Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Written by John Ziesler Reviewed By Michael B. Thompson

Do we need yet another commentary on Romans? The short answer is yes. Ever since Luther, most commentators have seen Paul arguing against a Judaism that depended upon the law to earn sufficient merit to become acceptable to God. According to this view, Paul opposed a self-righteous notion of justification by works by emphasizing something radically different—justification by faith (in Christ). The resulting picture of Paul’s theology has created significant tensions between justification and sanctification, and made it difficult to square his views with those expressed in James 2 about the importance of ‘works’. There have been plenty of other issues in Romans for commentators to differ about, but this basic understanding of Paul has largely gone unchallenged.

In 1977, however, E.P. Sanders’ blockbuster study Paul and Palestinian Judaism shook this foundation to the core. Sanders offered convincing evidence that many Jews did not see obedience to the law as the way to gain justification before God but the way to remain within the covenant, and that many Jewish writings roughly contemporary with Paul presupposed God’s grace and the notion of justification by faith. On Sanders’ reading of the evidence, Paul’s problem with his kinsmen was therefore not an individualistic legalism (in the sense of trying to earn God’s acceptance), but their failure to acknowledge Christ as Lord. Furthermore, when Paul wrote negatively about the law he was opposing Jewish-Christian insistence that Gentiles had to become Jews (observe the law) before they could become Christians—the idea that in order to be a true child of Abraham, one had to adopt the ways of Abraham’s physical offspring.

Other scholars such as James Dunn have also argued that ‘works’ in Paul do not refer primarily to good deeds done out of love (as in James), but specifically works required by the Torah, such as circumcision, keeping the dietary laws, observing the Sabbath, etc., i.e. the distinctive marks of Judaism. The difference, if subtle, is real. Thus the boasting Paul rejected (e.g. in Rom. 3:27) may now be seen as a boasting not so much in personal accomplishments, but in the Jewish heritage and status (over against the Gentiles). Paul was not concerned with salvation of the self-righteous individual in Romans, but with the relation of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan for humanity.

J.D.G. Dunn has recently given us a full exegesis of the letter from this new perspective on Paul (in the Word Bible Commentary series), but his massive two-volume work can be a daunting thicket for newcomers to find their way through. By contrast, John Ziesler’s contribution to the TPI series offers a more user-friendly (and affordable) way into a post-Sanders reading of Romans. The merits of Ziesler’s work are its clarity in explaining the new perspective, in pointing out where that can make a difference, and the way Ziesler excels in bringing the reader to the heart of an issue with minimum verbiage. His commentary may not revolutionize our understanding, and it certainly will not confirm all our biases, but it will introduce thinking students to the insights of modern scholars.

Ziesler’s clear discussion of why Romans was written provides a good example of the value of the book. Scholars have produced a mountain of literature over the issue of whether the letter is Paul’s systematic theology—his ‘last will and testament’—the theological defence he planned to offer in Jerusalem, or material specifically intended to address real issues for the Christians in Rome. In fourteen pages Ziesler summarizes the arguments, rightly concluding that Romans reflects both Paul’s and his readers’ situations.

Those looking for a dogmatic or polemical commentary that boldly declares the only ‘sound’ interpretation will be disappointed; Ziesler often sets out two or three options and expresses his preferences very tentatively. He writes from a critical standpoint, asking uncomfortable questions and forthrightly pointing out apparent flaws in Paul’s logic glossed over by more evangelical commentaries. Unfortunately, the brevity of the work can sometimes imply that there are no answers to the problems raised, and in his treatment of the law Ziesler hesitates to characterize Paul’s thought as coherent. Ziesler offers us some more interpretative options, but he does not make it any easier to decide what Paul originally meant.

The following may give something of the flavour of the author’s perspective: the ‘righteousness of God’ in 1:17 and 10:3 refers not to a status given by God, but to his saving action out of loyalty to his promises, as well as referring to a power into which believers are drawn and which demonstrates itself in their lives. In 1:18–3:20 Paul is not trying to prove the sinfulness of each and every person, but only that Jews are just as much sinners as Gentiles. When writing about the judgment according to works in chapter two, Paul is describing the human condition apart from Christ and is going along with Jewish assumptions simply for the sake of argument. In 3:20 ‘Paul is not … attacking a merit-centred view of the way to enter into relationship with God, let alone a self-righteous kind of piety’ (p. 105). Ziesler finds no notion of imputed righteousness in either 3:21 or 4:3 (nor in Gal. 3:6), but rather a focus on God’s saving activity in accepting the undeserving. Hilastērion in 3:25 is expiation rather than propitiation, and there is little (if any) causal connection between Adam’s sin and those of mankind in 5:12. Romans 7:14–25 refers to pre-Christian experience, 7:25b perhaps being a gloss that crept into the text at an early stage. The ‘just requirement of the law’ in 8:4 is the commandment not to covet. A conjectural emendation resolves the Christological crux in 9:5; the original probably read ‘whose is the God blessed for ever’. Following R. Badenas, Ziesler thinks Christ is the telos of the law (10:4) inasmuch as he is the one to whom it points and in whom it finds its completion. ‘All Israel’ in 11:25 speaks of physical Jews alive at the end-time who will repent and believe in Christ.

On occasions (notably at 9:31 and 10:5), Ziesler seems unsure of his footing and of how far he should push the idea that Paul was not addressing a Jewish theology of justification by meritorious works. He acknowledges that clearly Paul would oppose any notion of earning salvation, and he effectively presents the apostle’s theology of grace. Still, the ‘new perspective’ on Paul needs a fuller exposition, and debate over Paul’s target will continue, as evidenced by Stephen Westerholm’s fine Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith. Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).

In short, Ziesler’s work is useful, but it should not be one’s only commentary on Romans. There is no mention, for example, of the current debate over the nature of the homosexuality Paul rejects in Romans 1. The introductory discussion on Paul and the law is good, although one could wish for a similar section summarizing Paul’s use of ‘righteousness’ from one who has already written extensively on the subject. Those wanting to dig deeper into issues raised here will want to turn to Dunn’s mine of information. Ziesler’s frequent footnotes to Cranfield’s ICC volumes for further discussion confirm the latter’s continuing significance: Cranfield remains the best source for a survey of interpretative options, although he quickly dismisses Sanders’ work in one footnote! Others may be tempted to do the same, but Sanders has made his point that the common Christian caricature of Judaism needs to be revised.

Michael B. Thompson

St John’s College, Nottingham