Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (1)

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

• • •

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.

13 thoughts on “Romans 1-4: An Argument with the Weak (1)

  1. More to Chaplain Mikes point, what this means is that salvation and becoming a Christian is much more focused on trusting Jesus is King then believing Jesus died for your sins. Romans brings this up because Paul is trying to show how Jews and Gentiles are the same because the weak and strong there are having issues. So I think this book just enhances the idea that Jesus is King is the true Goapel and weird ideologies about the Romans road and verbally confessing your sins as a magical way to get saved are just plain wrong


  2. If it’s not too late, Burro do you think there are really multiple points of view on every issue?


  3. Eeyore, the reason it cannot be “both” (in terms of THIS post) is that I did not frame it as an either/or. I tried here (following Scot) to identify Paul’s “primary interest” and his “main concern.”

    Of course, Romans 1-4 (and other chapters) contain a lot of teaching about salvation. But Scot’s point and mine is that this theological information was not PRIMARILY given to the Romans as a doctrinal treatise on salvation, which has been a common traditional view. Romans is FIRST OF ALL a pastoral letter, and as such, is designed to address concerns within the communities addressed. Many, including myself over the years, have treated Romans as “Paul’s systematic theology,” and that has caused us to miss its pastoral intent and focus.

    The other problem with trying to have it “both” ways is that when it is read and understood as a theological treatise, it can lead to misinterpretation. The outline given at the beginning of the post displays some of the misunderstandings that can arise — 1:18-32 is not about “all Gentiles” and 2:1ff is not about “all Jews.” Such an approach misses all the nuances of Paul’s argument.


  4. Even if “the Judge” is not a particular person but rather anyone who sanctimoniously judges, the point holds. The principle of interpretation that invites us to look at a whole book, trying to discern its message, before we do anything else (clip out verses to prove any point) also still holds. Scot always does careful work.

    [This is a better, more complete synopsis, Chaplain Mike. It’s good you took down the other post.]



  5. This emphasis on ‘differences’ was never meant to be celebrated in Judaism when it led to divisions, no.

    A story:

    “Is a story about ‘the coming of the light’ in Judaism that is meaningful to all people who struggle to ‘recognize’ the humanity of EVERY person they have encountered, this:

    “A rabbi once asked his students:
    “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

    The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. So, it is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and day has begun.

    So the first and brightest of the students offered an answer:
    “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
    A second student offered his answer:
    “Rabbi, when I look from the fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
    A third student offered another answer:
    “Rabbi, when I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
    Then a fourth student offered yet another answer:
    “Rabbi, when I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red or yellow or blue, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.”

    Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face. Until finally he shouted,

    “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do–dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for?
    No, my dear students, it’s not that way, not that way at all.”

    The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi.
    “Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”

    The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded:
    “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”

    Hastening that heavenly day is the moral work of our generation.”


  6. That’s great to hear, Randy! I was quite…um…upset when I saw that your post and my reply had gone bye-bye. I thought your questions were quite valid and important to have addressed.


  7. To Rick. Ro , I wanted you to know I read your reply to my post yesterday on this article before it was taken down by the Chaplin. I thank you for your answer and I appreciate you sharing your perspective. Your reply was helpful and it did give me some context I was not aware of . Thanks for taking the time.


  8. LOL. That was a good one.

    Hey, Mule… per your recent recommendation I’ve begun “Little, Big” again, hoping to get through it this time. I’ll let ya know how I do. Liking it much better this go-round. Probably one of those books that you need to be in a certain mood for, maybe…


  9. “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.”

    Of course, some folks are likely to ask the question, “Why can’t it be both at the same time?”


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