Why Did Paul Write Romans? Michael Bird Offers 5 Possible Reasons
Like many practitioners, my shelves groan under the weight of a cohort of Romans commentators, including: Cranfield, Dunn, Fitzmyer, Jewett, Moo, Nanos, Schreiner, and, of course, Luther, Calvin, and Barth.
It’s time to add another: Bird.
Michael Bird’s new Romans commentary is a worthy addition to our shelves. Not only because he exploits Romans's narrative world and situates the letter within the broader biblical story. But because of how he views Romans, which informs his commentary:
Romans is a word of exhortation, a masterpiece of missional theology, culturally savvy apologetics, christological exegesis, pastoral care, theological exposition, and artful rhetoric… (11)
His Romans-In-Brief helps answer our question. So does the history of interpretation he traces below. In it he offers his own answer, illustrating why his exegetical resource exemplifies those before him.
1) A Theological Treatise
Among early believers and Reformation ones, Romans was considered to be a sort of systematic exposition of Christian doctrine. Though Bird agrees it is “theologically loaded” and a “logically coherent exposition of the Christian faith,” he sees two reasons this view is problematic:
- Romans doesn’t address key theological topics such as the Holy Spirit, church, sacraments, and eschatology.
- The letter is as situational as Paul’s other ones, “as evidenced by his greetings and account of his missionary intentions.” (6)
Romans may be "dogmatics in outline," (J.C. Beker) but it's more than that.
2) A Pedagogical Summary
Others like Bornkamm and Dunn have proposed Paul wrote Romans to summarize his teaching and defend his ministry, particularly in light of his disputes in Antioch, Galatia, and Corinth. While Bird appreciates this view, believing Romans indeed reflects a mature Pauline theology, he has two issues:
- “It does not take into account the differences between Romans and the other Pauline letters.” (7) Paul’s discourse on the law in Romans versus Galatians is one example.
- Paul also addresses topics in Romans that he doesn’t address elsewhere, such as the analogy of the olive tree (11:13–21) and instructions about taxes and government (13:1–7).
Yes, Romans is “a distillation of his missional theology,” yet there’s a specificity for which we must account.
3) A Fund-Raising Letter
I first encountered this view in a Romans seminar during my MDiv program. I remember wondering, “How could I have missed this?” This being Paul’s explicit plans to visit Spain and support request from Roman churches. In recent years, several scholars have proposed that Romans is principally a fund-raising letter for this future missionary journey.
Bird acknowledges a missionary purpose but says, “there is something else going on in Rome that occasions Paul’s letter.” (8) Here's why:
- “Would such an elaborate and lengthy letter be required to solicit funds?” (8) Consider Philippians, in which he makes a similar funding appeal without the density or length of Romans.
- Bird also believes this theory doesn’t require the exhortations in 12–15, “which appear to have a specific context in mind.” (8)
4) A Unifying Appeal
Many have argued that Paul was writing to foster reconciliation between the fractured ethnic groups among Roman churches. Wiefel’s landmark study on Christianity’s Gentile development in Rome during the expulsion of Jews between AD 49 and 54 lent credence to this view. Bird, however, sees a few problems:
- We can’t be certain the “weak” Paul addresses in 14–15 were Jewish Christians and the “strong” were Gentile Christians.
- The significance of the expulsion is potentially overestimated, especially considering Paul never mentioned it.
5) An Eclectic Proposal
Wading through these options Bird offers a fifth: He suspects Paul had “multiple and complex” reasons for writing Romans; “we would be wise to consider that Paul may have had more than one purpose in mind when he wrote the letter.” (10)
While Bird believes Paul’s primary aim was to raise support for his Spain trip à la option 3, he also argues Paul wanted to come to Jerusalem with the collection and firm support of the Gentiles. Given this aim, Bird outlines two implied tasks of this letter, which bring together the other four reasons:
- “He must win [the Roman Christians] over to his account of the gospel if they are to support his missionary project.” (10)
- “Some preventative pastoral care…the letter must be dealing with issues that were ‘on the front burner,’ as it were, in Rome.” (11)
Romans, then was “designed to win over the audience to Paul’s gospel, to support his mission in Spain, to draw Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome closer together, to strengthen them in the faith despite the periods of Roman culture, and to encourage his audience to identify with the apostle to the Gentiles as he goes to Jerusalem.” (11–12)
While I'm sure Bird would join Barth in calling his work a "preliminary investigation," his volume offers the same kind of "profit" for "the common good of the church,” as Calvin’s.
With his trademark wit, theological depth, and pastoral insight, Bird's offering will help you convey the essence of Romans: "the gospel at theological depth.” (xvi)
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