Saturday, November 18, 2017

On Teaching Romans

I flew back to Canada in October to teach an intensive one-week course on the book of Romans, a class I have taught every second year since the winter semester of 2007. In some respects not much has changed: This year I returned to the same major textbooks I assigned when I first taught the course, and my notes are still deeply indebted to that first wild, desperate ride through the letter.

With experience comes a certain measure of confidence. I am now much more comfortable with the material, I have a good sense for what tends to work in class, and I have learned much from my students' observations and penetrating questions. In each new rendition of the course I am able to work in fresh material as well as to flag specific areas that need more attention or rethinking the next time through.

Still, Romans remains a challenge. As I began preparing for class this fall, I was met by the equivalent of an unpointed Hebrew text. I needed my notes to be the Masoretic vowel points, indicating how it should be read, reminding me how I construed this or that exegetical issue. To extend the metaphor, how you point the text--the exegetical decisions you make--in a few key passages forecloses other options and determines your reading of the whole letter. (The danger is that one's own laziness, refusing to wrestle honestly with alternatives, will reinforce how one has always read the text.)

Romans is also tremendously challenging in other respects. One takeaway for me this time through is a surprising convergence between the 19th-century English preacher, Charles Spurgeon, and the 20th-century German scholar, Ernst Käsemann, both of whom remind us that Romans is not about some theological abstraction, but about encounter with and dependence on the living God:
“[T]he gift which is being bestowed here is never at any time separable from its Giver. It partakes of the character of power, in so far as God himself enters the arena and remains in the arena with it. Thus personal address, obligation and service are indissolubly bound up with the gift. ... [E]very gift of God which has ceased to be seen as the presence of the Giver and has therefore lost its character as personal address, is grace misused and working to our destruction.” - Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 174-5.
Spurgeon, as one would expect, puts it more colourfully:
“Depend upon it, my dear Brothers and Sisters, if ever our sins are to die, it must be with Christ. You will find you cannot kill the smallest viper in the nest of your heart if you get away from the Cross. There is no death for sin except in the death of Christ.” - Charles Spurgeon, “The Old Man Crucified” (sermon #882).
I began teaching Romans around the time I started blogging. For an assortment of other Romans-related posts, click here

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