Future of the People of God

Remember when I was blogging through Mark 13, exploring the possibility that the whole thing was about the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70? (If not, here 1, here 2, here 3, here 4.) Well what if the fall of Jerusalem as God’s great, in-time act of judgment accounts for more than the “eschatology” of Mark 13? What if it accounts for Paul’s eschatology as well?

That, in brief, is the perspective that Andrew Perriman takes up in his new book, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (Cascade, 2010), a perspective that gives him a unique reading of much of Paul’s letter to Rome.

Perriman creates a reading in which Paul is looking forward to the coming judgment of God, but not a great final judgment that will mean the end of the world of suffering and death. Instead, Paul is looking forward to the time when God will judge the world, beginning with Israel, by toppling the presumptions of people and gods of Rome–until at last Rome itself has bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord with the conversion of Constantine.

For Perriman, the allusion to Psalm 2 in the resurrection-enthronement text of Romans 1:4 highlights the coming subjugation of the nations to Israel’s God and Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. He sees the same sort of subjugation in view in the parallel text of Romans 15.

This is representative of a consistent disagreement I had with Perriman: I see more transformation of these OT texts. Where the OT at times envisions the subjugation of the nations, the surprise Paul is wrestling with in Romans is that God has brought the Gentiles in on equal footing–even if this might mean that the gods and lords of the nations will be brought low.

On a similar question of how much reinterpretation is involved in Paul’s use of the OT, Perriman suggests that the invocation of Habakkuk 2:4 indicates that those who are faithful to God throughout the coming day of this-worldly wrath and destruction (of Jerusalem by Rome and then subsequent wrath on Rome itself) will find themselves delivered. Thus, even into the talk of coming wrath and judgment in ch. 2, Paul is talking about what will happen in a concrete, historical, geopolitical unfolding, not a final, cosmic day of judgment.

These pointers set the basic trajectories along which Perriman’s reading of Romans develops. In this way, the book becomes much less about entering eschatological salvation and much more about enduring this-worldly tribulations by imitating the suffering Messiah.

And the point of eschatology is where I am not yet convinced. To my mind, the resurrection of Jesus creates a cosmic frame of reference for Paul’s eschatology that does not bear sufficient influence on Perriman’s framing of the eschatology of the letter. Hints in this direction include the groaning of creation to which human groaning and redemption are not only compared but also tied.

The implications Perriman draws from his study are significant and on point. He puts his conclusion provocatively: “A narrative-historical, non-idealized reading of Romans teaches us that the question of the righteousness of God is a contingent one and may be revisited under very different circumstances” (155).

He then goes on to summarize our journey thus:

    Similarly, refugees from the fallen city of Christendom are on a long journey from their captivity to oppressive, corrupting, demoralizing, destructive social and intellectual forces, through a traumatic self-examination, through disintegration and despair, through countless experiments in renewal and emergence, towards–one hopes–a new self-understanding, a new paradigm, a new mode of being, a new construction of what it means to be a credible new creation in the midst of the peoples and cultures of the earth. It is too early to guess what that new paradigm might look like, but we are certainly beginning, consciously and unconsciously, to re-imagine the place of the church in the world in keeping with the promise of Abraham, in the light of the hope that all things will be made new.

I arrive at that same conclusion through a different path. But the path Perriman has laid out is worth walking, as it opens our eyes afresh to assumptions we might be making as we read the text, and as it challenges us to articulate for ourselves why this particular letter (Romans) was written to this particular people at this particular time–and what God may have had in store for the Empire within which it was circulated.

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