Romans: theology or history?

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The three-horizons

Most traditional theologically-focused interpretive constructs identify only one eschatological horizon in the New Testament: the end of history. According to these schema, almost all eschatological data are to be situated at the end of time.

Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical method of interpretation, on the other hand, identifies three temporally-distinct eschatological horizons upon which the first Christians placed their hopes. Perriman’s three horizon model prioritizes the historical and political expectations of the early Christians over the ontological and philosophical doctrines prized by theological models (justification by faith, systematic Christian ethics, Trinitarian Christology, etc.). For him, the earliest Christians were not interested in justifying a new vision of God and religion—they were intent on announcing that Israel’s God was about to shape history for his own purposes, first by judging Israel, then by judging the nations.

A summary of the three horizons follows:

The first horizon was the catastrophic War with Rome. Christians understood the destruction of the Temple as divine judgement on an unfaithful Israel and divine vindication of the Christian proclamation.

The second horizon was the establishment God’s concrete rule over the hostile pagan nations of the the Mediterranean. The Roman empire was to be judged and replaced by a Christian polis.

The third horizon was the recreation of heaven and earth. At this final eschatological summit the dead would be raised and final judgement dispensed.

Romans revisited

Given that Paul’s epistle to Rome is perhaps the Biblical book most entrenched in traditional theological readings I want to here tear back the theology and offer a three-horizon historical-political perspective on the book. I will briefly examine a few familiar data points.

The Righteous shall live by faith

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17).

The righteousness of God is the centerpiece of Paul’s message. Contemporary discussion of this verse largely addresses the identity of “the righteous:” Does Paul refer specifically to Christ or more broadly to the believer?

The question shrinks in importance when we consider that Paul is not inventing a radically new context for this quotation from Habakkuk but reading it according to politically-concerned Jewish categories.

In its context, Habakkuk 1-2 deals with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. For the prophet this upheaval constitutes God’s wrath against Israel. Foreseeing the annihilation of Israel, the prophet intercedes on the people’s behalf. He complains that God is unjust to allow the arrogant Babylonians to destroy nations as they please. In response, God promises that the righteous will live (survive) by pistis (covenant fidelity). Thus God assures Habakkuk that he remains in control to both judge Jerusalem and to save it. In fact, God continues, divine justice will find the proud Babylonians in due time.

Paul then transposes this credo from Habakkuk into his own eschatological context. Paul’s righteous gentiles churches too would live by faith in a historical-political fashion. Just as a faithful remnant of Judah was restored to the land after the Babylonian crisis, the churches would survive the divine wrath that was coming “first for the Jew and then the Greek.” The wrath and salvation to come would be just as historical and political in nature as they were for Habakkuk.

Trouble and distress first for the Jew then for the Greek

But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, first for the Jew, then for the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, first for the Jew, then for the Greek (Romans 2:8-10).

Paul here foresees a day of justice coming that will affect both Jews and Greeks. While God had previously passed over the sins committed by recalcitrant Jews and ignorant pagans, he would do so no longer (Romans 3:25). All ungodliness would be eradicated from among the Jews and the Greeks (Romans 1:18-19). Centrally, this meant that their cultic centers would be upended: Jerusalem and its temple would perish just as the pagan operations of the Greco-Roman world would collapse (Romans 1:20-25). But, Paul entertains, the Jews and the Greek who does good, who obeys the Gospel, would receive honor and glory and peace; benefits afforded by God’s kingdom over the nations. Such people would be publicly justified, their faith and works approved by God.

The obedience of faith among the nations

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ… through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name (Romans 1:1-5).

Paul believed that through his ministry God was extending Christ’s political rule over the nations. In this endeavor Paul expected a breaking point; soon the nations would publicly praise Israel’s God (Romans 15:8-11). Soon “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15:12). What is envisioned here is not a wholly spiritual reign. Rather, it is a reign in fulfillment of Psalm 2—”[God] will make the nations [Christ’s] heritage, and the ends of the earth his possession. He shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:8-9). For Paul, God through Christ was about to break the back of the pagan imperial system. Those Greeks that lived by faith in God’s son would not perish but enter into God’s new order over the once pagan nations. 

Conclusion

Paul then, was concerned primarily with the first two horizons, the judgment coming upon the Jew and then the Greek. He expected his churches to suffer through these upheavals but to ultimately outlast their enemies. By faith the churches would live. They would pass out of the present evil age and into the age of God’s reign over the nations. They would soon inherit honor and glory and peace. But by disbelief both second temple Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism would pass away, condemned under God’s wrath. Through this whole process the incredible would be accomplished: the idolatrous nations would become obedient to the one true God.

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