This is surely true for Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is long, complex, and very important to Christian faith and doctrine. Let’s take a moment to survey the three most important Bible study tools we can use.
1. Establish the biblical and Jewish background to the letter.
The first step toward rightly interpreting any New Testament book is to know the Old Testament.
If I use the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago…,” US English speakers immediately catch the reference. But English speakers from Hong Kong or Sweden would likely wonder why I’m talking about 87 years ago in such a funny way. Similarly, context is crucial for understanding the New Testament epistles.
Take an Old Testament Introduction course. Read an introduction to the Old Testament or early forms of Judaism. Biblical literacy and a sound understanding of the culture and theology of Jesus’ earliest followers are all paramount to a sound interpretation of the New Testament letters.
This is especially the case with Romans. Romans contains at least 60 explicit scriptural quotations—not to mention echoes, allusions, or more general thematic influences. Unfortunately, even most commentaries don’t adequately account for the importance of Scripture, or for the theological framework with which Paul and his audience approached Romans.
My recent commentary (Lexham Press, 2020) goes out of the way not to fall into this trap. An introductory glossary and historical notes at critical spots detail the scriptural and Jewish background of theological ideas like faith, grace, resurrection, Torah (law), wrath, and more. Wherever Paul references Scripture or biblical theology, we need to do two layers of interpretation at once. In Romans, there are whole paragraphs where there is more Scripture than Paul, as he shoots forward toward a central point by speaking in rapid-fire shorthand!
For instance, do we immediately recognize that in Romans 11:34–35, Paul’s quotations of Isaiah 40:3 and Job 41:11 are both key passages within their respective contexts? That in both quotations, God’s incomparable might and authority over history prove his trustworthiness? And that both answer unfaithful Israelites, who presumptively—even idolatrously—accuse God of being unreliable? Well, we should. If we do, we’ll recognize right away that the doxology in 11:33–36 that wraps up Romans 9–11 (“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”) also reiterates one last time the point of these chapters: unbelieving Jews should start trusting God in Jesus. And in turn, that answers the whole worry that compelled Paul to explain himself in the long discussion of Romans 1:16–11:36 in the first place!
Using the same Old Testament-shaped theological lens as did the authors of our New Testament epistles is arguably our single most important interpretive tool.
2. Make a visual diagram of a paragraph in the letter.
For any biblical book, we’ll also want to work our way in detail through the author’s original wording. The ancient genre of “epistle”—formal letter—especially allowed authors to instruct and to explain themselves to their audiences. Such is the case with Romans more than any other New Testament epistle. Any English translation of Romans is filled with therefores, so-thats, both-ands, fors and sinces, and other logical connectors.
Working through Paul’s original Greek is best, of course. But almost as good is an interlinear Greek/English translation, along with knowing a bit about Greek prepositions and purpose clauses. In a pinch, you can even study using a handful of different English translations set alongside each other. And if you’re the type who struggles with translation, that may even be an advantage: you’re sure to puzzle over and more thoroughly decipher the structure of Paul’s thought!
The goal is understanding Paul’s communicative strategy. We track the main idea of each paragraph in Romans (which often isn’t the paragraph’s most enticing theological or spiritual notion). This shows us how those paragraphs join up. Which then shows us how Paul does—and does not—shape his whole letter.
Consider, for instance, Romans 4:1–8.
There are a lot of interesting things going on in this paragraph. But diagramming demonstrates that 4:1–8 is not “about” justification by faith, for example. Rather, prompted by 3:31, Paul is insisting that according to Torah, Torah observance wasn’t ever what fundamentally put Abraham (or his descendants) right with God.
Following this method, my commentary traces out how Romans 1–8 is not a “theological section” that lectures in turn on salvation and sanctification. Instead, Paul focuses upon pastoral care in 1:1–15 and 12:1–15:13 but temporarily puts that discussion on hold while he defends the results of his gospel among unbelieving Jews in 1:16–11:36. And within that defense, chapter 4; 6:1–8:30; and chapters 9–11 are together further side-discussions relating to various potential misunderstandings of Paul’s main point.
And to think: such an unexpected, refreshing perspective comes about just by carefully working through Paul’s original wording.
3. Grasp the occasion and setting of the letter.
Another indispensable tool for studying New Testament epistles is digging into a letter’s setting and occasion. Study up on the identity, background, and circumstances of both the author and audience.
Then put on your Sherlock hat and verify the experts’ findings for yourself. Read the epistle in light of your provisional understanding of its occasion; then revise your model of the setting based upon your reading—then reread the epistle in light of that refined model.
Rinse, and repeat.
Along with all of this, learn about how a New Testament epistle works. For example, did you know that the New Testament epistles were performed for their original audiences, and the author often coached the presenter on how to perform? Try it out:
You sent him to the store?
You sent him to the store?
You sent him to the store?
Ideally, if they had been able, authors would have come to speak with their audiences in person. Letters were official, ambassadorial stand-ins for their presence. And the letter bearer’s performance helped the letter stand in as it best could: if the equipment had been available in the first century, we might well have video presentations instead of “mere” letters.
A New Testament epistle’s setting is crucially important. Once again, this is especially the case for Romans. Early in the letter, Paul insists that he’s not ashamed of his gospel. Why did he feel the need to interrupt himself, to claim that his gospel and its results aren’t shameful? Why should he have been ashamed?
This is where knowing the setting of Romans comes to our aid. Paul and his audience hadn’t yet met, but they knew his reputation. And what they knew was that whenever Paul preached the Jewish gospel of the realization of the Jewish Scriptures regarding the Jewish Messiah, non-Jews did trust God in Jesus—but most Jews did not. Paul’s audience apparently worried about what Paul or even God (according to Paul) was up to.
All of this indicates how Paul directs Romans 1:16–11:36 toward addressing this question. Studying and diagramming Paul’s language (above) led us to the shape of Romans; and now hearing the letter in its setting explains why Paul gave Romans the shape that he did. Paul wanted both to pastorally care for his audience and to raise their support for his planned Spanish mission. But he also has to take a fair bit of time to explain the troubling reports of his evangelism among unbelieving Jews.
Having all this in place also gives us a “You Are Here” label, wherever we are in Romans. Are you up to the “But now” beginning Romans 3:21? You’ll see that 3:21–31 starts Paul’s answer to why he’s not ashamed in 1:16–17 (after illustrating the need for the gospel in 1:18–3:20) so that Paul can get back to what he was first saying until 1:15. Or again, have you arrived at the question, “Is Torah [the law] sin?” in Romans 7:7? Now you’ll recognize how that question governs 7:7–12 (and on through 7:20), which answers one of the two worries in 6:1– 7:20 that pop up in 5:20–21; and that Paul looks forward to continuing the thought of chapter 5 (in 8:31–39) to—again—finish his answer from 1:16–17.
Or say you’ve finally reached, “Therefore, I exhort you,” in 12:1. Our tools here let you know that Paul is finally getting to talk about what he wants, teaching what he would say is the “important” part of his theology in Romans. The “therefore” here mostly goes back to 1:11–15, and Paul is again on his way toward the letter’s climax in 15:7–13, having dealt with all his audience’s potential concerns in 1:16–11:36.
Having seen some of our tools in action, we can take stock of our interpretive method. Thinking scripturally, diagramming out the communicative strategy, and cross-referencing why things get shaped the way they do, we see that authors can be quite clear about their primary meaning in a New Testament epistle.
Our case study of Romans certainly bears this out. A method using such tools demonstrates that Paul does what’s needed to address his audience’s concerns for his evangelistic record and brings them to accept his pastoral care and partner with him in missions. And knowing Paul’s heart in Romans takes us most of the way toward properly understanding what this letter theologically offers us today.
Follow all three steps to interpret the Bible correctly using Bible study tools built into Logos Bible Software.
- Research what the world of the New Testament was like with the Factbook
- Diagram or outline passages in Canvas
- See the entire historical context with the Timeline
This post is adapted from the November/December 2020 edition of Bible Study Magazine.
The author, Aaron Sherwood (PhD, Durham University), is an Instructor for Regent College and the author of Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary (Lexham Press, 2020).
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