The Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Romans is one of the most influential works of scripture ever produced. The histories of Christianity record that this work has been a major influence on most of its spiritual leaders. Pivotal moments in the lives of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Karl Barth are all associated with this letter. Its influence on such diverse collections of people over significant periods of time would make this work worthy of study in its own right.
But even more important than the influence that this work has had over the course of history, the sheer depth and richness of its content has led this work to be perhaps the most critically evaluated literary work of human history. Scholars and authors of every generation have discovered anew the treasure of faith that is the Epistle to the Romans.
Authorship, Dating, Origin & Destination of the Epistle to the Romans
The internal evidence of the manuscript reports that the Apostle Paul has written this letter to the Christian churches that meet in Rome. The authorship of Romans has never been under serious dispute. From the time of the church fathers, Romans has been considered the greatest work of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. The dating of this epistle has been largely accepted as falling between the years of 53 AD and 55 AD. Likewise the origin of Romans has been generally accepted as being Corinth. It is believed that Paul wrote from Corinth shortly before leaving to deliver his collection of moneys for the Jerusalem church and from Jerusalem he intended to go first to Rome and from there to push westward toward Spain.
What has come into question in recent years is the destination of at least portions of what we call the Epistle to the Romans. There is a logically consistent argument that at least Chapter 16 was intended for the churches of Ephesus. One theory is that the letter was intended to be what is called a circular letter, meaning it was intended for more than one church and meant to be passed on from one church to the next after it was read and copied. In this theory, Paul might have sent it first to Ephesus and from there eventually on to end in Rome.
While this theory might well be valid strictly from the text and the history that we have of the epistle, I do not believe that it best explains the purpose and internal arguments of the text. Throughout our study of this work, we will see that Paul is presenting the framework of his own faith and understanding against the backdrop of a specific situation and a particular place. All of these are consistent with the circumstances of the Roman church that we can piece together.
Moreover, Chapter 16 informs us that this lofty work of Christian theology was intended for very real people, not just for scholarly debate. Christians should not shrink from a rigorous examination of their Holy Scriptures. The Bible is surely worthy of our best intellectual efforts. But, it is important to realize that these works were originally written for the needs of common people in real situations. They were meant to be understood and useful to average people. The Spirit of God has used these texts to touch many people over great periods of time and through diverse circumstances of life.
The great theme of the first eight chapters of this work is the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. This theme is expressed in verses 3:21-22. Within the scope of this theme are discussions of law, works, grace, justification and sanctification.
Chapters 9-11 are sometimes considered a completely independent section. However, treating this section in such a way neglects the continuing discussion throughout this work of the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile converts. Rather, it is better to see that in these chapters the underlying themes of these tensions between the ancient people of God and the new church and that of the old covenant and the new are resolved. The righteousness of God through faith in Christ prevails for 8 chapters and then the relationship of Jew and Gentile is taken up in 9-11.
Finally, in chapters 12-15 these two themes are woven together in a discussion of the practical implications of our new, united relationship with Christ.
Reason why Romans was written:
By far the most widely discussed issue in the study of the Epistle to the Romans is the purpose or reason why this letter came to be written. Leon Morris, in his excellent commentary, lists no less than 15 positions that scholars have taken on this issue.1 One of the most common traditional views is that Paul is primarily interested in introducing himself and his theology to the Roman church. He intended to use Rome as his base from which to evangelize the west. Others believe that Paul somehow sensed that the time that he could freely go from church to church was coming to a close and Romans represents a collection of his most significant religious views that could be widely distributed to places he knew he would never physically reach.
A recently popular position is to see Romans solely in terms of a manifesto written on the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christianity. There is much to admire of this position and indeed the tension between the old and new covenants represents a significant element to this work. Another somewhat similar position is to see the entire book in terms of an attempt to reconcile two distinct groups in Rome: one "weak" group of brethren usually associated with Jewish backgrounds and thoughts and another "strong" group associated with views more consistent with Paulinian thought.
There are many other viewpoints as to why Paul wrote this epistle to these people in the way that he did. As we go along, we will consider several of these viewpoints as the sections that advance them arise. For the moment, it is important to realize that whatever Paul's original purpose for writing to these people, the Spirit of God uses these words to speak with us today. The Epistle to the Romans speaks directly to the daily life of every believer.
For more information on Romans and other New Testament books including excellent bibliographies for in-depth studies, seewww.bible.org.
1 Leon Morris: The Epistle to the Romans: (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)