For most people their first introduction to Paul is either in the book of Acts or in his letter to the Romans. I know I first learned about Paul by reading Romans, partially because it was the first letter after Acts, and partially because pastors seemed to talk a lot about it. Romans, at least for me, set the tone for what I should expect in the rest of Paul’s letters and honestly for what I thought I’d find in the New Testament as a whole.
Latter in my academic career while I was completing my Bachelors in Pastoral Studies the topic of having a “canon within a canon” was raised for me. Basically the principle is that if we read only a portion of scripture and then force all the difficult issues that occur in scripture elsewhere to be solved in light of the portion we’re comfortable with we risk not hearing the symphonic voice of scripture. The same thing can happen when it comes to hermeneutics. We can favor certain hermeneutical methods over against others and miss what scripture is saying. Kind of like shining a light at a glass to see its reflection, but never turning the glass to see the full possible amount of reflections made by the glass.
There’s two quotes I wanted to share with you that have been rolling around in my head lately. Especially as I consider how I’ve read Paul in the past, and how I read him currently. The first is from N.T. Wright and the second is from Richard Hays. They both have cast light upon the way I’ve read Romans and have helped me reflect on the letter and the rest of Paul’s writings in light of that.
The first quote is from Wright reflects a canonical concern: How should we read Paul’s letters in relation to one another. Are we reading Paul on his own terms, in light of the questions he was raising that were of a cosmic, covenantal, eschatological, Christological sort?
“Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there. Suppose we conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we come to Ephesians first, with Colossians close behind, and decide that we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them instead of the other way around. What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology.” Justification: God’s plan & Paul’s vision by N.T. Wright, (pg. 43)
The quote from Hays reflects a hermeneutical concern: what changes in our understanding of Romans when literary criticism (specifically intertextuality) becomes a greater interest for us as we read the letter. Have we missed the narrative-substructure of Paul’s argument (the Old Testament story probably in its LXX form) because we’ve been trying in vain to piece together the historical pastoral situation Paul was trying to address for the churches in Rome (not that the two are entirely distinguishable)?
“[Romans] is most fruitfully understood when it is read as an intertextual conversation between Paul and the voice of Scripture, that powerful ancestral presence with which Paul grapples. Scripture broods over this letter, calls Paul to account, speaks through him; Paul, groping to give voice to his gospel, finds in Scripture the language to say what must be said, labors to win the blessing of Moses and the prophets…To read Romans in light of conjectures about its historical purpose within Paul’s ministry is, by contrast, a surprisingly unsatisfying speculative exercise. Deeper comprehension will result if we treat the text as a hermeneutical event, listening carefully to the intertextual interplay within the discourse.” Echoes of Scripture in the letters of Paul by Richard B. Hays (pg. 35)
I think Wright and Hays raise very important questions that have implications and require careful exegesis to work out. I hope their questions can entreat you to reconsider afresh how we should read Romans and live in light of that reading…
(Photographic art by Nostromoo, piece entitled “DSC1798“)