Another study of Romans?
There are many things that the world desperately needs. Another study of Romans is probably not among them. But I’ve written one anyway.
Nor is this the end of my tendency to test people’s patience. These studies have been written as though they are by Paul himself. I can imagine what some might say about this. My defence is that I wanted to take the underlying stories seriously, and writing in the first person seemed the best way to do this. I hope that this way of doing things will make Paul, his greatest letter and his patterns of thought a little more accessible.
Romans – a new approach
I had a particular reason for starting this project. I’d taught Romans to church groups and college students for more than two decades and I’d started to become a little frustrated with the available material.
Some studies treat the letter as though it’s a sort of textbook that fell from heaven without any roots in history. As a result, you get sermons full of dry accounts of sets of propositions.
‘I wanted to take the underlying stories seriously, and writing in the first person seemed the best way to do this.’
Other approaches regard Romans as a treasure trove of proof-texts. Verses are plucked out without regard for their place in the argument, then re-assembled so they present something that gets called the gospel. These publications can be useful, but few teach us very much about Romans itself.
Then there are study notes. They serve a vital purpose but are necessarily brief and so they usually focus on parts of the text. A thorough understanding of Romans may need more than most of them can offer.
Finally, there are the wonderful books that scholars write – introductions, monographs and commentaries. Most are quite brilliant. However, it seems to me that too many seem to be written as part of a conversation between specialists. It is at least possible that the volumes of tightly argued paragraphs, discussing first this theory and then that approach, might serve to first intimidate and then alienate even the bravest of us.
‘Volumes of tightly argued paragraphs, discussing first this theory and then that approach, might serve to first intimidate and then alienate even the bravest of us.’
The stories behind the letter
So, when I was granted a period of study leave, I decided I’d better write something myself. I set some goals.
First, I wanted to take seriously the stories that lie behind the letter. What was going in the Roman house churches to whom the letter was sent? Or in Paul’s own life when he sat down to write? And vitally, how did Paul understand the story of what God was doing? Or, to put it another way, how, if at all, did Paul think his ministry fitted in with the story of God told in the Hebrew Bible?
Next, I hoped to address the letter as a whole and not only favourite verses or passages.
Finally, the work should be serious but not technical, accessible without being simplistic.
This work is intended for everyone – I’m delighted that any reader chooses to engage with Romans – but I had certain audiences in mind when I wrote it.
There were my students who were having to grapple seriously with Romans, sometimes for the first time.
Then there were my fellow pastors and other church leaders looking for a resource that would help them teach and preach from the letter in fresh ways.
‘This work is intended for everyone – I’m delighted that any reader chooses to engage with Romans.’
Last, but not least, there were all the people I know who were looking for a kind of extended Bible study resource that would help them to get a little more of a grip on Paul’s longest and most significant letter.
I wanted to produce a kind of narrative commentary, and I wanted to find a different way to go about it. While thinking about this, it occurred to me that I might write the studies in the first person, putting the words into Paul’s mouth so that he could explain himself as the letter goes along.
I hoped this would make things more direct, more story-based, easier to follow, and more coherent. The strategy is intended to communicate the letter effectively. It is not a claim to any special authority or to exclude other views.
‘The strategy is intended to communicate the letter effectively.’
I am very grateful to BRF for supporting me in the approach I’ve taken and for their willingness to publish the material in this creative and imaginative way.
Becca Turnbull, BRF editorial assistant, helped prepare Stephen’s work for posting on the Resource hub. For Becca, it wasn’t just work, as she explains:
‘I admit I find Romans hard to understand at times and making sense of what Paul means can be a real challenge! Through Romans Unwrapped, Stephen has helped expand both my understanding and appreciation of Romans. I found his explanation of Romans 8 wonderfully encouraging – he acknowledges the reality of suffering while also pointing to the overarching promise of God’s good plan of salvation and redemption.
‘Stephen’s breakdown of Paul’s jargon was also really helpful. I now have greater clarity on what the law – or as he helpfully terms it, ‘the Instruction’, is (and isn’t), what it meant for the Jews then, what it means for us now and how Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of it.
‘I’ve no doubt I’ll be coming back to Romans Unwrapped next time I open Romans and find myself stumped!’