A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

The Macrostructure of Paul’s epistle to the Romans

Romans, as one of the most oft debated books of the Bible, suffers from a plethora of interpretations that can often times confuse the would be Bible Student more than inform. While I feel there are many reasons for this. In principle, I think tactics to try to understand Romans fall generally under the very broad frameworks that expand beyond the book of Romans (such as Paul’s theology, the grand Biblical narrative, etc.) or to the minutiae of the text of Roman’s. The former doesn’t really take Roman’s on its own terms; the latter struggles with making sense of everything. Thus, while discerning a macrostructure in Romans entails pulling both from the details within the text and from the larger story that transcends the epistle, I feel that a focus on the structure on the letter to the Romans is the most optimal way to get into the thought of Romans.

One fatal mistake I feel in understanding Romans in the tendency of people familiar with rhetoric to outline the thesis as simply Romans 1:16-17. This treats the topic of God’s wrath in 1:18, with a similar structure to v. 17, as simply a secondary point that is not really at the heart of the Gospel. Instead, I think it is more appropriate to take 1:16-18 as a whole as Paul’s overarching thesis, where God’s wrath is in fact an integral part of the power of the Gospel and Paul’s argument.

Given that, I think that Paul’s argues in reverse ordering, arguing about God’s wrath, then God’s righteousness, and then God’s power in the Gospel. The breakdown is as follows:

Romans 1:19-3:20 – The Wrath of God

Romans 3:21-5:21 – The Righteousness of God

Romans 6:1-8:39 – The Power of God

Furthermore, the discussion of God’s wrath serves as necessary to demonstrate the revelation of God’s righteousness in the following section. Both ideas also, with more emphasis given to the latter, becomes important in the final section on God’s power. In other words, God’s works from two particular points of revelation, God’s punishment of the sinful world and the righteousness of God in Christ to develop an general view of soteriology and eschatology in chapters 6-8.

One caution needs to be added. These argument while universal, are not focused upon timeless, abstract, spiritual realities. Instead, it is focused upon the very particular reality of God being the God of Israel, and yet somehow also being God of the Gentiles (perhaps even a “mystery” as to how this universality works out). Therefore, there is a particular Jewish flavor in Paul’s statements, but it is a movement towards a more universal view of God’s relationship to the world, while preserving the Jewish particularity. Thus, the discussion on nomos in chapters 7 and 8 is about Torah.

While painting a broad overview of God’s wrath, righteousness, and salvation, Paul quickly sidestepped some objections littered through chapters 1-8, particularly concentrated in chapters 3, 6, and 7. All those objections seems to be rooted in Israel’s historic relationship with God. Having developed a broadened view, Paul must use his conclusions drawn through 1-8 in discussing Israel’s history and future more specifically to show that his interpretation does not make God unfaithful. Broadly speaking, each chapter focuses has one of the three themes as its focus:

Romans 9 – God’s wrath in relationship to Israel

Romans 10 – God’s righteousness in relationship to Israel

Romans 11 – God’s power in relationship to Israel

One might say that Romans 9-11 is Paul’s attempt to validate his statement of “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” in 1:16 of the thesis. However, I am currently mixed on that point as 9-11 seems to be focused centrally on Israel, whereas the discussion of Gentiles seems to be a minor and overlooked point till the middle of chapter 11.

Finally, as Paul moves into chapters 12-15, he gets into what is known as the ethical section. What is most characteristic about this section is the relative lack of language that is particular to Israel’s distinct culture and life, after Paul spent 11 chapters make repeated references to various parts of Israel’s life, such as the patriarchs and the Torah. It seems more broad and general, as if Paul is speaking in a universal way.

Comparing the three sections with each other, Paul seems to be moving towards a general view of soteriology in Romans 1-8, but is engaged in the Jewish particularity. Romans 9-11 is steeped in that particularity and there is relatively little development of God’s universal work until the end of the section. Finally, 12-15 is broad and universal with only scant reference to Jewish particularity.

With having that flow of thought and focus in mind, I believe that the meaning of Paul’s letter to the Romans will become more apparent when the purpose of Paul’s communication is discerned, which I will write on in another post.

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December 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment