Reading Romans Backwards, by Scot McKnight
JUNE 27, 2019
Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem.
Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12 through 16. I call this reading Romans backwards: first, Romans 12–16, then 9–11, then 1–8 (since they work together in a special way). This is against everything my English-teacher father taught, but I have my reasons as the book will show.
A word about the kind of book this is. The contextual reading I offer has similarities to Peter Oakes, who imagined how a household in Pompeii might have heard Romans. I have imagined how the Strong and Weak heard this letter. This book is about how I read Romans and not about how I read Romans in interaction with the mountains of scholarship about Romans. Because of this I don’t weight possibilities and probabilities but rather expound what I think is the best view.
I am exploring an approach to reading Romans, and at times I will make some bold suggestions that would require much further work to demonstrate adequately. But, again, this book attempts to hear Romans through the (imagined) ears of the Weak and Strong. Western Christianity has been shaped by Romans like no other book in the Bible: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Hodge, and Barth. Each forged his ideas as Romans worked its transformation.
For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1–8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or a set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain. One would think the listeners were theological savants geared up for the latest theory of atonement or soteriology or salvation-history.
I developed in my personal reading of Romans and in the occasional lectures on Paul a strategy: reading Romans 12–16 before reading the rest. At times I would begin a talk on Romans by sketching the Strong and the Weak in Romans 14–15 just to keep the context of Romans in mind. The book is an exploration of Romans when one reads it backwards. One might say there are two primary orientations to reading Romans: a soteriological one that finds the message of redemption as the center of the letter and another reading that locates the center in an ecclesial setting—namely, the message of reconciliation and living in fellowship as siblings. The two are related; they are not dichotomies. If the soteriological reading has dominated much of Romans scholarship, there is clearly a trend today to see a shift toward the ecclesial readings. This book is an essay that will side with an ecclesial reading of Romans.
From Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire by Scot McKnight. Copyright © 2019 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.
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