As the question of Pauls purpose in writing the letter to the church at Rome is considered, it will become immediately obvious that there will be no clear-cut answer. So varied are the different interpretations of this issue that any attempt to devise a new approach would be likened to re-inventing the wheel. For the purposes of this essay, two scholarly attempts to solve this mystery will be dealt with. That of W.S. Campbell and that of Leon Morris.
It will be seen that each is really a variation of the other and that the purpose can be honed done to a short list of possibilities.
However, as this is applied to our contemporary situation many of the differing views will come into a sharper focus.
W.S. Campbell's View.
Firstly, that of W.S. Campbell who writes that the debated purposes behind Pauls letter to the Romans are:
A). a letter of self-introduction. The letter is to be seen as an introduction to prepare the way for his missionary activities in Spain, as laid out in chapter 15:22-32. Paul, in anticipation of his visit to Rome is looking to gain support for the extension of his mission to the gentiles. This is a view supported by J.A.T. Robinson who holds that the purpose of Romans is beyond dispute.
The main objections to this view are that it is not consistent with Pauls other letters and what is known of Paul. That is, he would not feel obliged to seek the approval of the Roman church for his theology. In addition, these references are seen as being so vague about his intended visit that they could hardly be the main theme of his letter:
b). The Book of Romans is an assertion of Pauls Apostolic Authority. Anton Fridrichsen and G. Klien view the letter to the Romans as an attempt to impose the authority of Paul on the church. That is, not so much what they can do for Paul as what Paul can do for them:
c). The Book of Romans as a letter to the Church in Jerusalem. This explanation deals with the issues of the division between the Jewish and Gentile church. Paul while in deep thought over these issues has, as he set his sights on Jerusalem, a need to bring unity to the cause of the gospel. Thus, he writes to the Jerusalem church to take up the issue of justification by faith. Campbell stresses that the weakest point to be found in the view that Romans is a letter to the Church in Jerusalem, is that although this interpretation enables us to establish some connections between the writing of Romans and Jerusalem it fails to provide any conclusive reason why the letter should actually have been addressed to Rome;
d). The Book of Romans as a circular letter to Rome.
This explanation owes much to T.W. Manson who argues on textual grounds that the letter is best interpreted as a letter to Rome and others. If Romans is to be viewed as a circular letter, then the reason needed for justifying it either as a letter to Roman or to the church in Jerusalem is removed. Again however, claims Campbell, this fails to provide an adequate explanation as to why it was sent to Rome:
e). Finally, Campbell puts forward the idea that Romans was a letter written to Rome to deal with an internal problem. Possibly a division had been formed between liberal minded Gentile Christians (the strong in faith) and the more conservative Jewish Christians (the weak in faith). In Campbell's view, Paul's letter was composed to the former, who Campbell sees as the cause of an internal dispute, which causes Paul to exegete the righteous purpose of God. In an effort to counteract the disunity Paul goes on to emphasise the equality of both Jew and Gentile in sin (3:20) and in the gospel (10:12).
Leon Morris' View.
Secondly, an author that has assessed these issues is Leon Morris. It must however be noted that Morris in many places follows the lines of debate as laid out in Karl P. Donfrieds book The Romans Debate.Space dictates that not all of these views will be able to be adequately dealt with in this paper; however, it is my aim that the main themes here are dealt with, using the proper respect.
a.) One view that is placed under the microscope is that Romans was a Compendium of Christian Teaching. This is a view that W.G.T. Shedd would whole-heartedly agree with. Those who hold this view see the steady treatment of important themes throughout the epistle as the key to understanding Pauls purpose. However as Morris rightly points out, this does not allow for the specific references to Roman found in the epistle. Likewise, many important theological issues such as Christology, the Resurrection and the Church are obvious by their omission.
b.) Morris looks at the understanding that Romans is Pauls mature thinking on Essential Christianity. He quotes Gunter Bornkamm who claims that it is Pauls last will and testament. Bornkamm feels that Paul is referring back to his conversion experience and writing his reflection on it in light of his own journey, having dealt with perplexing questions that had arisen out of his encounters with the Judaisers.
Bornkamm elevates the hypothesis of T.W. Manson (mentioned earlier) to be a valid explanation of why the specific references to Rome exist in the epistle. Morris like Campbell asks the questions, if this is Pauls reflections or last will and testament, why did Paul send the Epistle to Rome? A satisfactory answer this view fails to be provided in any meaningful way.
c.) Romans is seen as a discussion of the church. A view Franz J. Leenhardt holds as the key to the Epistle. With Paul setting his sights towards Spain the Roman church needed to be the base of the Church as Jerusalem was to distant to be the Mother Church.
d.) Morris like Campbell when looking at the view of Romans being a circular letter quotes John Knox. Knox writes, I am by no means convinced of the truth of this suggestion.The scheme Morris posits is however not without merit but leaves too many mysteries unsolved. T.W. Manson as stated earlier is the main exponent of this view.
e.) Morris again highlights as does Campbell the idea that Romans is a letter to the Jerusalem church.
f.) Morris looks at the idea that Romans is a collection of Personal claims. This suggestion closely follows that of Campbellspan class=SpellE>s when he talks about Romans being an assertion of Pauls apostolic authority. This is also closely linked to Morriss seventh point. That is some see Romans as Paul laying down his Apostolic Foundations.
Morriss final point about the Weak and Strong is linked with Campbells idea that some see Romans as a letter written to alleviate the disunity caused by internal conflict. Robert J. Karris holds as the means of unlocking the truth behind the epistle this theme. Karris writes, Thus the occasion for Romans and its purpose are to be seen in Pauls attempts to unify the divergent communities in Rome.On this point A.J.M. Wedderburn, writes in defence of Campbells article and to emphasis this point, Gentile Christians could have had an adverse affect upon the outcome of Pauls journey to Jerusalem and thus the unity of the whole church.
As Morris draws near to his own stance, he gives an overview of Matthew Blacks idea that Romans is about Paul Liberalising a reactionary church. This is followed by Wilhelm Wuellners and Robert Jewetts concept of it being a Rhetorical Genre.
For Morris the depth of Romans lies in Pauls preparation for a visit. Morris has on his side substantial scholarly support, although he admits it does not take away all of the difficulties. It does however; take into account Pauls having been a missionary for some twenty years.
This author agrees with C.H. Dodd, who points out that the purpose of Romans is outlined in Romans 15:14-33. Paul was writing to build a base for his intended mission into Spain. It was important for Pauls future plans to secure the sympathy of the church and thus he sets out to give a comprehensive and reasoned statement of the fundamentals of the Christian faith as he had lived it.
G.G Findlay adds a qualifier that is worthy of note, Such an epistle, while it paved the way for his approaching visit, would at the same time fore-arm this church against the Judaising agitators.
C.K. Barrett would widen this idea a little further and say that the epistle to the Romans not only prepares the way for Pauls approach to Rome and his intended mission further beyond but that it is also, Pauls exposition of his gospel to the gentile churches which had come into existence independently of his efforts.
Thus, it can be seen that to wade through the mire of different ideas and scholarly research on this issue is to say the least, hazardous. This author finds the evidence last mentioned to be the most compelling although that of Karris has a vast impact when we look at applying the purpose of Romans to our contemporary situation. In concluding this part of the essay, Ann Jervis idea that Paul was writing to exercise his mandate for mission and his preaching the Gospel in writing, was to claim the Roman believers as part of his offering of sanctified and obedient gentiles. This has considerable merit.
As mentioned, when we apply the purpose of the book of Romans to our contemporary situation the view of Karris takes on a new paradigm. Reta Finger, who holds that Pauls primary purpose in writing Romans, was to prepare for his visit and his intended mission to Spain, points out two problems that he faced in doing so.
One, a theological problem, how do you preach a gospel that is aimed at breaking down hostility when those whom you wish to help you spread it have barriers of their own?
The other, a practical problem of how he can ask the support of a group of Christians when they are so divided. If one group agrees to help there is the potential for the other to undermine the work.
Thus, in a contemporary situation the letter would be of prime importance to any minister, missionary or evangelist who was considering calling on a church to support them in an outreach to the world in which they live. The purpose of Romans in this situation would still be same as Paul's own. That is, to prepare the hearts of the church so that on all occasions they could represent a united front to all whom they would present the gospel.
Paul in a very systematic way has presented to the church of Roman an exposition of where they should be at, and how they can get there. What use is it today to a body of believers to evangelise the world but only offer them in physical terms, a place in a church that is lacking unity and equality. Today as then there needs to be no division between the strong and the weak.
There is a need for all of us to remember from time to time, what Christianity is all about and what Christ has done for us. Hence, today it is appropriate to preach systematically through the book of Romans, so that we can help bring about a renewal of spiritual activity in the believer. It is too easy in this world that has no room for God, or the church, to be caught up in materialism.
In Conclusion then, what use is it for the church to offer something to the world that it the world already has. Moreover, why would they want to come to a place that exhibits all the signs of being no different from the rest? Paul in Philippians 1:27f, talks about striving side by side and being of one mind as we live a life worthy of the gospel. In Romans, he offers the opportunity to reflect and understand what that gospel is all about so that when the church reaches out to meet the people of Spain or elsewhere they are presenting to these people a reflection of a Christly kingdom.