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