelites who refuse to

abandon their “own,” that is, their ethnic, status of covenant membership (10:3). Christ is

the end of that road, the final goal of the covenant purpose which always intended to deal

with sin and its effects (10:4, with all its deliberate ambiguities in play).

(i) But those who see, in Christ, the clue to what the creator/covenant god has

righteously been doing in Israel’s history, and who grasp this in faith—these Israelites

can always regain their full covenant status, and when this happens it is to be a cause of

great rejoicing within the community as a whole (ll:llff).

This, I suggest, is perhaps the main underlying theme of chaps. 9—11, and it

shows as well as anything else the close integration of the passage with the line of

thought in the earlier parts of the letter. Building on the detailed analysis of the purpose

and effect of Torah in chap. 7, Paul has told the covenant history of Israel in such a way

as to bring out the strange truth of Israel’s being cast away so that the world might be

redeemed. This, I suggest, is simply in fact the writing into larger history of the truth of

the cross. Israel is the Messiah’s people according to the flesh (9:5); it has acted out on a

grand scale what that means, namely, that it has become the place where sin has been

drawn together in order to be dealt with. Beneath 9:5 lies l:3f.: Jesus is the Davidic

Messiah “according to the flesh.” What is true of him was necessarily true also of his

people “according to the flesh.” This, I suggest, is at the heart of 9:6-10:21, and is the

theological reason for the echoes of 5:10 in 11:15 (Christ’s “casting away,” like Israel’s,

means reconciliation; his new life, like that of Israel, means new life for others) and of

5:15-19 in 11:12 (Israel acts out Adam’s [“trespass”], just as in 7:7-12; it

must then follow the Messiah through the Adamic death-in-the-flesh to new life).

But Paul has not told this story “in a vacuum.” He has set out his material in such

a way as to make the point that the Gentile mission grows precisely out of this strange

covenant purpose. Rom 10:14-18, anticipated already in 9:24, 30, emphasizes that the

apostolic mission to the nations and the incorporation of Gentiles within the covenant

people of the creator god (9:30: “they have found ‘righteousness,’ even though they were

not looking for it”), are the positive result of Israel’s being “cast away.” The inclusion of

Gentiles is one of the features of the “return from exile” that takes place after Israel, the

servant ‘“ of the Lord, has borne the sins of the many. (Though Paul does not discuss

Isaiah 52f. in these chapters, the occasional references such as 10:15 [Isa 52:7] and 10:16

[Isa 53:1] are, in my view, symptoms of a deep meditation on the whole passage as a

major clue to the divine covenant purposes for Israel.) As a result, the rhetorical force of

the entire exposition of the failure of Israel is not to give Gentile Christians a sense of

smugness or self-satisfaction at their contrasting success, but to highlight and emphasize

the fact that they owe the Israelites a huge debt of gratitude. This, of course, is precisely

what Paul says in 15:27: the Gentiles have come to share in Israel’s spiritual blessings, so

it is right that they should reciprocate in terms of material blessings. It is also the theme

that leads directly to the major thrust of 11:11-32, which ought now to be recognized as

the rhetorical sharp edge of the whole letter. If I am right, the whole apparently negative

emphasis of Romans 9 and 10 is to be read as an appeal for a sympathetic understanding,

on the part of the Gentile church in Rome, of the plight of the Jews. Rom 9:1-5 and 10:1-

2 are not merely personal intrusions into a devastating catalogue of Jewish failure. They

are indications of the attitude Paul wishes his readers to adopt as they come to understand

and appreciate the strange covenant plan whereby, for the sake of the world’s salvation,

Israel has stumbled over the stumbling-stone which had been placed in its path by its own

covenant god (9:33). Paul, as in 7:7-25, sees “his flesh” in rebellion against the gospel

(9:3; 11:14) and understands that rebellion in terms of the strange, but ultimately positive,

saving plan of the covenant god, which will deal with Israel s unwilling and ignorant sin

and so bring it, too, to salvation (8:3; 10:3).

The double movement of thought which comes together in 11:11-32 is therefore

as follows. On the one hand, the Jews’ “stumble,” in accordance with the strange

covenant plan, was part of the appointed means by which the Messiah would do his

strange work of dealing with sin, and hence part of the means by which the world would

be saved. Thus, the Gentile church in particular cannot look down on the Jews, but must

recognize, as I have just argued, a great debt of gratitude. This builds exactly on chaps. 5-

8, in which, as we saw, the privileges and blessings of being in Christ were so described

as to make it clear that they were Israel’s privileges, given to the Messiah and thence to

all his people. On the other hand, the very fact of this transfer of privileges from Israel

according to the flesh, to the Messiah, to the Jew-plus-Gentile church, means that Israel

according to the flesh ought to be jealous. This is a major motif of chaps. 10-11, picked

up by Paul in 10:19 from his favorite section of Deuteronomy (the covenantal passage in

chaps. 30-32) and then developed in ll:14ff. Indeed, this motif only makes sense within

the argument if the logic of the whole letter is more or less as I have described it. Gentiles

have inherited Israel’s blessings: this ought to make Gentile Christians grateful, and

Jewish non-Christians jealous. What is more—since Paul is not, in chap. 11, addressing

Jewish non-Christians, but still aiming rhetorically at Gentile Christians, as 11:13 makes

clear—the prospect of this “jealousy” on the part of Jewish non-Christians ought, in turn,

to heighten the Gentile Christians’ awareness of the Jews’ plight and of the

appropriateness of Jews leaving their present state of “unbelief” and finding themselves

to be valued and celebrated members of the one Jew-plus-Gentile family of Abraham.

The “olive tree” allegory is designed, I suggest, to make just this complex of points.20

What then of the “normal” reading of Romans 11, in which critical scholarship

and fundamentalism have, for once, joined forces, suggesting that Paul here predicts a

large-scale last-minute salvation of (more or less) all ethnic Jews? I have argued at length

against this reading in The Climax of the Covenant,21 and here wish to make two points


First, the rhetorical thrust of the passage seems to me clearly to have to do with

Paul’s missionary plans (cf. 10:14-18). His whole argument, I have suggested, is that the

gospel is “for the Jew first and equally for the Greek.” He is stressing, to a potentially

anti-Jewish Roman church, that there can be no lapsing back into an inverted system of

national privilege. He desires above all that the Roman church should understand his

mission (for which he wanted Rome as his new base) in terms of the Jew-plus-Gentile

strategy he intended to adopt, through which alone there could spring up the Jew-plus-

Gentile church, through which alone the new, united humanity, about which Paul cared

so passionately, could be evidenced.22 The Roman church must not allow the latent, and

sometimes visible, anti-Jewish sentiment in the proud pagan capital to infect them as

Christians. The creator has not cut off his ancient people so that now there would only be

a dwindling Jewish remnant, and soon a Gentiles-only church. The remnant is

emphatically not a small minority clinging successfully to ethnic privilege but a remnant

“chosen by grace” and hence not “by works [of Torah]” (1 l:5f.). If such a remnant exists,

it can increase; Israel’s god longs for it to increase; Paul’s very Gentile mission is

designed partly to help it increase, by the process of Israel’s “jealousy” at seeing its own

privileges being enjoyed by others. Paul’s great hope, in writing Romans, is (negatively)

to quash any potential Gentile-Christian arrogance against Israel, and (positively) to enlist

the Roman church’s enthusiastic and comprehending support for the fully-orbed

missionary program which he intends to implement both in the capital itself and also

around the western Mediterranean.

Second, the salvation of “all Israel” (11:26) does not refer to an event expected to

take place at the “parousia.” It has become customary to say, with E. P. Sanders, that Paul

took the normal Jewish expectation and reversed it. Jewish “restoration eschatology”

envisaged that Israel would be restored first, and that then the Gentiles would come to

share the blessing. According to Sanders, Paul pragmatically reversed this order: now, it

seemed, the Gentiles would come in first, and then Israel. What this reading ignores is

that, for Paul, the restoration of Israel had already happened in the resurrection of Jesus,

the representative Messiah. The texts he calls upon are the very ones that speak of

Gentiles hearing the word of the Lord consequent upon the restoration of Israel. He

evokes, in Rom ll:26b, not only Isa 59:20 but also, and perhaps more importantly, Isa 2:3

and/or Mic 4:2. When Zion is restored, the word of the Lord will flow from it to the

nations: now, Zion has been restored in Jesus the Messiah, so that the word of salvation

consists of Jesus himself, as Redeemer, coming from “Zion” to bless the nations. And the

quotation from Jer 31:33 that appears in 11:27 is emphatically a prediction of the new

covenant. Paul is not suggesting for a moment that Jews can enjoy a private covenantal

blessing which still depends on a special, privileged, ethnic state. Rather, he is insisting

that, within the renewed covenant now established in Christ and the Spirit, Jews are of

course welcome alongside Gentiles. The at the start of v. 26 does not mean

“and then,” but “and so,” “and in this manner.” This, Paul is saying, is how the covenant

god will save his (polemically redefined) “all Israel.” As a result of the Gentile mission,

Israel will be brought to see “its” blessings, focused on its Messiah according to the flesh,

now given freely to Gentiles; and Israel will want to come back and share in them itself.

Rhetorically, that is, in terms of the “poetic sequence” of the letter, Paul’s main

point is now made. He has told the story of the creator and the world as the story of the

covenant god and his people, now understood in a new way on the basis of the death and

resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The message about this Messiah, as he said in 3:21, is

the revelation-in-action of the covenant-faithfulness of this god: from this point of view,

one can understand the plan according to which Abraham became the father of a

worldwide covenant family, the plan according to which also Israel, after carrying out its

fearful mission, can and must be invited to share in the blessings of covenant renewal.

Gentile Christians, in Rome and elsewhere, cannot lapse into that anti-Judaism which

refuses to see Jews as legitimate beneficiaries of the creator’s action in Christ: the only

story within which their own standing as Christians makes sense is precisely the Jewish

story. They do not support the root; it supports them. Paul has placed the quite proper

Gentile rejection of an ethnic-based people of god, the correct repudiation of Torah as the

final charter of covenant membership, on to the larger plan of the divine covenant, in

such a way as to undercut any possibility of Marcionism, of a rejection of Torah as less

than god-given, of an anti-Judaism that would fit all too easily into the social pattern of

pagan Rome and all too badly into a genuine covenantal understanding of the gospel. The

sequence of thought of the letter so far is summed up in the “real” conclusion of its

theological exposition (15:8f.):

For I say that the Messiah became a servant to the circumcised, on behalf of the

truthfulness of god, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and that the

Gentiles might glorify the true god for mercy. (My translation.)


Like many writers and lecturers on Romans, I have used up most of my space on

chaps. 1-11 and have little left for the very important chapters that remain. I confidently

expect, however, that, within the rhetorical setting of this paper itself, expectation and

controversy will inevitably cluster around the first eleven chapters, rather than the last

five, so that the imbalance, for all its risks, may correspond to the reality of our ongoing

discussion. Something, nevertheless, must be said about the place of these chapters

within the rhetorical design, the poetic sequence, of the letter itself.

Chapters 12-16, I think, turn from an argument that focuses on the mission of the

church to an argument that focuses on its own internal unity. Having set out the covenant

plan of the creator god, and having located the Roman (largely Gentile) church on that

map, Paul can address both general and particular instructions to the church, the general

preparing the way for the more particular. The appeal for unity-in-diversity in 12:5ff.,

following naturally from the appeal for the “presentation of the body” in 12:1, itself

prepares the way for the more directed appeal of 14:1-15:13, where the main thrust of

chaps. 12-16 undoubtedly lies. In the same way, the much-debated passage 13:1-7 makes

a good deal of sense when read against the background of the Roman situation. If the

Jews had been expelled from Rome within recent memory because of riots impulsore

Chresto (“at the instigation of Chrestus”), the last thing the church needed was to live up

to the bad reputation thus, implicitly earned. The contemptuous references in Tacitus,

Suetonius, and Pliny show only too well how Romans would naturally regard a cult like

Christianity: a reputation for antisocial behavior was almost automatic, and the church

should take care not to live up to it.23 No pagan behavior was to infiltrate the church,

who should live as the people of the daytime even though the night was for the moment

still dark (13:8-14).

In this context, 14:1-15:13 makes its own clear point. If the riots referred to by

Suetonius were indeed the result of problems within the Jewish community caused by

some synagogues andor individuals becoming Christian, andor by Christian Jews

coming from elsewhere to Rome and engaging in evangelism within the Jewish

community, it was vital that the church itself should learn to live at peace along the “fault

lines” that would most naturally develop. What Paul does, of course, is explicitly not to

discuss these issues in terms of “Jewish Christians” and “Gentile Christians” but to line

them up in terms borrowed from his (somewhat different) discussion in 1 Corinthians 8,

where he had spoken of the “strong” and the “weak,” both of which categories almost

certainly included Gentile Christians, and both of which likewise may well have

contained Jewish Christians. Paul refuses to reinforce a potential split by addressing

different groups within the church in terms of their ethnic origins, but instead sorts out

the issues as though they were simply a matter of private options.

This, of course, was in fact truer to life than some in the Roman church might

have cared to admit. Paul himself was a “Jewish Christian” who took the “strong”

viewpoint; presumably Prisca and Aquila (16:3) were too. And, underneath the whole

argument specific to this particular setting, there runs constant reference to the narrative

of the Messiah and his achievement, and a sense of overriding loyalty to him rather than

to any other standard (14:4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18; 15:3-6; and above all 15:7-13). The

covenant that the creator made with Abraham has been fulfilled in Christ, and a

multiethnic people is the result; one must not, for the sake of human regulations, destroy

this unique and climactic work of the creator god. Rom 14:1—15:13 is thus, like the rest

of the letter, grounded in the basic christology of the gospel, the fundamental narrative

sequence of Paul’s thought.

With this appeal, Paul’s theological task is over, and it remains to spell out the

reasons for his coming to Rome (15:14-29), which we have already discussed. The

request for prayer (15:30—33), the long list of greetings (16:1—16, 21-23), and the sharp

extra warning (16:17—20) all make sense within this context. Even the closing greeting

(16:25—27), sometimes regarded as secondary, seems to me at least a fitting conclusion.

If we have grasped the subtlety and flexibility of Paul’s thought in the epistle to date,

excising such a passage looks suspiciously like straining out a gnat after swallowing a

camel, taking revenge for the hard work of grappling with the rest of the text by

dismissing a short passage that cannot, as it were, speak up for itself. In particular, there

are a few hints in 16:25-27 which suggest that it belongs quite closely with the prologue

to the letter, to which we must now return in concluding our study of the poetic sequence.


With the letter as a whole now spread out before us, we may be able to understand

more precisely why Paul wrote its introduction in the way that he did. He introduces

himself in terms of the “gospel” by which his ministry is defined; and the “gospel” is not

“justification by faith,” not simply a message about how humans get saved, but the

announcement of Jesus as the Son of god in emphatically Jewish categories (1:3-4). Paul

may perfectly well be quoting an earlier formula, conceivably of his own earlier devising,

but we should reject any attempt to marginalize 1:3-4 within his thought, or within the

flow of the letter, on the grounds that it is too Jewish. It is precisely these categories (the

Davidic and representative messiahship of Jesus, and his being marked out as Son of god

through the resurrection) that are to dominate so much of the letter. It is this gospel of

Jesus, representing Israel “according to the flesh,” doing on its behalf and hence for the

world what it had failed to do, that gives theological coherence to all that he is going to


The apostolic mission is the direct result of this proclamation (1:5-7). Its aim is

“the obedience of faith”; “faith” is not, in Paul, starkly opposed to “moralism” in the way

that, for contextual and polemical reasons, it came to be in later theological thinking.

Though, of course, there is no sense of faith or obedience forming a human initiative

which puts the creator under a debt; nor is there any idea that “faith” is not also, and does

not lead further to, “obedience” in terms of 12:1, the glad offering of an entire human life

to the service of the creator and covenant god in free response to mercy received.

Rom 1:8-15, leading naturally out of 1:6-7, then explains initially Paul’s longing

to come to Rome, anticipating the fuller statement in 15:14-29. This account of Paul’s

intention should not be split off from 1:16-17, even though it seems clear that those two

verses form a short and pithy summary of the argument of the letter itself; in their

context, they are offered as the explanation of why a visit to Rome, and by implication a

mission that starts from Rome, are necessary developments of the apostolic mission.

Rom 1:16-17 then forms the statement of theme for the poetic sequence of the

letter. Since Romans has often been seen as Paul’s Summa Theologica, 1:16-17 is also

often seen as the thematic statement for his whole theology, but this would be a mistake.

In themselves, these verses refer back to the more fundamental entity of “the gospel,”

which, stated already in 1:3-4, is here presupposed. “The gospel”—that is, the Jewish

message of a crucified and risen Messiah as the fulfillment of the covenant plan of the

god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—was of course multiple foolishness in the ancient

world: not only a Jewish message, but such a bizarre one too! Yet, Paul declares, as in

1 Cor 1:18-2:5, it is within this strange and foolish gospel that there lies hidden the power

of the creator god by which all humans, from whatever racial background, can be saved.

The reason why this gospel contains this power for these people is hidden in the

covenant faithfulness of the one god. Here, in 1:17a, we can now see the theological

dynamic of the entire letter, and with it the full meaning of

). The term

is, and remains, based firmly in the covenant which was established with Abraham and

with which Israel wrestled in succeeding generations, not least in the time between the

Maccabees and Bar Kochba. But it always envisaged, at least as Paul sees it, not merely

the divine faithfulness to ethnic Israel, but the choice of ethnic Israel as the ones who

would bear the creator’s saving purposes for the whole world. Here is the true thrust of

Ernst Käsemann’s point, that the divine righteousness has to do with the divine victory

over the entire rebel cosmos; but this is achieved through the means that Käsemann never

grasped, namely, the fact that in Jesus the Messiah the covenant purpose of the creator for

Israel was finally fulfilled.

The covenant faithfulness of Israel-in-Christ, then, results in the revelation of the

covenant faithfulness of the creator god. I therefore read

(“from faith”) in

1:17 in the light of 3:22, as referring to Christ’s faithfulness, which in turn results in

blessing for all those who are characterized by “faith” of the sort which will be further

defined all through the letter. Hab 2:4 is drawn in, not as a proof text wrenched from its

original context, but as a key passage dealing with the radical redefinition of the people

of god through a time of turbulent crisis. In the midst of wrath and confusion about the

covenant purposes of the one god, the prophet clung on to the saying that “the true

covenant members would find life in their faith.” Paul, in a time of even greater wrath,

and even greater confusion about the covenant purposes of the same god, grasps the same

point: covenant membership now has, as its worldwide badge, not those “works” which

mark out Israel according to the flesh, but the faith which was Abraham’s faith: belief in

the god who justifies the ungodly, belief in the god who raises the dead.


There is clearly no space for even an outline of the theological points that might

be drawn out after this theological exegesis of Romans. But some concluding, somewhat

unsystematic, observations may be made which will, I hope, sharpen issues for our

continuing discussion.

First, a case has been made for seeing Paul not just as “a covenantal theologian,”

but as a very particular sort of covenantal theologian. He held on to the central Jewish

doctrines of monotheism, election, and eschatology, seeing them all redefined in Christ

and the Spirit. He rethought the entire worldview of ancient Judaism, not least his own

former Pharisaism, without the slightest suggestion that in doing so he was selling out to,

or borrowing indiscreetly from, the surrounding pagan environment. His theology and his

place within the history of religions are characterized by his central belief that the creator

god was also the covenant god, that the covenant with Israel was always intended as the

means of setting the entire cosmos to rights, and that this intention had now in principle

come true in Jesus and was being implemented by the Spirit.

Second, the reading of Paul’s critique of Judaism which has been made popular

by Sanders and others, in contrast to the “normal” Lutheran reading, has in principle been

upheld by the details of theological exegesis. Paul’s critique of Israel was aimed not at

proto-Pelagianism or “moralism” but at ethnocentric covenantalism. What is not so often

seen, though, is the way in which the theology of the cross, so dear to the hearts of

Lutheran expositors as it is so close to the center of Paul, lies at the heart of this critique

as much as it ever did in the old scheme. To read Paul in a post-Sanders fashion is not (as

is sometimes suggested) to marginalize this central emphasis, but actually to give it its

full measure.24

Third, however, Sanders’s rereading has not, in my view, gone far enough. It still

seems to assume, with the old model, that “justification” is a “transfer term” describing

“how people get saved,” and in consequence that Paul has actually pulled the Jewish

theological language system out of shape. This is actually unnecessary, as is the

continuing divide between “forensic” and “incorporative” readings of Paul’s theology.

Both of these latter categories are in fact outworkings of the central covenantal emphasis:

once that is put firmly in the middle, all else falls into place around it, and the different

metaphorical ideas that Paul evokes from time to time can find their proper places

without getting in each other’s way “Justification” is not, for Paul, “how people enter the

covenant,” but the declaration that certain people are already within the covenant. It is the

doctrine which says (cf. Gal 2:16-21 with Rom 14:1-15:13) that all those who believe the

Christian gospel belong together at the same table. It is the basis for that unity of the

church, across racial barriers, for which Paul fought so hard.

Fourth, we have seen all along that behind the poetic sequence of Romans,

answering to the particular rhetorical needs of the situation Paul was addressing, there is

a particular narrative sequence which shows, clearly enough, the overall shape of Paul’s

theology, and which, indeed, provides a window onto the stories that characterized his

entire worldview. The implicit narrative is the story of the creator and the creation; of the

covenant with Abraham as the means of restoring creation and humans; of the

paradoxical failure, and yet the paradoxical success, of this covenant purpose; of its

fulfillment, both in failure and in success, in the death and resurrection of Jesus; of its

implementation by the Spirit and through the apostolic mission; and of its final

consummation in the renewal of all things. Romans is, perhaps, as good a text as any

upon which to try out this two-level (or perhaps multilevel) way of reading Paul, and

through which therefore to address our ongoing methodological issues concerning what

sort of a thing “Pauline Theology” is, and how we might know when we have found it.

Thus, it seems to me quite clear that Romans 5-8 is not the central thrust of Romans

itself; but it may turn out to be one particular telling of the story which is at the center of

Paul’s narrative world. Likewise, Rom 1:3-4 is not the statement of the theme of Romans,

but it is one particular statement of “the gospel” which, lying at the heart of his whole

belief system, generated the specific argument of this letter, summed up proleptically in


The proof of all these puddings will be in the eating. If I am right, or even

partially right, Romans itself ought to gain in theological and situational coherence; and

light ought to be shed on all the other letters, and on our various constructs about Paul’s

self-understanding and mission. This latter possibility is too vast to contemplate for the

moment. I hope that this paper offers at least a step toward the former: in other words,

that the text of the great letter itself can now be seen to hang together and to make both

theological and situational sense, expressing exactly what Paul wanted it to express,

addressing one particular context with one particular message, and at the same time

drawing wholeheartedly on a consistent core, on a worldview and a belief system, in the

midst of which Paul knew himself to be the servant of the Messiah, Jesus, called to be an

apostle, and set apart for the gospel of the creator and covenant god.

1 Dialogue throughout could be carried on with the major recent commentaries of C. E. B. Cranfield, A

Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1975, 1979); Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1980); Ulrich Wilckens, Die Brief an die Römer (3 vols.; EKKNT 6; Cologne: Benziger, 1982);

and James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 and Romans 9-16 (WBC 38a, 38b; Dallas: Word, 1988); the following

monographs: Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven/London: Yale

University Press, 1989); Glenn N. Davies, Faith and Obedience in Romans: A Study in Romans 1-4

(JSNTSup 39; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990); R. Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans: Argumentative

Constraint and Strategy and Paul’s Dialogue with Judaism (JSNTSup 45; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990); L.

Ann Jervis, The Purpose of Romans: A Comparative Letter Structure Investigation (JSNTSup 55;

Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991); Bruce W. Longenecker, Eschatology and the Covenant: A Comparison of 4

Ezra and Romans 1-11 (JSNTSup 57; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Douglas A. Campbell,

The Rhetoric of Righteousness in Romans 3.21-26 (JSNTSup 65; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992); and the

wider discussions of Paul in E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of

Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress,

1983); and Paul (Past Masters; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); J. Christaan Beker, Paul the

Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980); Heikki Raisanen, Paul

and the Law (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); F. B. Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological

Approach (SNTSMS 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s

Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); James D.

G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (London: SPCK, 1990); Alan F. Segal,

Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven/London: Yale University

Press, 1990); and of course many others. This dialogue must in most cases be inserted by the reader into the

intertextual space left implicitly blank in what follows. At the same time, I shall try and achieve brevity

here and there by reference to my own previous work, esp. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the

Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991).

2 See further Wright, Climax of the Covenant, chapter 1; and Christian Origins and the Question of God:

Vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) chapter 5.

3 Cf. Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative

World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

4 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, part 3. Cf. E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and

Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992).

5 On the idea of continuing exile, see, e.g., Baruch; Tobit 13-14; CD; 1 Enoch 85-90; and elsewhere,

studied in, e.g., Odil Hannes Steck, Israel und das gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten (WMANT 23;

Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1967); idem, Überlieferung und Zeitgeschichte in den

Eliaerzählung (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1968); and idem, World and Environment

(Nashville: Abindgon, 1980 [1978]); and many other writers.

6 On incorporative messiahship in Paul, see Wright, Climax of the Covenant, chapters 2, 3.

7 On the debates, see above all The Romans Debate (ed. Karl P. Donfried; rev. ed.; Peabody,

MA: Hendrikson, 1991 [1977]).

8 For this emphasis in 1:16 (

[“both first. . . and”]), see Cranfield, Romans, 1. 90-91.

9 I here presuppose, of course, one particular answer to the now notorious question : (faith

“in” or “of” Christ). I think, actually, that the success of this way of reading this passage is the best

argument in favor of the subjective genitive (faith “of Christ) in some at least of the key passages.

10 The case of Phil 3:9, often cited as if it were an example of “god’s righteousness” seen as a human status,

is not to the point; it is the status of covenant membership that is

:, “from god.” 2 Cor 5:21,

conversely, speaks of the apostles as being themselves the embodiment of the divine covenant faithfulness

(cf. 2 Corinthians 3), not as having “god’s righteousness” as their own status. On Rom 10:2—4, see below.

11 Richard B. Hays, ‘“Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather According to the

Flesh?’ A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1,” NovT 27 (1985) 76-98; idem, Echoes of Scripture, 54f.

12 I agree with Cranfield (Romans) that 2:14-16 indicates the same category that appears in

2:26-29, that is, Gentile Christians. But I think that in 2:14ff. Paul leaves this deliberately vague for good

rhetorical reasons.

13 E.g., 1QS 4.22f.; CD 3.19f.; 1QH 17.14; 4QpPs37 3.1f.

14 Wright, Climax of the Covenant, chapter 12.

15 Cf. also 1.20.17, where Epictetus argues against the Epicureans, who say that “the good” resides “in my

flesh” (cf. Rom 7:18).

16 Wright, Climax of the Covenant, chapter 11

17 Ibid., chapter 10.

18 I am grateful to Sylvia Keesmaat for drawing my attention to aspects of the exodus imagery in this

passage that I had not hitherto noticed.

19 I have written in detail about these chapters in Climax of the Covenant, chapter 13. I am deliberately not

attempting to summarize what I have said there, but to take a fresh run at the passage and see what emerges

in the light of this paper so far.

20 Which explains some of its apparent peculiarities. Paul was not the only first-century writer to have an

interesting time with horticultural metaphors; see also Epictetus, Discourses, 4.8.34—40. Compare too

Ezekiel 17. Paul is not just using a “homely illustration,” which could then be criticized if it does not work

properly, but stands in a long prophetic/apocalyptic tradition of varied imagery.

21 Climax of the Covenant, 246-51.

22 Cf. Gal 3:25-29; Eph 2:11-22; 3:8-13 (usual caveats about authorship taken for granted).

23 Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Suetonius, Claudius 25.4; Pliny, Letters 10.97.

24 I have in mind, e.g., the polemic of Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (Philadelphia: Trinity Press

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