Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reading Romans as Story

The Story of RomansI readily admit that I often find Paul's letter to the Romans a more difficult book to interpret than John's Apocalypse. People are often surprised to hear me say so, but it is certainly true for me. Partly, I think this is the case because I have spent a lot more time in Revelation under wise tutelage than I have Romans. In part, I find Romans perplexing because there has been so much written on it. The wealth of material makes it practically impossible to interact with all of the books written on Romans. Another corollary of the emphasis on Romans is that we often think we have a grasp on Romans without actually reading it carefully. Most people come to Revelation confessing ignorance. When we come to Romans, a book so central in Christian tradition, we often assume it means what we've always thought. Also, Romans is Paul's master letter so there is much at stake. In many ways, Romans is the key to understanding Paul's theology and entering into the discussion of Pauline scholarship. For all these reasons, I find Romans to be a wonderfully fascinating book that often leaves me excitedly bewildered and hungry for more.

Precisely because Romans has been so widely written on, and its interpretation so intensely contested, it is easy to misunderstand the book. So, when I stumbled upon a short (150 page) book on Romans that boasts endorsements from Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Ched Myers, and Richard Hays my appetite was whet. Then, I read Richard Hays's description of the book,

Imagine a seminar on Romans with these interpreters at the table: Karl Barth, Ernst Käsemann, J. Louis Martyn, Leander Keck, N. T. Wright and Beverly Gaventa. Now imagine a skilled teacher at the table, listening perceptively. She writes her own reading, offering the church not only what she has learned but also fresh and perceptive interpretations. And imagine, too, that her reading pays particular attention to the needs of the poor and powerless in the community of faith. This is Katherine Grieb's important new book. (Quoted on the back cover)
After reading Hays's sponsorship I purchased The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God's Righteousness by A. Katherine Grieb without hesitation. I also wondered why I had not read it earlier. I was not disappointed.

At one time I might have disparaged a little book on Romans for lacking all of the nuance and depth of a more weighty commentary. I have since learned, however, that a short clear presentation of such a difficult and important book can be far more grueling to write than a lengthy commentary. It requires good writing, which is often glaringly absent among scholars. A shorter work also requires a writer to be precisely clear with the strictest economy of words. Furthermore, this clear articulation forces the author to have worked out their understanding rather than leave logical gaps and interpretive question marks. One of the best lessons I've learned in Seminary is that it is very easy for scholars who study the minutia of texts to miss the big picture. Thus they miss the proverbial "forest" for the "trees" or perhaps even for the "bark on the trees." The Story of Romans gives a panoramic view of Romans as she takes the reader on a journey through Paul's most powerful letter. Katherine Grieb has provided wonderful overview of the book of Romans that fills a gap in scholarship as well as pastoral appropriation of Paul's master letter.

The subtitle of Grieb's book A Narrative Defense of God's Righteousness is quite telling. She argues that "Romans is a sustained argument for the righteousness of God that is identified with and demonstrated by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, understood primarily as his willing obedience to suffer death on a cross" (ix). She consistently seeks to unpack this argument by reading the "stories-within-a-story" that "lie just below the surface of Paul's argument and are available to us as aids for understanding his letter" (xvii). The central story of Romans is "the gospel" and the stories "below the surface" are Paul's personal story, the stories of the Jewish scriptures, and the stories that shaped the world of the Roman Christians. Essentially, Grieb sees the stories of the Roman church, Israel, Abraham and Adam as "part of one great story: the story of what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel of God" (xix).

Most significantly, Grieb observes the ways in which the scriptures of Israel inform Paul's letter to the Romans. At almost every turn, Paul is citing or alluding to the Old Testament (OT). The story of Adam and Eve (Gen 1-3) is found in each of the major sections on some level or another (Rom 1.18-32; 5.12-21; 7.7-25; 9.1-11.36). The story of the golden-calf incident crops up in numerous places (Exod 32; Rom 1.18-32; 7.7-8.17). The story of Israel's disobedience and resultant exile significantly informs Paul's argument (Rom 2.17-24; 9.6-29; 10.1-17). Abraham's journey of faith is a major component of God's story for the church (Rom 4.1-25). Psalms of Lament appear to inform much of what Paul does (Rom 1.16-17; 8.31-39; 9.1-11.36). There are many other stories that shape Paul's letter, but these are just a few. With thoughtful reflection Grieb shows how these stories shape the way Paul tells his own story and seeks to incorporate the Roman church into the larger story of God's work in the world.

From the outset Grieb observes four important assumptions that shape her book. First, she assumes that Romans 9-11 is not an afterthought, but crucial to the letter. Much of the book of Romans, according to Grieb, is concerned with "God's covenant fidelity to Israel" (xii) and so Romans 9-11 is essential to the overall point of the letter. This is becoming a more broad consensus in contemporary scholarship, but in many readings of Romans, chapters 9-11 are ignored. I confess that in my own undergraduate education chapters 9-11 were virtually ignored except as they related to individual the theology of John Calvin!

Second, Grieb is adamant to use the work of female scholars who are grossly underrepresented in biblical studies. For the most part, this "assumption" resulted in citing female scholars, but I did not see how it was determinative for her reading of any particular passage. In many ways, I found this refreshing. She notes her desire to bring neglected female voices into the discussion, but does not allow these voices to turn the dialog of scholarship into a feminine monologue. She is corrective without being over-corrective.

Third, she writes with the conviction that "Paul spent most of his career laboring for church unity" (xii). So for Grieb, it is very important that Paul's letter be readable and useful for actual ministry. She has no interest in pontificating about theology that has no use for the church. Because Paul was concerned to write for the church, Grieb sees her task similarly. 

Fourth, and this is noticeable throughout the book, Grieb reads Paul as a "pastor and evangelist" (xii) rather than a systematic theologian. She writes against Melanchthon's suggestion that Romans is "a compendium of Christian doctrine" (xvii). At numerous points she shows how the questions of systematic theology have forced misreadings of Romans. Still, she is no iconoclast. She is not writing to tear down, but to build up the church and put the book of Romans back into the hands of every day people. Her goal is not to reject systematic theology, but to listen Paul and then do theology.

The fruit of Katherine Grieb's labor is abundantly satisfying. Retelling Romans as a story about God and his interaction with creation makes the letter eminently more readable, and I think it is more faithful to what Paul was doing. Her ability to take fiercely debated texts and present the various sides while coming to a useful and understandable conclusion is unique. In many ways, Grieb's book fills the growing gap between biblical scholarship and the study of scripture in the church. I would highly recommend this book to both the seasoned scholar and the Sunday school student. The Story of Romans is an imaginative retelling of Romans that ought to provide a model for the scholar pastor.

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