Book Reviews New Testament Paul

Book Review: Reading Romans Backwards (Scot McKnight)

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It’s pretty likely that no book of the Bible has been written on or preached about as extensively as Romans. But how often do we read Romans only to get to chapter 9 and think, “Oh boy, this section again.” Or perhaps to chapter 12 and think, “Alright, this part’s going to be a breeze. It’s not as important.” In his newest book, Scot McKnight proposes “that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12 through 16” (ix). Paul wrote his letter to a few house churches in Romans, and he had a reason for writing such a long letter to those churches. McKnight has “imagined how the Strong and Weak heard this letter” (ix).

McKnight separates his book into four sections:

  • Romans 12–16: A community needing peace
  • Romans 9–11: A narrative leading to peace
  • Romans 1–4: A Torah that disrupts peace
  • Romans 5–8: A Spirit creating peace

McKnight looks at Romans 1-4 first before 5-8 because they “work in tandem” (91). So it’s not reading Romans completely backwards, but it’s close enough.

McKnight reveals how he reads Romans and so doesn’t interact with the mountain range that is Romans scholarship. McKnight wants you to know and see that Paul wrote to “a set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain” (x). Paul wants these Christians to be conformed to Christ (what McKnight titles Christoformity).

Summary

The issue in the church in Rome is the same we have today: the issue is the inability of the Privileged and the Powerful [the Strong] to embody the gospel’s inclusive demand and include the Disprivileged and the Disempowered [the Weak] (xiii). Romans 1–11 offer the rationale to the “lived theology” Paul gives his readers in Romans 12–16. Why should they seek the good of one another? Because God has made them one in Christ, with one Spirit. They both have the same salvation, the same Spirit, they serve the same King, and have the same Father.

Romans 12-16

McKnight begins by looking at Phoebe, commended by Paul to deliver and read Romans to the house churches, along with looking at the different kinds of people Paul greets in these house churches. Jewish and Gentiles Christians, slave and free, men and women and children, high and low status. He takes a stab at who the Strong and Weak are. Weak does not equal “Jewish.” Rather, “the Weak in Romans are weak ‘in faith’ or ‘in conscience'” (17). The Strong were predominantly gentiles who didn’t think they needed to observe the Torah, and they looked down on the (generally) Jewish Christians who did think they needed to follow the Torah (including the food laws). The Weak judged the Strong who despised and looked down upon the Weak.

Paul does side with the strong, but he has equally harsh words for both the Weak and the Strong. As McKnight points out, Paul “does not expect everyone to be on the same page” (22). What Paul does emphasize is that they should welcome one another to the table as siblings! (23).  It is Christoformity—being conformed to the image of Christ, which involves living it out among others: both Christian siblings and the world around us. Just as Christ lived and died (and now lives) for us, so we should die to self and live for each other.

Romans 9-11

In Romans 9-11, Paul introduces the newly saved gentiles to the story of Israel where he reads “Israel’s history in light of what happens to the people of God in Christ” (59). McKnight believes Romans 9:1-11:12 are directed at the Weak and 11:13-36 are for the Strong. God elected Israel, but he had some surprising moves which includes a Messiah who includes even the gentiles as being elect members of the new covenant and having equal status with the Jews! According to McKnight, these chapters have more to do with God’s redemptive agents for his worldwide plan than they do with each person’s personal salvation (the ol’ corporate vs. personal salvation, p. 65). These chapter are meant to transform the readers’ minds so that they will live as siblings.

Romans 1-4, 5-8

McKnight reads Romans 1-4 as being pointed primarily to the Weak, and Romans 5-8 is pointed primarily to the Strong (noting the extreme lack of OT references). Romans 5-8 is the solution to the tensions between the Roman house churches.

In Romans 1-4, McKnight argues that Paul is speaking rhetorically in Romans 1:18-32. He is setting up his argument to bring down “the Judge” in Romans 2. The Judge, as McKnight refers to him, was the spokesperson for the Weak. Romans 1:18-32 is “a Jewish stereotype of a specific sort of gentile” (103). In Romans 3-4, the Judge offers questions to Paul which he refutes. That is to say, there are sinful gentiles (Romans 1), and Paul is talking about them to get the Judge to nod in agreement. Then he turns around (Romans 2) and condemns the Judge for sinning in the same ways. Paul then sprinkles questions that other Jewish Christians have asked him throughout his missionary service and then answers them.

McKnight divides Romans 5-8 according to pronouns: all, you, we, and I. I thought this was an interesting way to do it, but it made a lot of sense. Will you agree with all he says? Maybe. Sometimes his thoughts on whether Paul was speaking to the Weak or the Strong in this or that section seem forced, but generally it made sense. Paul sees the “I” of Romans 7:7-25 as being speech-in-character. Paul puts words into the Judge’s mouth and tells everyone of his failed experience at keeping the law.

The Spoiled Milk

Though I would recommend this book, a few things were a tad annoying as the book went on.

Weak and Strong

McKnight reminds us who the Weak and the Strong are almost every time he brings them up. The Weak are mostly Jewish Christians (and some gentiles). The Strong are mostly gentile Christians. The Weak judge the Strong; the Strong despise the Weak. The Strong defer away from Torah; the Weak love it. The Weak follow the Torah’s food laws, and the Strong couldn’t care less. The Strong have a superior status in Rome while the Weak do not. Though aspects of the definitions come up in each chapter, even in chapter 16 McKnight feels the need to “refresh our memories on the meaning of ‘Weak’ in Romans” (118). A comment which could have been left out of the sentence it was placed in. It makes sense to add on to the definitions of the Weak and Strong at the beginning of each chapter (even if that is repetitive), but to give small reminders throughout the chapter was a bit overkill.

Phoebe

Phoebe is a fantastic woman, and McKnight wrote the first chapter about her as the face of Paul’s letter. She supposedly performs the letter, which means she inflects her voice at points, makes certain gestures, acting out certain parts, and so on.

  • changed her voice when she read OT quotes (68),
  • would not have read further until her listeners answered one of Paul’s questions in Romans 9-11 (64),
  • would give the stink eye to either group when the letter talked about them (72, 111, 152),
  • has affirmations rolling off her tongue (96),
  • perhaps she read loudly enough that other Roman Jews could overhear her? (117)

She seems to be thrown into the conversation to make sure we don’t forget about her, which ends up distracting from the argument. For example, while talking about how Israel has responded both well and poorly to God throughout their history, McKnight writes, “Paul has now explained that God’s ways in history are often surprising in their sovereignty but that there are human correlations as well. Phoebe is concerned still with the Weak in Rome, and she’s not done looking at them until we get through the next paragraph in chapter 11 of Romans. To the Weak, Paul explains…” (77). She is important, but being reminded about her so often distracted me from the flow of thought.

Capitals

Finally, random nouns are capitalized: Sin, Flesh, Torah(?), Death, Privilege, Power, and Peace, and sometimes They, We, All, and Us (119), and more (144-45, 148, 153). I almost got used to it by the end, but it was just an odd thing to read. Placing the words in bold would have had a better effect.

Recommended?

This book was great. I’ve honestly not read much on Romans so far, but I found McKnight’s emphasis on the life of the church to be a very helpful reminder to me, and it was insightful to read the the troubles of the house churches into Romans 1-11, to think, “Why would Paul say this?” I usually want to quarantine myself away to read and write, but we are to know doctrine to be conformed to Christ and to live as he lived. He loved God and others and was eminently wise. Doctrine is meant to shape us so that we love others well, and in doing so we love God who created and saved them.

McKnight doesn’t claim that this way is the way to read Romans, but he does this to help give us a proper perspective on whom Paul was writing to and why he did so. If you teach through Romans, pick this one up. McKnight holds to the New Perspective on Paul and to such readings as the faithfulness of Christ (subjective genitive instead of the objective genitive). This doesn’t make much of a difference to his overall reading, so even if you disagree with those, you should still pick this one up. I think readers will come away with a better sense of how to read Romans. I plan to read Romans next time with these ideas in mind to see how well I agree with it.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Scot McKnight
  • Hardcover: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press (July 15, 2019)
  • Download: Teaching Romans Backwards (or buy here)

Buy it from Amazon or Baylor University Press!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baylor University Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

 

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this Spencer. You’ve summarized the book accurately. On repetitions, well, it’s the mother of all learning. On capitals, when I think something is an agent (as in Croasmun’s work, as in Apocalyptic Paul studies), I use upper case. And, as one who grew up reading German, I’m inclined to use upper case for nouns more than most. Sorry.

    Like

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