Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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13. Romans


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Romans, including information about the city and church to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • explain three key concepts in Paul’s theology that are discussed prominently in Romans: the righteousness of God, justification by faith, and the obedience of faith.
  • articulate Paul’s perspective (as expressed in Romans) on the universal availability of salvation and how this is accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • describe how Paul handles three other matters taken up in the letter to the Romans: the question of God’s continuing relationship with Israel, the responsibility of believers to obey governing authorities, and the duty for those who are strong in faith to make accommodation for the weak.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Pistis Christou

One significant discussion in the theological interpretation of Paul’s letters centers on the translation of the Greek phrase pistis Christou (“faith of Christ”) and the related question of how to translate the Greek word family pistis (“faith,” “trust,” “faithfulness”). The Greek phrase is literally rendered “faith of Christ,” that is, the faith that belongs to Christ or “Christ’s Faith.” Following Martin Luther, however, most English translations have rendered the same Greek phrase “faith in Christ.” This is problematic according to Greek grammar. But some argue that the English phrase “faith in Christ” better translates one possible idea contained in the Greek phrase, that Christ is the object of faith. The question of interpretation is this: whose faith is Paul referring to?

A more subtle question is how to translate pistis. Is Paul speaking of Christ’s faith or trust (in God), or Christ’s faithfulness (obedience) to God (see text pp. 270–71)?

There are a number of ways to construct an exercise or set of exercises that explore the possibilities for interpretation of this phrase with respect to understanding Romans.

First, simply have students read “trust” or “faithfulness” for the pistis words in Romans. (You may offer them a concordance, or simply insert “trust” where the text has “faith.”) How does this substitution change their reading of Romans?

Second, identify the pistis Christou phrases in Romans from a concordance. What happens when students reread Romans substituting “faithfulness of Christ” for the NRSV translation “faith in Christ”? How does this translation (I would argue, grammatical correction) change their reading of the passages?


Translations make a difference. And translation is an art that is not without ideological influences. Martin Luther’s Reformation reading of Romans, and of the phrase pistis Christou, has had extensive influence on Protestant soteriology—meaning, how Protestant Christians think about salvation. For example, are Christians saved by Christ’s faithfulness to God, their personal belief in Christ, or some combination thereof? Wrestling with this dynamic and multidimensional question from the most basic level of translation; to the way scholars, priests, pastors, and believers read Romans; to broad theological discussions of faith, trust, and salvation reveals the powerful impact one small point of study can have on five hundred years of Christian history. But do not let students despair, or throw up their hands—these points of study and their implications are the important work of historians and theologians alike. Students, even at an introductory level of study, can see the impact of such decisions and, more importantly, can participate in weighing the evidence.

2. Justification and the Law

Another exegetical (interpretive) exercise has students use a concordance (or handout from a concordance) to look at the language of “justification” or “law” that Paul uses in Romans. Divide the class into small groups and have each group locate the occurrences of the words and determine the usage and meaning in each occurrence. What does Paul mean by nomos or “law”? How does Paul understand dikaiosynē or “justification”?


“Justification” is a partial translation of the Greek word dikaiosynē, which also can be translated as “righteousness” or “rectification.” The word means “right” or to “set right” (justify). This word is fundamental to the understanding of Christian thinking about the relationship between people and God. It is also fundamental to Paul’s discussion on what sets people right before God: is it the law or faithfulness like that of Abraham and Christ? This exercise, then, is a simple word study that requires literary analysis to open up the heart of Romans and the core of Paul’s thinking about Christ, God, and God’s people.

3. Old-Fashioned Outlining

Many interpreters of Romans have declared this to be Paul’s theological magnum opus. What these interpreters are responding to is the relatively clear and sustained argument that Paul sets forth in this letter. One way for students to see the argument is through the use of old-fashioned outlining.

For homework, or as an in-class activity, have students outline Paul’s argument in Romans. (I ask students to work for 10 minutes individually and then to consult in groups of three for 5–10 minutes before we gather to discuss their observations as a whole class.) They can begin with 1:16–17 as the “thesis” of the argument, “skipping” the salutation in 1:1–15 and Paul’s final remarks in chapters 15 and 16. Students should also ignore the “editorial headings,” as these are someone else’s outline and they may discover something quite different. (Alternatively, use an “unmarked” text. Supply students with a copy of Romans 1:16–15:21 that lacks the headings and/or paragraph designations. One source is the Oremus Bible browser tool online.)

Ask students to identify “hinges,” points in the argument where Paul shifts from one theme or set of language to another. This includes transitional phrases such as “first” or “therefore” or “what then?”

If students are confused about how to begin, have them simply list (in order of appearance) the topics Paul discusses. Then they can go back and identify a phrase or write the idea that Paul voices regarding that topic. When the outlines are complete (or each student has completed 3–5 chapters), help students look for patterns, repeated phrases, repeated concepts or ideas that Paul seems to be driving home.

Ask students to identify “movement”—where does Paul start, reach a crescendo, and finish? Is there more than one starting point or climax? Visual learners can chart both repetitions and movement to see how the two sets of information intersect. Is there a key passage where Paul makes his most important point? Does the argument spiral, circle around, or move in straight linear path?


All of this analysis employs basic rhetorical and literary criticism, imperative tools for working with texts. Romans is not an easy letter to hold in the head all at once. Outlining Paul’s argument, although labor intensive and requiring a good bit of time (40–60 minutes), improves reading skills and can help students see the way the letter works and also to identify key passages that encapsulate Paul’s basic message.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Read the “thesis” of Romans (1:16–17) aloud. What is the core of Paul’s argument? See whether students can restate Paul’s thesis in different words. What other places in Romans do students find this same core argument stated simply? Is Paul a universalist (believing that all people will be saved)? In other words, does Paul envision all people coming to God through Christ? What other evidence for or against this position on universal salvation can you find in the letter?
  2. What is the “New Perspective on Paul” (see text 13.8)? What is the “old” perspective on Paul (that emerged from the Reformation) (text pp. 271–72? How does each perspective read or interpret Paul’s letter to the Romans? What impact does the New Perspective on Paul have on Christian theology?
  3. Describe the ethic of hospitality and humility that Paul develops in Romans 14–15. What are the principles of human community that Paul sets forth here? Evaluate these principles and the ethic. Are they effective in modern society? In a pluralistic religious setting? Why or why not? What evidence do you have from the text to support your position?
  4. Read Romans 16. Using what you have learned about letter writing, co-senders and primary authors, amanuensis, letter carriers, etc. (text chs. 11–12), what can we learn about Paul, the Christian community in Rome, and Paul’s network of co-workers from this chapter?
  5. Look at Romans 13:8–10. What do these words remind you of? As a historian of first-century Christianity, how might you employ this passage to set Paul in relation to the other New Testament writings studied thus far?