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Romans: Not Really about Justification by Faith?

January 19, 2013

Final AccountRomans…is not a theological tractate on justification by faith. It is not a pastoral letter dealing with the specific problems in Rome, as the Corinthian correspondence is with respect to Corinth. …Romans is Paul’s account of how his mission to the Gentiles was grounded not only in his call to be Apostle to the Gentiles but also in Scripture, the only Scripture the first Christians had, that is, the Old Testament.

–Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans

I didn’t need much convincing of the first sentence above. To be sure, Romans is a “theological tractate on justification by faith,” but it is not merely that. To read Romans as only about justification is to miss much of what Paul was about. But perhaps more on my own views about that later. For now, I offer here a review of Krister Stendahl’s Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Fortress Press, 1995).

Final Account is a collection of Stendahl’s “notes and musings rescued from tapes.” That the five chapters contained here are based on lectures makes for engaging reading. Stendahl goes through Romans in more or less chapter order. Conspicuous is the absence of any treatment of Romans 16. At one point Stendahl speaks of “Romans 1-15″ as a “think-piece epistle,” suggesting perhaps that he–along with other scholars–thinks chapter 16 does not really belong in the book.

The “final account” in Stendahl’s title is “Paul’s account of how his mission to the Gentiles fit into God’s total mission to the world, the tikkun, the mending of the creation…and hence particularly the redemption of Israel.” This account ends up being “final,” because Stendahl understands Paul’s execution at Rome as happening before he could write any more letters. Stendahl adds:

Consequently, Romans is central to our understanding of Paul, not because of its doctrine of justification, but because the doctrine of justification is here in its original and authentic setting: as an argument for the status of Paul’s Gentile converts on the model of Abraham (Romans 4).

In chapter 1, “Paul and Israel,” Stendahl notes Israel and its response to the Messiah as a primary concern of Paul: “How could it be that, while his mission to the Gentiles on the specific orders of Messiah grew spectacularly, Israel itself did not respond?” Chapter 2, “A Particular Letter and Sin Universal” covers Romans 1:1-3:20 and 15. Here Stendahl pushes harder against Lutherans who see only justification by faith in Romans, and against Calvinists who see it as just the breeding grounds for “the proper doctrine of predestination.” Instead, he contends, Romans addresses how Gentiles and Jews in that community are to relate to one another. Abraham is a key figure in the issue of Jew-Gentile relations, and “Paul’s Exegetical Find” of Stendahl’s chapter 3 is that Abraham was an uncircumcised Gentile in Genesis 15 when God “reckoned [his faith] to him as righteousness.”

Chapter 4 of Final Account addresses “Missiological Reflections by a Former Zealot,” covering the key section of Romans 9-11. Paul “thinks and feels and worries with his mind” about “his fellow Jews.” He wants them to “come toward salvation.” Stendahl highlights that Paul both identifies with Gentiles in Rome, including them in the salvation story, yet also warns them to not become arrogant–they are, after all, grafted in. Imperialism in missions today, by extension, should be avoided. Chapter 5 covers Romans 12-14: “Intellectual Worship and Respect for Conviction.” Here Stendahl looks at the “ethical admonitions” that Paul gives, which follow on the heels of the “great theological thought” Paul had had about justification.

Final Account by Krister StendahlStendahl is to be lauded for situating justification by faith in a larger context. He compellingly provides evidence that Paul was concerned about the salvation of Israel, the place of the Gentiles, and his mission–and concerned about justification by faith as just a subset of those larger concerns.

On the other hand, Stendahl occasionally goes too far with his thesis:

In any case, Paul is moving West. He has plans to go to Spain, and on the way he hopes to visit Rome. That is clearly the reason for his writing.

It’s a reason for his writing, perhaps even the occasion. But to say that Paul wrote Romans with the sole purpose of explicating his Gentile mission goes too far, in my view. It’s all of the above.

Stendahl quotes Scripture rather loosely at times. He acknowledges as much: “Most of the references to the text are my rather free translations and paraphrases.” And the short book comes with the entirety of Romans 1-16 in the RSV, printed at back. Being able to look up verses handily is a great feature here. But the reader quickly finds that she or he will want to double-check such “free translations” against a relatively literal translation like the RSV.

One can easily, then, seek to corroborate Stendahl’s notion that in chapter 15, “[Paul] stressed with words upon words that he had no interest in telling the Romans anything–how to live, or how to think or what to do.” The “urge” or “appeal” (RSV) of Romans 12:1 and the “I have written to you very boldly” (RSV) of 15:15 are just two of a number of places that make the reader wonder how Stendahl came up with that read of the text. He rightly notes that Rome was not a church planted by Paul, and that he wrote to give a “final account” of his mission to the Gentiles. But this does not preclude Paul’s telling the Romans at times “how to live, or how to think or what to do.”

The reader of Final Account will have to read it with caution. But Stendahl offers a refreshing read of Romans, that at least intends to stay close to the biblical text (even if it doesn’t always). His exploration of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and concern for Israel’s salvation help the student of Paul to more fully appreciate Romans. And his insistence on setting the doctrine of justification by faith in a larger context will be a good challenge to many who so appreciate Paul’s magnum opus.

My thanks to the folks at Fortress Press for the review copy. Find Final Account at Amazon here, or at its product page on the Fortress Press site here.

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