Getting off the Tourist Path: A Review of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s “When in Romans”

when-in-romansFor many Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the more intimidating parts of the New Testament. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Romans is, after all, an undeniably complex letter, with both occasional and systematic dimensions. And in case we forget its historic significance, the Pauline scholar Michael Gorman reminds us that “Romans has spawned conversions, doctrines, disputations, and even a few reformations” (2004, p.338).

A feeling of slight trepidation when embarking on a study of Romans might then actually be entirely appropriate. It’s a shame, though, when this causes Christians to shy away from reading the letter at all. “[While] it is clearly a book that challenges the best minds in the community,” Eugene Peterson points out, “The scholars are here to help us read it, not read it for us” (2009, p.261).

Hopefully, these introductory comments can help us better appreciate the usefulness of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s brief and illuminating book, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. In it, she reflects theologically on the significance of Paul’s letter for those who might not otherwise know where to start. As Gaventa explains in the preface, “This book on Romans is intended for people who would not normally read a book about Romans” (p.xiii).

Getting off the Tourist Path

The book’s title comes from the well-worn phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” (p.1). Gaventa explains that:

I use the saying by way of introducing the question: What happens to readers, hearers, teachers, and preachers of the church in the early part of the twenty-first century, when we are “in Romans”? My own impression… is that we are seldom in Romans for very long. At most, we make weekend visits… It is as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time… We never notice that we are in a vast metropolitan area. (pp.1-3)

She wants her audience to get off the tourist path and explore the larger, more expansive world of the letter because Romans “confronts us with the universal, cosmic horizon of the good news” (p.3). The main body of the book is composed of four chapters with titles like “When in Romans… Watch the Horizon” and “When in Romans… Consider Abraham”. These titles function as helpful guidelines for those learning how to get around in Paul’s letter for themselves. As she works through the letter with her audience, Gaventa does engage (at least in the footnotes) with some of the more important scholarly issues like the translational and interpretative debates surrounding the phrase dikaiosynê theou, but for the most part she stays out of the weeds.

Gaventa judges most readings of Romans to be too restrictive and overly-focused on the individual. She argues that “a prolonged and careful study of Romans means finding that salvation is far more complex, more cosmic, more challenging that we have usually imagined” (p.27). In her eyes, Paul’s understanding of salvation goes beyond the individual and in some ways even the communal level:

Paul’s understanding of salvation is cosmic. Salvation concerns God’s powerful action in Jesus Christ to reclaim humanity, individual and corporate, from the powers of Sin and Death… The problem is that actual powers, prominent among them Sin and Death, hold humanity in their grasp. God has interceded in the death and resurrection of Jesus to break their power… but the struggle between God and the powers continues until God’s final triumph, the redemption of the whole of creation. (p.41)

Obviously, it’s not that Gaventa thinks the individual and corporate dimensions of salvation are unimportant (p.46). It seems to me that for her, something is lost if our understanding of salvation ends there. She wants her audience to see that these individual and communal aspects of salvation are taken up and included within an even larger, more expansive vision of salvation: “What we… need to hear is Paul’s understanding that the gospel encompasses the cosmos, the whole of creation—all the way out and all the way down in human life” (p.46). I would suggest that from her point of view, the redemptive action of God in Christ can be seen as the in-breaking of salvation, the trampling of death by death, and the inauguration of God’s renewal of all creation. Much of what Gaventa presents in this book will be somewhat familiar to those already acquainted with the writings of scholars like J. Louis Martyn, J. Christian Beker, Ernst Käsemann, and other advocates of the “apocalyptic” approach to Paul.

Gaventa and the Apocalyptic Approach to Paul

That should come as no great surprise, though. After all, Gaventa studied with J. Louis Martyn at Union Theological Seminary in the 1970’s and is herself frequently listed as one of the more influential adherents of the apocalyptic perspective. The category of apocalyptic, unfortunately, can become pretty vague, so Michael Bird’s broad-brush sketch is helpful here:

On such a reading, Paul’s gospel is said to be about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos, decisively revealed in the faithfulness, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which wages a cosmic battle against the powers on the very site of Jesus’ crucified body. The result is that, through Christ and the gift of the Spirit, there comes a whole new regime, a new creation. (2016, pp.108-109)

It seems safe to say that Bird’s description resonates quite well with the major themes of Gaventa’s work in When in Romans. Before we shift to the conclusion, I do want to briefly examine the somewhat contentious issue regarding how advocates of the apocalyptic in Paul understand the Apostle in relation to other forms of Second Temple Judaism. For some apocalyptic Pauline scholars, there is stark discontinuity between Paul’s past and present, to the point that Paul ends up repudiating Israel’s history and minimizing the importance of any overarching covenantal narratives.

However, it seems to me that the categories of apocalyptic and covenantal in Paul don’t always have to be held in opposition. The apocalyptic approach highlights important Pauline themes that others have too-often missed, but I side with Bird when he claims that, “Properly understood, an apocalypse is the climax of God’s saving purpose for his people, not a whole new start, and certainly not a repudiation of the past” (2016, p.121). Similarly, Richard Hays gives some needed nuance when he writes that, “God’s ‘apocalyptic’ act in Christ does not simply shatter and sweep away creation and covenant; rather, it hermeneutically reconfigures creation and covenant… in light of cross and resurrection” (2014, p.205). Within this more nuanced, moderate framework, I think the apocalyptic approach still has an important contribution to how we understand Paul. Regardless, I’d be very interested to listen more to how Gaventa thinks about these matters.

Conclusion

When in Romans is a lively and conversational introduction to Paul’s letter to the Romans, oriented especially to those without much experience working through the text. My hope is that it will lead many to read Romans slowly and with a fresh perspective, straying from the most commonly read passages to spend more time with the letter as a whole. For those already familiar with Paul’s writings and possessing an abiding interest in Pauline scholarship, this book also gives a good sketch of what comes to the forefront when Paul’s letter to the Romans is approached with an apocalyptic lens.

One thing I missed while reading the pages of When in Romans was extended engagement with other Pauline scholars and interpretive perspectives. I’m not without hope, though, because Gaventa is also composing a larger academic commentary on Romans. The glimpse this little book gives of her perspective on Paul leads me to anticipate that her upcoming commentary will make a refreshing and thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation that takes place as the Church wrestles with Romans and lives in light of it, along with the rest of the biblical canon. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Other Works Cited

Bird, Michael F. An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. 1st Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Hays, Richard B. “Apocalyptic Poiesis in Galatians: Paternity, Passion, and Participation.” In Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, edited by Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick, 200-219. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Academic, 2014.

Peterson, Eugene H. “The Letter of Paul to the Romans.” In The Life With God Bible: with the Deuterocanonical Books, edited by Richard J. Foster, Gayle Beebe, Lynda L. Graybeal, Thomas C. Oden, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene H. Peterson, 261-265. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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