In Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul, Brittany E. Wilson has a chapter called “Rereading Romans 1-3 Apocalyptically”.
She says that an apocalyptic reading of Paul seeks to avoid more traditional individualist readings “in which the gospel is not freely given, but necessitated by human sinfulness.” She agrees with Douglas Campbell about this but, while he reads Romans 5-8 as the heart of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel, she claims that the whole of Romans 1-8 proclaims such a gospel.
She raises some of the criticisms we have already covered that there is not enough evidence to say for sure that Roman 1:18-38 is a voice other than Paul’s.
She articulates a concern that I am also feeling when she says that Campbell seems to assume that Paul writes Romans against the same kind of opponents he faced in Galatia.
“But Paul makes no mention of these opponents in Romans aside from a (potential) reference in 16:17-20. If Romans 1:18-3:20 is in fact a ‘preemptive strike’ against these heretical teachers why does he only mention them at the end of the letter? Why does Paul not mention them earlier? Or even better, why does Paul not mention them directly before assuming ‘the Teacher’s’ voice in 1:18?”
Wilson claims that her position is like that of Beverly Roberts Gaventa (see here), who also sees the whole of Romans 1-8 as part of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel. (Full disclosure: I know Gaventa slightly and years ago had a brief dialogue with her about Paul). Wilson complains that Campbell has not engaged with Gaventa’s writings.
Wilson says that Campbell gives a linear reading of Romans so that Romans 1-3 contains a negative argument and Romans 5-8 follows it up with a positive statement of his gospel. She and Gaventa, however, think the structure of Romans is more a spiral. While Campbell reads verbal parallels within 1-3 as contrasts, Wilson says they could just as well signify continuity. Her position is that 1-3 describes the deep subjection of humanity to anti-God powers. This aligns with Romans 5-8 on slavery to sin and the subjection of creation (8:20). It is not about individual sin, as traditional interpretations held.
Campbell doesn’t really say anything new in his response. He regrets that Wilson is unpersuaded by his arguments. He, likewise, is unpersuaded by hers. He thinks it may be partly his fault in the way he has communicated. Deliverance was too long and complicated. He does not see, though, how Wilson’s position answers his claim that 1:18-38 is contradictory to the rest of Paul’s theology.
That is an interesting point to me. I have long thought that Paul is not simply coherent. He seems to me to develop his preaching over time and adapt to situations in different churches. It strikes me that Campbell is committed to the idea that Paul was always precisely logical. Is this too inflexible a view of Paul, who, after all, was a preacher/rabbi, not a philosopher?
Wilson’s view perhaps fits with a reading of Paul that sees not a systematic approach, but an approach that throws out images and Hebrew Bible analogies centered around Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s new age. It “spirals” around a center. But it is not always logically pure.
That seems to fit more with the view of J. Christiaan Beker, who recognized both contingency and coherence. I am frustrated that none of these apocalyptic interpreters is so far referring to Beker’s work.