Review of N. T. Wright’s Commentary on Romans

Modern theology in the academy is a diseased whore, and the less time one spends with it the better.  Unfortunately, this is the world and we live and the questions we face–we must face up to the fact and engage these questions.  Fortunately, men like Oliver O’Donovan and N. T. Wright offer some treatments to modern intelligentsia’s intellectual stds.   The following is some relief.

In many ways, this is not so much a commentary but a daring exercise in biblical theology.  And for that reason it will be reviewed, not as a commentary, but as a biblical theology textbook.  Many presuppositions are required in reading this commentary.  One has to believe that Paul was familiar with the Biblical story (indeed, that the Old Testament even has an overarching narrative, and even if it does, that Paul was concerned about it).  One has to believe that Paul saw the church as occupying a key space in God’s continuing narrative that began with Abraham (586).

Accordingly, I will not give a commentary on what Wright thought of each chapter.  That is certainly possible and worthwhile, but it misses the narratival thrust of what St Paul is trying to say.  Instead, I will highlight major themes and hermeneutical movements that Wright says Paul uses and see if they actually work.

The strength of NTW’s commentary is that his thesis tries to match up with what he deems St Paul’s thesis:  God’s righteousness is unveiled in the death and resurrection of his Son—and this is the “gospel.” The Gospel is the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus Christ.[1] Further, NTW shows how this theme controls the entire reading of Romans, as can be seen in the neat summary to the book found in chapter 15.

New Exodus, New Creation.

Wright suggests that chs. 3-8 of Romans form a narratival substructure.  St Paul is paralleling the Christian experience with that of YHWH redeeming the Hebrews from Egypt.  Wright notes, “Allowing for Paul’s new perspective, whereby the promise of the land has been redefined into the promise of inheriting the whole cosmos [4:13; 8:18-25], the pattern is exact” (511).  The Israelites were in slavery; God’s people have been redeemed from slave masters (Romans 3:24; 6:16).  Other verses could support the claim, and while Wright doesn’t spell out the argument here like in his earlier essay, it runs something like this:  chapter 6: sin as a slave master = Egypt; chapter 7: Giving of Torah (ala Exodus 20) = new discussion of Torah and the problem of Torah; end of chapter 7 to 8:11: Israelites in wilderness = Christians being led by the Spirit to their inheritance (same language is used of Spirit as was used of glory cloud in the wanderings).

What do we make of this argument?  Admittedly, it does have a remarkable unity to it.  It places the drama of redemption on a cosmic field.  It retells the Old Testament story but this time around the redemption won in Christ.  It implicitly draws upon the strong philosophical and hermeneutical resources of “narrative.”  But can we know for certain this is what Paul really meant?  Maybe, maybe not.  Can we know that Paul really meant us to read his letter like a scientific database to proof-text doctrines?  Accepting or not accepting Wright’s argument depends on one’s own hermeneutical allowances.

I think there is a lot to be said for this argument.   Israel was called to be the means through which God’s saving work was brought to the world.  Yet, Israel became the problem and in a sense, it became the microcosm of the problem.   Therefore, reading Romans as a narrative on Israel’s narrative makes sense.

Paul and Torah

Torah was God’s gift to Israel to be given to the world.  Yet Torah soon was intertwined with the problem.  Instead of dealing with sin, it highlighted the sin.   There was no way for Israel to escape the dialectic.  God’s son—God’s servant ala Isaiah 40-55—allowed Torah to reach a “critical point” on himself, focusing the world’s sins in one place, and dealing decisively with the sin problem once and for all through the death of the Messiah.

 

This helps us understand the “works of the law” debate.  If works of the law is rightly identified with the rites of ethnic Israel—the boundary markers—then what Paul is saying makes sense.   If salvation were through Torah, then the death and resurrection of the Messiah is meaningless.   If salvation were through Torah and “identity markers,” then we can’t relate to God through faith.  Later Protestant attempts to read “Roman Catholic merit theology” into the phrase “works of the law” destroys any meaning Paul gave to this passage.

 

Conclusion

This is one of those books that really deserves an extended commentary.  It is full of rich insights that cannot be exhausted in one review.   There are a few drawbacks, but that happens with any commentary.  While the format of the NIB is generally good, the editors’ decision to use the two worst translations on the market (the NIV and the NRSV) as the translations in the text mar a lot of the work.

One other point:  It would be interesting for someone to note the similarities and contrasts of Wright’s reading of Romans and justification with that of the ancient church’s tradition.   Of course, semi-literate groups have condemned Wright as a Roman Catholic, but serious scholarship hasn’t pursued this necessary point in sufficient detail.  I would especially like to see how Wright’s reading of Romans compares with Eastern Orthodoxy’s.

Notwithstanding, this is a fine commentary.


[1] While it is certainly true that we relate to God through Christ by “faith,” we can be sure that St Paul did not have later “faith alone” controversies in mind.   The evidence against reading Luther’s view into Romans is overwhelming:  1) it is absent in the Church, by and large and 2) the structure of Romans itself is against reading “faith alone” as a controlling variable.

 

Advertisements