Election and Reversal in Genesis and Romans: Exploring Robert B. Foster’s “Renaming Abraham’s Children”

Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals with themes central to the Christian faith, which helps explain why, even after being read and reflected upon for nearly two millennia, lively conversations about how to best interpret it continue to take place. In his dissertation on Romans 9, Renaming Abraham’s Children, Robert B. Foster joins the time-honored tradition of “trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him,” to borrow N.T Wright’s turn of phrase (2009, p.x), attempting to show how Paul’s understanding of election was shaped by his prior engagement with the foundational stories of the patriarchs in Genesis (pp. 1-2). By tracing Paul’s interpretation of these narratives, Foster aims to help uncover a level of theological coherence in chapters 9-11 more frequently sought after than actually found (p.3).

The attention Foster gives to Paul’s usage of the Abrahamic narratives places him within a larger school of thought in scholarship, represented by figures like Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright. These writers emphasize the idea that many of the more puzzling elements in Paul’s letters can be clarified when viewed as being undergirded by a deeper narrative-driven substructure (for an interesting set of essays examining this trend, see Narrative Dynamics in Paul, edited by Bruce Longenecker). Narrative approaches to Paul are often insightful, but they are sometimes criticized for being too subjective, unable to adequately deal with questions like, “when is a passage’s narrative substructure deftly submerged below the surface, and when is it just not there?” To make his proposal compelling, Foster has to show that he isn’t deaf to these concerns in Renaming Paul’s Children.

To establish a more stable methodological foundation, he turns to the work of Carol B. Stockhausen, explaining to readers that, “Her reliance on specific lexical connections, thematic overlap, and comparative methods bring objective controls to the task of discerning a potential narrative-based exegesis supporting Paul’s arguments” (p.20). Foster’s debt to Stockhausen is considerable in this book. Working with what he sees as her more rigorous methods, he develops a number of criteria for evaluating the persuasiveness of a proposed exegesis of Paul, including elements like being demonstrably connected to explicit quotations in the Apostle’s writings and relying on the usage of interpretive practices that would have been familiar parts of Paul’s intellectual landscape (pp.20-21). Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time or space for us to take a detailed look at the development of each stage of Foster’s hermeneutical proposal, interesting as that would be. Instead, we’ll look at a few of the areas in this book where I think Foster’s efforts have the potential to open up new pathways of discussion and invite readers to think over familiar questions in fresh ways.

First, he argues that the emerging consensus regarding Paul’s motives for writing Romans misses the mark (p.85). Many prominent Pauline interpreters think Paul composed Romans to stamp out a rising spirit of gentile arrogance. However, this presumes that Gentile believers were predisposed to be hostile towards Jewish practices. Given the likelihood that most initial Gentile Christ-followers in Rome had been Godfearers and proselytes, Foster challenges this assumption, asking:

How likely is it that a movement whose Gentile wing originated precisely because of its… interest in and even attachment to Judaism transformed itself into a largely anti-Jewish supersessionist movement between Claudius and Nero? (p.93)

Instead, he proposes that Romans was written to respond against opponents who made, or might make, charges against Paul similar to the ones recorded by Luke in the latter parts of Acts (p.100). In order to successfully carry on further missionary endeavors, Paul needed to win over potentially skeptical Roman Christians who were wary of him after what they had potentially heard about Paul’s polemics regarding the Torah in Galatia and the conduct of his Corinthian congregations (pp.100-101).

It is interesting to note that Beverly Roberts Gaventa doesn’t think that these various reconstructions have to be seen as mutually exclusive. For her, it’s plausible that there may have been “more than one angle in play” (2016, p.18). Foster may think the differences between these proposals go deeper than Gaventa suspects. Regardless, though, I think Foster’s work is valuable because it raises the point that as reconstructions of the background of early Gentile believers evolve, explanations of Paul’s motives for writing may need to shift as well.

I found Foster’s most intriguing (and provocative) contribution to be his overarching exploration of Paul’s understanding of election itself. In Romans 9, Foster finds the patriarchal narratives in Genesis to be more influential than generally recognized. For Foster, their influence as interpreted by Paul “extends far beyond his explicit quotations from Genesis” (p.5). In these stories, he believes the Apostle discerned a surprising pattern:

The divine appointment of one man and his successive descendants as the progenitors of God’s chosen people initiates a series of reversals. A younger brother is repeatedly assigned the status of firstborn, but he receives his inheritance only after suffering the rejection his elevation imposed on the elder son… Paul sees Israel’s destiny in the messianic age as a recapitulation of its etiology in the patriarchal age: the chosen and elect son Israel loses to his once displaced brother the privileged status he received by grace, only to receive it back again on the far side of his own exclusion. (pp.1-3)

An interpretive framework dependent on such a dialectical conception of election is sure to be contentious, but I can see why Foster finds it to be a plausible proposal that takes Paul seriously as a reader of the scriptural narratives, grappling with the ultimate faithfulness of Israel’s merciful God and the unexpected relations of Jews and Gentiles in the era inaugurated by the coming of Christ.

The influence of Hebrew Bible scholar Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son plays an important role throughout the pages of this book. Near the end, Foster comments on the likelihood of a christological foundation for Paul’s dialectical thinking on election. This leads me to suggest that it would be intriguing to see Foster engage more with the voice of Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson, who puts Levenson’s work in conversation with his own perspective on Jesus as the betrayed and beloved Son in Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament. Additionally, J. Ross Wagner could be a fruitful conversation partner for Foster. Wagner’s consideration of election in Romans 9-11, in the essay collection God and Israel, seems to share some intriguing commonalities with Foster’s own interpretive path (pp. 95-113). Thus, I really do think this book is best seen as an invitation to robust discussion, not the final word on Paul and election.

Conclusion

In the end, there are some areas where I feel more intrigued than convinced by Foster’s reconstruction of Paul’s exegesis of the patriarchal narratives and their influence on Romans 9-11. Nevertheless, it will be hard for readers to come away from this volume without being moved to put fresh thought into Paul’s engagement with Israel’s Scriptures. This book is a valuable find for students of Paul, even those who end up setting Foster’s proposal itself aside, because it looks at an important theological question head on and probes it from what strikes me an original angle. For readers who enjoy theology of the more academic variety and find themselves drawn again and again back to Paul and his letters, Renaming Abraham’s Children is a worthwhile addition to their bookshelf.

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

Other Works Cited

Anderson, Gary A. Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Longenecker, Bruce W. Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Wagner, J. Ross. “‘Enemies’ Yet ‘Beloved’ Still: Election and the Love of God in Romans 9-11.” In God and Israel: Providence and Purpose in Romans 9-11, by Todd D. Still. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017.

Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

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