For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
At the beginning of his preface to Romans, Martin Luther expresses what he believes to be the importance of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.1
Similarly, John Calvin thought Romans was a presentation of the Gospel that was centered on justification as given in Romans 5:
The whole Epistle is so methodical, that even its very beginning is framed according to the rules of art. As contrivance appears in many parts, which shall be noticed as we proceed, so also especially in the way in which the main argument is deduced: for having begun with the proof of his Apostleship, he then comes to the Gospel with the view of recommending it; and as this necessarily draws with it the subject of faith, he glides into that, being led by the chain of words as by the hand: and thus he enters on the main subject of the whole Epistle justification by faith; in treating which he is engaged to the end of the fifth chapter.2
However, a problem has occurred as a result of treating Romans as an expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the diffusion of the idea that the Gospel is fundamentally logical/doctrinal in its content. Far from the Gospel being fundamentally story-driven (cf. 1 Cor. 15.3-8), the content of the Gospel has been understood to fit the content of Romans.
The idea that Romans is intended to be a presentation of the Gospel is evident among many scholars. F.F. Bruce takes Romans, along with Galatians, to be an explication on the “gospel of justification by faith.”4 Douglas Moo takes the gospel to be the theme of the letter.5 When we turn to the first sentence of Paul’s thesis in Romans 1.16, we observe Paul talk about the Gospel. It certainly seems reasonable to think that Romans is Paul’s presentation of the Gospel for the specific context of the Christians in Rome.
However, regarding Romans at the content of Paul’s Gospel assumptions has some problems. In the argument of Romans 1.18-8.39, Paul only explicitly uses the word εὐαγγέλιον once in Romans 2.16. There, Paul describes his Gospel as God’s judgment of the secret thoughts of all people through Jesus. That Paul feels the need to clarify the specific content in 2.16 is part of his Gospel suggests that Romans as a whole is not intended to be an explication of the Gospel, otherwise such a statement would have been superfluous and redundant.
As to Romans 1.16, the real critical question is how Paul uses ἐστιν that links Paul’s reference to the Gospel with the power of God. Is it intended to identify Paul’s Gospel as the pertain to the power of God as it content? Or, is Paul identifying the Gospel as the instrument of God’s power? This question is critical to assessing what Paul’s takes his letter to the Romans to be describing, as the power of God takes central place in Romans: Romans 6 and 8 are perhaps the clearest examples of how Paul gives priority to the way God’s power in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of believers. If Paul is describing the content of the Gospel, then the discussion on the theme of God’s power is Paul’s Gospel. If, on the other hand, Paul is describing the Gospel as the instrument of God’s power, then we are not necessarily getting a presentation of the central content of Paul’s proclamation.
While the differences are subtle, the implications are significant. If Romans is not “Gospel,” then how we understand the fundamental proclamation and message of the Christian faith dramatically differs from those presentations that justification by faith to be central to the heart of the Gospel. If Paul’s discussion on God’s power is intended to describe the way the Gospel has power, then we are getting a more reflective, if not even philosophical discussion about the Gospel.
There are reasons to consider that the content of Romans is to be understood in a philosophical nature. If Stanley Stowers is correct that Romans is protreptic rhetoric, then this species of rhetoric would fall under the convention of ancient philosophy. Yet, we may be able to observe that Paul’s letter functions more in an epistolary fashion than simply a regular epistle and rhetoric. The logical and methodological nature of Paul’s letter to the Romans fits with the conventions of philosophical letter writing, like that of Cicero and Seneca.6. Much of the content of Romans addresses themes common to ancient philosophy, such as the origins of human society and ordering (Romans 5.12-21), the nature of the passions (Romans 7), and an understanding of the cosmos (Romans 8.18-24).
To that end, Romans may be understood as a philosophical reflection on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how God’s power is at work through believers in it. The difference between the Gospel and philosophical analysis may be taken to be analogous to the difference between art and the philosophical domain of aesthetics. One’s reflection on the nature of art and its evocative power is not itself the power of art, but it is pulling the veil behind the experience of art and digging into the dynamics at play. Art is not philosophy, though. Art is a concrete experience, whereas aesthetics is an abstracted and logical reflection on the nature of the concrete experience. In a similar manner, Romans may be taken to be a philosophical reflection on the Gospel consistent with the conventions of ancient philosophy, particularly as Judaism and ancient philosophy were commonly brought together in the 1st century AD.
Perhaps it is this philosophical nature of Romans that makes it appear so magisterial. Yet, the awe of Paul’s letter that has begotten deep reflection on it through the centuries need not control what we understand to be the central, fundamental proclamation of the Gospel. Too much energy has been spent trying to make the Gospel fit the content of Romans, with the unfortunate result is that the Gospel that it has been taken that Paul preached often looks very different from the portrayal we have of Jesus in the Gospels, which barely mentioned justification and even Paul’s own description of his proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8.
Instead, perhaps we have the beginnings of philosophical Christiana in Romans, with one important caveat: Paul’s “philosophical analysis” of the Gospel provides a greater place to the interpretation of story and Scripture as a source of authority, particularly in Romans 4, which differs dramatically from the way we understand philosophy today to start with reasoning as the highest authority of philosophy. However, to the extent that Israel’s story about God and the Scriptures were authoritative and important sources for philosophical reflection wouldn’t differ dramatically from the conventions of some Stoic philosophers to appeal to pagan mythology as containing the seeds of meaning for the philosophers to expound upon.
For Paul, the Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension that will culminate in His eschatological judgment of the world. Instead of it being an explication of the Gospel, Romans may be better than to function to observe the way this Gospel has power in human history and the lives of believers. Thus, justification by faith would not be the Gospel, but it is rather more appropriately taken to be a reflection upon the active grace of God is at work in human lives through those who believe in the Gospel. The experience of justification, or even other part of the traditional ordo salutis such as sanctification, is not the Gospel, however. The Gospel is that Jesus came to live among us, was crucified and raised, and that He has thus become Lord of all creation.
- Luther, Martin. Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans . Kindle Edition.
- Calvin, John. Calvin’s Complete Bible Commentaries (Kindle Locations 344383-344387). . Kindle Edition.
- Bruce, Romans, 38.[/note[ Thomas Schreiner thinks Romans was a presentation of Paul’s Gospel so as to unify the church for brining the Gospel to Spain.3Schreiner, Romans, 51.
- Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 29.
- E. Randolph Richards, “When is a Letter not a Letter?” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy, 86-94.