Unlocking Romans Chapter 1

Kurt Vonnegut once gave eight rules for writing short stories. Number Eight states: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” While Daniel Kirk is clearly not writing a short story, his opening chapter, like all well-written academic books, does a good job of letting the reader know where he is going. The reference to Vonnegut is not entirely inappropriate, though, because Kirk is decidedly concerned with telling a story. He’s not, however, telling a story in the conventional sense with the creation of characters and plot. Instead, Kirk is telling us a story by telling us how to be a good audience. It’s something akin to my experience reading Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Hermits.” The story is about an encounter between a church official and three hermits who live on an isolated island. The hermits being ignorant of liturgy, the church official teaches them the right way to pray making them repeat the Lord’s prayer again and again. He then departs, content that he has brought them into the fold. As the church official sails on, he suddenly is overtaken by three mystical figures shrouded in light and running upon the waters. They are the three hermits who have come to inform the official that they have forgotten the words of their prayer. When I first read the story, I read it in terms of a dichotomy that seemed important to me: organized religion vs. the Holy Spirit. It was a victory over stuffy religion. With greater knowledge of Tolstoy’s battles with the Russian Orthodox Church, the meaning of the story began to change. My prior reading wasn’t wrong per se, but it really failed to capture the force and intensity behind Tolstoy’s portrayal of official state sanctioned religion as foolish, devoid of power, and spiritually suffocating. Kirk offers us a hermeneutical key that doesn’t so much change the way the story is told, but begs us to alter how we listen. Some of the broad ideas of Romans are not in dispute: that Paul is concerned with Jew-Gentile relations, that he is trying to frame his argument in a way that is theologically consistent with the Jewish Scriptures, and that he is intimately concerned with the implications of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the understanding of God. Less certain is how he gets there.

Daniel Kirk proposes that understanding Paul’s argument in Romans is quite simple: pay attention to Paul’s portrayal of God. He cautions the reader that whatever sort of God one expects to find in Romans will inevitably shape how one reads the letter. If we hold in our minds the God of the philosophers–the unmovable mover, the perfect and ineffable first cause–then we arrive at a reading of Romans that fails to hear Paul. Instead, Kirk proposes that Paul consistently and necessarily focuses his letter on the God of Israel. It is this God whose character is challenged by the curious fact that  his people simultaneously continue to be in bondage to pagan rulers and reject Jesus as the Son of God. As the demographics in the church shift, Paul must account not only for the rejection of the Jewish people but for the acceptance of the Gentiles. The trouble for Paul is that he is simultaneously the ambassador to the Gentiles and the representative of a God whose identity is marked by his particularity. How does an apostle navigate the disjunction between a God whose character is revealed by his patronage of Israel and his calling to a group that has historically been excluded from that group? Kirk promises to guide us through a reading of Romans–to tell us where to listen up–that will solve Paul’s dilemma, make sense of the peculiarities of the text, and, most important of all, lead us away from outmoded ways of hearing Romans. In short, he promises to show how Romans is a theodicy of sorts. Whether he will keep his word remains to be seen.

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