edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa
Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas. 166 pages
Reviewed BY SEAN MILLER
The theology of Romans 5-8 winds its way through so many of the conversations we clergy have with our congregation members. How many times have we needed to interpret the relationship between obedience to the law and life under the grace of Jesus Christ? How many times have we preached memorial services using the familiar words from Romans 8: “Neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation?” How many times have we comforted those who labor under the “sufferings of these present times” and pointed to the “hope that is not seen?”
Gaventa’s “Apocalyptic Paul” shines new light on these familiar themes, opening up beloved Scripture with cutting edge theological tools and research. This is a serious work for the serious reader, yet in the midst of thick theological discourse one finds a wealth of insight, with helpful introductions and summaries at the end of each chapter. This collection originated as a series of papers presented at the bicentennial of Princeton Theological Seminary and gives new meaning to the Christ/Adam typology of Romans 5, the “cosmic horizon” of Romans 7 and the cosmic conflict of Romans 8. Gaventa’s own essay, “The Shape of the ‘I’: The Psalter, the Gospel and the Speaker in Romans 7,” is a marvelous chapter in which the author describes the “I” found in Romans 7 (“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”). Placing the ego in relationship to cosmic conflict, Gaventa suggests, “Romans 7 demonstrates that the conflict between God and the powers of Sin and Death is not just about some other ‘they’ or about a privileged ‘us’ that somehow has been removed from Sin’s grasp. It is also about the ‘I’ who delights in God’s will and faithfully undertakes what is holy and right and good, since the cosmic power of Sin reaches even into our best selves and produces despair.”
In her introduction, Gaventa comments, “No syllable in Paul’s letter to the Romans could be termed neglected,” noting the weight of scholarship that has been applied to Romans over nearly two thousand years. Gaventa’s collection adds new understanding to ancient questions of cosmology and anthropology. She notes the challenge of collecting conference papers and crafting them into one cohesive book, and she has done so quite well. For the diversity of these voices must be heard in our ongoing dialogue with Paul and our consideration of his influence on the Christian tradition today.
Treat yourself to the complexity of this volume, but do so with your favorite translation of Romans 5-8 close in hand, never far from the artistry of Paul’s narrative and the complexity of his own voice. Pay special attention to J. Louis Martyn’s well-crafted afterword, which acts as both concise summary and further reflection on major themes. In total, Gaventa’s collection, when paired with these meaty middle chapters of Romans, is a rich feast for those who hunger to learn — and be challenged — in our ongoing conversation with the Apostle Paul.
SEAN MILLER is the pastor of Potomac Presbyterian Church in Potomac, Maryland.