Scot McKnight’s Brilliant Insight

Scot McKnight’s Brilliant Insight

This summer, I’ve dipped back into Paul’s epistle to the Romans, something I come back to time and time again. I’m trying to work through at least the passages that make the major argument in Douglas A. Campbell’s immense study, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. But as I read it, I find the same hesitation that always seems to rise up in my spirit when I study most Romans commentaries.

Starting with chapter 1 and reading through Romans from the beginning is daunting. One is almost immediately immersed in the specialized terms and complex arguments that have formed the basis of so much dogmatic theology over the course of church history. One gets the impression when trying to tackle Romans that you are reading an academic tome, preparing for a master’s level exam. And frankly, it can soon exhaust the reader.

Now along comes Scot McKnight and his new book, suggesting there might be a different way of reading Romans, a way which might shed light on why Paul made all those arguments in the first place.

Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).

Reading Romans Backwards, p. ix

One of the great insights I gained in seminary (and Scot was a NT teacher there at the time) was the pastoral nature of the New Testament. My previous experience with the Bible had by and large skipped over the incidental portions of the NT letters, seeing them as generally extraneous to the “meat” of the text. Likewise, we were always taught that the imperatives of the letters always grew out of the indicatives. The application for our lives followed the doctrine. The most important thing in studying the NT epistles was to get the teaching right, and the life lessons would grow naturally out of that.

But what if that’s not always the way it works? Scot suggests that an important key to understanding Romans just might be to see the situation in life that the Roman churches were dealing with in the application and incidental sections of the epistle (chapters 12-16). Then the reader can go back and see how Paul’s arguments give answers for those settings and circumstances.

For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1-8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain. One would think the listeners were theological savants geared up for the latest theory of atonement or soteriology or salvation-history.

…Romans is about theology, but it isn’t mere theology — it isn’t abstract theology. Romans advocates for a via vitae, both for the individual and for the community of faith in Rome.

…I have chosen to read Romans backwards in order to demonstrate that this letter is a pastoral theology…

• pp. x, xiv

23 thoughts on “Scot McKnight’s Brilliant Insight

  1. Pastoral is a subcategory of personal. In this, Paul was like his Lord — he put the concrete personal needs of people, his people, above abstract theology, and he strove to put the relational above the systematic. That he wasn’t always successful is a function of having been human.


  2. we had this kind of thing going on in my writing classes, only we made use of the auditory realm

    I would get the kids to let someone else read what they had written back to them so they could hear what they had written

    when this happened and they HEARD what they had written spoken out loud back to them, they would say ‘hey, wait a minute, that’s not what I meant to say . . . . I want to change that!

    this was an effective writing process technique to give a new perspective on their own writing . . . . it really helped them so they could edit their work effectively, and it was social interaction and fun for them


  3. thing is, the kind people don’t see themselves as ‘God’s Speshul Pets’; they are more inclined to see themselves as one of the sinners

    humility allows people to be kind


  4. With all due respect to Scott McKnight, I appropriate whatever spiritual ballast I can from the Bible, whether the writers meant if for me or not. Creative reinterpretation is necessary for those who are desperate for a lifeline of some kind, and I number myself among the desperate. The thing to remember when doing or accepting such reinterpretation is that it is reinterpretation, and that the next guy is entitled to spin the text for his own needs as well, as long as he doesn’t then go on to insist that his spin is the only one permissible. I learn what I can from the current crop of scholars and historians, but I respect the right of God to break any rules she wants, scholarly ones included


  5. This is how a lawyer constructs a persuasive argument. Present the opposing argument, then point out the flaws in it and invalidate the argument. Paul was trained as a Rabbi under Gamaliel (who in turn trained under Hillel); such training would have included legal training. I have read several comments on the subject by lawyers on various blogs — Paul is speaking as a trained and experienced lawyer constructing his case and refuting his opponent.

    And I understand the introduction to his argument (the infamous Romans 1, itself more than the Gawd H&s Fags verse) fits the genre of Jewish didactic narrative. The expected ending would be a summary statement along the lines of “For these are the things which the goyim do”. Instead, the Rabbi from Tarsus puts in a twist ending like that Rabbi from Nazareth did with the Prodigal Son.

    Of course, this assumes the Rabbi from Tarsus wrote the epistle himself. I’ve heard a theory that Aquila & Priscilla (central couple of the Roman church of the time) did a lot of the epistle, or were at least heavily involved in it.


  6. Reading the book backwards DOES force a new perspective on the narrative.

    In visual arts, one way to find flaws in an otherwise-perfect piece is to turn it upside-down and look at it that way. The different perspective shows up things the default upright one didn’t.

    In Judaism, often a single passage or chapter has several commentaries by different Rabbis throughout history, many of which do not agree with each other. Yet all are given, since each Rabbi viewed the passage from a different perspective and noticed different things in it. The Truth of the whole cannot be viewed from one point by one individual.


  7. If not, you can get TOO abstract, where it all becomes just a game for an intellectual salon.

    Until you can look at a total-kill Armageddon and your only reaction is “Only a seven-point-one-four-three Gigadeath Situation. Insignificant.”


  8. And most of us are NOT that strong.

    God’s Special Pets look down from on high and go “Tsk. Tsk.”


  9. The most convincing explanation I have come across for Romans 1:18-32 is that those in verse 18 referred to has “suppressing the truth” are Jews, not pagans, and what Paul is referring to is Jewish Christians concealing from pagans that all the sins gentile Christians have in the past committed the people of Israel had in the past done too, including immorality, abandoning God for Egyptian and then Canaanite animal deities etc (the writer pointed out that actually Roman gods were not animal god’s at all, making it an odd at Roman pagans), and that is what vv 19-32 are actually about. Has anyone else seen this argument put foward?


  10. It would fit into a pattern Paul uses in other letters (I and II Corinthians for instance) where he quotes an opponent before tearing them to shreds.


  11. Mike,

    Since you’ve been reading Campbell, I’m curious if you have a take on his argument about ‘Prosopopoeia’ — that Paul is actually writing in the voice of a false teacher in Romans 1:18-32, and then spends the next few chapters debunking that argumentation.

    It’s a fascinating concept. I just haven’t heard anyone other than Campbell argue for it (or directly against it). I’m wondering what kind of pastoral implications it might have. Does McKnight get into it in his new book?


  12. only the strongest people who are blessed with the fruit of the Holy Spirit will have the patience and the humility to accomplish kindness to all, and respect for the human dignity of those who are ‘different’ from ourselves


  13. some say it would be wise for Christian people to read the entire Bible from back to front beginning with the Book of Revelation

    the reasoning: to understand Who God is through the light of Christ


  14. I, too, have been waiting for this book to be available, anything that can make Romans less daunting is welcome in my book. Even in the seminary, the social context of Paul’s writing in undervalued, being considered as “pastoral problems”, not worthy to take the time to study, as they don’t add value to the theology. Seems as if the book is not yet available in the Kindle format, which I am starting to prefer when it comes to heavy reading like this.


  15. “Scot suggests that an important key to understanding Romans just might be to see the situation in life that the Roman churches were dealing with in the application and incidental sections of the epistle (chapters 12-16). Then the reader can go back and see how Paul’s arguments give answers for those settings and circumstances.”

    What?!? Look at *context* before theological abstracts? You heretics. 😉


  16. “10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

    “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
    ‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”[b]

    12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

    13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. ”



  17. You can’t read Chapter 12 and then turn around and be a part of the internet mob.


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