For those interested, here is some more introductory material I presented to the Bible study I lead each week...
Makeup of the Roman Church: scholars spend a lot of time discussing whether it was predominantly Jewish or Gentile. Paul clearly is addressing both. Remember also the problem of Gentiles who were being influenced to embrace circumcision and the full, Jewish ritual law. That is a big issue in the early Church, it shows up in Acts and in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—which is often paired with Romans because of the emphasis on “justification apart from works of the law.” But other themes in Romans line up with other writings: Paul addresses the unity of Jew and Gentile—a theme that is prominent in Ephesians, for example.
Influence of this Letter…can hardly be overstated. It figures prominently in much Protestant theology: because of the emphasis on justification. Martin Luther said that the Church “stands or falls” on his understanding of “the doctrine of justification by faith.” As the introductory comments in the Catholic Study Bible say,
It is the longest and most systematic unfolding of the apostle’s thought, expounding the gospel of God’s righteousness that saves all who believe; it reflects a universal outlook, with special implications for Israel’s relation to the church.
If you have ever heard Billy Graham preach, you’ve heard a restatement of much of what Paul says in Romans:
(1) all humanity is lost without God;
(2) God has acted to save humanity, ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ;
(3) we must put faith in Christ to be delivered from God’s wrath;
(4) becoming a Christian means living a new life.
If you need a really simple outline for Romans, that will due to start. But let’s look again at this, after we’ve gone through the letter.
So much has Protestant Christianity embraced Romans, especially its language, that many Catholics may feel uncertain how to approach this. Romans talks about being “justified by faith,” and we cite the Letter from James, “faith without works is dead.” Scott Hahn, a Presbyterian minister who is now an energetic Catholic writer, especially on Scripture, counters, “wait a minute: Romans is a ‘home game’ for Catholics!” The key is to understand what Paul really means about “justification,” “faith” and “works.”
We also want to remember that the divide between Protestant and Catholic that we have inherited was not only a product of the leaders of the Reformation taking a different, theological direction, but also a fair amount of misunderstanding and combativeness and pride—on both sides. Also, once a new movement had begun, both Protestant and Catholic began defining themselves as “not-them”—sharpening the differences.
Only in recent years has ecumenism borne fruit in letting go of some of that, and discovering that the real differences need not be so great. An important instance of that—which we’ll talk about—is formal discussions between Catholic and Lutheran leaders, and less formally, discussions among Catholics and Evangelicals: resulting in a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, and then a couple of documents produced by a group called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” We’ll take a closer look at that as we go along.