Evaluate Paul's purpose in writing
to the Church at Rome.
What was Pauls purpose in writing
his letter to the church at Rome?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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