The Letter to the Romans is arguably the most difficult book in the Bible, and certainly one of the most important. This is possibly why a crowd of over one hundred people gathered at Brentwood Cathedral Hall for an Ecumenical Study Day on Romans given by the director of CEF, Fr Adrian Graffy.
The focus on Romans comes at a particularly interesting time. We are approaching the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Two years earlier Martin Luther was working on his Commentary on Romans, and grasped that the ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ of God should be understood as an invitation to trust in God’s mercy.
Paul says in a crucial verse: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for in it the justice of God is revealed for all those who believe, Jews first and Gentiles also.’ (1:16)
Romans highlights the fundamental points of Paul’s teaching. Firstly, it is through faith that salvation comes. Paul places the figure of Abraham before us. He believed and that is what justified him. The same is true for those who believe in Christ. We are saved by faith and the freely given gift of God, and not by the works of the law. In the magnificent eighth chapter of his letter, Paul explains what it is to live according to the ‘law of the spirit’. Later on, Paul explains the mysterious plan of God which welcomes both Jew and Gentile into the community of faith. In chapters 9-11 he shows that the slowness to believe in Christ of the majority of Jews was God’s way of giving Gentiles the opportunity to become believers. Paul is convinced that in time the Jews too will come to Christ and ‘all Israel will be saved’. These statements of Paul have been of the utmost importance in developing the outreach to Judaism found in the document on Non-Christian religions of the Second Vatican Council.
Romans has influenced theology from the very start. Great commentaries were written by John Chrysostom, Augustine and others. Romans has had and continues to have an enormous impact on Christian faith and Christian life. As we have noted, it had a crucial part to play in the development of ideas at the Reformation. But it remains a difficult letter. No surprise then that Fr Adrian borrowed the title for the Ecumenical Study Day from Bishop John A T Robinson and called the day ‘Wrestling with Romans’