I was excited to receive my copy of Romans Disarmed, although I did not recognize the authors, Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, both Bible professors. The design alone is outstanding. Romans, a very complicated document, has suffered much at the hands of interpreters. Some appeal to it to say that Christians should never protest against injustice rooted in one’s government (this is the position of John MacArthur whose huge following makes him somewhat of a celebrity pastor). Other times scattered verses are used selectively when presenting the gospel to someone, to the neglect of Paul’s remaining letters. Despite how many times Romans is cited by Christians (and it’s cited a lot), this letter remains a point of confusion or misunderstanding for many. I was excited then to see what two seasoned bible professors would have to about Romans and its implications for today. Here are my thoughts.
Rather than beginning with Paul and the context of the New Testament, the authors begin with issues we are currently grappling with societally (homosexuality, world wars, genocide, ecology, and the like). While it is important to bring the text into our everyday world and situation, one must first be rooted in the context of the Bible before the Bible can in turn speak in a real and direct way to our situation.
While Romans Disarmed attempts to clear up much of Romans, it really ends up muddying the waters. Reducing Paul to being an outspoken left-leaning (and all-inclusive) social reformer, the authors also make him out to be extremely anti-empire, and hyper vocal against Rome. While it is clear that Paul critiques Rome in his letters, he is not consumed with unbridled rage toward Nero and Empire.
Where the book ends up falling short is its overabundance of exegetical gymnastics, most notably when it comes to Paul and the Empire, as well as Paul and sexuality.
Though Paul does not always think kindly of Rome, we must avoid caricaturing Paul as one utterly opposing Rome. It’s far too easy to look under every stone for anti-imperial language in Pauline literature. Paul’s resolve was spreading Christ, even if spreading Christ puts him at odds with Empire.
Violence to the Text
My problem stems from the authors reducing Paul to being a sort of social justice activist with strong left leanings. While noting the importance of letting the text speak for itself, the authors proceed to go against their own advice.
As the authors make clear, the misreading of Romans has led to all kinds of wrong in the church and in our world, and yet Romans Disarmed offers no real solution, just another misreading of Romans (although one that is not politically conservative).
Romans Disarmed is yet another reminder: do not read your personal preconceived notions (your deep held convictions) into the text. Forming God into our image is idolatry, the very thing Romans was written against.
When it comes to Paul and politics, respected scholar Michael J. Gorman, in his Reading Paul, does a great job of maintaining balance as the author cautions against turning Paul into either a conservative or liberal (both are quite anachronistic). Gorman writes, “Paul may be both less and more offensive than he is normally thought to be. He may… be far less politically and socially “conservative” than we think. Yet he may also be far less “tolerant” on some issues than we want” (p. 6). We should take great care when trying to apply Paul’s letters to our modern politics and hot-topic politically-charged discussions.
Full of not-so-subtle jabs at President Trump as being a modern-day Caesar, Romans Disarmed is yet another example of Christians reading their politics into the text of Scripture.
Emotive and overflowing with conclusions based on rushed exegesis, Romans Disarmed is a book I cannot endorse.
*I received my copy from Baker Publishing.