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HTR 79:1-3 (1986) 10-16

THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD AND THE


PRIORITY OF ISRAEL IN PAUL'S
LETTER TO THE ROMANS

J. C. Beker
Princeton Theological Seminary

I
It is a joy for me to contribute to a volume of essays dedicated to
Krister Stendahl. I owe him a particular debt of gratitude. From the
time that I—an immigrant from Holland—started to teach at Union
Theological Seminary in New York in 1955 until today, Krister has
been a model for me of what it means to be not only a conscientious
scholar but also a Christian theologian. Through the turbulent years of
the sixties and early seventies he always found time to counsel and
guide me—however much we were geographically separated from each
other.
Throughout his career Krister has wrestled with the problem of the
relationship of Judaism to Christianity. The fact that the Jewish-
Christian dialogue has flourished in recent years is in no small way due
to him. I will attempt in this essay to make a small contribution to
Krister's central concern.

II
A. I have contended for some time that Paul is a hermeneutic theo-
logian rather than a systematic theologian. Paul must be viewed pri-
marily as an interpreter of the early Christian tradition and not as a
builder of Christian doctrine. The texture of his hermeneutic calls for
special attention. Paul is able to translate the abiding Word of the gos-
pel in such a manner that it becomes word on target for his congrega-
tions. And so his hermeneutic is characterized by the reciprocal
interaction between the constant of the gospel and the variables of his-
torical circumstance. I call this interaction the dialectical relation
between the coherence of the gospel and the contingency of the
Beker: Faithfulness of God 11
situations to which the gospel is addressed.
This dialectical hermeneutic applies as well to Paul's most systematic
letter, the letter to the Romans. Although the tendency persists to
view Romans as a dogmatics in outline, or as a version of a compendium
doctrinae Christianae (Melanchthon), Romans is actually a profoundly
occasional letter. And the challenge to the interpreter of Romans is to
clarify—in this, Paul's most systematic letter—the peculiar interaction
between coherence and contingency, that is, between universality and
particularity.
B. This challenge pertains especially to the "Jewish question" in
Romans 9-11. The relation between universality and particularity has
frequently been distorted with respect to these chapters. Romans 1-8
was considered to be the systematic-universal core of Romans, whereas
Romans 9-11 was relegated to a Pauline afterthought, too particular
and awkward to be awarded any theological weight. Rudolf Bultmann,1
C. H. Dodd,2 William Sanday and A. C. Headlam,3 and Robin Scroggs4
all essentially concur in their own way with F. W. Beare's judgment:

We have left out of consideration three chapters (9-11) of this


letter, chiefly because they do not form an integral part of the main
argument. They are a kind of supplement in which Paul struggles
with the problem of the failure of his own nation. We cannot feel
that the apostle is at his best here, and we are inclined to ask if he
has not got himself into inextricable (and needless) difficulties by
attempting to salvage some remnant of racial privilege for the his-
toric Israel—Israel "according to theflesh"—indespite of his own
fundamental position that all men are in the same position before
God.5

This statement contains two fundamental errors: (1) it disturbs the


unique texture of Paul's hermeneutic by simply disjoining the
coherent-universal elements of his thought from their contingent-
occasional counterparts; and (2) it misconstrues the purpose and theo-
logical thrust of Paul's letter to the Romans.

1
Theology of the New Testament (trans. Kendrick Grobel; New York: Scribner's, 1955)
2. 132.
2
The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (New York/London: Harper, 1932) 148-49.
3
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Romans (New York: Scribner's, 1926) 225.
4
"Paul as Rhetorician: Two Homilies in Romans 1-11," in Robert Hamerton-Kelly
and Robin Scroggs, eds., Jews, Greeks and Christian Religious Cultures in Late Antiquity
(SJLA 21; Leiden: Brill, 1976) 271-98.
5
Francis Wright Beare, St. Paul and His Letters (London: A. & C. Black, 1962) 103-4.
12 Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl

C. Although the two issues are closely related, I will concentrate my


remarks on the last one because it will also unmask the first mentioned
error.
The occasion for Paul's letter to the Romans is a convergence of
several factors, which explains its occasional, yet "systematic" form.
There are at least four such factors:
1) When Paul writes Romans, he finds himself in a new situation.
Since the mission work in the east has been accomplished, he is eager
to go to Spain and to be supported in this endeavor by Rome (Rom
15:24).
2) Paul's forthcoming visit to Jerusalem with the collection from the
Gentile churches preoccupies him. Indeed, the collection visit occupies
center stage in Romans 15, especially vss. 30-32. The Jerusalem visit
focuses on the "Jewish question" because it expresses symbolically the
eschatological unity of the church of "Jews" and "Gentiles" in the
purpose of God as the fulfillment of Paul's apostolic mission.
3) Paul had written Galatians just prior to Romans. Again the "Jewish
question" had troubled him there in the form of the judaizing opposi-
tion. And it is likely that Paul had lost his case with the Galatian
churches. Moreover, the repercussion of his letter to the Galatians
could only have worsened his relations with Jerusalem. For in Gala-
tians, Paul had created the impression that the place of the Jew in sal-
vation history was a purely negative one and had in fact become
obsolete with the coming of Christ. And so Romans attempts to dis-
cuss the "Jewish question" within the context of the special situation
in Rome.
4) The situation in Rome—although quite unlike that in Galatia—
necessitates as well a solution to the "Jewish question." For in Rome
there is the threat of disunity caused by the tension between the weak
and the strong, between a minority of Jewish-Christians and a majority
of Gentile-Christians (Rom 14:15).
D. Romans then is directed to a particular church with particular
problems by an apostle who is faced by particular historical challenges.
However, the occasionality of the letter does not deprive it of universal
importance. Indeed, the contingency of its motivation and address is
radically interwoven with the coherent structure of Paul's gospel, that
is, the continuity of the gospel with God's promises to his covenant
people Israel. In other words, the "Jewish question" in Paul's former
missionary territories, heightened both by his forthcoming visit to
Jerusalem and by the threat of disunity in the church at Rome, compels
him to reflect on the relationship of Judaism to Christianity, on its con-
tinuous and discontinuous dimensions.
Beker: Faithfulness of God 13

III
The theme of the letter (Rom 1:16-17) revolves around four inter­
related issues: (1) the gospel reveals the righteousness of God; (2) the
righteousness of God is apprehended by faith; (3) the gospel is the
"power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first
and also to the Greek"; (4) the righteousness of faith in the gospel is
the confirmation and fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of Hab
2:4.
Tracing Paul's development of the theme, we notice that, notwith­
standing preliminary climactic statements along the way (4:24-25;
5:9-11; 5:20-21; 8:38-39), the basic climax is reached prior to the
paraenesis of Romans 12-15 in 11:32: "For God has consigned all peo­
ple to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all," followed by a
hymnic conclusion in 11:33-36. The climax of the letter seems to sug­
gest that the πασ argument carries the day so that the universal pitch
of the gospel ("to everyone") seems to drown out the emphasis on the
particularity or the priority of the Jew in the thematic statement of
Rom 1:16.
However, this first impression is quite mistaken. Why? How is Paul
able to maintain both the priority of Israel and the equality of Jew and
Gentile in Christ on the basis of justification by faith alone (cf. Rom
3:28-31)?
A. In the first place, it is important to recognize that although Paul
uses the terminology of anthröpos (3:28) and passantes (11:32), he
never loses sight of the fact that Jews and Gentiles are two distinct peo-
ples who even in Christ cannot be fused into one general category of
homo universalis. Just as Paul's notion of the body of Christ is charac-
terized by "many members in one body" (Rom 12:3), this same con-
cept of unity amidst diversity applies to his discussion of Jew and
Gentile. In other words, Paul's emphasis on equality of Jew and Greek
in the body of Christ does not nullify the distinctiveness of both peo-
ples. Therefore, there is no contradiction for Paul when he juxtaposes
the universal equality of the believer and the particular priority of the
Jew in Rom 1:16. Just as Karl Barth and Ernst Käsemann are wrong in
characterizing the Jew in Romans as the homo religiosus in general, so it
is wrong to suppose that the emphasis on pas or anthröpos blots out the
ethnic specificity of two different peoples, Jews and Gentiles.
Paul intends to stress not uniformity, but unity in diversity. The
pluralistic diversity of peoples in their ethnic and cultural variety is
maintained, although in Christ this pluralism becomes nevertheless a
unity.
14 Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl

Β. It is essential for Paul to maintain the priority of the Jew in the


gospel, not only for the sake of the Jew, but especially for the sake of
the Christian. What is at stake is nothing less than the faithfulness of
God. If it could be argued that God has rejected the people of the elec­
tion, Israel, and that therefore God's promises to Israel have become
null and void, how are the Gentiles to trust the confirmation of these
promises to them through God's righteousness in Christ? Could it not
be said in that case that there is arbitrariness on God's part (Rom 9:14)
and that God is not to be trusted—even the God who justifies us in
Christ? In other words, the gospel cannot have any authentic validity
or legitimation apart from the people of Israel because the theological
issue of God's faithfulness (Rom 3:3) and righteousness determines
the truth of the gospel.
Moreover, such a rejection of Israel by God would simply cut the
connection of the gospel to its foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures and
degrade the God of Jesus Christ into the God of Marcion—a "new
God" who has no relation either to creation or to Israel's salvation his­
tory.
Therefore, it is crucial for Paul to confirm the faithfulness of God as
an inalienable dimension of the righteousness of God and to emphasize
that the protological election of Israel in the Old Testament will be
confirmed by the eschatological priority of Israel at the time of the
parousia and the establishment of the triumph of God.
Paul's struggle with this issue comes to a climax in Rom 11:26-32.
If, as I have argued, Rom 11:32 is the climax and crown of Paul's argu­
ment, its emphasis on the universal embrace of God's mercy ("that he
may have mercy upon all") occurs in a context which affirms the par­
ticularity of Israel's eschatological priority (Rom 11:25-26). Thus
Rom 11:26-32 confirms the thesis of the theme of Rom 1:16-17
where both the equality of Jew and Gentile and the priority of Israel are
accepted. In other words, the total sweep of the argument of Romans
is held together by the theme of the peculiar interaction between
Israel's particularity and the universality of the gospel for the Gentiles.
C. In the third place, as is well known, Paul uses the phrase
dikaiosynê theou (righteousness of God), with the exception of 2 Cor
5:21, only in Romans and here in such a central way that it must be
characterized as the key term for the letter as a whole (cf. Rom 1:17;
3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3). According to Käsemann, the "righteousness
of God" has a consistent apocalyptic meaning. As God's eschatological
salvation power, it claims the creation for God's lordship and
sovereignty which the Christ-event has proleptically manifested. It
denotes the victory of God and his cosmic act of redemption. As such,
Beker: Faithfulness of God 15
it not only acquits the sinner but also abolishes the power of sin by
transferring us to the dominion of the lordship of Christ. Within the
context of the theme of Romans the dikaiosynë theou must be under-
stood in terms of its theocentric focus and in its overarching
significance as connoting the full range of God's soteriological activity.
The theocentric focus of the phrase dikaiosynë theou points to the
hermeneutical field in which it functions. The term gathers up in itself
the rich connotations of Israel's covenant terminology: hesed (steadfast
love), emet (truth), and zedakah (righteousness), especially in its
eschatological dimensions as documented, for instance, in 2 Isaiah and
the Psalms.
In other words, in Romans the dikaiosynë theou comprises a her-
meneutical field in which it is correlated with terms like pistis theou
(faithfulness of God, Rom 3:3), alëtheia theou (truth of God, Rom 3:7;
15:8; cf. 3:4), and eleos theou (mercy of God, cf. Rom 11:31-32; 15:9).
In this function the dikaiosynë theou must be understood both as
God's faithfulness to himself and as his redemptive activity in accor-
dance with his faithfulness.
Concretely speaking, the dikaiosynë theou— now manifested in
Christ—points backward to God's promises to Israel and forward to
God's full realization of his promises in the apocalyptic hour when
Israel, along with the Gentiles and the whole created order, shall "live"
in the gloria dei, when God will triumph over everything that resists his
will—the moment in which the promise of "life" according to Hab 2:4
(Rom 1:17) will be fully realized and the dikaiosynë theou will be
synonymous with the order of cosmic peace (shäldm), salvation
(söteria), and life (zöe) that has been proleptically manifested in Christ.
D. As we have seen, the priority of Israel is the necessary conse-
quence of God's character as being faithful to himself and as manifest-
ing this faithfulness in his saving actions. This fundamental-coherent
dimension of Paul's gospel has direct contingent relevance both for his
audience in Rome and for his own immediate plans.
1. Paul is about to travel to Jerusalem to deliver the collection of his
Gentile churches to the Jerusalem church. And as he reports, the Gen-
tile churches "were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to
them (i.e., the saints in Jerusalem), for if the Gentiles have come to
share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to
them in material blessings" (Rom 15:27). In other words, the Roman
church is asked to acknowledge the priority of the Jew in the gospel by
the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul.
2. The situation in the Roman congregation demands an urgent
solution (Romans 14-15). "To a church that seems split between a
16 Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl

Gentile majority and a Jewish minority, Paul argues for the unity of
that community. Paul stresses the salvation-historical priority of the
Jew while also arguing for the right of the Gentiles to belong to the
people of God."6 It is in this context that the prevalent theme of
"boasting" in Romans must be heard. In Romans 11 Paul explicitly
condemns the Gentile majority in Rome for its boasting which is
directed at the Jewish minority (Rom 11:17-18; cf. 11:25).
Earlier in the letter Paul had likewise castigated Jewish boasting
which served as a fundamental reminder to Jewish Christians in Rome
of what constitutes the true and the false claim to the priority of the
Jew in the gospel (Rom 2:17-23; 3:27; 4:2). Indeed, true boasting can
only be an act of gratitude for God's gift of grace in Christ (Rom 5:2,
3, 11).
The Christ-event makes clear the true nature of Israel's priority. It
does not lie in Israel's "boasting," that is, in its empirical achievement
of "covenant keeping" or in Israel's elitist awareness of its exclusive
status before God, but solely in God's faithfulness to his promises, that
is, in God's grace. But the Christ-event also makes clear that the Gen-
tiles cannot boast to have supplanted Israel simply because they
represent the majority in the Christian church.
3. In this context the Gentiles must hear that the Gentile church
has no authenticity or identity unless it realizes that it "is grafted, con-
trary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree," that is, into Israel,
"beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom 11:24-28). There-
fore Paul is careful in Romans to argue the unity of two distinct peo-
ples in the gospel. Contrary to Galatians 3, Romans 4 maintains the
distinctiveness of Jew and Gentile as Abraham's seed (4:12-16).
Moreover, Paul corrects in Romans 9-11 the argument of Galatians 3
(and even Romans 4?), where Israel seems simply absorbed into the
church. Thus Paul argues in Romans against any conception of the
church as the "true Israel." By so doing he protects not only the prior-
ity and separate identity of Israel in the gospel, but also the full range
of his conception of the faithfulness of God.

6
C. D. Myers, Jr., "The Place of Romans 5:1-11 within the Argument of the Epis-
tle" (Th.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1985) 234.
^ s
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