Old & New perspectives on Paul
Paul’s letter to the Romans is commonly viewed as a theological treatise on the mechanics of eternal salvation.1 Assuming this hermeneutical foundation, Paul outlines in the letter how people are saved from the consequences of sin and how they might attain access to Heaven after death. Paul’s answer, under this reading, is that a person can be saved through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice—and more specifically—through faith in Christ’s atoning death over and against “works of Law,” that is, obedience to God’s commands. Simply put, God saves believing sinners despite their failure to keep his moral laws.
A novel understanding of Paul’s thought has emerged with the New Perspective on Paul. According to this reading, Paul addresses the same basic theological question—How can mortal man secure eternal salvation?—but provides a nuanced solution. While Paul’s answer remains “faith in Christ” over “works of Law,” both of these terms have been tweaked and sharpened. Now, “faith” refers to a kind of obedient faithfulness—a trust in God’s steadfast love that manifests in submission to God’s will—and “works of Law” refers to Judaism as a specific ethnic designation. Gentile Christians then, while obligated to live in a repentant and obedient manner, need not, and indeed should not, become Jews through the acceptance of circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance. Simply put, Gentiles are saved by their faithfulness to God and Christ, not by their appropriation of Judaism.
Salvation in history
This new perspective has much to commend it, particularly its careful historical assessment of Paul’s term “works of the Law” in relation to contemporary Jewish understanding of grace and Law. Unfortunately, however, this same historical precision has not been brought to bear on the raison d’être of Paul’s work and ministry. Both perspectives, new and old, are committed to a theologically-motivated Paul; a Paul driven by the revelation of a new metaphysical system of salvation, one according to which individuals can psychologically manage their own mortality and moral futility. This failure to reconsider the traditional theological model of salvation as anything other than a personal, postmortem, and otherworldly affair is, I think, damning.
What is needed now is a rediscovery of the historically-motivated Paul. A Paul driven by an eschatological and, indeed historical revelation—a revelation about what lies before and behind the end of the age. We need to recover a Paul committed to what he believed God was about to do in the world through the newly-installed Lord of the nations.
There is no better place to begin this excavation of the historically-driven Paul than in Romans 15, a chapter wherein the Apostle outlines the contours of and the reasons behind his apostolic mission among the nations.
Paul’s patriarchal mission
Despite its relative neglect among readers of Romans, Paul gives the fullest accounting of his mission in Romans 15:7-13. He begins at Christ’s completed work, continues through his ongoing prophetic service, and ends with the desired concrete outcome. At each stage Paul’s vision is grounded in history as he knows it.
- Christ’s work: Christ became a “servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (15:8).2 The confirmation of these patriarchal promises (i.e. the gospel of the kingdom) would result, Paul says, in the glorification of God by the nations alongside Israel (15:9). A righteous Israel would then finally righteously shepherd the kingdoms of the world as God had promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and Solomon. The “obedience of the nations” would at last come to a son of David and to the promised offspring of Abraham (Genesis 49:10, Psalm 87:29, cf. Genesis 12:2, 18:18, 24:60, 27:27-29).
- Paul’s announcement: In light of Christ’s work and the historical transformation it put into motion, Paul became a servant of the uncircumcised on behalf of Israel’s gospel: “Therefore I will confess [Israel’s God] among the nations, and sing praises to [his] name” (15:10). Once “set apart for the gospel,” Paul “received apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations” through his proclamation (Romans 1:1-5, cf. 15:10-12). Paul would, in effect, ready the nations for the fulfillment of Israel’s patriarchal promises.
- Outcome: Having heard the good news prophesied by patriarch and prophet (cf. Romans 1:1-2, 16:25-26), and now in anticipation of Israel’s exaltation in relation to the rebellious pagan nations, the good-willed peoples of the world would, so Paul believed, transfer their hope and allegiance away from the low gods and their Caesar and onto the high God and his Christ. With any luck, shortly thereafter God’s dominion over the empire would be formally established (5:12). The Greek and barbarian churches that preemptively acclaimed this new world order at Paul’s call would obtain special reward at the eschaton (Romans 2:9-10, 1 Cor 6:2).3
When sufficient weight is given to Romans 15:7-13, it thus becomes apparent that the engine of Paul’s soteriological model—justification by faith in Israel’s God and Christ’s atoning work—is directed towards primarily historical rather than primarily metaphysical ends. Christ’s obedience unto death fulfills the Patriarchal promises only in as much as his heavenly Lordship fulfill Israel’s political expectations. Through Christ, Israel would become a “great and powerful nation” (Genesis 12:2, 18:18). Through Christ, Israel would possess the gates of its enemies (Genesis 24:60) and enjoy dominion over nature and the surrounding peoples (Genesis 27:27-9). In Christ, the “obedience of the nations” would belong to Judah, not to a pagan megalomaniac (Genesis 49:10). Paul’s mission and goal, therefore, was to facilitate this conquest, the completion of the Patriarchs’ faith in YHWH over and against the idolatrous gods.
Plundering the nations
Besides this hoped-for political and, of course, religious dominance, Israel’s prophets awaited the day when international economics would serve Jerusalem and God’s temple rather than an ever-hostile imperial paganism. This theme is particularly striking in Isaiah but reaches back to the legend of the Exodus according to which Israel “plundered” the Egyptians when God obtained their subservience through the onslaught of plagues (Exodus 12:35-36).
Isaiah’s vision of a redeemed Jerusalem recapitulates this theme. The “wealth of nations” would stream into David’s city and God’s righteous people would never again suffer want or terror (60:5; 11, 61:6; 12). By their submission to Israel, the kings of the nations would in turn prosper under God’s abundant governance (cf. Genesis 12:2-3, Numbers 24:9). As Jacob pronounced over his son: “the mace shall not depart from between Judah’s feet until tribute comes to him, until the obedience of the peoples shall be his” (Genesis 49:10).
Justification by tribute
In accordance with these patriarchal and prophetic expectations, Paul’s brief outline of his mission in Romans 15:7-13 functions as rhetorical buildup for his more pressing concerns—the monetary collection for believers in Jerusalem and his need for assistance as he prepares to set out for the western reaches of the empire (Romans 15:22-33). By placing the imminent socio-political ramifications of Israel’s gospel at the forefront, Paul presses his hearers to secure their eschatological position through a pledge of allegiance, a financial offering on behalf of God’s chosen people (cf. 2 Cor 9).
Paul reminds the Romans that soon they too, like all the other believing gentiles, will be called upon to produce “fruit” for the sake of the gospel (Romans 15:28, cf. 1:13). This fruit will constitute both a moral and a monetary tribute (cf. 1 Cor 16:1-2, 2 Cor 8:1-7, Galatians 2:10), a tribute owed to Israel as the mediator of God’s “spiritual blessings” to the nations (15:27). In the same way that Israel’s God granted gentiles his spirit as a “down payment” of what is to come, so too were gentiles obliged to provide a down payment to Israel in light of the looming political realignment (2 Cor 1:22). By this payment they would be incorporated into the Davidic empire even before its advent on the earth. By this payment they would offer voluntary tribute before Christ extracted his recompense from the more reluctant pagans.
Paul’s collection then was the physical embodiment of his mission’s success. It represented in tangible form gentile faith in the gospel and thus gentile submission to God. Paul’s converts withdrew their moral, social, and, indeed, financial investments in Rome and transferred them to Jerusalem. They would from now on look to YHWH’s holy city, not Jupiter’s, for their help and reward. When the day of the Lord came, therefore, they would be found justified, in part, by the resources they first invested in Paul’s enterprise, by their tribute given to Israel in faith.
1—Essential for this hermeneutic is a particular and problematic understanding of the Adam-Serpent narrative in Genesis 3.
2—Paul has in mind Christ’s obedience to God as a prophetic martyr and the dominion over the nations that that obedience won him a la Psalm 110:1. As a result of his righteous death, “the Lord will execute judgement among the nations” (110:6).
3—The unexpected worship of Israel’s God by Greeks before the day of the Lord is the spiritual manifestation of Christ’s victory over the demonic gods in the heavenly realm. Pagans began to recognize the power of Israel’s God over their defunct idol-gods.