transient theological thoughts (4)

In the introduction to his little commentary on Romans, C.H. Dodd says:

Whatever particular dates be assigned to the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians, they all preceded the Epistle to the Romans. I have indicated in the notes several passages where a train of thought in Romans can be recognized at an earlier stage of its development in one of those other epistles. Thus the short eschatological passage, [Rom] xiii.11-14, points back to the more elaborate treatment of the same theme in 1 Thess v.1-10. The discussion of the ‘body’ and the ‘members,’ in [Rom] xii.5-8, and of the problem of the scrupulous conscience, in [Rom] xiv.1–xv.6, presuppose the fuller and fresher discussion of these themes in 1 Cor xii and viii–x, without reference to which the passages in Romans are hardly to be understood in their full meaning.

–C.H. Dodd,The Epistle of Paul to the Romans(1963), 22-23

On the surface, I say: “Rock on!” I’m all for highlighting and emphasising the places where specific themes or ideas appear in different letters. I’m especially supportive of this when it leads to a more nuanced understanding of Paul’s thought and/or theology. As Dodd points out, having this more nuanced knowledge gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Paul when he writes what he does, and that is indeed a laudable opportunity.

Further reflection, however, leads me to say: “Hang on a minute.” I’m not sure if Dodd was aware of what he implies in arguing his case. If I’m reading him correctly,* Dodd’s near insistence on the necessity of recognising intertextuality seems to create problems for one of the more basic hermeneutical goals–i.e. to hear/read the text in its original context. In effect, Dodd wants us to imagine a historical context that is not necessarily fair, and the effect of that imagined context leads to a conclusion that is not warranted.

Let me say this in a different way: 1) our goal is to understand the letter of Romans in its original context (i.e. its effect on and relevance for its original audience); 2) Dodd contends that the full meaning of key elements of Romans is contingent upon having knowledge of what Paul has argued elsewhere; 3) thus, for the original Roman audience to appreciate and know fully Paul’s meaning, they would have to be aware of what he said in 1Thess and 1Cor on similar themes; 4) however, Dodd offers no evidence (provided there is any) that the Romans were aware of such texts, let alone what Paul argued in them; ergo 5) we must assume that the Romans’ awareness of Paul’s full meaning in his letter to them was lacking–if not deficient. That, for me, is a big problem.

While intertextual readings might be useful for us when seeking to ascertain wider meaning (or, the larger framework of an author’s thought), I do not think it is appropriate to require such things for original audiences. It might be appropriate, however, if such audiences had time and the ability to acquaint themselves with other texts by the same author beforehand; but we cannot say that is the case for the Romans–at least not at the time of the first reading of the letter. Thus I think Dodd suggestion has placed an unfair burden on the original audience, in their ability to ascertain Paul’s full meaning, and an unnecessary obstacle in our way of seeking to understand how the original audience would have read Paul’s letter.

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* I (as always) admit to the possibility of being wrong, especially this week–my personal “demons” have been relentless.

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2 comments

  1. I think you are basically right. My initial thought as I read the Dodd quote (before reading your analysis) was that how could the meaning of one letter written to one church depend on another piece of correspondence to which that group had no access. We could talk about correlation, and perhaps we should say that what Paul says in one letter sheds light on what he says in other letters. But to say the meaning cannot be grasped without considering the other letters is a false step hermeneutically.

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