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Why Did Paul Write Romans?

Paul’s rationale for writing his most famous letter has been no small matter of debate among contemporary readers of scripture. Among historic Protestant interpreters, Romans is generally seen as a declaration, exposition, and defense of Paul’s gospel. And certainly the gospel takes a chief place in the letter. However, if that were Paul’s only reason for writing, then the second half of the letter is difficult to account for. In the last thirty years or so and in an effort to account for the rest of the letter, the view has become popular that Paul is writing to resolve the dispute between the weak and the strong (see chapters 14-15). And this view has much to commend it, for it is the dominant matter in the final chapters of Romans and, as such, would have been the last thing on the minds of the original hearers as the letter was read to them. But while the issue of reconciliation builds on the truth of the gospel presented earlier, it is difficult to suggest that these two chapters alone comprise Paul’s full purposes in writing. More recently it has been suggested that Paul writes to prepare and gain support for his hoped-for Spanish mission. One wonders, though, that if this is Paul’s primary purpose in writing, why he doesn’t mention the Spanish mission until 15:24.

As a solution to this problem, Frank Matera has proposed that the purpose of Romans is a matter of “both/and” rather than “either/or”. He suggests that Paul writes to: (1) summarize his gospel, (2) prepare his defense at Jerusalem, (3) gain support for the Spanish mission, and (4) resolve the problem of the weak and the strong (Romans,8). I think this view has much to commend it. Letters, speeches, and arguments often come with multiple purposes and can function in a variety of ways. Why should we think the complex argument of Romans should be limited to a single purpose? The apostle Paul was certainly capable of complex thought and nuanced argument intended to accomplish various persuasive goals. Matera’s proposal accounts for the content of Romans and the circumstances both of Paul and the Christians in Rome, and I take it to be quite helpful. We shall have to wait and see how how his argument fares in larger and famed Romans debate.

What do you think? Is Matera’s proposal helpful? What are its strengths? Weaknesses?

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