Occasion and Purpose of Romans
One of the basic principles of exegesis for over 100 years is that the key to understanding the meaning of a text is understanding how it fits into its surrounding context. Biblical authors wrote in flowing continuity. They did not insert the chapter or verse divisions that exist in our Bibles today, and they did not write about separate subjects detached from each other as you might find in a systematic theology book. So everything Paul says in one of his epistles is connected to what he has just said, and will neatly flow into what he says next. Moreover, everything he says will contribute to the overall purpose in writing the letter. This means determine the author’s purpose is an essential step in the process of exegesis. Interpreters who think Romans 9-11 is a digression betray their failure to follow Paul’s flow of thought and to connect their interpretation with Paul’s purpose in writing.
There is probably no better way to understand Paul’s flow of argument than to gain a better grasp of his purpose in writing. If we understand the purpose, we are in good position to interpret passages in accordance with that purpose. If our interpretation does not create a smooth flow of thought with the passages surrounding it, then it is probably wrong. If it does not contribute to the author’s overall purpose, then it is probably incorrect. With this in mind, let us examine Paul’s purpose in writing Romans. As we compare the Arminian and Calvinist interpretations of Rom 9-11, we will ask which serves best to fulfill Paul’s purpose, and which fits best in the argument surrounding it and with the overall structure of the letter.
Paul wrote Romans, probably in the spring of AD 57, announcing his plans to visit Rome after dropping off an offering in Jerusalem for the poor saints there. It is generally agreed that Paul’s primary purpose in writing Romans was to tell the church there that he was planning to visit them, but if that is his purpose, why does he write 11 chapters articulating his gospel to the church. As Bruce claims, “this question, indeed, is the crux of the Romans debate.”
This question is so prominent largely because so many scholars have treated Romans differently from other epistles, not considering the specific local situation Paul was addressing in his letter. Concerning this, Donfried remarked in 1991: “so many recent studies…never even explore the historical data available concerning Jews and Christians in Rome.” This is because these scholars still view Romans as an abstract theological treatise. When respected scholars ignore historical data that reveals the purpose of Romans, it is no wonder there is confusion and controversy over its meaning. In interpreting Romans, Donfried states as his first methodological principle, that “this letter was written by Paul to deal with a concrete situation in Rome.” In chapter 16 Paul greets 26 people in the Roman church, including his close associates, Aquila and Priscilla. If Paul knew so many Roman Christians, his knowledge of specific issues in the church cannot be questioned. Considering what we know of Paul’s forthrightness, is it even possible that he would fail to address a problem in the church in such a lengthy letter as Romans? There can be no doubt that our starting point in establishing Paul’s purpose must be at the level of the historical situation being addressed in the letter.
What do we know about the situation in Rome when Paul wrote? We know that Claudius expelled the Jews in 49, and that when he died in 54, Jews would have been free to return to Rome. We know that Paul did not establish the church there, so he was not their apostle. Thus he did not possess the same authority over the congregation that he did over the other churches he wrote to. This explains why there are so few references to local problems and so few commands given. We know that the church was Jewish at the outset, but was primarily Gentile when Paul wrote. And we know that Paul wanted to use Rome as a launch point for his planned mission to Spain (Rom 15:28).
Let us pursue the expulsion a little further. How does this affect the situation in Rome? Where did the Roman Christians go when they were forced out of Rome? Some of them would have surely gone to such places as Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia, where some of Paul’s opponents resided. There, these displaced Romans would have learned of disputes between these people and Paul and would have heard accusations and criticisms of Paul’s theology. Stuhlmacher suggests that when these Christians returned to Rome, some of them, “may have imported the controversies from these places to Rome.”
If Paul knew of controversies in Rome over what he taught, he would need to correct those misconceptions before he arrived, lest he find another troubling situation like the one he faced in Corinth. So when Paul says, “Why not say–as some slanderously claim that we say–‘Let us do evil, that good may result’?” (Rom 3:8), he knows that this criticism of his teachings is already in Rome. This suggests that Paul gave Rome his gospel because it would serve to correct misconceptions about it held by some in the church. Though Stuhlmacher overstates the degree of disunity and misunderstanding in Rome, his conclusion is sound: “The letter is an exposition and clarification of that gospel vis-à-vis the criticism Paul knows to be rampant in Rome.” This explains why Paul gave his gospel to Rome, although his stated reason for writing was simply to prepare the church for his upcoming visit.
Jews and Gentiles
It is easy to recognize that Romans is written as a dialogue with the synagogue. Dealing with such subjects as the law (2:17-24), circumcision (2:25-32), Jewish advantages (3:1-2; 9:4-5), and his direct address to Jews (2:16), among other things, point to this conclusion. Paul’s whole theology in Romans seems to serve to smooth out division between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church. The gospel of justification by faith is explained along Jewish/ Gentile lines, the freedom of the Christian includes freedom from the law, and the climax of the theological section (9-11) explains the place of Jews and Gentiles in the plan of God. Then in the practical section, Paul instructs the church to pay taxes (13:6), an issue of particular consequence to the Jews, who thought paying tribute to Caesar was an act of betrayal. Then he proceeds to instruct the strong, presumably Gentiles who eat all foods, and the weak, who still apparently follow the Jewish diet, in how to get along better (ch. 14). And Paul directly asks Jews and Gentiles to “accept one another (15:7) and worship God together (15:9-12), which is apparently an attempt to put an end to segregation in the house churches of Rome. Even the discussion of the offering is discussed along Jewish/ Gentile lines: “if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Rom 15:27).
Why does Paul spend so much energy dealing with Jewish/ Gentile issues? Why does he make it part of his thesis (“To the Jew first,”) in 1:17? The emphasis is too pointed to claim it is simply the way he preaches his gospel. There must have been a local situation where Jews and Gentiles were not getting along as well as they should. He would not have to tell them to accept one another unless they were not doing so. He would not have to tell Gentiles to “not boast over the (Jewish) branches” (11:18) if they were not doing so.
We want to be careful not to overstate the case. it is not as though there were two churches in Rome: one Jewish and one Gentile. It is not as though Jewish and Gentile Christians were fighting one another or viewing each other as opponents. it is simply that they were not as unified as they should be. Jewish Gentile unity is at the heart of Paul’s gospel message, and we should expect it to be central in Romans, which articulates his gospel more clearly and with more detail than any other letter he wrote.
From these considerations we can conclude that Paul wrote Romans to prepare them for his upcoming visit, and delivered his gospel to them to correct misconceptions some of them had about its content. He also wanted to promote unity among Jew and Gentiles in the church. Since Paul’s gospel calling is to preach the unity of Jews and Gentiles in one people of God, delivering his gospel to Rome was the perfect remedy for the division that ailed them.
It is clear that Paul wrote Romans to address a concrete historical situation in the city, which included his intended visit en route to Spain, but also included misconceptions in the church over Paul’s doctrine, and division between Jewish and Gentile sectors of the church. When we exegete chapter 9, we will have to draw conclusions that agree with this overall purpose, not harping on doctrines that would be of no particular importance in achieving Paul’s goal in writing.
If Paul is discussing the fate of nations in Romans 9, then he is speaking in concert with his purpose in chapters 9-11, to explain the place of the Jews and the Gentiles in the overall plan of God, showing that they are one people, not two, and that God has a plan for Israel that is not yet finished. Indeed, the hope of the Gentiles is wrapped up in it. If Paul is addressing individual salvation in Romans 9, then Calvinists will have to explain how this contributes to Paul’s purpose. Where was the controversy over individual salvation? How did this divide the Romans along Jewish and Gentile lines? The burden of proof will be on the interpreter who chooses to argue that Paul was discussing individual salvation in these verses, lest his interpretation be found to be disengaged from the rest of the letter.