Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13 ESV).

How can one be blessed by something that is not fully understood?

As a teenager, I was passionate about my youth group.  When the youth director left the church, the group collapsed my senior year into a three-person study group—the pastor, my best friend, and I.  That entire year we got together on Wednesday for pizza, Bonhoeffer, and Romans. In college, when I became bitter at life, it was my understanding of God through Romans that brought me back.  Now, looking back at the experience from the other side of seminary, I wonder: how I could have been so blessed by a book that still defies my understanding?

This is not a new question.  Faith is not irrational; it is the beginning of rational discourse. Faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)—is a motto attributed to Anselm (1033–1109; Archbishop of Canterbury) taken from his book, Proslogion, where he explored the existence and attributes of God [1].  The idea of faith preceding understanding is enshrined in scientific method, for example, because the method necessarily begins with a hypothesis (problem definition) [2].  Even the words in this sentence are unintelligible without assumptions as to their meaning.

My excursion into epistemology (the study of knowledge) is not out of place in a study of Romans.  Theologian James D.G. Dunn sees apologetics as one of Paul’s three objectives in Romans.  For example, Paul writes: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16 ESV). The other two objectives are a missionary objective [3] and a pastoral objective.  Dunn’s pastoral concern [4] is for unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians who made up the churches in Rome.  Paul is a disciplined writer who typically lays out objectives in his introduction and summarizes them at the end—in this case, Romans 15:7-13 [5].

Paul’s emphasis in Romans on the relationship among Jews and Gentiles sets up a kind of brother’s theme, as is often noted in the book of Genesis [6]. However, in Romans Paul uses tension between Jews and Gentiles as a stand in for a kind of false nurture/nature dichotomy [7].  The argument goes that with law we are nurtured from our natural state of sin—the traditional source of Jewish pride.  However, what might seem like an either—or argument is used by Paul as a neither—nor argument.  But for Paul, neither our natural abilities (Romans 1:18-32) nor the tutorage of law (Romans 7:5) are sufficient to earn us the grace of God.  Neither brother (Jew or Gentile) can claim the righteousness of God.

Here is where the example of Abraham becomes instrumental.  Abraham was not righteous in himself or by his actions.  Paul writes:  Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3 ESV).  Just like the prodigal son did not deserve his father’s forgiveness, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness (Luke 15:11-23).  So just like Abraham:  since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; (Romans 5:1 ESV).

How can we be blessed by something that we do not understand?  We are sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ.


[2] The steps often employed in the method are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, and responsibility bearing.  Stephen W. Hiemstra. June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed:  18 February 2014. Online:

[3] Apostle—Romans 1:1; support for a missionary journey to Spain; Romans 15:24.

[4] Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7 ESV). James D.G. Dunn.  1993.  “Letter to the Romans” pages 838-50 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InverVarsity Press.  Pages 839-40.

[6] Richard B. Hays.  1989.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 70-71.

[7] Genesis has lots of brothers, including—Cain/Abel, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, and Joseph/brothers—which drive the theme of.

[8] My thanks to Professor Rollin Grams of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,Charlotte, NC for suggesting this argument in  ET/NT 543 New Testament and Christian Ethics, May 20-24, 2013.

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