Reading Romans Backwards

My friend and former colleague, Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Seminary, has published his latest book, Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. Scot is a prolific writer who writes academic books using the language of the church. His book on Romans is intended for the general reader who wants to gain a better knowledge of the theology of Paul and the pastoral concern that Paul expresses in his letter.

Below is a description of Reading Romans Backwards provided by Baylor University Press, the publisher of the book:

To read Romans from beginning to end, from letter opening to final doxology, is to retrace the steps of Paul. To read Romans front to back was what Paul certainly intended. But to read Romans forward may have kept the full message of Romans from being perceived. Reading forward has led readers to classify Romans as abstract and systematic theology, as a letter unstained by real pastoral concerns.

But what if a different strategy were adopted? Could it be that the secret to understanding the relationship between theology and life, the key to unlocking Romans, is to begin at the letter’s end? Scot McKnight does exactly this in Reading Romans Backwards.

McKnight begins with Romans 12-16, foregrounding the problems that beleaguered the house churches in Rome. Beginning with the end places readers right in the middle of a community deeply divided between the strong and the weak, each side dug in on their position. The strong assert social power and privilege, while the weak claim an elected advantage in Israel’s history. Continuing to work in reverse, McKnight unpacks the big themes of Romans 9-11-God’s unfailing, but always surprising, purposes and the future of Israel-to reveal Paul’s specific and pastoral message for both the weak and the strong in Rome. Finally, McKnight shows how the widely regarded “universal” sinfulness of Romans 1-4, which is so often read as simply an abstract soteriological scheme, applies to a particular rhetorical character’s sinfulness and has a polemical challenge. Romans 5-8 equally levels the ground with the assertion that both groups, once trapped in a world controlled by sin, flesh, and systemic evil, can now live a life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letter, no one gets off the hook but everyone is offered God’s grace.

Reading Romans Backwards places lived theology in the front room of every Roman house church. It focuses all of Romans-Paul’s apostleship, God’s faithfulness, and Christ’s transformation of humanity-on achieving grace and peace among all people, both strong and weak. McKnight shows that Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a sustained lesson on peace, teaching applicable to all divided churches, ancient or modern.

Recently, Scot was interviewed by Religious News Service about his book and he was asked the reason Christians should read Romans backwards. This was Scot’s response:

McKnight: Romans is the most significant theological text in the New Testament for the development of Christian theology, and yet today it’s a network of arguments and problems. In reading Romans over the years, I became convinced that the book became abstract theology, if not systematic theology, and it totally lost connection with its historical context.

And here’s why: it’s a lot of work to read Romans 1 through 8. When you add Romans 9 to 11, it’s even more work. By the time people get to Romans 12, they’re exhausted, and they skim over it. They make a pledge that next time, they will just use Galatians! It’s the Readers Digest version of Romans.

So what is the most important social and church context for understanding Romans-namely chapters 12 through 16-is often ignored when people only read Romans 1 through 11. And yet this letter, like all of Paul’s letters, is addressed to a specific context and a particular set of people. So ignoring 12-16 flattens the reading of the book and misses the historical context.

Read Scot’s interview with Religion News Service by visiting Scot’s blog, Jesus Creed.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to Reading Romans Backwards

  1. Zeno says:

    Great approach. Thanks!


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