To read Romans from beginning to end, from letter opening to final doxology, is to retrace the steps of Paul. To read Romans front to back was what Paul certainly intended. But to read Romans forward may have kept the full message of Romans from being perceived. Reading forward has led readers to classify Romans as abstract and systematic theology, as a letter unstained by real pastoral concerns.
But what if a different strategy were adopted? Could it be that the secret to understanding the relationship between theology and life, the key to unlocking Romans, is to begin at the letter’s end? Scot McKnight does exactly this in Reading Romans Backwards.
McKnight begins with Romans 12–16, foregrounding the problems that beleaguered the house churches in Rome. Beginning with the end places readers right in the middle of a community deeply divided between the strong and the weak, each side dug in on their position. The strong assert social power and privilege, while the weak claim an elected advantage in Israel’s history. Continuing to work in reverse, McKnight unpacks the big themes of Romans 9–11—God’s unfailing, but always surprising, purposes and the future of Israel—to reveal Paul’s specific and pastoral message for both the weak and the strong in Rome. Finally, McKnight shows how the widely regarded “universal” sinfulness of Romans 1–4, which is so often read as simply an abstract soteriological scheme, applies to a particular rhetorical character’s sinfulness and has a polemical challenge. Romans 5–8 equally levels the ground with the assertion that both groups, once trapped in a world controlled by sin, flesh, and systemic evil, can now live a life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letter, no one gets off the hook but everyone is offered God’s grace.
Reading Romans Backwards places lived theology in the front room of every Roman house church. It focuses all of Romans—Paul’s apostleship, God’s faithfulness, and Christ’s transformation of humanity—on achieving grace and peace among all people, both strong and weak. McKnight shows that Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a sustained lesson on peace, teaching applicable to all divided churches, ancient or modern.
When you are axle-deep in mud, backward is the only way forward. McKnight lifts, spins, and energetically pushes in a new direction. Hang on tight. The church and academy are careening down an adventurous new path.
—Matthew W. Bates, Associate Professor of Theology, Quincy University
Most scholars consider Romans the jewel of Pauline theology, but McKnight has recovered Romans as a pastoral letter that communicates a lived theology to a divided Christian community in Rome. By focusing on clues about the socio-historical context especially found in the last few chapters of Romans, McKnight offers a compelling reading of the letter as a whole. He brings the text to life in such a way that the reader can imagine what it was like to be in the room when Romans was first read aloud.
—Nijay K. Gupta, Associate Professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary
Two things stand out from this fresh, creative reading of Paul’s greatest letter. Scot McKnight is a historian who grounds his exposition in messy, on-the-ground, first-century reality; and he loves the church and longs to see it attending not just to abstract theories about salvation but to the practical questions of how to embody the gospel in actual communities. Thus, whether or not you agree with all of McKnight's interpretations, this book will compel all of us to think afresh about how Paul’s vivid theology challenges our often sleepy discipleship.
—N. T. Wright, Former Bishop of Durham and Senior Research Fellow, University of Oxford
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