Tag Archives: Romans

Living the Impossible Dream

I’m getting ready to teach Romans again. No, I’ve not yet repented of the idea that the resurrection of Jesus is the most important theme in the letter. But in my recalcitrance, I continue to find, as well, the call to live our the impossible dream. For all that we approach Romans for its theological interest, Paul’s interest lies in mixing the cement by which the scattered and divided Christian communities might be held together.

In a letter full of great “therefore” moments, none is so great as when Paul says, “Therefore, accept one another–Just as Christ has accepted you, to the glory of God!” (Rom 15:7).

Why tell an elaborate story of the resurrected Christ as the culmination of the story of Israel? Why insist that faithful living is through the power of this Jesus’ resurrection at work in the world through the same Spirit who gave this Jesus life? Why argue that proclaiming this Lord to the Gentiles will result in the belief of until-now-unbelieving Jews?

The resurrected Lord is Lord over all, the agent of God’s faithfulness to not only Israel but the whole world:

I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy. (Rom 15:8-9, CEB)

One of the reasons I am passionate about a narrative approach to scripture, and why I’ve written on a “storied approach” to Paul, is tied to this mandate that we purse the impossible unity that should characterize us as God’s people in Christ.

When we talk systematic theology, we have language at the ready to distinguish us from those with whom we disagree. This is fine, it’s what systematic theology does. It’s what dogma does more generally.

But when we engage the biblical texts using narrative categories, we find ourselves on different ground. Suddenly, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and an Anglican are standing together as they articulate the most fundamental dynamics in Paul’s letters. A new set of glasses is employed, a story is seen, and we see it together.

When we define ourselves by the story of the God of Israel at work to redeem the world through the reconciling life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we have created a new venue for unity around a holistic gospel, a story with all-encompassing ramifications.

Why agitate for a narrative theology?

Because we need to have our minds transformed again, so that we can reimagine not only what the work of God in Christ is, in itself, but who we are and whom we are with when we occupy that reconciled space in Christ.

The Just Requirement Fulfilled

I can’t get enough of Romans 8.


If I were only allowed to have one chapter in the whole Bible, this would be it: you have here the empowered life given by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, you have a picture of cosmic redemption and therein an affirmation of God’s love for the whole created order; you get signals that our salvation is about participation in the new humanity of those who rule the world on God’s behalf and thereby participate in new creation; you get hope in times of suffering; you get freedom from condemnation; you get our identity as God’s beloved children as we are in the beloved son.

And, of course, you get God’s daring act of giving up of God’s son so that we might live.

Jesus’ death for us comes into play a couple of times in the passage. The one I want to explore a bit right now is the difficult claim in 8:3-4.

3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. (CEB)

Here we have, once again, the question of how the Law is related to the saving righteousness of God. And, once again, it stands outside looking in. God did what the Law could not. We are on much the same ground as Rom 3: no flesh is justified by Law before God, so God acts outside the Law, with something new and unexpected.

God acts through giving God’s own son to die. Where the CEB here says “to deal with sin,” the Greek is περὶ ἁμαρτίας (peri hamartias), a likely reference to the Septuagint’s use of the phrase to mean “sin offering.” Once again we’re on the same ground as ch. 3: Jesus as a sin offering as God’s alternative to Law as the means of salvation.

But here’s where I want to explore a bit further: How is “the righteous requirement of the Law fulfilled in us”? What is the requirement and how is it fulfilled?

First, there is nothing in this passage, Paul, or the NT in general to support the claim made by at least one modern commentator that this refers to God’s reckoning of Jesus’ law-keeping to our account. The passage is entirely about Jesus’ death, nowhere does Paul (or any other NT writer) speak of Jesus’ righteousness consisting in keeping the Law. Enough of such speculation.

In Romans, Paul has used this “just requirement” language before.

  • Rom 1:32: They know the “just requirement” of God that those who do such things are worthy of death.
  • Rom 2:26: The uncircumcised keep the “just requirement” of the Law because, as God’s eschatological people who have received the Spirit, they have this Law written on their hearts.
  • Rom 5:16: The many transgressions were the seedbed from which grew out the gift, the transgressions leading to a “just requirement” (this does not mean “justification,” but the just act which would enable one to be justified
  • Rom 5:18: One “just act” lead to “justification”
  • Rom 8:4: God fulfills the “just requirement” in us

I find it fascinating that in three of the previous four occurrences the connotation of dikaioma had to do with death. The just requirement of death is known, in 1:32, and in ch. 5 it is Jesus’ death in particular that is the just action that leads to justification.

So I wonder: is the “just requirement” that is fulfilled in us, what the Law couldn’t do but God did, the just requirement of death for sin?

I have been hesitant to go down this road, in part because Paul speaks immediately afterward of our identity as those who walk, not according to the flesh but, according to the Spirit. So I’ve previously thought of this as our own obedience to what the Law would have us do: the death of Jesus enables us to live obediently to the Law.

But what does the Spirit do in Romans 8?

As the Spirit of freedom, it is the Spirit of adoption–making us God’s children and confirming and conforming us to that identity.

But that “Abba, Father,” cry is the cry of those who are being conformed to the image of Jesus by suffering with him in order to also be glorified with him (8:17). The Spirit’s work in us is to conform us not merely to sonship generally, but to the crucified and then resurrected son.

In other words, the Spirit fulfills in us our dying with Christ, our union with him in death and resurrection, our baptism into his death.

So to be those who “walk according to the Spirit” is precisely to be those who carry about in our body the dying of Jesus–and thus have the just requirement of death fulfilled in us through our realization of our union with Christ.

This finds further corroboration in Rom 3, where the thing that allows God to be just and justifier is the blood of Jesus–and those who are justified are those who are “of the faithfulness of Christ”–united to and defined by Jesus’ own death.

To have the just requirement fulfilled in us is to realize in ourselves the dying of Christ by which we are justified both now and at the end.

Law in Romans: For Wrath

The Law in Romans, and Paul’s thought generally, is complex.

On the one hand, it is promissory: it looks to the future; it plays the part in the story of prophet. It points away from itself to the coming work of God in Christ.

But on the other hand, Law is tied to sin as what indicates Israel’s own guilt.

And with sin and guilt, the Law brings wrath.

Why must the promise not be realized through the Law itself, but outside the Law in the Christ event? “Because the Law brings wrath, but where there is no Law, neither is there transgression” (Romans 4:15).

By saying this much, Paul reiterates in ch. 4 of Romans what he had said in chs. 1-3: that the Law plays the role of making Israel guilty of what Israel could assume the Gentile world was guilty of: failure to honor and glorify God. And, it puts it in the same position as deserving of wrath that Rom 1:18 tells us is the condition of the Gentile world as well.

In the second half of Rom 5, Paul begins the extensive work of rewriting the Law’s role in the story of Israel.

What came with, apparently, promises of righteousness and life, is at first simply put to the side. What is determinative for the destiny of humanity is not the Law given to Israel but, instead, the actions of two men: Adam and Christ (Rom 5:12-19). Adam’s transgression unleashed the reign of sin and death; Jesus’ obedience inaugurates the reign of grace.

God’s grace, life, the gift of righteousness–all the things that one might have thought the Law was scripted to give, are instead provided by the obedient, dying Messiah.

So what, then, are we to make of the Law if it does not, in fact, work the life that it seemed to promise?

5:20: The Law came in in order that it might increase the transgression.

The purpose of the Law, in this case, is to make Israel a microcosm–not of the saving act of the Messiah in obedience, but–of the failure of Adam.

But here’s the point: though this was a purpose of the Law, it was only the penultimate purpose of God. Into this realm of increasing sin, the grace of God abounded more. In the context, this grace has already been defined: the super-abounding grace of God is what comes in the death of Jesus.

As Rom 1:18 had told us that the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on the revelation of God’s wrath; as Rom 3 had told us that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by Israel’s unrighteousness, so here we hear that God’s grace in Christ comes right to the place where sin was most strengthened by transgression.

The final purpose of this was that the increase of sin was that a new reign might be established in its place: the reign of grace that comes through Christ.

How is it that this “holy, righteous, and good” law ends up playing such a dark role in the story?

In short, chs. 6-7 tell us, the problem is that the Law is a loyal subject, or a weapon. Whoever is lord of its realm, the Law faithfully serves. The paradox of Paul’s gospel message, as it rewrites the role of the Law in the story of Israel, is that to be freed from the Law is also to be freed from Sin (Rom 6:14).

When it comes to a world under the reign of sin, the law is used by that lord to bring about death. To be under Law is to be under Sin, and ultimately to be under Death.

The chart below ( from Unlocking Romans) shows how the very language Paul uses to speak of sin and death in Rom 6 is repeated as he talks about the Law in Rom 7:

The only way to break free from the enslaving force of sin, as it uses the Law for its purposes, is through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 7:1-6). With this cosmic intervention of God comes the Spirit, who enables us to do what the Law was powerless to do: bear fruit for God (Rom 7:5-6).

The bottom line: The Law comes as a Spiritual entity to a fleshly people without the power to make that people Spiritual. Because of this lack of transforming power, it is used by the governing power of the world, sin, in order to work transgression, sin, and death.

But when the Spirit of the resurrected Christ comes, the Spirit who has power even to give life to dead flesh (Rom 1:4), God shows that there is a way to be made righteous, to know life, to escape from wrath. The resurrected Christ performs the role that, one would have thought, was the role of Torah in Israel’s story: life-bringer, righteous-maker.

Law in Romans: For Sin

Paul says things about the Law that seem to stand in stark opposition to each other. Some would say that Paul contradicts himself about the Law and its place in the story of Israel. If this were an easy question it would be no fun to discuss and, more importantly, scholars would have nothing left to write about.

When I want to explore Paul’s arguments, however, I hold off on asserting “contradiction” until every other explanation has been exhausted. So here as well. Somehow, I want to see how the things he says about the negative place of the Law in the story of Israel coincide with the praise of the Law as holy, righteous, and good.

Yesterday we outlined the promissory function of the Law, as Paul speaks of it in Romans. Then I put up some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the role of the law, where he attempts to give an account for the apparently negative things Paul says about the Law’s function–and how those are resolved in the Christ event.

Today we need to visit that negative thread.

As I see it, here is what we need to hold together: (1) the Law is holy, righteous, and good. But to ascribe such goodness to the Law is not to say either (a) what its purpose is; or (b) what its effect is when it comes to a world ruled by sin and death.

This is where I see the conversation in the comments butting up against each other. I have been focusing on questions (a) and (b), and the things Paul says about the effect and purpose of the Law, as Law, in Israel’s story seem to stand in tension with the goodness of the law. But our task is to figure out how and why this good law can come as an instrument of death, as something that causes the trespass to increase so that the power of sin is magnified.

I see the problem with some of the conversation as this: rather than explaining how both are true, a number of folks are clinging to the “Law is good” part in order to deny what Paul says about its function in the story. But this is precisely why he says the good stuff: because he has to give an account of how a good law can play a role other than life-giver and grace-bringer for Israel.

Paul’s starting point is the Christ event. And this is why he can say that if life comes through the Law, if the grace of God is revealed through the law, if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly. So if it didn’t bring righteousness and life, what did it do?

In Romans 2, Paul doesn’t deal with the Law’s purpose per se, but he does chide Israel as Law breakers: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law do you dishonor God?” Again, this is not about purpose, but an assertion about reality as Paul sees it.

In Romans 3, Paul says that having the oracles of God (including Torah, no doubt), is an advantage to the Jews–but one they did not take advantage of. In fact, it is not God’s response to Israel’s fidelity that puts God’s righteousness on display; instead, it is God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here the paradox of Israel’s failure in God’s redemptive story begins to peek through.

As the chapter goes on, Paul draws closer to giving a negative purpose of the Law. He quotes a whole bunch of OT texts about the sinfulness of humanity. And here is his surprise: these texts, many of which bad-mouthed Gentiles, are not written to condemn Gentiles, but to shut the mouth of Israel: “Whatever the Law says it speaks to those under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped”–not just the mouths of those Gentile bad guys–“and all the world may become accountable to God.” The Law renders culpable those who are under it.

As in the beginning of ch. 3, though, so here also, Israel’s culpability under the Law provides a pointer to a new, decisive intervention by God in order for people to be holy and righteous: “But now, without Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested… through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Our unrighteousness puts on display the righteousness of God, Paul had said, and this is where.

As Paul explains how it is that God enters to act where Israel failed, he gives an indication that Israel’s culpability under the Law does not make it especially liable to judgment, despite its transgression: “in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed.” This is an important moment in the argument: while much of what Paul does is aimed at showing how Jews are equally guilty, the added guilt itself becomes an occasion for grace, as God passes over in light of the time when righteousness will be brought about by the Christ event.

Tomorrow we will at last get to that troubling verse in ch. 5 where Paul says that the purpose of the Law is for increase of trespasses. But here already the pattern has been set: the saving righteousness of God comes where Israel’s unrighteousness precedes it.

And this is our hint toward how the negative and positive things hold together: the purpose of the Law can, in one sense, be seen as the increase of transgression–but this is because the Law is only penultimate in the purposes of God. The ultimate plan of God is to bring about saving righteousness in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Side Notes on Law in Romans

There are a couple of loose ends from earlier comment threads that I haven’t been able to wrap up. One has to do with Wright’s claim about the law’s purpose being to focalize sin upon Israel, the other with what Paul means by Law.

In Paul’s summary… the law functions to intensify the sin of Adam… (“the law came in on the side in order that the trespass might increase,” 5:20)… 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.”…

“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… (“Romans and the Theology of Paul, 46-47)

Wright sees ch. 7, where Paul defends the Torah, as being the point where Paul works things out a bit more fully (pp. 52-53 of the same essay):

  1. Covenant was put in place to deal with the sin of the world. This is, thus, Torah’s ultimate purpose.
  2. Torah came in order that sin might abound (Rom 5:20)–“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.”
  3. This is repeated in 7:13: “in order that sin might become exceedingly sinful”
  4. God draws all this sin on Israel in order to pass it on to Israel’s Messiah and there deal with sin 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 it can do.”
  5. Thus, the apparently negative force of Torah (to draw in and focus sin over Israel’s head) has as its ultimate purpose God’s final dealing with sin, once and for all
  6. “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.”

What I have liked about this articulation of things is that it places the dying of Christ within the story of Israel. Moreover, it takes seriously the idea that for Paul nomos in Romans often refers quite specifically to the Torah, the Law given to Israel as such.

This leads to the second point.

Yes, in Paul, Torah comes to play a part in the cosmic story of the powers that govern the earth.

But no, it is not inclusive of the cosmic powers that govern the sun, moon, stars, and Gentile morality. At least, not in Romans.

When Paul enters his complex discussion of Law in chs. 5-8, he begins by telling us that Adam trespassed, and that the thing called “law” comes in with Moses. He has specific events in mind, specific Torah given by a specific God to a specific people–and not to others. Without this piece in place, it becomes impossible to make sense of how Paul’s articulation of the gospel is, in fact, for the Jew first–and even through Israel, which was entrusted with the very words of God.

Put differently, it is not the “law” of the planets in orbit that bears witness to the crucified and risen Christ, but the Pentateuch.

Righteous Because of Wrath?

One major conundrum in the book of Romans comes in 1:18.

Most commentators (wrongly, of course, but we’ll show them grace) look to the immediately preceding verses as the thesis statement of the letter:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes–to the Jew first as well as the Greek. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faithfulness unto faithfulness, as it is written, “But the Righteous One will live from faithfulness.”

But then, the strange part. Verse 18 begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people…”

“For” (γάρ)? Argumentatively, this should mean that Rom 1:16-17 is dependent on v. 18–the wrath of God revealed from heaven is the grounds for the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.

Most often, the “for” is brushed aside as a non-specific connector.

But I wonder if Rom 3 might not help us here.

In the beginning of Rom 3, Paul is wrestling with the place of Jews in this story of God’s saving actions in Christ. What advantage has the Jew? What is the benefit of circumcision? A chapter that has just leveled the playing field, by claiming that uncircumcised Gentiles might, actually, be the heart-circumcised people of God, Paul revisits the “Jew first” element he highlighted in 1:16.

The contrast he draws is between the faithlessness of Israel and the faithfulness of God. Throughout, Paul is playing with the word “faithfulness” (πίστις, πιστεύω), the same Greek word that he builds on in 1:17: God’s righteousness is revealed from faithfulness unto faithfulness. The contrast here is between God’s faithfulness in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people.

In fact, Paul goes on to say, the righteousness of God (again, compare v. 17–the gospel reveals the righteousness of God from faithfulness) is established by “our”, i.e. Israel’s, unrighteousness.

God’s truth, Paul says, abounds to his glory–precisely through the the untruth of Israel.

The God who will inflict wrath (cf. ch. 2!) is not unrighteous in his judgment.

The point I wish to make in drawing these passages together is that ch. 3 provides us with a similar argument to that which we find so baffling in ch. 1. It is Israel’s unrighteousness (the ultimate point of 1:18-30 as it bleeds into ch. 2 with “Therefore, you are without excuse”) that demonstrates God’s righteousness, Israel’s faithlessness that enables God’s faithfulness, Israel’s lie that enables God’s truth.

In short, I think that when he said, “For” in 1:18, Paul meant it.

Now, of course, the question is how these things are: how is it that Israel’s faithlessness is actually the means for God’s faithfulness, Israel’s unrighteousness the means for God’s righteousness, Israel’s lie the means for God’s truth?

But that’s a question for another day.

God’s Identity and God’s People

Who is God? And how is that question tied to our understanding of who the people of God are?

In the biblical story, these two questions are inseparable. The God of the biblical story is wrapped up in the story of God’s people–by choice. So that the praise of the people on earth is praise of the name of God, while defamation of this people is a defeat for God Himself.

And this is why it is so important that we define our God in narrative terms. God is the God who has acted among this people–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and therefore the God who has made covenant and who has given children to the childless and life to the dead; the God who did not spare God’s own son but delivered him up for us all, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

We know God based on the story in which that God, and not another, is the principal actor.

Barth is dialed into this in the early pages of Church Dogmatics, but it’s a much older approach to getting ourselves straight about God. This assumption about God as the God of a particular story is what gives Paul’s letter to Rome so much of its energy.

There is an apparent tension in the audience of the letter. On the one hand, Paul addresses the readers as believing [former] Gentiles (e.g., ch. 1, ch. 11). But then there are rhetorical moments when he engages with an apparently hostile Jewish interlocutor.

It seems that within his envisioned audience, Gentiles can be presumed to be believers in God’s action in Christ, whereas Jews can be presumed to be hostile to the notion that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises for deliverance.

These are actually related, the latter stemming from the former.

Paul has seen great success in his mission. There are thriving, if dysfunctional, communities popping up all over the Mediterranean. And, these are full of Gentiles and not so much full of Jews.

This is a problem. A real problem. Because the God who has worked in the Christ event is none other than the God who spoke and promised in the scriptures of Israel; more, this event is supposed to be the culmination of God’s faithfulness to that word, to those promises, to this people.

And so when Paul tells the story in 1:18ff. of the world’s degradation, it seems to be the typical Jewish story of the failure of the Gentiles in contrast to the fidelity of the Jews. This is how similar material works in Wisdom of Solomon. But the point is turned on its head, as Paul goes on to say in ch. 2 that to condemn the Gentiles of such acts is also to condemn Jews.

In the end, the Law is an insufficient marker for the people of God. And this means, that if we want to know who God is, we do not look to the Law as the sphere within which God’s rewarding actions are found, to which God has bound Godself to reward or punish.

A different standard is emerging, a different definition of the people of God, a different way to understand how it is that God has fulfilled the promises contained in scripture, a revisionist definition of the seed of Abraham.

Romans is about salvation because it is about God and scripture and how the Christ event creates a new understanding of the people of God. God is faithful only if this Jesus really was raised from the dead, only if this Jesus really is the non-spared Son, and, finally, only if Jews and Gentiles together are the people of God, raising their voices in a unified song of praise.

Hermeneutics of Narrative Transformation

The following is the paper I delivered at SBL entitled, “Toward a Theory of Narrative Transformation: The Importance of Both Contexts in Paul’s Scriptural Citations”. Please note: the footnotes did not come through and I’m not sure how to make them work yet.

This section of our collegial gathering is being devoted to the question of method. And, at the start, I feel compelled to express my sympathy with T. S. Eliot, who famously stated, “there is no method except to be very intelligent.”

But Frank Kermode invites patience here, responding to Eliot as follows, “When Eliot said that the only method was to be very intelligent he was both exaggerating and saying too little. Method, he meant, is secondary, for first there must be divination. Having divined, you must say something by way of explaining or communicating the experience of that bewildering minute, and then method is useful.”

And so it is with our striving after some method for coming to grips with Paul’s use of Israel’s scriptures. We see something. We hear something. We understand something. And then we attempt to frame it up before our reading crashes to the ground, in hopes that someone else might begin to see as we see, hear as we hear, understand as we understand.

What I have seen and heard and understood is this: that Paul’s biblical antecedents tell or participate in narratives, and that in order to understand Paul’s citations we have to come to grips with both the original story being told and the way that this story is transformed when inserted into the context of Paul’s letters. Our attempts to read Paul, in other words, will come up short to the extent that we either (a) neglect the narrative flow within which the cited verse occurs in its original OT context, or (b) allow that OT context to be entirely determinative for what the verse means in Paul.

This paper is an offering toward getting a hold of how we might understand that both/and. The original meaning is crucial, and the original meaning is transformed in light of the Christ event.

Toward that end, I will proceed as follows. First, I will give an example of this both/and from Romans 11:26, where Paul cites Isa 59:20. The point here is to lay out the basics of one moment of divining.

We will move from this into a theoretical model that might help make sense of what we saw in Romans 11. Greimas’ actant theory will help provide methodological, albeit after-the-fact, scaffolding for what I am calling a hermeneutic of narrative transformation.

Finally, we will turn in the last section of the paper to probe the utility of this model as a hermeneutical method by applying it to Paul’s citation of Psalm 68:10 in Romans 15.

To begin, then, Romans 11:26.

I. Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26

Here, I am summarizing from a slightly different angle an argument I have worked out in more detail elsewhere.

This citation is one of the most vexing in the Pauline corpus. And, it is important. Here we are at the culmination of Paul’s climactic argument in Romans 11, in which he articulates his final hope for Israel.

“… a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel shall be saved. Just as it is written, ‘The deliverer will come [or: go] out of Zion, he will turn aside ungodliness from Jacob, and this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’ According to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but according to election, they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:25-28).

Somehow, the verses cited are supposed to show us that “in this way, all Israel will be saved.” Well then, what is this way, and who is this “all Israel” of whom Paul speaks?

We return to Isaiah 59:20 to see if it offers any clues. And immediately we are met with a problem. What Paul cites as, “The rescuer will come from Zion (ἐκ Σιων),” in the LXX of Isaiah reads, “The rescuer will come for the sake of Zion (ἕνεκεν Σιων).”

What are we to make of this shift?

Option A: Parousia
One popular interpretation is represented most recently by Robert Jewett, who sees this as an indication of Jesus’ return to earth from a heavenly Zion at the parousia. This option deals well with the change in preposition (the deliverer comes out of Zion to save Israel because Zion is now distinct from that geographical location).

It is hard to see, however, how such an interpretation does justice to the sentence that Isa 59 is cited to prove. “A partial hardening has happened, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and thus, in this way, all Israel will be saved.”

Option B: All Israel is the Gentile + Jew People of God
Picking up on the importance of the Gentiles, N. T. Wright has offered an alternative explanation. He suggests that the inclusion of the full number of Gentiles means that Israel is being reconstituted as the Jew plus Gentile people of God.

Looking to the scriptural citation, he argues that this is a mixed citation, with ἐκ Σιων pointing us back to Isaiah 2:3. There, the prophet declares that the nations will be drawn to Zion because the law will go forth out of Zion: ἐκ γὰρ Σιων ἐξελεύσεται νόμος καὶ λόγος κυρίου ἐξ Iερουσαλημ.

As we will see shortly, the Gentiles are crucial for making sense of this passage, but Wright’s reading is problematic. First, I find it unlikely that this is a mixed citation. The only clue to the shift is the change in the preposition. Moreover, whereas Paul’s citation reads, ἐκ Σιων, Isaiah 2 reads, ἐκ γὰρ Σιων, which to my mind diminishes the audibility of such an echo.

The other challenge to Wright’s reading is that if it is correct, then Paul has cited a passage about the deliverance of “all Israel” that scandalously reinterprets “Israel” and, in the citation, “Jacob,” as referring to Gentiles.

While this is possible, and there might be evidence for it from elsewhere in Paul’s letters, such a reading cuts against the grain of the argument in ch. 11. As Paul goes on, in verses 28 and following, for example, he continues to keep Israel and the Gentiles distinct. “According to the gospel, they (Israel) are enemies for your (Gentiles’) sake, but according to election, they (Israel) are beloved because of the fathers.”

Such a reading sacrifices what the parousia interpretation has seen more clearly: Paul is, in fact, talking about the salvation of ethnic Israel.

So how are we to take this citation? Here is where we need to step back and take stock of the larger narrative unfolding in Isaiah’s prophecy.

C. Interlude: Isaiah’s Story and Paul’s Problem

Isaiah 59 addresses Israel as they are failing to live in a manner pleasing to God: No, God’s arm is not too short to save, but your iniquities have hidden his face from you (Isa 59:1-2).

So God must come to the place where there is no justice and act to restore justice on his own initiative. God will repay adversaries, requite those who have opposed (Isa 59:15-18). The culmination is YHWH’s arrival in Zion (the deliverer comes, in the LXX, for the sake of Zion, ἕνεκεν Σιων) to bless those who turn from transgression.

It is from here that Isaiah moves to proclaim that in the midst of darkness Israel’s God has shone on it (Isa 60:1ff.) That is a summary of ch. 59. And the result of this glorification, in turn, is that the kings stream to Zion’s light (Isa 60:3).

Thus, the narrative of Isaiah runs from sin to God’s glorification of Zion to the drawing of the nations (and scattered Israel) to the bright and shining city.

This, in fact, outlines the very problem Paul is wrestling with in Romans 11: Israel is unrighteous and in need of deliverance. However, in contrast to the story that Isaiah tells, Paul sees that God is delivering the Gentiles, and that this glorification of the nations will be the means by which God draws in Israel.

D. Option C: Narrative Transformation: From Gentiles to Israel

The story as Paul is experiencing it is precisely backwards from the story Isaiah tells.

We see this clearly in vv. 11-14 of Rom. 11.

Paul writes, salvation comes to the Gentiles to make Israel Jealous (v. 11)
Further, he writes that their transgression leads to Gentile inclusion, which should be magnified when Israel is fully embraced (v. 12)
He claims to magnify his Gentile ministry to provoke Israel to jealousy and save some of them (vv. 13-14).

Throughout this earlier paragraph in ch. 11, Paul prophesies that the means of Israel’s reembrace by God is going to be the ingathering of the Gentiles.

Further, after the paragraph we are most concerned with, Paul makes the same argument:

Because of their disobedience, you Gentiles have now been shown mercy, so also they have been disobedient in the face of your receiving mercy in order that they, too may also be shown mercy.

The narrative Paul tells of his own ministry is one in which glorified Gentiles lead to the salvation of ethnic Israel rather than vice versa.

Returning to his citation of Isaiah 59:20, then, we find, first, that it is supposed to be supporting this very same narrative: “A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved.” How will Israel be saved? Through the glorification of the Gentiles. As it is written, “The deliverer will go forth out of Zion, he will turn aside impiety from Jacob.”

The slight shift of the preposition from ἕνεκεν to ἐκ transforms Isaiah from a problem into the prophet of his own ministry. The deliverer does not come for Zion’s sake, and then draw the nations to a glorified Israel as Isaiah would have it. The deliverer goes forth out of Zion to the Gentiles, and then Jacob will have its time of purification.

Paul’s is a hermeneutic of narrative transformation. The larger story from that portion of Isaiah is crucial for understanding what is going on, but it is not determinative for Paul’s usage. The current reality, being experienced in the wake of the Christ event, transforms Isaiah’s narrative in light of what is happening in Paul’s work and in his churches.

And to this extent, the hermeneutic on offer here is in keeping with the broad outlines proposed by Frances Watson when he says that “Paul’s rereading of scripture is determined by his single apostolic preoccupation with the Christ-event, which must be interpreted through the lens of the scriptural witness.” There is a circular process involved, in which the OT narrative gives shape to what Paul says about Christ, but the Christ-even also causes a significantly transformed rereading of the OT text.

Thus far, the divining. Can we cast some methodological mold from this that will enable us to recreate such readings elsewhere?

II. (One Possible) Narrative Theory: A. J. Greimas’ Actantial Model

Greimas outlines three general phases, but they can be multiplied to account for a more complex narrative.

a. Initial Sequence
First is more of a statement of intention, an expected “story” that does not actually materialize and thus causes the drama. Here is what we might say for Isaiah 59-60:

God wants to use Israel to send his shining glory to the nations.

b. Topical Sequence
In the second step, the drama of the story unfolds, bringing the transformation needed to enable the story to resolve. Often, this will involve the sender bringing about some transformation in the protagonist so that the protagonist can accomplish its mission:

God becomes the deliverer in order to purify Zion

c. Final Sequence
In the third step, we should have, largely, a repetition of the first, since the hindrances to the original storyline have now been overcome. In fact, I would suggest that at times we only know the “initial sequence” once we see the “final sequence”—it’s only at the end that we know what the point was for the story as a whole.

In Isaiah 59-60, since God has purified Israel, it is now capable of fulfilling its original mission:

God brings all people into his glory

These diagrams can perhaps help us register afresh the shock of the claims Paul is making, and indeed why the entirety of Romans is given to a defense of God precisely as the God of Israel who has spoken through the scriptures, despite what is unfolding in and around Paul’s ministry.

Paul is experiencing a topical sequence that does not bring about the glorification of Israel through the deliverer, but instead, the glorification of the Gentiles through his mission:

And the final sequence he anticipates is not that God will glorify the nations through the glorification of Israel, but that Israel will be glorified by the inclusion of the Gentiles:

Paul’s revision of Isaiah 59:20, then, transforms the verse’s narrative by recasting both Israel and the Gentiles, and, perhaps, by casting Paul’s own mission in the role of the deliverer, or, at least, in the role of “helper”:

This is what I describe as Paul’s hermeneutic of narrative transformation. By changing the preposition Paul has changed the story. Now, the deliverer comes not for sake of Zion, unto the in-gathering of the nations, but goes out from Zion, unto the eventual rescue of Israel.

First, there is a transformation. Key roles are reassigned such that, in the end, even the subject is being played by the original recipient of deliverance—and vice versa.

Paul does not cite the verse in keeping with its original context. And, in case you are wondering, yes there are NT scholars who think that the NT writers, including Paul, cite the OT in keeping with its grammatical-historical interpretation, or a “canonical contextual” approach that uses the whole Bible as the “context” so as to avoid the conclusion that the text has been significantly reinterpreted. Our analysis indicates that such an assessment is unlikely to be sustainable.

Second, even if Paul is talking about God’s act as deliverer to save Israel, such that the parousia is in view, he is no longer telling the same story. In this case, the larger narrative flow of Isaiah has been abandoned altogether. If this is the story of the parousia, then the purpose of the coming deliverer is to purify Israel as the final step to create God’s people, not as the topical sequence by which Israel will itself fulfill the role of drawing all the nations to God.

Third, however, the narrative is important. It lays out the terms by which we can understand the role of the new actor. In this case, it seems that Israel’s role in being God’s means of salvation for the other is being played, throughout Romans 11, by the Gentiles.

Once such a surprising reversal of roles becomes evident, it mitigates the likelihood that the citation in Romans 11:25-26 is, as Wright claims, a polemical redefinition of Israel. Wright has correctly keyed into the fact that Israel’s role is being played by the Gentiles.

However, the way that “all Israel is saved,” tied as it is to the entry of the full number of Gentiles, is not that “all Israel” comes to mean Jews and Gentiles, but that Gentiles now play the role of the helper by whom Israel is drawn into God’s glory. The deliverer goes forth out of Zion first, and then turns to remove ungodliness from Jacob.

In Paul’s hermeneutic of narrative transformation, the Christ event, including his own work as an apostle to encompass the nations within it, causes him to reread the OT stories from which he draws his scriptural citations.

What does such a description of Paul’s hermeneutic get us? On the positive side of the ledger, it can tell us for sure that the narrative structures within which his citations are found are important but not determinative. In particular, roles are recast, and surprises occur at the level of who is serving as a helper and who is serving as an opponent in bringing the story to its conclusion.

Further, it helps us spot certain dead-ends, OT storylines that do not come to their anticipated resolution. We might think, for example, of those alternate possibilities in Second and Third Isaiah, where the Gentiles are subjected to Israel as servants or destroyed.

Also, as we have seen here, plotting the narrative sequence of the citation as it occurs in Paul’s letter can help guide us in discovering an interpretation of the OT text that had not previously been explored and that makes a great deal of sense in the context.

Its limitation, of course, is that it can never be entirely prescriptive. While recognizing narrative transformation might provide us with some new parameters and matrices to aid in the continuing struggle to make sense of Paul’s relationship with the OT in general and, perhaps, the Law in particular, affirming a hermeneutic of narrative transformation points us to a particular playing field without necessarily telling us beforehand how the game will unfold.

Nonetheless, it does hold promise for opening our eyes to interpretive possibilities we might have missed. We turn now to Romans 15 to assess one such possibility.

3. Romans 15:1-3

Romans 15:1-3 reads as follows, with a citation of Psalm 68:10 coming at the end:

    We, the strong ones, have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and to not please ourselves. Each one of us strong ones should please our neighbor for good, unto our neighbor’s edification. For even Christ did not please himself, but just as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell upon me.”

On the one hand, this passage is simple.

Paul commands the strong to bear the weakness of the other (v. 1):

This, he says, is an imitation of Jesus who bore reproach on behalf of another, quoting Psalm 68 (Rom 15:3):

Thus, to imitate Jesus, as the OT envisions Jesus’ work, is to play the role of insult-bearer. Christians are called to do what Jesus did, to take his part in the story. And, as they do, they can hope for the new life that Jesus himself was given.

Associating Jesus with the speaker of this psalm, and those who reject or persecute him with the psalmist’s enemies, is standard fare.
The first part of the verse in question is cited by John immediately after the temple clearing incident. The disciples remember that it’s written, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” Perhaps more to the point,
Paul in Romans 11 associates the opponents in this Davidic Psalm with unbelieving Israel of his own day: “Let their table be a snare for them, let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever” (Psalm 68.22-23, LXX).

But the reading I’ve just given, in which we hear the words of this psalm in the mouth of Jesus, and then holding him up for imitation, is problematized when we examine the context of the verse in the psalm. And perhaps here we can begin to see the need for some methodological direction.

In the psalm, the expectation is that God is going to rescue the Davidic king from all his tribulations so that the king can fulfill his charge to be God’s instrument by which Zion will be saved, and the cities of Judah rebuilt.

God is supposed to be the helper who enables the king to fulfill this task. Thus the initial and final sequence should looks something like this:

But in this intermediate stage of the story, what we find instead is that the king is absorbing the insults directed to God Thus, the Psalmist suggests that he is living out a counter-narrative, a story in which God’s enemies occupy the powerful place of sender, victimizing God Himself through the agency of the king:

In this story, what needs to change in order for the intended plot to find its resolution is not for the king to become the pious person he is supposed to be, but for YHWH to change into the kind of sender who provides the help needed to bring his own story to its intended culmination.

This is a daring move of adopting the interpretive grid of the king’s opponents in an effort to move God to act on the king’s behalf.

The narrative that Paul cites is not one in which God has sent a deliverer to bear the scorn of the people, a la Isaiah 53, it is one in which the deliverer bears the reproach flung upon God himself as God’s people act in faithfulness.

This raises the question, then: what does Paul mean by assigning to Jesus a psalm in which the speaker bears the reproach directed at the other who is not a human, but God? And what does he mean by holding this up as the standard for the Romans’ communal practice?

One common option is to recognize the referent in the psalm but to maintain that Paul still intends to hold up Jesus as a model for being a faithful protagonist sent by God to bear the reproach directed at one’s Christian siblings. This is essentially the route taken by Douglas Moo and Frank Matera.

Thus, to bear the weaknesses of the weak is to imitate Jesus in bearing the reproaches of God. God has created this people, God has put God’s name on it. How the community treats one another, especially in the matter of both Jews and Gentiles accepting the other as co-equal members of the family, is indicative of their participation in the scorn heaped on the God of the Christ event.

Generally, we might say, to be baptized into Christ is not only to be made into a little Christ, bearing his image and recapitulating his redemptive suffering, it is also to therefore bear the name of God the father. Thus, to look in the eyes of a brother or sister is to behold the God who has adopted him or her into God’s family.

A general call may be in place here to continue in faithful allegiance to siblings even when our faithfulness to them is the cause of both their and our reproach.

It seems that Paul has rewritten the narrative of the psalm by recasting its roles: in a striking turn, not only do Christians occupy the place of Christ as his fellow sufferers. Members of the community also occupy the place of YHWH, bearing his name and manifesting here on earth the contempt of the Father who has adopted them into His family.

Another track, however, is suggested by James Dunn.

To say that the crucifixion is the reproach Jesus bore is not yet to say whether it is, as the passage is most often read, the reproach that should have fallen on people, or the reproach that Jesus bore for acting in the name of God.

Dunn suggests, if tentatively, that the reproaches arising from traditionalist Jews against the Christian movement’s claim that the God of Jews and Gentiles has accepted all on the basis of faith, is a reproach against the name of God itself.

In the specific argument of Romans we might press further and suggest that the direct address to the Gentile “strong” continues here. Might the hints throughout the letter that the Gentiles are developing a superiority complex be in play here, as well? If we assign the roles of the Psalm with that idea in mind we discover this:

The final admonition to accept one another calls the Gentile believers in Rome to realize, one final time, that God has bound himself inseparably to ethnic Israel. Those who cling to this identity, even to being “weak in faith” so as to avoid certain foods and to observe certain days, are also those upon whom God has placed God’s name.

The running issue of the letter, as it defends the name of God in the light of Gentile acceptance of the Messiah sent by Abraham’s God, comes together here as Paul not only invites his non-Torah-observant readers to honor those who keep the Law, but to see such Law-keepers as uniquely aligned with God in the drama of salvation.

The Topical Sequence as told in Psalm 68:10 is a provocative false-telling of the story of God’s messiah. It is an intervening counter-story that would derail the story as we learn of its initial and final sequence from elsewhere, that God is going to bring salvation to Zion by means of the king.

The pleas of the psalm are meant to get help from God, the sender, to deliver the king. The true topical sequence, then, is something like this:

With God himself intervening to deliver the king, the king in turn can bring about the salvation of Zion for which God appointed him. In fact, these two things will come about together, as the deliverance of the king will entail the deliverance of Zion.

In Romans, a parallel applies, with God delivering Jesus from death at the resurrection:

And this, in turn, is the means by which God brings deliverance (again, not to Zion itself, but) to the nations:

Here we can once again apply our hermeneutic of narrative transformation to explore other possible ramifications for the Gentiles’ being associated with Jesus in this story.

For the gentiles, then, to be willing to play the role of the maligned Christ in the false counter-narrative, is to act in faith that God will bring them the same deliverance already brought about for Christ.

And this, in turn, will make them partners in bringing about the salvation, hope, and unity that God has in store for Israel and the Gentiles together:

So when we get to verse 4 and read, “Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope,” we must not separate this from the Christological conditioning given in the previous verses, by which the scripture becomes ammenable as a source of hope; we must not separate it from the subsequent prayer that the God who gives perseverance and encouragement makes the people single-minded, so that with one accord and one voice they may glorify God the father.

The unity they express when the Gentiles are willing to take on the scorn heaped upon their Jewish brothers and sisters plays the same role in the story as the death of Christ in not only bearing the scorn of God but also bearing fruit in one unified people praising God, which is the ultimate “final sequence” as Paul tells it.

This being Christ for one another as Christ was for God, confirming the promises of God given to the fathers, and becoming Gentiles who glorify God with God’s people, is the vision with which the letter comes to its final climactic moment: the Gentiles come to hope in the resurrected root of Jesse—and in this God grants ultimate hope to all people.

Bringing our hermeneutic of narrative transformation with us, we have opened up a suggestive window through which to see an added depth of theological possibility. Although a psalm is not a narrative, and for that matter neither is Paul’s letter to Rome, both depend on narrative dynamics to make their points. And, it is in transforming the narratives that Paul’s audience is drawn into the story and encouraged to understand the work of God in light of the Christ event.

In both examples, the clearest implication has to do with what the OT citation is not: it is not a simple reiteration of the meaning of the verse from its original context.

However, the OT narrative structure provides a story that illuminates the NT passage and has the power to transform it—but that power works both ways. The NT passage is not constrained by the meaning of the Old, but is transformed by it. And the OT passage is transformed in its new context as well.

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.