I am honored to be taking the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans from Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos during this semester here at Holy Cross.
Fr. Ted has been teaching at Holy Cross for over 30 years and has also agreed to be my spiritual father while I am here at Holy Cross. It is an honor.
One of the reasons for this is that Fr. Ted's little blue Orthodox prayerbook that he edited and published many years ago was very helpful to me as I began the transition from Pentecostal pastor to Orthodox Christian. When I told him this story, he was both pleased and a bit embarrassed by the praise.
In any event, what has struck me about this Romans class, other than it being one of the toughest classes I have ever taken, is Fr. Ted's constant refrain "The Text!"
What he means by this is that one of his goals in this class is to get us to "live" with the actual text of the book during this semester, to read it over and over again, and to really work hard to enter into St. Paul's thinking as this saint pens his theological "magnum opus." Living with this text has produced some interesting insights.
First, Romans really is St. Paul's theological masterpiece. He is preparing for a trip to the Empire's capital and he wants the Christians there to be familiar with his theology before he arrives. Because of this, Paul systematically (or as systematically as a Semitic mind can be) lays out his vision of the Gospel and God's Righteousness. His vision is both cosmic and surprisingly personal. Paul's vision for the Gospel cannot be divorced from his experience on the Damascus Road. His life was radically changed, and he expects every person's life to be changed by this radical Gospel of Jesus.
Second, Paul cannot be understood outside of the very Semitic mind and the Jewish mentality that is so obvious in this book. Paul simply cannot be understood without an appreciation for the 1st century Jewish mind he possesses. This means any attempt to read into Paul and Romans some later theological position or to attempt to "prove" this or that theological point that would have never been dreamed of by Paul is disingenuous. "The Text!" It is the text as it stands that simply will not lend itself to being kidnapped by later theologians who want to foist some "reformed" notion of God or salvation in Christ. The "proof-texting" so popular in our western world would simply be a puzzlement to St. Paul and his Roman audience.
Finally, Romans is richer and messier than I ever imagined. Paul takes a huge shift away from his Pharisee roots and marks his departure from the theological understanding of the day in the Jewish world concerning Israel, the Messiah, and God Himself. And that cosmic shift is caused by an encounter, Paul's encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus. You simply cannot read Romans and escape from the screaming truth that it is Paul's relationship with Jesus Christ that has radically changed everything in Paul's mind. But Paul does not abandon his roots. he sees them as completely fulfilled in this new and earth-changing Christ event. Paul wants the Roman Christians to know that this new and yet consistent faith in Jesus is not a denial of Israel's past but it's point and purpose.
Fr. Ted's insistence that we deal with "The Text!" has given me a deeper appreciation for the Orthodox understanding of God and our understanding of the very purpose of salvation - not to vindicate some juridical notion of justice, but to reveal that God's righteousness is seen in His making right that which had gone so horribly wrong and catching up all His creating in the work.
I will never read Romans the same again. Thank you, Fr. Ted!
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