Archive for December 1st, 2009

Reviewing Campbell (6) / SBL 2009 Report (3)

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

My previous post dealt with formal issues in Douglas’s misreading of Romans 1-3 as containing speech-in-character, etc. This post deals with the material issue of perspective in Romans 1-3. It is adapted from my SBL panel review of his book The Deliverance of God.

Douglas contends that much of Romans 1-3 is a prospective argument about God and sin(s), and punishment and justification by merit/deeds, an argument made without reference to God’s apocalyptic deliverance in Christ, rather than a retrospective one made precisely in light of that divine deliverance in Christ. I contend that this is a major interpretive error. How does Douglas make this mistake?

Douglas makes the mistake of identifying Romans 1-3 as a prospective argument, a prospectively arrived-at “vestibule” (e.g., p. 331, referring specifically to 1:18—3:20) that is a supposedly necessary component of the gospel—the bad news before the good news—for two reasons. First, he makes a faulty assumption, and second, he (functionally) forgets an all-important datum.

(1) Douglas’s faulty assumption is that because Romans 1-3 has been interpreted prospectively, it therefore functions in Romans as a prospective argument. That is, because it has been received theologically in a prospective manner, it also functions rhetorically in a prospective way. So, for instance, if the “Four Spiritual Laws” tract (which Douglas discusses on pp. 291-92, saying “one could hardly wish for a crisper account” of Justification theory [p. 292] or something similar begins with quotations from Romans 1-3, then Romans 1-3 must be the actual starting point of the gospel according to Paul if we believe that Romans 1-3 is in fact the word of Paul.

But this is obviously not necessarily the case. It could very well be that Paul has a rhetorical purpose for starting where he does in this particular letter. The rhetorical location of a text may not—and in this case, I would argue, does not—correspond to the theological location of the claims contained in that text in the theology of the person who composed the text. Rhetorical primacy does not mean theological primacy. There is no reason to conclude that Paul’s understanding of the structure of the gospel corresponds precisely to the structure of Romans.

(2) This leads to the second reason for Douglas’s error: he seems to forget—at least in dealing with the place of Romans 1-3— that Romans is written to believers, to those who already believe the gospel. Of course I do not really think that Douglas forgets the nature of the audience, but the argument of the book is that these chapters are misread as Paul’s words only if they are rightly read as the words of someone else trying to prepare his audience with the bad news they must understand in order to come to faith. This argument depends on effectively forgetting that Romans is not written in order to convert non-believers but to persuade believers.

For instance, in a critique of Richard Hays’s reading of 1:18-32 as a “homiletical sting operation” against the judgmental person, Douglas argues that Richard’s “conventional reading” of the passage (i.e. that Paul agrees theologically with the content of the sting operation and especially with the idea of divine retributive justice in 1:32a) means that the rhetoric is “designed to jolt the [judgmental] figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others” (p. 363). I do not know how to read this sentence without concluding that Douglas’s argument against Richard depends on an assumption that all such “conventional readings” claim that Romans is a tract for non-believers, designed to convince them of the error of judgmentalism and bring them to salvation (see also p. 323). Is that really Paul’s point in writing to those already “saved?” Richard would certainly not agree that it is. The early chapters of Romans are not a “preaching template for conversion,” as Douglas characterizes their content, even if some “conventional readings” may have taken them that way. If misreading them as such is in large part the reason for rejecting their being representative of Paul’s theology, then the “need” for that conclusion is significantly reduced.

To summarize my argument here: not only does the structure of Romans differ from the structure of the gospel, but also (a) the sequence of Romans does not mean that Paul is trying to call unbelieving sinners to recognize their sin, repent, and be saved—for they are already believers; and (b) Paul’s presentation of the gospel when he did preach to non-believers may also have differed markedly from the structure of Romans, and particularly from the narrative sequence of problem to solution that we find in the early part of the letter.

Furthermore, if Paul’s evangelistic presentation of the gospel differed from what we find in the rhetorical and narrative structure of Romans, we should not be surprised that Paul’s summaries of the gospel for believers (e.g., 1 Cor 15) also differ markedly from the narrative and rhetorical structure of the early chapters of Romans, a difference that Douglas wrongly thinks is strong support for his thesis.

Put differently: Douglas may think that the only way to read the bulk of the theological content of Romans 1-3 is as the misguided, fundamentalist (his word) opening of an evangelistic tract composed by someone with whom Paul radically disagrees. In the next post I will provide an alternative reading of the function of Romans 1-3.