Last night we began a study of Romans in our men’s class. We started off by talking about what we want to accomplish from the study. To me it breaks down into three areas: Receiving, Processing, and Applying – in that order. The ultimate goal of the class is to let God’s Word shape and mold us. It is to go inside of our hearts and minds and be received with a spirit of submission. But before we can apply it we make an effort to understand what it says – processing. This is more than isolated and individualized interpretation of small snippets or prooftexts. This is taking Romans, in context and in community, and wrestling with what Paul told the believers in Rome nearly 2000 years ago. Then taking the results of that wrestling match and applying the results to where we find ourselves today.
There are a few introductory issues that I think are helpful to get us on the right track as we begin this study. We have to hear Romans how Romans was meant to be heard. This is not an entirely possible task, as we are not first century Christians in the churches in Rome privy to all the insider issues that Paul is addressing in the letter but it is one that should be attempted. This means we take historical background (which we will deal with in the next post) and genre seriously.
Importance of Studying Romans as a letter
When you look at the New Testament as a whole you notice there are a variety of types of literature there. You find narrative in the Gospels and in Acts. You find letters/epistles in Romans through Jude. Last you find apocalyptic literature in Revelation. These are not all read with the same lenses. You don’t read a personal letter the same way you read a science book. Romans is a shining example of Greek letters in the first century. Just like we start with “Dear so and so” and end with “Sincerely, Matt” they had a particular pattern of how they wrote letters. Gordon Fee outlines this well in his book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. His example is from 1 Corinthians.
“The form consists of six parts:
- name of the writers (e.g., Paul)
- name of the recipient (e.g. to the church of God in Corinth)
- greeting (e.g. Grace and peace to you from God our Father…”
- prayer wish or thanksgiving (e.g., I always thank God for you…”
- final greeting and farewell (e.g., the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you”
If you look at Romans it has all of these characteristics. To show how specifically this was layed out in Greek letter writing, here are some excerpts from an example of an ancient Greek letter from The New Testament Background by C.K. Barrett p.28,
Isias  to her brother Hephaestion  greeting . If you are well and other things are going right, it would accord with the prayer  which I make continually to the gods. [the body of the letter  follows that is roughly the length of Philemon with this final greeting/farewell]…You will do me a favour by taking care of your bodily health. Goodbye .”
I include all that to make the point that Romans was received as a letter in the very form that they would have expected to receive letters in their day. It was not numbered with nice clean chapter breaks and verse numbers with concise headings to let us in on what is about to be said. Because of that I gave each member of our class a copy of chapter one as just straight out text with no divisions or numbers or clues. Romans has to be read as a letter in order to be understood properly.
Occasional Nature of Letters
The key here is that letters are always written for a particular occasion. When we send a letter there is always a reason and the same is true of each letter in the New Testament. If we read each letter flat with little regard for the occasion of why the letter was written by the author to the recipient we will go blindly through the letter and draw conclusions which were not meant to be drawn. This is where history often comes in to play, especially with Romans, to help us understand the circumstances in which the letter was written and the potential occasion (problems) that were being addressed.
As Gordon Fee later points out in his book (p.46), we are only hearing half the conversation when we read an epistle. We are reading the answers. So we have to make some informed assumptions about what occasion (problems) would have prompted the answers given. I will let Fee speak for himself as he says it much better than I can,
Most of our problems in interpreting the Epistles are due to this fact of their being occasional. We have the answers, but we do not always know what the questions or problems were, or even if there was a problem. It is much like listening to one end of a telephone conversation and trying to figure out who is on the other end and what that unseen party is saying. Yet in many cases it is especially important for us to try to hear ‘the other end,’ so that we know what our passage is an answer to. (Fee, 46).
In the next post we will talk about who is on the other end and how putting the pieces together of the other side of the conversation helps us in listening to Romans in its proper context and interpreting what Paul says with ears more closely identifyied with its original recipients.