Divine Justice (Romans 1:16-2:16)
Romans 1:16-17 is often called the “thesis statement” of the book, yet the connection between this sentence and the section that follows is ambiguous at best. From verse 15 on there is a series of logical connections: thus (15) therefore (16) therefore (17) and therefore (18). Paul means for this section to read like an integrated train of thought, but by treating this section as a “thesis statement” and inserting section headers before v. 16 and v. 18, readers of Romans miss the continuity between these verses.
The transition from 14-15 into 16-17 makes enough sense. Paul writes that he is a debtor, which puts him in a contingent social standing. He is a debtor to Greeks, which may be shameful because they are ethnic outsiders, but also to barbarians which surely indicates social shame. Paul does not mean the people from the Barber region in North Africa, he means “barbarians” in the sense of an extreme ethnic exonym. To be in debt to barbarians is to be in a shameful and low social position. Further he is in debt not only to wise but also foolish people, which continues to paint his social standing as low-status or shameful. And yet he is eager to preach the Gospel to those in Rome, which is a context that one would expect to require high status. How can Paul be eager to do something that would be vastly socially inappropriate considering his social status? There is a mismatch. He explains in v. 16: the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe [have faith], first to the Jew then to the Greek.”
What is less obvious is the connection within 16-17 and the connection from 17 to 18. What confuses people, I think, is that the tone appears to shift dramatically from happy coffee-cup verses to dark and foreboding condemnation. But this is a misreading that comes, again, from isolating the verses and so misreading them. Like it or not my solution is to read all of these verses in that dark, judgmental tone.
Specifically: the “salvation” mentioned in v. 16 is salvation from annihilation. Think about how God rained fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, or how God flooded the earth, or how God sends hurricanes and famines and plagues on nations. Paul continues this thought into v. 17 using a quote from Habakkuk 2:4a: “the righteous by faith shall live.” While most people read this verse to mean that someone’s faithfulness to God is the principle by which their life will operate, following Kevin Grasso I argue that instead it means that they will live [not be annihilated] due to their participation in the faith. According to Timothy Lim, an expert on the Qumran text Pesher Habbakuk, Paul is not alone in citing this verse in the context of righteousness and judgement. 1QpHab also interprets this verse as following Torah according to the halakhah of the Teacher of Righteousness which results in the righteous living and the wicked being condemned. I think Paul does essentially the same thing, but with his own construal of who is righteous and who is unrighteous.
The “righteousness of God” in v. 17 and throughout Romans is a difficult phrase, debated for thousands of years, but my reading is that it refers to the correct way of things: the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer, like the Law teaches. This “righteousness of God” or “justice of God” is curiously not how the world appears to work and definitely not how Paul’s life has gone to date (see his suffering lists in 2 Cor 6:4-10; 11:23-28). Paul is here previewing the argument he will make in 3:21: the “righteousness of God” is revealed in the Gospel. He then uses another difficult phrase, “from faith to faith,” which again following Grasso I take to mean the “righteousness of God” is revealed not only from the content of the Gospel but also for the benefit of those who are included in “the faith.” This all helps to explain why Paul can quote the Habakuk verse and say “just as it is written,” even though on the surface of things 1. his argument does not have anything to do with what Habakuk was arguing and 2. even if taken out of context the Habakkuk verse still would not appear to support the preceding claims. It all works if Paul is talking about justice, divine judgment, and salvation from wrath.
So this helps to explain the transition into the next section. Paul repeats similar phrasing (v. 17 “for… revealed” v. 18 “for… revealed”) which some have taken to imply he is randomly changing topics? or that this section is an interpolation? No, they are the same topic. The righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel is the very same thing as the wrath of God revealed against mankind [or the latter is the very same thing as the first half of the former]. Paul’s condemnation in this passage is fierce and unequivocal. His threefold use of paradidomi (“he gave them over,” “he gave them over,” “he gave them over”), according to Seon Yong Kim, is not a passive abandoning but an active cursing. God has punished humanity for idolatry, resulting in impurity, degrading the body (v. 24) inflamed passions resulting in irrational and non-procreative sex (v. 26-27) depraved minds (v. 28) and a litany of vices (v. 29-31).
Paul’s criticism bleeds into chapter 2. Here we find statements so bizarre to the traditional reading of Paul that they are usually ignored or treated only as a foil against which the real point comes in chapter 3. (For example, EP Sanders wrote that “the treatment of the law in chapter 2 cannot be harmonized with any of the diverse things which Paul says about the law elsewhere.”) But reading Paul as an ancient Jewish thinker concerned with national salvation (meaning salvation from bodily annihilation) and concerned with justice (meaning the righteous no longer suffering and the wicked no longer prospering) makes this section and the later sections cohere well. Paul warns his readers not to hold the “kindness of God” with contempt. God appears to be mean to the righteous and kind to the wicked, but really, this is God “storing up wrath for the day of judgment.” God dishes out wrath in small doses to his chosen people so that they are not annihilated like the wicked will be on the last day (compare 2 Mac 6:12-14). But regardless of the pace of judgment, when it comes to the content of judgment and the standard of judgment God is totally fair. Verses 6-11 are really astonishing as someone raised with the Protestant reading of Paul:
“He will reward each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness. There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.”
Paul’s argument in this section is not a foil against which he will later develop his true argument (Douglas Campbell’s view), or constructing a category which he will later declare empty in chapter 3 (most Protestant views). Rather they are his unironic and sincere thoughts about the causes of the mismatch between righteousness/evil and suffering/flourishing, as well as his view of how God will resolve all things on the last day. Further they are the “point” of the Gospel. The Gospel exists because in that mismatched world there is a lingering question about how God could possibly be faithful to his promises and just in his character. Paul’s theology is more than theodicy but it is not less. The good news of the Gospel is that God has offered his Son as a gift (3:21-31), and further, offered his Spirit as a gift (8:1-11), leading to our adoption to sonship (8:12-17) and thus the undoing (for us) of our impurity, degrading the body, inflamed passions, depraved minds, etc (from Rom 1). The righteousness of God results, eventually, in our conformity to the image of Christ (8:29) and therefore our own righteousness so that when we are judged fairly (2:6-12), we will be saved [not annihilated] (1:16-17).
How we interpret those connecting words (thus, therefore, therefore, therefore) makes or breaks the interpretation of Romans overall. Small words, big meaning.