Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel in search of Peace in the Midst of the Empire
SCM Press, 2019, £19.00. ISBN 978-0334058342
Review by Vicky Johnson, Precentor York Minster
This is a book about scripture in the context of past, present and future, how it is read, how it is heard and most importantly how it is lived. We are reminded in the first chapter, that the Book of Romans was not written as an exercise in academic doctrine but as a letter for life; a lived theology directed towards a Christian community in need of guidance, hope and peace.
The book of Romans, argues McKnight, is about privilege and power and the peace that a fully lived theology can make in a fractured world. Starting with the pastoral and the contextual, Knight then moves to the theological. We are warned that our reading of scripture is shaped and sometimes distorted and trivialised by over-theologizing. We need to start with the simple questions: How do we live out this faith in reality? This is why, he argues, to read Romans well, we need to read it backwards.
The argument for reading Romans backwards is well made, for the pastoral and practical guidance in Chapters 12-16 is often regarded as a post-lude to the main theological agenda, rather than a fulfilment of it, so it is refreshing to be guided to read it in reverse. Only then can we begin to understand the theological challenges of Chapters 9-11 and 1-8.
How did those ordinary early Christians respond to the message of Paul? McKnight begins with Pheobe, a Sister in Christ who was commissioned with ‘reading’ the letter to the churches in Rome. What a responsibility, to embody the words of Paul and make them real and relevant to those who were willing to listen. There is then a reminder to all those who read, teach and preach in church, that the words we speak with our lips, we are called to believe in our hearts and what we believe in our hearts we are commanded to show forth in our lives.
McKnight then explores the practical and pragmatic nature of the early church in Rome, where the meetings took place and who might be there. These were intimate and yet public gatherings and the whole household, slaves and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile would have been present. These historical reflections are important as they add context to the letter and bring it to life. In addition, we are exposed to the central ideas of Paul’s teaching by considering the familial nature of Christian life; the church is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, and the strong and weak are bound to one another in a love which moves beyond doctrine towards a lived theology. We are reminded that this letter was written and delivered to an ecclesial community and should not only be thought of as a book to test the intellectual agility of theologians down the centuries.
Reading Romans Backwards, provides a refreshing perspective on a foundational Christian text and through detailed scriptural analysis opens up imaginative possibilities for those tasked with making scripture relevant to contemporary Christian communities. In summary, Romans is concerned with Christoformity, the lived and embodied theology of conforming our lives to the life of Christ which leads to a visible and generous community known as the Body of Christ. This message is as much needed in the church of today as it was yearned for in the first century church in Rome.
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