Preaching Romans (Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica, eds) -- A Review

PREACHING ROMANS: Four Perspectives. Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019. Xi + 191 pages.

Paul is an intriguing person. He is loved and hated within the Christian community. He's often accused of messing up what Jesus began, even if the earliest Christian writings come from Paul. I find myself somewhat ambivalent about Paul. I like a lot of what I read, but he does say things that cause me headaches and heartaches. Yet, his letters form a significant portion of the New Testament and as a preacher who seeks to root his preaching in Scripture, I have to spend time with Paul. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In recent years Paul has undergone significant re-evaluation. There are these new perspectives on Paul that have emerged since I was in college and seminary. I've read about some of them, but not in any depth. I like a lot of what I read, and I feel as if Paul has been increasingly freed from the strictures imposed by older perspectives that assume that the core message is justification by faith and that everything else in Paul’s letters must fit that vision. We're discovering that Paul is a lot more complex than we previously thought, and that makes for better preaching (at least that would seem to be true in my estimation).

This particular book, which is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica, addresses the concerns of the preacher who comes to Paul's letter to the Romans. What we learn here, of course, can be applied elsewhere. The editors note that "the interpretation of the Letter to the Romans in particular is contested to such an extent that many pastors have become afraid to preach through Romans." (p. xi). Since I generally follow the lectionary, rather than preaching through a book, I did a quick glance to see where Romans figures in the lectionary. What I found is that Romans gets a lot of attention in Year A, which might mean reading through the book in preparation for preaching in Year A.
The editors have divided the book into two parts. Part One provides an introduction to four perspectives on Paul written by adherents of those perspectives. I feel this is important to truly understand a position. Since this is a book about preaching through Romans and not just understanding Romans, Part Two offers a set of sermons illustrating each of the four perspectives. If I have one major criticism of the project, which I like, is that with two exceptions all of the contributors are male, and as far as I can tell all are white. A bit more diversity would have been appreciated. 

In Part One, we're offered four perspectives on Romans, beginning with Stephen Westerholm's "Romans and the 'Lutheran' Paul." This is our traditional Reformation version that focuses on human sin, atonement, and "justification by grace through faith" as the core message of Paul. If you're my age, you've heard this message preached in a Protestant church. This is sort of the baseline for the conversation. The other three perspectives offer alternatives, all of which I find to be more appealing. As noted in the concluding chapter, all three of these alternatives are in some way rooted in the changing dynamics of our understanding of Paul's relationship to Judaism, especially as laid out by E.P. Sanders. The New Perspective, which is described by Scot McKnight, is often linked to people like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, and it builds off of Sanders work on Paul and Judaism. In this perspective, Judaism is defined by covenant and thus is not a works-based religion. In the New Perspective, Paul is not focused on over-throwing Jewish works-righteousness but rather is focused on creating a new community in Christ. There is much more here, but the key is a move toward a new understanding of the relationship to Judaism. I like what I see but we are not finished. The next chapter, written by Douglas Campbell, takes us further, by positing an apocalyptic reading of Paul. I found this chapter most intriguing because I've become convinced, largely through reading 1 Corinthians, that Paul has a deeply apocalyptic/eschatological vision. The key here is that Jesus is the criterion of truth. He offers a lens through which to read reality. Finally, there is the Participationist model, as described by Michael Gorman. Gorman offers this perspective not as an alternative to the other three, but as a complement, suggesting that the key to Paul is found in the prepositions used regarding Jesus. That is, we need to look at how Paul speaks of being "in Christ" and "with Christ." The key to understanding Paul and preaching from Romans is to help the listener participate in and with Christ in all of life.  

With these perspectives laid out for us (in much more detail than I can provide here), we turn to Part Two, where we find four sets of sermons, each illustrating the perspectives previously introduced. Personally, I found the sermons in the apocalyptic section most interesting. The first set, illustrating the "Lutheran" Paul was very traditional and doctrinal in nature. In fact, they seemed to be more lectures on Romans than sermons intended to speak to a congregation. The other three sets are more relational, even when they are rather doctrinal. There are sermons in this book by James Dunn, Fleming Rutledge, Will Willimon, and Richard Hays. I will say, Willimon’s sermon comparing the new and old Adams doesn’t disappoint.

This is a helpful book for those who take up Romans in their preaching. For lectionary preachers (RCL), that's Year A. So, if you're planning on preaching Romans during Year A, this is a good book to pick up and read beforehand. What is also helpful is to have in one place four primary perspectives detailed. Joseph Modica, in his closing chapter, notes that there more than four perspectives, but these are the most common ones. Again, he notes that the three newer perspectives all work off E.P. Sanders work on the relationship of Paul and Judaism. Re-imagining that relationship is very important to our understanding of Paul, but also of the way we understand preaching in general. Additionally, as one concerned about not misrepresenting Judaism, having this conversation beforehand is important.

Overall, this a helpful book that I can heartily recommend. I only wish, as stated above, the list of contributors was more diverse. I know that Scot McKnight is strongly supportive of the inclusion of women and persons of color in these kinds of conversations, which is why I'm a bit disappointed by the preponderance of white males in this group. Perhaps the next volume of similar essays will be more diverse in participation (as we participate "in Christ."). 


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