“Perspicuity refers to something that can be seen through, i.e., to lucidity, clearness of style or exposition, freedom from obscurity: the perspicuity of her argument” (Dictionary.com), and I contend that Paul’s grand meaning in Romans is perspicuous.
Certainly, there are debates about whether the righteousness that was reckoned to Abraham and to us describes just a change in our judicial standing or also a qualitative change in our nature. Certainly, there are debates over the identity of the wretched man in Romans 7, and over other details.Certainly, the world has seen many better-disciplined rhetoricians than Paul, Nevertheless, I believe that any confusion over his grand meaning has arisen because scholars have so obsessed over details that they have lost sight of the forest in their preoccupation with trees and twigs.
In this series of posts, I will attempt to show that the substantive meaning of Romans is indeed perspicuous, despite the ill-directed efforts of some scholars who have made it seem otherwise.
In these posts, the Greek text is from The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Society of Biblical Literature and Logos Bible Software. If the English translation source of a passage is not identified, it is my own; otherwise it is identified by one of the standard abbreviations – ASV, ESV, KJV, NIV, etc.
I have included transliteration of most of the Greek passages mainly for the benefit of my teenage grandson, who often takes an interest in my tweets and blog posts.
The image at the head of this post was found at commons.wikimedia.org. Attribution: Trish Steel
There was a message that was clear in Paul’s own mind, and that he wished to communicate to the Christians in Rome, who were believers from both Gentile and Jewish backgrounds. When he despatched his letter, he obviously thought he had written something that was fit for purpose, something intelligible to ordinary Jews, Greeks, and Romans who had an everyday grasp of Greek and an ordinary grasp of the culture that surrounded them. We can take it that his intent was the same as the one that he expressed to the Corinthians, “οὐ γὰρ ἄλλα γράφομεν ὑμῖν ἀλλ’ ἢ ἃ ἀναγινώσκετε ἢ καὶ ἐπιγινώσκετε”, “For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand” (2 Cor. 1:13 – English translation is from the NIV). Therefore, we should expect to find his chief points of doctrine boldly stated, and nothing material hidden behind subtleties that only a scholar amongst the recipients could understand.
There is a pattern in Romans, first seen at 1:16-17. Paul delivers a key statement or a related cluster of statements. In each statement, he uses bold, memorable language that he can expect will ring in the hearers’ ears even as he continues on to prove and defend the statement. As he develops each proof, he may say things that sound like modifications of the key statement, but they never are. He has stated his thesis emphatically and so he is entitled to expect that, when his hearers note a seeming dissonance between the thesis and some subsequent sentence, their interest will be piqued and they will do him the courtesy of waiting to see how he resolves the dissonance. The dissonances are not signs of confusion in Paul’s own thinking – quite the opposite.
The Grand Thesis
The first major cluster occurs at 1:16-17, where Paul asserts five things.
- “δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν” (dunamis gar theou estin eis sōtērian) – [the gospel] is the power of God for salvation
- “παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι” (panti tō pisteuonti) – to everyone who believes
- “Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι” (Ioudaiō te prōton kai Hellēni) – to [the] Jew first, and to [the] Greek.
- “δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται” (dikaiosunē gar theou en autō apokaluptetai) – righteousness of/from God is revealed in/by the gospel
- “ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται· Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται” (ek pisteōs eis pistin, kathōs gegraptai ho de dikaios ek pisteōs zēsetai) – the key to this revelation and this righteousness is faith.
Those five points constitute the major thesis of Romans. Beginning at 1:18, through to the end of chapter 11, Paul will develop and defend them, then apply them in chapters 12 to 16. As I summarise that content, I believe I can show that Paul’s grand meaning is indeed crystal clear, and the points of uncertainty irrelevant.
However, before I go on to do that, there is a point of debate that needs to be discussed. What meaning did Paul expect his Roman hearers to ascribe to the word pistis? Some have suggested that ek pisteōs refers obliquely to the faithfulness of Christ. If that is so, then perhaps by eis pistin is intended the life of practical faithfulness which ought to be true of Christians.
I think, certainly not. Firstly, although Paul’s overall doctrine of the Christian life agrees with James that faith without works is dead, pistis in Paul undoubtedly is usually best translated by “faith” or “belief”, and so eis pistin evokes delivery into a state of confessing belief, with the believer’s subsequent faithfulness not an issue in the immediate context. Therefore, it is unlikely that Paul has inserted a different nuance into ek pisteōs. Secondly, though of course, Paul’s hearers did not necessarily know the meaning Paul usually ascribed to pistis, Paul’s use of the word earlier, in verse 12, shows that he took for granted that the Romans would understand the word the same way, too. He says, “τοῦτο δέ ἐστιν συμπαρακληθῆναι ἐν ὑμῖν διὰ τῆς ἐν ἀλλήλοις πίστεως ὑμῶν τε καὶ ἐμοῦ” (“that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” – NIV).
What a shallow “encouragement” that would be, if the Romans and Paul were to sit down and swap yarns about their own faithfulness. No, obviously it is the object of their mutual faith, Jesus Christ, who will be the source of the encouragement. Paul hopes to learn even more of Christ as the Romans share their experience with him, and he expects the Romans will be encouraged in the same way by what he (Paul) can share with them. Pistis clearly means a state of confessing belief.
I have just spent three paragraphs trying to adjudicate on a point of controversy. A thorough commentary would give even more time to the question. Does that mean, as is often alleged, that Paul’s message is difficult to understand? No. We 21st Century readers need to pause and take that time, but his original hearers would have understood immediately and been ready accordingly for Paul to continue his exposition.
Note, too (as verses 7 and 12 show), that Paul is writing to people who already had faith. Whether the gospel had come to them via Petrine, Pauline, Johannine or other channels, they had believed that God had made this Jesus, who had been crucified and then had risen, both Lord and Messiah, and they had repented and been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. (Cf. Acts 2:36-38). Therefore, Paul does not write to induce faith but to expand the understanding of those who already had faith, so that they might better understand what God had given them.
If, therefore, you start your study of Romans from a point of studious critical neutrality, you are almost certain to miss the point. You will not hear Paul’s words as the Romans did, and so you will not comprehend his meaning. These treasures are, indeed, revealed from faith to faith. It is not at all unscholarly to bring your pre-existing faith to your study of Romans. It is very nearly essential.
Next: First Subsidiary Thesis (1:18): Sinful Humanity is Under God’s Wrath