Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.

Reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

1st Part: The Background: The Covenant

The letter of St. Paul to the Romans uses the same basic structure found in his other letters. It features one important aspect of the mystery of Christ (chapters 5-11) and brings out its implications for Christian life, morality, and spirituality. In this case, the focus is on Christ as enacting the new and eternal covenant in His blood. The early parts of Romans (chapters 1-4) show our desperate need for Christ while the final portions (chapter 12-16) set forth the implications of this covenant for faith, conduct, and prayer.

The Background: The Covenant
There is no more basic theological idea in the pages of Scripture than the covenant. Even when we speak of the Bible as consisting of the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are using this central notion, for the term “testament” is one that derives from the Latin term testamentum as a translation of the Greek word syntheke and the Hebrew word berith. In modern languages like English, the distinction between words “testament” (as in “last will and testament”) and “covenant” (as a sacred compact) could conceal the unified idea suggested by the biblical terms.
The truth of the matter, however, comes clear when we realize that the reason why we use the phrase “New Testament” to designate the collection of the Gospels, Acts, the various Letters, and the book of Revelation is that they concern the new and eternal covenant made by Christ. Similarly, the reason for using the phrase “Old Testament” of the collection of the books that make up the Torah, the prophets, and the other writings such as the historical books, the psalms, and the sapiential books is that they concern the series of covenants that preceded the new and eternal covenant in Christ.1
The better to appreciate the Christological emphasis of Romans, it may be helpful to call to mind briefly the series of covenants that God created. In the garden of Eden God made a covenant with Adam and Eve that permitted them to eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). When they yielded to Satan’s temptation by eating that fruit and thus claiming the divine prerogative of determining what is good and what is evil, they suffered the penalty for their disobedience by expulsion from the garden. The effects of their sin afflicted not only Adam and Eve but the entirety of the human race that descends from them, including the need for wearying labor and for pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16-19).

After the flood, God not only arranges to repopulate the earth through the offspring of Noah but also creates a second covenant that softens the stipulations of the first. There remains the need for each person to face a moral reckoning with God, precisely because of God’s special love for human beings as made in His own image (Genesis 9:6). The rainbow that God designed to appear in the clouds will serve as a reminder of this new covenant, for God promised never again to destroy the world by flood (Genesis 9:8-17). Instead, He will rain upon the just and the unjust alike – a symbolic way of expressing that in His own time God will call both the good and the evil to account but that no longer will there always be an immediate punishment for wickedness as there was with Adam and Eve or with Cain when he murdered Abel. Jesus alludes to this change in the covenant within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:45).

It is significant for our understanding of Romans to appreciate that these first two instances of the covenant concern the whole human race. God then undertakes a special relationship with His Chosen People in the covenant made with the childless Abram. God promises not only descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky but a special land in which to freely worship the Lord alone (Genesis 15: 1-11). As a sign of this covenant God changes his name to Abraham (“father of the people”) and specifies the requirement of circumcision (Genesis 17: 1-14). The remainder of the story of the patriarchs recounts the protection and the blessings that God brings on Abraham and his descendants until the moment when it is time to bring the Chosen People to the Promised Land (as foretold to Abraham in a dream at Genesis 15:12-16).

1 See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World. Translated by Graham Harrison. San Francisco CA: Ignatius Press, 1999. German original: Die Vielfalt der Religionen und der Eine Bund (Verlag Urfeld GmbH, Hagen, 1998).