Thursday, June 18, 2009

Questions on Romans 1:16-17

Our small group at New Song Church (EFCA) has begun studying the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. After reading the book some 20 times, I figured I had a pretty good understanding of what it was about. But reading some differing perspectives on the overall theme and argument of Romans always challenges me to go back to Word itself.

Perhaps the best "thesis statement" in Romans is 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.' " (ESV)

If you have insight into a few questions, that would be great!

(1) Is "the power of God for salvation" the effect of the gospel message or the content of the gospel message?

If it is the effect, this would mean that as the gospel is preached, God's Spirit works to create faith in the message. It's God's powerful, mighty Word through which he brings life. (See 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5.)

If it is the content of the gospel, then the gospel is about the power which God has exerted in Christ upon the cross to justify sinners and break the power of sin and in the resurrection-defeat of death and decay. (See Romans 1:4; Ephesians 1:19 ff.; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 2:12.)

(2) How are we to understand "the righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel? Does it mean "the righteousness God bestows" or "God's own righteousness"?

If it means "the righteousness God bestows" or "a righteousness from God" (NIV), then the gospel reveals that, in the face of unrighteous mankind's dire need in the face of God's wrath (1:18), God has provided a justifying righteousness for us. The argument stretching from 1:18 to 3:20 seems to point in this direction, especially since the Greek links 1:18 to 1:16-17: "For (gar) the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men."

If it means "God's own righteousness," then the gospel is about how God turns out to be and faithful and just. One question put forth in Romans is whether or not God would punish sin and, if he did, how he could still bring his promised life and salvation to a universally sinful world. The answer is the propitiating work of Christ which "shows God's righteousness" (3:21-26). He upholds both his justice in punishing transgression as well as having devised a way to justify (vindicate or declare righteous) sinful people so that they could inherit eternal life. God's faithfulness is also "on trial" in Romans, since the very people to whom he promised salvation, the Jews, are rejecting the Savior (3:3-4; chapters 9-11). If God promised the Jews salvation and yet they're not actually entering into his kingdom, is God impotent and/or a liar?

I suppose it's possible that these ambiguous phrases contain both meanings simultaneously, though that seems to contradict general theories about how language works. Are either of these examples of double entendre? Any helpful thoughts?


Ted M. Gossard said...

I think Douglas Moo in his commentaries on Romans is helpful here. I also think N.T. Wright has some helpful thoughts on this.

I can't remember precisely where I saw four different possibilities of meaning as to "the righteousness of God" laid out. Agreeing with Moo at this point, I'd take it to mean the righteousness that God does himself in his saving activity, as this is over and over the meaning from the Old Testament in the psalms and the prophets, and Paul's words echo that I think when he says,

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify." Romans 3:21

This is where I think we need to get into the Greek NT and keep studying "the righteousness of God" in other places, because I think our more interpretative translations, like the NIV and even the TNIV, too often color it one way or another, and if there's sufficient differences among us, I think the best way to translate a passage is to leave it open to either- probably easier said than done. (an aside here, but am quite interested in translating Scripture).

As to the gospel being the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, I take it that it is a living power by the Spirit, the message that is, and as such ends up being the power of God for people's salvation.

Ryan P.T. said...

I assume you make posts like this just for me! I've thought long and hard about these verses; they have a sentimental importance in the Lutheran tradition because they're tied to Luther's "tower experience." As it happens, I lean more toward an interpretation that doesn't exactly comport with that which set Luther off, but his revelation was, thank God, correct (that is, God's not mad at you).

If you're able, you'll want to consult Wright's book What Saint Paul Really Said, around page 100. There's a helpful diagram and explanation of what's at stake.

(1) As you put it, I lean toward effect rather than content: the Gospel is the catalyzing force for the salvation of the cosmos. Or, in Lutheran terms, it is God's means of pouring forth his grace. Paul isn't ashamed of the Gospel because it efficacious without respect to the preacher (cf. Phil 1v18).

(2) Didn't you throw your NIV in the trash a long time ago? It's way too Protestant--especially with Paul.

I have come to embrace the NPP reading of Romans--and so the subjective genitive of dikaiosune theou--that it is essentially a letter of theodicy. God is on trial; has he been faithful to the Abrahamic (and Davidic) covenant, or not? The answer is that his own righteousness (=covenant faithfulness) has been revealed in the sight of the nations through Jesus' resurrection (cf. Ps 98). Individuals are justified (declared righteous) inasmuch as they are "in Christ," a status inherited through baptism and appropriated through faith.

"I suppose it's possible that these ambiguous phrases contain both meanings simultaneously, though that seems to contradict general theories about how language works."

Which "general theories" do you speak of? Ambiguity is all over the NT--look at John in particular. Polyvalence preaches, bro!


p.s. I wish half of my seminary brothers thought as deeply about these questions as you do.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Hey, Ryan,
Good summary.

I wonder if you have had the opportunity to read through N.T. Wright's commentary on Romans, and for that matter, his new book on justification. Does sound like you're up on him much better than I. Been years now since I've read "What Saint Paul Really Said."

I can see how you would say effect, as "in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed," that it is, his saving power. The means. But the message tells us exactly what God did in Christ. The good news itself is the content or truth and reality of what God did in Christ.

I may not be thinking well, but I wonder if it isn't both content and effect. That it is Trinitarian in its power: Christ from the Father by the Spirit.

Your comment, P.T., does make me appreciate your post, Andrew, all the more! It can take you younger folks to wake up us tired older folks, at times!

Halfmom said...

As you know, I would agree with your summary statement as the verses are favorites of mine. Umh - but my mind is simple compared with your and Ryan, so I vote for the answers to 1) and 2) being "both".

And Ryan - as his mother-in-law, I will be surprised if I don't see him join your ranks one day in a seminary somewhere.

Ted M. Gossard said...

It's really not that hard, Halfmom. You just have to take the time and do the reading, and keep thinking/studying.

At the same time I really appreciate young, energetic minds that will keep working at better understandings of Scripture with reference to its whole, and with reference to the historical context. Especially with reference to certain themes that seem to play throughout, readily apparent to Jewish ears, such as the Exodus. And understanding the Abrahamic Covenant as key, within which we understand Torah (the Law), etc.

What has been uncovered in the past 50 or more years has really helped us see that Calvin was more right than Luther (though Luther had a point), and how the New Testament is essentially written from a Jewish perspective.

I'm trying to get in shape and get running again in this, but I have to admit, it isn't easy when no one here that I'm in contact with (some are, but we don't get to meet often), are that interested (Deb listens mainly to learn). But 'tis a good endeavor.

And yes- to the notion of Andrew being in seminary!!! I think the average seminarian, maybe it's median age, is in their 30's- true at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary- I heard.

Ted M. Gossard said...

It does sound like I'm trying to dictate what comes to those who are younger and able to work on it much longer, in coming up with this and that which is fresh in understanding God's word (and story/meta-narrative).

I'm first and foremost a learner, for sure!

Ted M. Gossard said...
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Ted M. Gossard said...

I'm actually in part echoing what N.T. Wright is saying in this book on Paul I'm just starting, and though it's supposed to be more for scholars, it's eminently readable, as are all of his books. I.e., about keeping up with the younger, energetic, etc. But I completely concur with him on that insofar as that's possible!

Andrew said...

"It's really not that hard, Halfmom. You just have to take the time and do the reading, and keep thinking/studying" (Ted).

Well, on one hand I would say, Yes, keep on reading Romans carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully, etc. But Romans is one of the most difficult books of the NT. It is a lengthy letter in which Paul uses several somewhat ambiguous terms with often interchangeable meanings (e.g., "law" as the universal moral law, Sinaitic covenant, whole OT, or principle). So Susan, if you get discouraged or stuck trying to figure it out, it's not because you have a "simple" mind incapable of it.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, I agree with what you say on Romans, Andrew. It is challenging, and stretching.

But to enter in and be part of the discussion and start grappling with it is not that hard, though it takes work and time.

That was my point to Susan.

Certainly not N.T. Wright nor anyone else is going to nail down the book of Romans entirely, but we can make some headway, I believe, in better understanding it.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I'm afraid I may have come across as a bit rambunctious in my last comment. Don't mean or want to do that.

In a room together it is easier to gauge the mood and spirit of a conversation. I want to work on making sure there could be no possible misunderstanding in this venue. And correct myself where I am off. :)


Halfmom said...

"Paul isn't ashamed of the Gospel because it efficacious without respect to the preacher (cf. Phil 1v18).</i"

Thank God for that Ryan!

Ted M. Gossard said...

Just a little pushback on that, Susan.

2 Corinthians points out that the gospel is not only to be proclaimed but lived out. Indeed, Christ's very death and LIFE lived out in Paul and his associates. And those seeing and hearing this gospel from them by the Spirit becoming living letters to the world.

Ted M. Gossard said...

...which doesn't nullify that the gospel is God's power regardless of who preaches it, so Ryan's point is still good, as we see in Philippians, etc.

Ted M. Gossard said...
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Ted M. Gossard said...

This is probably reading into your words, Susan, and for that I'm sorry. :)

Just making a point, actually from my reading of N.T. Wright's new book on justification (though in my own words), it making sense to me.

I do wonder sometimes at whether the emphasis I seem to pick up from some in the Calvinist tradition, of our badness, present in us Christians is balanced according to Scripture's teaching of how we are new in Christ, and what goes with that.

Ted M. Gossard said...

"from some in the Calvinist tradition"

True, from my perspective and understanding, though John Calvin himself did have a good robust teaching on the believer's sanctification in this life, so I wouldn't think it would apply to him.

True of some influenced by Luther.

So I should probably say, "from some in the Reformed tradition."