Figuring out the Reasons Paul Wrote Romans (And Why It Matters)

Editors’ note: 

The new December 2018 issue of Themelios has 203 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

It is hard to account for all the data of Paul’s letter to the Romans, without concluding, along with Wedderburn, that “no one, single reason or cause will adequately explain the writing of Romans.” It is, nevertheless, helpful to distinguish between the single occasion that precipitated the letter, and the several purposes which Paul was seeking to accomplish by the letter, in view of that particular occasion. The former is Paul’s imminent arrival in Rome, en route to the virgin mission field that lay in the western reaches of the Empire, namely Spain (15:22–29). But it is because this impending visit had such far-reaching implications for both Paul and the churches of Rome, that a number of interlocking purposes lie behind the writing of the letter.

My aim in this article is three-fold. First, I want to give to students and pastors a clear and accessible entry point to what has become a highly complex and protracted discussion. Although what follows is my own understanding of the question and is not intended as a survey of the many positions taken, the reader can follow the references to pursue various avenues for further exploration.

Second, I seek to give an account of the relationship between the reasons for Romans, with “reasons” understood as a combination of the letter occasion and the letter’s purposes, as just defined. I will suggest that there are three main purposes that lie behind the writing of Romans, and that these purposes are conceptually related both to one-another and to the letter occasion. The attractiveness of a single-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it offers conceptual clarity, presupposing a unity amidst the diversity of the letter’s contents. The problem with the various single-reason hypotheses is that they fail to account for all the data of Romans. The attractiveness of a multi-reason hypothesis for Romans is that it better accounts for the sheer complexity and scope of the letter. But the problem is that it then becomes hard to see how the various reasons relate to one another or form a conceptual whole. Therefore, I will attempt to show some of the connections between the reasons for Romans.

Third, in probing the relationships between the reasons for Romans, I aim to encourage students and preachers of this great letter to treat it as a unity, and to see the wood for all the theological trees that lie within.