The whole letter, of course, is a letter deeply concerned for Christian unity, because Paul is (theologically if not emotionally) desperate for unity between Rome’s Christian communities and himself, as well as between Christians in Rome at loggerheads with each other over theology and practice, veering confusingly between poles of law and grace, familiar Judaism and fledgling Christianity, Abraham’s true and false heritage and so forth.
Many readers here will be familiar with the trajectory of Romans through Christian history as a book which continues to be invoked in order to nudge (or blast) Christians towards true theological appreciation of the gospel - the Reformation and the Barthian revolt against German liberalism being the most notable examples (which I can think of).
But such nudges or blasts are not typically welcomed with complete collapse of the critiqued as they recognise the clarity of opposition towards them. Stout defences have been mounted (even named as in "the Counter Reformation") and so Romans is subject to debates, theological storms, and general rumblings of an ongoing nature, the most widely engaged present one working with the word “perspective”, as scholars propose and counter-propose “the New Perspective on Paul.”
Out of such debates scholars have had (if we may call it this) fun working out the “centre” or “message” or “target” of Romans. Is what matters in Romans found in chapters 3 and 4? If so, what do we make of Romans 9-11 - a footnote, an appendix or an aside? What if the point of Romans in in chapters 9-11? Or, is it Romans 14-15 - an issue over vegetables/meat eating has driven Paul’s greatest theological essay?
Recently I ordered Scot McKnight’s latest book Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. Its focus is, according to its Amazon page,
"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."
We will see as this monograph is digested whether it contributes to settling current Pauline debates or fuels their fire!
So, with such thoughts, and anticipation in the background, Romans 13:8-10. I found myself reading this with the radicalness of the passage jumping up and exegetically smacking me in the hermeneutical face!
Here is Paul, citing different laws - well known "ten commandments" but also "any other commandment" - and declaring, completely in keeping with the Lord Jesus, that every commandment is summed up in "Love your neighbour as yourself." Then, Paul says, what this summary, overriding commandment means is, "Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
And the exegetical smack in the hermeneutical face? This: I wonder in our Anglican and other controversies (e.g. virulent if not vitriolic debate in the States over Beth Moore and women preaching to men) if we are exhibiting any reckoning with this passage when we argue over the rules of Christian living.
Is, for example, a woman preaching to a mixed gender congregation doing any "wrong to a neighbour"?
What harm to our neighbours or to the body of Christ is done if a congregation moves forward to receive the eucharist with diverse understandings of the eucharist shared across the congregation?
I could go on.
Comments please on the matter of Christian ethics being driven and shaped by Romans 13:8-10?
Here is the passage, via the NRSV:
If we could agree on Romans 13:8-10, might we find ourselves with a new and solid ground for Christian unity?