From now through Nov 5th Mass readings include selections from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the longest and most theologically comprehensive of his works. Much of his writing was targeted at specific current issues in the churches he served, but Romans has a great deal to say about the theology of Salvation, the Big Idea, the Main Point. For a good introduction and improved understanding, read the section on Romans in the front of The Catholic Study Bible (sample snip below). If that is not readily available, the Wikipedia article on Romans is good and includes the outline below:
St Paul was brilliant, sometimes inspired, inspirational, and positive, and sometimes crabby and defensive, a Jewish Pharisee well versed in and observant of The Law and The Prophets, a man singled out and confronted by the post-resurrection Jesus for persecuting Him (The Church), a missionary to the Gentiles and founder and Father of several Churches, a persistent servant of God who planned to visit Rome, perhaps on the way to establishing more churches in Spain. Well, he made it to Rome, but as a prisoner rather than as a traveling missionary. Wikipedia also has a very scholarly article about St. Paul.
On October 16th Father Linsky focused on Romans Chapter 2 from which the Mass readings for the day were taken. As can be seen in the outline above, it is in a section about the universal corruption of Gentiles and Jews, God’s judgment, and hypocrisy. Father mentioned the first word in Romans 2, therefore, which reminded me of a pastor of a few decades ago who liked to advise his flock, “Whenever you see “therefore” in the Bible, be sure to look to see what it is there for.”
Well, in this case, it is there for the purpose of humbling those who think they are superior and can’t think of anything to confess, those “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.” Paul has just completed a blistering critique, in Chapter 1, of those who had rejected God and now tells the people in the Church in Rome, Jews and Gentiles, that they are no better, that those who pass judgment on each other for perceived failures are without excuse, that they condemn themselves by doing the very same things.
The major current issue seems to have been mutual cross condemnation of the Jewish converts and the Gentile converts over whether circumcision was required of Christian Gentiles. It is informative and sobering to read these words from Paul in Romans 2:25-26: “Circumcision, to be sure, has value if you observe the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Again, if an uncircumcised man keeps the precepts of the law, will he not be considered circumcised?” It wasn’t just circumcision that divided the Church. There were also dietary and personal effort and behavior regulations.
The writings of St. Paul are challenging because apparent contradictions can be identified. For example, they contain one of the primary passages used to defend a Protestant position that we are saved by grace through faith (alone) and not by good works. (Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. (Please note that the passage does not say saved by faith but by grace, through faith. And, there might be interesting discussion over whether the phrase, “and this is not from you; it is the gift of God,” refers just to “faith” or to having been saved by grace through faith.)
But, in Romans 2:16, St. Paul seemed to support a more Catholic emphasis on good works. He wrote that, “God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.” St. James chimes in later with some clarification: James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (It is also worth considering how the Jewish “works of the law” are different from what we identify today as “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” aligned with the Two Greatest Commandments and other direct instructions of Jesus.)
And, by the way, the Wikipedia article on Romans has a section labeled Catholic Interpretation. Check it out and see if you agree.
Questions and issues such as these can be used to illustrate the difference between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. Here is an article with helpful discussion of the difference. I love it because I always say that I enjoy looking at the Bible from 50,000 feet more than digging into short passages or verses. So, 15,000 feet is about the same. I recommend the entire article.
“…another way to imagine systematic theology is that it is a 15,000 ft view of the Bible. Imagine you are on top of a mountain, and below you is scripture laid out from beginning to end. You can make a lot of connections this way!”
“But biblical theology takes a different approach. This time, you are seeing the Bible from the ground. You traverse hills, wander in the desert, and cross rivers. Instead of plucking ideas from Genesis, Matthew, and Revelation to make one statement about God, you only make statements based on what is right in front of you at a given moment.”
I have clear memory of the instructions of the Greek/NT professor at the seminary explaining that when writing a paper on Romans Chapter 2, for example, don’t include references to anything but Romans 2 except perhaps parallel writings of the same author. Focus on what that text says, it’s literary form and structure, any translation or grammar issues, important words, the context within which it was written, and what the words meant to those who wrote and read them. So, looking at James while writing about Romans would be a violation of that principle and more Systematic rather than Biblical theology.
Both approaches have great value, but some of us are just big picture folks and some love digging into the details. I would point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a good example of Systematic Theology based on Sacred Scripture and other early traditions and teachings of the Church (which, by the way, do not violate Sacred Scripture).
It will be helpful when reading from Romans over the next few weeks to remember who Paul was and consider whatever we are reading in the context of the full Epistle and in the context of all of Sacred Scripture, the full revelation of God, the whole story from chaos through creation, the fall, the call of Abraham, the progress from polytheism through henotheism to monotheism, the Law and the Prophets, the Incarnation, the Passion and Resurrection, to The Church.