Romans - some recent commentaries

Author: various

Publisher: various

ISBN: various

review by Robert Strivens

Paul’s letter to the Romans continues to call forth new commentaries. This article reviews some recent works – mostly, but not all, commentaries.

The one book reviewed here which is not a commentary is Richard N. Longenecker, Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2011). Longenecker makes clear a number of times in the book that he is planning to publish a full-scale exegetical commentary on Romans, but that this volume is not it. Rather, the work addresses questions of introduction – authorship, issues of the text, occasion and date, addressees and purpose. It discusses literary aspects of the letter in the light of Graeco-Roman and Jewish literary conventions. The final section of the book addresses the central thrust of Romans and the structure of the letter. The most helpful part of the book, however, for preachers is the section on various matters of current debate (pp. 290-349). This is helpful because the discussion of each point is admirably concise yet nevertheless adequate to convey the sense of the main arguments on each side. The helpfulness need not be diminished by the fact that Longenecker’s conclusions do not necessarily agree with the historic Reformed understanding of Paul’s message. Thus he seems ready to accept that Paul’s use of the term ‘righteousness of God’ may include within its meaning the communication of righteousness, in an ethical as well as a forensic sense, from God to the believer; he also argues that the phrase πιστις Χριστου should be taken to indicate the faithfulness of Christ, rather than faith in Christ. This is probably not a volume to purchase and treasure, but if it can be borrowed, it will certainly prove useful.

Colin Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Nottingham: Apollos, 2012) forms part of the IVP Pillar series. As would be expected, Kruse expounds Romans in a manner broadly consistent with a historic Protestant and Reformed understanding of Paul’s letter. He does so very clearly and concisely, leading to a reasonably-sized volume for what must be the most commented-upon letter in human history. Kruse understands the ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans to refer both to God’s saving activity and to the communication of a new status to the believer. This is a refreshing corrective to those who can see in the expression only God’s covenantal faithfulness without clear implications for the believer’s legal standing before a holy God. Kruse includes in his commentary a series of excellent additional notes on specific subjects. The one on homosexuality, defending the historic Christian position, contains a wealth of useful information about same-gender sexual practice in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century.

Like many evangelical commentators today, Kruse argues that Paul teaches in Romans that the Christian believer is freed from the Mosaic law so that that code is no longer the ‘regulatory norm’ for the believer’s life, a function which is now performed by ‘the work of the Spirit in believers’ lives’ (p. 293). This is, to my mind, a regrettable move away from the historic view of the law as the rule by which the believer seeks to order his life. Then in the discussion of the second half of chapter 5, on Adam and Christ, there is little elaboration of a concept of federal or covenantal headship, without which it is, in my view, difficult to make sense of Paul’s argument. More generally, this commentary shares the characteristic of others in the Pillar series, with a tendency to summarise, for any given issue, a number of different positions taken by various commentators, followed by a brief statement of the preferred view. This can become a rather tedious format which does not always lend itself to a satisfactory exposition of the argument of the passage in question. Nevertheless, Kruse is a reliable guide on most aspects of Romans, in a familiar and useful format for the preacher.

A very different commentary is that by Arland J. Hultgren, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Minnesota: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2011). This is also a full-scale commentary, providing a verse-by-verse analysis of Paul’s letter and including some evaluation of textual and translational questions. The letter is broken down into clearly defined sections of several verses each, each section having its own mini-bibliography of secondary material. The analysis is carefully argued, vocabulary and grammatical and syntactical points are clearly explained and the author seeks throughout to present the detail in the light of what he sees as Paul’s overall message.

On a number of key points, however, Hultgren’s work reaches conclusions that those of a conservative evangelical persuasion would reject. For example, Hultgren understands Paul to teach, in 5:18-19, that salvation will eventually reach all humanity without exception and without the need for faith. The reign of death is now over and God’s free gift of grace has broken in. This represents a ‘shift of aeons’ (p. 231). ‘The scope of divine justifying grace extends to all humankind, not simply to believers alone’. Such universalism seems impossible to reconcile with Paul’s emphasis on the need for faith in Christ, in Romans and elsewhere.

In an appendix (pp. 616-22), Hultgren argues that Paul’s condemnation of same-gender sexual behaviour in chapter 1 of the letter relates only to the widespread abusive sexual relations predominant in Paul’s day. Hultgren argues that such activity went on in a context which had no understanding, as we have today, of sexual orientation or the idea that people could by nature be attracted sexually to members of the same gender and accordingly Paul’s condemnation cannot attach to faithful same-sex relationships between those of a self-consciously homosexual orientation. Kruse’s commentary provides a useful counterpoint to such views.

Paul J. Achtmeier, Romans (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), in the Interpretation commentary series, is a less technical volume, designed to help prepare to teach and preach from Romans in the context of church life. It is readable and not overloaded with footnotes and technical language. The author does not discuss opposing academic views, though his exposition is rooted in a deep understanding of scholarly issues. He sees the key to a right understanding of Romans in its focus on eschatological history: Paul is interested in expounding what God has done and is doing, in the light of the story of redemption. Though doctrine is vital to the letter, Romans on this view is not driven primarily by a desire to expound a doctrine. There is much that is helpful and stimulating in this commentary, but a forensic understanding of Paul’s use of the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ is rejected. Achtmeier is clear that Romans teaches salvation by faith in Christ alone apart from works. He is strong on the theme of Christ’s victory over the power of sin; though he speaks in terms of forgiveness, he is not so clear on the precise means by which our guilt is expunged.

Finally, Tom Holland, Director of Biblical Studies at WEST, has published a verse-by-verse commentary: Romans: The Divine Marriage - A Biblical Theological Commentary (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011). Holland puts forward a number of stimulating, if sometimes contentious, arguments about important aspects of Paul's letter. His principal hermeneutical key, which is very welcome, is that Paul needs to be understood in a thoroughly Old Testament context, rather than a Hellenistic or extra-biblical Jewish context. On this basis, Holland believes that Western readers generally take much too individualistic a view of the NT letters to churches. Instead, those letters, including Romans, must be understood in a far more corporate manner, an argument with which I have considerable sympathy but believe that Holland tends to push too far.

Holland argues that Paul's use of the term 'the righteousness of God' in Romans sometimes means 'imputation', in the classic Reformed sense, sometimes God's saving deliverance from exile and sometimes God's making of a covenant. Holland thereby seeks to take on board significant aspects of the New Perspective approach to Paul, without losing the forensic view of justification for which the Reformers argued. This approach has considerable attractions, although I was not persuaded by the attempt to understand the phrase ‘counted for righteousness’ in chapter 4, when used about Abraham, differently from the similar phrase that Paul uses a few verses later about David.

The subtitle of Holland's commentary is 'The Divine Marriage', a theme which, he argues, is fundamental to Paul's argument in Romans. He understands Paul to be teaching that the world of unbelief is bound in covenant to Satan (taking 'sin' in chapters 6 and 7 to be a reference to Satan), as a result of Adam's disobedience in Eden; Christ therefore had to die in order that that covenant should be legally broken and we should thus be free to be married to another, to Christ. At first sight, this interpretation raises a host of biblical and theological questions which would seem to pose considerable barriers to any ready acceptance of Holland's interpretation.

All the volumes reviewed here would repay careful study, though the preacher is likely, in my view, to find most help in Kruse. My preferred commentaries on Romans remain Cranfield (2 vols., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975-79), Murray (2 vols., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959-65) and Moo (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996).  



About the reviewer

Robert Strivens

MA (University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
ThM (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia)
PhD (University of Stirling)

Having trained for the pastoral ministry at LTS, Robert pastored an evangelical church in Banbury for 8 years. Prior to training for the ministry, he was a solicitor in private practice, working in London and Brussels. He has been involved in training pastors in French-speaking West Africa. He teaches New Testament and Greek and also lectures on Contemporary Issues. His doctoral research was on Philip Doddridge and early 18th century Dissent. He is married to Sarah and they have three sons.

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