Paul’s polemic in Romans 1-4 with the Judge/Weak arises only because the Weak believe the path to moral transformation for the Strong can be achieved only by adopting and observing the Torah. Romans 1-8 occur then in two blocks: the argument against Torah observance as the path to moral transformation, and an argument in favor of union with Christ and Spirit-indwelling as the true path to moral transformation.
• Reading Romans Backwards, p. 106
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Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (1)
Reading Romans “backwards” sheds a different light on its beginning. If Romans is a universal theological outline of salvation, then chapters 1-4 might look something like this — as indeed they do in common traditional interpretations:
- 1:1-16. Introduction with thesis statement: the power of the gospel to save everyone
- 1:18-3:20. The whole world guilty before God
- 1:18-32. The Gentiles guilty before God
- 2:1-3:8. The Jews guilty before God
- 3:9-20. The whole world guilty before God
- 3:21-29. The whole world saved the same way — in Christ by grace through faith
- 4:1-25. Examples of how faith, and not works, saves
One more way of saying this is that he presents bad news (1:18-3:20), the good news (3:21-26), and how to get it (3:27-4:25). This standard reading has a clear agenda: it universalizes the soteriology of Paul. It also removes the message from the social context sketched in Romans 12-16.
What Paul has in mind in Romans 2 might not be as clear as the universalizing approach thinks, but reading Romans backwards sheds light on the sweep from Romans 1:18 through the end of chapter 4. In fact, our approach leads to a more rhetorical reading of Romans 1-4 that unlocks the door to reading the whole of Romans more pastorally. (p. 101)
So, how does Scot McKnight understand these first chapters of Romans?
First, Romans 1:18-32 is not a universal condemnation of sinfulness. Rather, the text shows every evidence of being a stereotypical Jewish prophetic condemnation of the most notorious sins of the Gentiles. As other commentators have noted, the language here is strikingly similar to Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 and its condemnation of immoral pagan idolaters. This is not an indictment of all Gentiles, or of all humanity, but of the worst excesses of pagan Gentile nations. Note that in 2:7-11, Paul can speak of other Gentiles who have taken a much different path.
Second, the rhetorical bombshell that goes off at the beginning of chapter 2 indicates that Paul included the previous condemnation as a way of turning the tables on a person who does, in fact, condemn the pagan world in such terms. In chapter 2 Paul does not speak to the Jews in general, but to a certain Jewish “Judge” who dismisses Gentiles simply as immoral pagan idolators. This “Judge” claims the privilege of having been elected by God and he believes that good standing with God means a life of keeping Torah.
This “Judge” represents the “Weak,” whom Paul addresses pastorally later in the epistle. (see this PREVIOUS POST.)
In other words, Paul cites a stereotypical Jewish condemnation of pagan idolatry and immorality NOT in order to prove the point that Gentiles as a whole are guilty before God, but rather to set up an argument with the Weak in Rome, who are condemning (primarily) Gentile believers because they do not practice Torah or think they need to do so. Without Torah observance, the Weak say, people will inevitably take the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.
Throughout chapter 2, Paul undercuts these condemning attitudes of the Weak as personified in this “Judge.”
- He suggests that the Judge is hypocritical, just as sinful as the Gentiles he condemns (2:1-5).
- He teaches that God is a truly impartial judge and that the goal is not having the Torah, but living in the ways that the Torah commends, something you can see, by the way, in both Jewish and Gentile people (2:6-16).
- He even goes so far as to relativize the Jewish covenant sign of circumcision, the rite of all rites that separated Jews from Gentiles. Once again, Paul states that having the outward rite is of little value if it is not matched by inner integrity (2:17-29).
This is the beginning of Paul’s argument.
He is not interested primarily in building a case that both Gentiles and Jews are guilty before God in order to provide a universal teaching about how both may be “saved.”
His main concern involves theologically dismantling the conflict between the Weak and the Strong in the Roman churches.