I went anyway. Not bad. The Bible is a funny book. It's absolutely true that as the Word of God, it's always relevant to every time and place. However, it's also a written work that can be better understood if placed in the context of who the author is, where the author is in history and what the intention behind the writing was. I think that it's too easy for us to read the Bible as 21st century Americans and try to force the text to fit our own preconceived notions. The first 35-40 minutes was a discussion about the context of Romans.
There were several things that were pointed out. One was that Romans (and the other epistles) are letters that are written to churches that are already established. They are not written to be catechisms for all of the beliefs of Christians at the time. In fact, they often highlight some of the less discussed aspects of Christian belief, as the more understood ones did not need so much explanation. This is not as much the case with Romans, as it was written to a group of Christians that Paul had yet to meet, rather than a church that he established. It still wasn't a catechism, but he was trying to establish contact, not correcting them for what they were doing wrong.
There was no such things as the Catholic and Protestant debate, only the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. Also, the epistle was written at a time when most people were illiterate. Not stupid, but there was no printing press. The availability of the printed word was very limited, so people listened to things and remembered them. They were read in the context of a liturgical (or public worship) setting. There was no official New Testament at that time, though the various writing did begin to make it around to the different churches at an early date.
I think the liturgical setting of the New Testament writings is very important, and not something that we are used to thinking about now that we have a Bible per person sitting in the house. We may let them collect dust, but they're there. Think about how the New Testament writings came to be collected into a formal list or canon. First of all, these were all books that were being read at liturgies. Most of the ones that we have now, though some places included books that we don't have in our New Testament. Other places may have rejected a few that we now have. In general, though, there seemed to have been mostly a consensus. However, it was decided that there needed to be a list: which books were fit to be included in rites of public worship and which were not. This was decided in a council by a bunch of men, but it wasn't something that they magically made up because they had the power to do whatever they wanted. Rather, they recognized what was already occurring. They recognized which books had the most antiquity, were the most reliable, were the most accepted by the most churches throughout the history of the Church up to that time.
It's interesting. The Scriptures were written to be read in a group of people at a liturgical setting. They were put in a canon to recognize which should be read in a liturgical setting. Now that we have the Scripture widely available, we can and should take the time to study the Scripture in a variety of settings, but I think it's very important to keep in mind that the natural context of Scripture is the liturgy. Of course, the liturgy also doesn't make any sense without an understanding of the Scripture, but that's more a topic for my other discussion about the biblical roots of the Mass.
I even have a few things to say about the text of Romans. In the first verse, Paul refers to himself as a slave of Christ Jesus. (If you are in my other Bible study, raise your hands if you can hear Mary in your head: "CHAINS!") One of the group was having a hard time seeing why Paul would refer to himself as a slave, since being a slave is something that most of us don't aspire to. I thought about that for a while. Here's what I think. Paul refers to his calling to spread the gospel...the gospel is the good news of salvation. We were set free from sin and raised to new life in Christ. Aren't there some cultures where if someone saves your life, you belong to them forever in a debt of gratitude and love?
We also spent some time discussing what it was to be an apostle, and why Paul could call himself that even though he didn't follow Christ during Christ's lifetime on earth. One of the things about the culture of the time that we need to understand is that an apostle (which means "one who is sent") was an emissary for Christ. In those times, an important person couldn't fly to all his important meetings all over the world. Sometimes he had to send someone to act on his behalf. There were no phone calls, so the emissary had the authority to do the will of the one that sent him. That is the authority that the Apostles had, but they didn't make up what they were doing, they did what Christ sent them to do.
Verse 2 discussed how the gospel was "promised previously through [God's] prophets in the holy scriptures", showing that Christ and the gospel were not something that God decided to do at the spur of the moment, but were something that He set in motion from the foundation of the world. It showed how God is faithful to fulfill those promises made to the prophets. Keep in mind that Paul was a trained Pharisee that had studied the Scripture extensively. He knew what he was talking about.
Well, there's two verses. I'm not going to keep going. I think this post is plenty long enough. Let that be a lesson to me that there is plenty to discuss in 15 verses, even if it is "only" an intro.