Letter outlines Paul’s theology

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on May 1, 2016

Let us begin our discussion about Paul’s theology. The place to start would be with his Epistle to the Romans. This is Paul’s most theological work. It is the only letter addressed to a church that he did not establish. He had never been to Rome and knew very few members of the Christian church there. He probably took great pains to get this letter perfect. He was writing to the heart of the empire and hoping to obtain that church’s support for the westward expansion of the Gospel.

He desperately wanted to make it to Rome. His mission work around the Aegean Sea had been completed. All that was left was to return to Jerusalem, taking with him the donations that were collected from the mission churches to help the Jerusalem church. Then he would be free to make the trip to Rome. Little did he know that in Jerusalem he would be arrested by the Romans and end up in Rome in chains, a prisoner of the state.

Paul planned to send Phoebe ahead to act as his financial representative in Rome (Romans 16:1-2) and to start the collection necessary for his mission base there. Meanwhile, he started to lay the groundwork for it with his letter, outlining his understanding of the Christian faith. He realized there was a problem between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. This was probably a universal problem and he addressed the issue. (See Romans 9-11.)

Through the centuries, the Epistle to the Romans has been used by various scholars to develop their theology. Martin Luther concentrated on chapters 1 to 8 because they contained Paul’s most explicit teaching on Justification by Faith. John Calvin focused on chapters 9 to 11 because they contained Paul’s teaching on divine predestination. Paul’s main thesis appears in 1:16-17: the righteous person will live out his faith; the wrath of God is revealed among humans by the opposite of faith, which is sin.

This thesis is more fully developed in 3:21-31, showing how it is the faith of Jesus that saves humans. He then demonstrates this thesis with the example of Abraham as the person who models faith (4:1-25). He completes this argument through an appeal to experience (5:1-21), and then responds to a series of questions raised by this thesis (6:1-11:31). The questions seem to be, “If the Gentiles have this good news and the Jews are turning away from it, does this mean that God has failed?” Finally, Paul applies this argument to the moral life of the Roman community as exemplary for every community (12:1-15:6).

In chapter 8, Paul says that because we have been empowered by the Spirit, we can do what the law asks of us. In this letter, Paul is writing one continuous rhetorical argument. His final argument is that all Israel will be saved.

Throughout the letter, Paul develops an elegant and powerful argument based on the story of Jesus.

It is in the response of faith that establishes a human in a right relationship with God, as shown by Abraham’s faith in God while he was still a Gentile (4:1-11).

Human sin has inhibited the possibility of obedient, trusting faith (1:18-3:20). God has gifted humans with the power to respond with faith through the faithful obedience of God’s son Jesus (1:16-17, 3:21-26). Thus Jesus’ faithful obedience places humans in a right relationship with God (5:12-21). The power to respond as Jesus did is given by the Holy Spirit (5:1-11, 8:1-39).

God’s plan in history is to reconcile Jews with the Gentiles through the principal of faith (9:1- 11:36). We can all be righteous by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (13:14). The Romans demonstrated this transformed mind by the quality of their lives (12:1-21). They especially demonstrated this by the mutual love that respects and welcomes all diversity in the community (14:1-15:13).

Paul is an intensely difficult person to comprehend. We need to remember that he uses the ancient convention of rhetoric as an instrument of persuasion. We should read his letters for argument rather than for a revelation of his personality.

Paul did not create Christianity. He used the stories of Jesus as they were known to the early church in developing his theology. Jesus is the centre of his writings. He used many earlier traditions, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the words and the stories of Jesus throughout his epistles. He is also a creative thinker and demands that we think along with him. He provides us with a creative dialogue to stretch our minds and spirit. Enjoy the dialogue.


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