Spiritual Exercises: Based on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

Reta Halteman Finger

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J. Spiritual Exercises: Based on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Eerdmans, 2004.

If Joseph Fitzmyer set out to cook up “chicken soup for the soul,” the result is a hearty stew indeed, complete with big chunks of meat and vegetables – though a tad short on the spices. Fitzmyer, who wrote the detailed commentary on Romans for the Anchor Bible series, here uses his vast knowledge of this letter to provide a series of exercises that can be used for devotional purposes. The title, Spiritual Exercises, refers to the method developed by the sixteenthcentury monk Ignatius of Loyola as a way of “preparing . . . our soul to rid itself of all disordered affection and . . . of seeking and finding God’s will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul” (quoted, 9). Fitzmyer structures his 24 exercises using this method. Each chapter is only 7-8 pages long and includes the Romans text, discussion of its main ideas, questions for spiritual reflection, and a psalm with some relation to the Romans text.

This book was first published in 1995 and was reissued last year by Eerdmans with a new preface. As a professor at a Christian college, I am only too aware of the yawning chasm between lay Christians and biblical scholars, so Fitzmyer is to be commended for working to bridge this gap. Nevertheless, though less technical than his commentary, this book will call forth commitment and determined effort by laypersons to plumb its depths. While the author writes in clear and accessible language and omits footnotes, he does not water down Paul’s theology and extensive interaction with the Hebrew  Bible.

However, although studying Romans has been a deeply spiritual experience for me, Fitzmyer’s approach is not mine. Over the past generation or more, a new paradigm for interpreting Romans has emerged which seeks to understand the social situation of the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman house churches. (John Toews’s recent commentary on Romans in the Believers Church series exemplifies this approach.) Fitzmyer is certainly familiar with these new insights and interacts with some of them, but they do not frame his entire discussion. Rather, he extracts a more abstract theology from Romans and seeks immediately to apply it to the individual reader’s spiritual life. For example, concepts like “sin” and “faith” are seen as personal rather than communal; often readers must supply their own assumptions of what is considered sinful or righteous.

Further, Fitzmyer limits the purpose of Romans to Paul’s introduction of himself and his gospel to a church he has never visited but hopes to visit in the future (2-3). By stressing personal salvation, Fitzmyer follows a traditional interpretive paradigm, whereas other scholars have recently framed their interpretation around the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in Rome caused in part by the political marginalization of Jews under the Emperor Claudius.

Though using the social sciences to understand the Romans letter may seem a devious way to obtain personal meaning from it, I believe it is the particularities [of the social setting] that can better address current issues like racism, church conflict between conservatives and liberals, reconciliation among believers, or the role of women in church leadership. Much can be learned about the socio-political situation in Rome from the names in Romans 16:1-16, including Phoebe’s role as Paul’s patron in traveling to Rome and interpreting his letter to the believers there. Yet Fitzmyer dispatches this section at the end of the book in one paragraph (216-17).

Fitzmyer also suggests in his preface that Romans 1-8 is more important than the rest of the letter (4), even though the section comprising chapters 9- 11 is the theological climax of the letter, and chapters 12-15 are the ethical demands that flow from the theology of chapters 1-11. In this sense, his approach seems more Lutheran than Roman Catholic (his religious background) or Anabaptist.

Nevertheless, Spiritual Exercises may be congenial to Christians familiar with a traditional interpretation. It is definitely congruent with traditional assumptions about interior spirituality, especially as articulated by Ignatius of Loyola. For readers aware of how easily distracted one can become in our complicated and commercialized society, this book provides a focus and plenty of nourishment on the journey toward spiritual maturity.

Reta Halteman Finger, Messiah College, Grantham, PA