Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.01

Wendy Dabourne, Purpose and Cause in Pauline Exegesis: Romans 1.16-4.25 and a New Approach to the Letters. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 104.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xi, 257.  ISBN 0-521-64003-2.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Warren S. Smith, University of New Mexico (
Word count: 1346 words

Two issues lie behind this study of the opening four chapters of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, according to Wendy Dabourne, Minister of Kew Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia. "The first is the church's present alienation from the Bible," and the second, related to it, is that scholarship "fails to take with full seriousness its own dictum that Paul's letters are letters and pastoral and must be treated as such" (p.1).

What are the consequences, then, of taking seriously that Romans is what it seems to be, a letter, like the other letters of Paul addressed to a specific congregation? By ceasing to treat the text as a theological treatise, we are freed up to examine more closely Paul's purpose in writing to the Romans, or as Dabourne puts it in a characteristic near tautology, "The second step in our search for what Paul was intending to say to the Romans in Rom. 1.16-4.25 is to identify as precisely as possible his purpose in writing" (p. 63). Thus e.g. the doctrine of justification by faith is incompletely set forth in Rom. 1.16-4.25 because it is a presupposition of the discussion, not a central purpose of it (e.g. p. 44). In Romans 1.32, for example, there is an obscurity about who is being condemned for sin, but, "there is no attempt to prove that anybody has sinned, simply a statement of their sin. Sin is a datum and the passage is about God's just judgement of wrath" (p.53). So we must ask only the appropriate questions of the text and stop demanding of it explanations of issues which are not at the forefront of Paul's mind. One way to get at the "teleological" question (the phrase in this book has no deep philosophical overtone but simply implies, What is Paul's purpose?) is to define precisely the implied audience, the implied speaker, and his implied opponent in the give and take of the dialogue. These figures are identified as follows: "The Congregation is invited ... to observe and learn from The Apostle's engagement with a narratee whom we call The Conservative" (p.105).

So far, so good. The epistle sets forth positions, tests them and refines them, by exchanging in debate with an opponent. In some sense this seems to me to be a helpful method of reading the epistle because it allows us to define how Paul tries out, accepts, redefines, or rejects positions in developing his intricate argument about the righteousness of God, and the relationship of the Jews and Gentiles on the issues of faith and law. But several important questions follow. Is there any single and coherent position of The Conservative against which Paul is arguing? Is he a Jewish conservative who rejects the salvation of those Christians who have not kept the law? Or is he a Christian ready to renounce the whole law? (The difficulty of this issue is reiterated e.g. by Kathy Gaca in Harvard Theological Review 92.2, 1999, 173). Secondly, is it really possible to assign verses in the epistle to one or another speaker, almost in the manner of a Platonic dialogue?

To some extent it seems to me that Dabourne begs both of these questions. Romans 1.18-32 provides an early and crucial test example. Here we have a thundering condemnation of all "ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth" (v.18) especially those who, by their futile thinking and idol-worship, have been given over by God to impure lust. But who is the speaker for this section -- Paul, or his conservative opponent? Dabourne hedges on this as in other sections by first saying "The Apostle presents an appalling picture of widening circles of sin" (p. 126), as though it were Paul's persona which is setting forth the argument, but then blending the voices of the two speakers by adding that "This picture is familiar to The Conservative" since it "is expressed in the language of Hellenistic Judaism's apologetic for its monotheistic faith..." (p. 127). Moreover, on 2.1-11 Dabourne says explicitly "our reading is controlled by the conclusion that The Apostle is addressing The Conservative" (p.129). Moreover, at times it appears that The Conservative is a Jew, cf. p.131, "The Apostle builds up a picture of The Conservative's self-perception. Simply because he is a Jew, he rests in the law and boasts in God." But this picture is further muddled by the claim that "The Conservative believes that he will be saved ... because Christ died for his sins" (pp. 129-130). How is it possible that the same opponent can sometimes be a "Jew" who "rel[ies] on the law and boasts of his relation to God" (2.17) while at other times, not only is he a complacent Christian but he actually wants to reject the law (cf. 7.7)? Is there any value at all in attempting to type this imaginary opponent under a single theological heading?

Still another confusion about the "voices" is that The Apostle and The Conservative, according to Dabourne, sometimes seem not to be opponents at all, but in agreement. This is already one of the problems in the discussion on p. 127 quoted above, and again on p. 137: "Rom. 3.4: The Apostle gives the only answer possible for The Conservative: μὴ γένοιτο ... Still speaking as the voice of The Conservative, the Apostle offers scriptural support for μὴ γένοιτο ..." If The Conservative and The Apostle have put aside their differences and are here in agreement that God must be true though every man be proven false, perhaps these two personae are really insufficient by themselves and a third straw man (whom we might call "The Liberal" or "The Atheist") needs to be set up, against whom they both are arguing. The passage only underscores the difficulty one encounters in trying to solve Paul's position by assigning such labels, by trying to act as though this epistle were really a kind of Platonic dialogue (cf. the appeal to Paul's "Socratic method," p.129) in which individuals with discernible personalities engaged in debate. (On the general issue of readers addressed in the text of Romans, see especially the lucid arguments of Stanley Stowers in A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles, Yale 1994, esp. pp. 1-41).

Dabourne's arguments are provocative and cannot be easily dismissed, because she forces us to think of Romans in terms of its genre and immediate purpose rather than assume that Paul intended his letter as a definitive and self-complete argument on sin and righteousness, or about faith and works. The opaqueness of her language, however, works against her. She is a master of the maddeningly fine distinction ("We shall be trying to understand what Paul was intending to say to the Romans, not asking what the text means,' p.45; this is in fact a key distinction on which her thesis depends, but the distinction sometimes seems to blur) and of the compounded mixed metaphor. In one startling example, she warns that it would be wrong to engage in "a running engagement with other readings" which would "pull the detail of the two-step exegesis back into the framework of the mainstream debate, choking off the new enterprise before it has been considered on its own terms" (p. 223). She sometimes seem to take back with one hand what the other gives. Thus in her "review and conclusion" chapter she asserts, "The technique of identifying the personae involved -- The Apostle, The Congregation, The Conservative -- is applicable to all the letters" (p. 213). If that is so, why does she assert in the very next paragraph "The lack of address to the Romans in the passage [viz. Rom.1.16-4:25] and the substitution of discussion with a dialogue partner ... [are] atypical. I have not found in the Pauline corpus any other diatribal dialogues that shift the address like this for so long" (p.213). Despite the claim in the book's title of "a new approach to the letters" [plural], it appears that to solve the peculiar problems of Romans one must look outside the Pauline corpus for a literary model.

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