Paul’s Way of Reading Holy Scripture

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This is an excerpt from “Hermeneutics in Romans: Paul’s Approach to Reading the Bible” written by Timo Laato (1517 Publishing, 2021). Now available for preorder.

The authority of Scripture is the very foundation upon which the argumentation of Romans begins. Immediately after Paul introduces himself to the church in Rome as the apostle to the Gentiles (1:1), he talks about the gospel he proclaims, which “[God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (v. 2). Next, he quotes an ancient creed, which probably dates back to the Jewish Christian circles in Jerusalem and consists of several Old Testament doctrines (vv. 3–4). As has been mentioned, the theme of Romans also includes the assertion that the proclamation of justification by faith is in line with the Old Testament “as it is written” (vv. 16–17). The argumentation from Scripture continues in every chapter hereafter.

Consequently, primary support for the theme of Romans is provided by Hab. 2:4. The verse may be translated in two ways, depending on whether the expression “by faith” is combined with the subject “the righteous” or with the verb “shall live”: either “the righteous by faith shall live” or “the righteous shall live by faith.” (1)

In the end, the difference between the two sentences is insignificant, yet the first option corresponds more closely to the assertion that the quote should argue for—namely, that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel “from faith for faith” (v. 17a). Additionally, at least 3:21–22 and 5:1 refer back to the theme of the epistle, with a clear correlation between “faith” and “righteousness”: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22) and “therefore, since we have been justified by faith” (5:1). (2)

It seems that chapters 1–4 provide a detailed explanation of what justification by faith is (the first part of v. 17b: “the righteous [ . . . ] by faith”), while chapters 5–8 clarify what the eschatological life is like (the second part of v. 17b: “shall live”). Certain lexical data support such a thematic division:

  • In 1:18–4:25, the terms πίστις and πιστεύειν are used twenty-nine and eight times, respectively, but in 5:1–8:39, only a few times each.
  • In 1:18–4:25, the terms ζωή or ζῆν are used only a few times, but in 5:1–8:39 these terms are used over twenty times altogether.

As stated earlier, theoretically both translations lead to the same theological goal. (3)

The use of Hab. 2:4 as the foundation for defining the theme of Romans works well with the subsequent line of thought. The passage contains two key concepts that reoccur in chapter 4. There Paul similarly quotes an Old Testament passage with the same intent. He refers to Gen. 15:6, which, like Hab. 2:4, speaks of both “faith” and “righteous(ness).” So the argumentation from Scripture in 1:17 leads to the much more thorough exposition of Scripture in 4:1ff. In other words, the definition of the theme and the treatment of the theme correspond exactly. (4)

Obviously, it was first the prophet Habakkuk (and not Paul or someone else) who assumed that the Jews would follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Considering the oppression and violence of the Babylonians, Hab. 2:4 appears to treat a similar issue as Gen. 15. In both cases, the people involved face an impossible situation. In addition, it is about their trust in God, who, despite challenging circumstances and many severe obstacles, will intervene in the near future. Interestingly, similar language is used in both cases: “faith,” “faithfulness,” and “righteous(ness).” In Hebraic context, there is no clear difference—much less a contradiction—between “faith” and “faithfulness.” The righteous will save himself from the national catastrophe only through his faith and faithfulness (Hab. 2:4). Likewise, Abraham is declared righteous by his faith (Gen. 15:6) and is then willing, in his faithfulness, to sacrifice his own son Isaac (Gen. 22). In the New Testament, James in particular emphasizes that connection (2:21–24). At its most fundamental level, even Paul’s reasoning goes in the same direction. He proclaims justification by faith with the help of Abraham’s story (Rom. 4) and admonishes his listeners to present their own bodies as “living sacrifice[s], holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). (5)

Thus Hab. 2:4 is an excellent summary of the arrangement, structure, and scope of Romans. To be sure, Rom. 1:17 does not misinterpret the purpose and content of the Old Testament quotation. With Israel’s ancestor as an example, Habakkuk emphasizes not only faithfulness (obedience toward the law) but also faith. For his part, Paul emphasizes Abraham’s faith in Rom. 4 without turning a blind eye to faithfulness. Further evidence for the close connection between Hab. 2:4 and Rom. 1:17 is found in the contexts of both passages thoroughly discussing God’s wrath revealed against the ungodliness of mankind (see especially Hab. 3; Rom. 1:18ff.).

Consequently, the authority of Scripture concerns an essential part of the theology of Romans. The gospel flows from the Old Testament. It is intended for “the Jew first and also [ . . . ] the Greek” (1:16). Next, we proceed further. A more detailed examination of the meaning and use of the arguments from Scripture follows. As with the previous presentation (see chapter 3), the three main divisions of Romans will again be taken into consideration without addressing every Old Testament quote or allusion. That kind of investigation would greatly increase the task at hand. At the outset, with an overall emphasis on chapters 1–8, several general principles will be outlined. Then the focus will turn to chapters 9–11, which contain rich material. Finally, a couple of concrete examples with practical consequences will be studied, especially in light of chapters 12–15. The results will be evaluated in the conclusion.

This is an excerpt from “Hermeneutics in Romans: Pauls Approach to Reading the Bible” written by Timo Laato (1517 Publishing, 2021), pgs 29-31. Used with Permission.

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