The Reasons for Romans

Written by A.J.M. Wedderburn (ed.) Reviewed By Stanley E. Porter

Study of the book of Romans now generates major reviews of the secondary literature to supplement treatment of the text by itself. This book deals with a representative number of secondary studies as an aid to answering the question of why Paul wrote Romans. Wedderburn argues throughout that Romans is not a timeless theological treatise, but an epistle addressing a particular situation in the Roman church.

Wedderburn competently surveys many important issues from a historical-critical perspective. He first addresses the idea that Romans is Paul’s ‘testament’ or ‘theological compendium’, claiming that the letter form makes such an understanding an impossibility, but failing to recognize that literary form does not necessarily establish literary content. After agreeing with the consensus that Romans originally had 16 chapters and was addressed to Rome, Wedderburn begins a series of historical-critical reconstructions, where he is fairly sane, sensible and controlled.

Regarding Paul’s circumstances, Wedderburn argues for the book as uniquely concerned with Paul’s ‘impending visit to Jerusalem with the collection’ (p. 37). Regarding the circumstances of the Roman church, Wedderburn sees no evidence for a divided church, even though chapter 16 seems to indicate many churches. Rather, Paul is confronting a ‘Judaizing Christianity … which treats Christianity as simply part of Judaism and, more important, requires of all its adherents, whether they are Jews or not, that they observe the Jewish Law as the Jewish Law either in whole or in part’ (p. 50). Wedderburn introduces interesting parallels from Ambrosiaster, Hebrews, First Clement and most importantly Suetonius regarding expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Regarding the relation of Paul’s circumstances and the Roman church’s, Wedderburn treats Romans 12, concluding that Paul’s major struggle is with a Gentile church resistant to supporting the Jerusalem church (see p. 74). In the light of this analysis, Wedderburn sees Romans 9–11 as providing a necessary vision of how God’s purposes are fulfilled and hence a justification for supporting Paul’s collection.

Wedderburn concludes with analysis of aspects of the argument of Romans 1–11, focusing on 1:1–7, Paul’s lengthy opening greeting; statements of Paul’s purported purpose (1:11; 15:15); the body of the letter, including 1:16–17; the righteousness of God, especially 3:1–8 (where he gets confused about semantic fields, p. 122); and, using the work of Nils Dahl, the structure of chapters 1–11, in which he concludes that the book is chiastic in structure, an unlikely proposal.

The strengths of this book are not to be overlooked. Wedderburn provides a useful compendium of important bibliographical sources, and he summarizes them well in building his case. He is also comprehensive, attempting to treat most of Romans in a text not even 150 pages in length! As a textbook for a course on Romans or the Pauline epistles, this book will find ready use. But several important methodological questions are raised.

First, what credence can be given to historical reconstructions? This depends upon the weighing of the materials available to reconstruct the author, audience and immediate historical context. More importantly, how credible is Wedderburn’s reconstruction? Wedderburn realizes the problem with historical reconstruction (p. 44), although his own is filled with questionable assumptions, e.g. the supposed past or punctiliar nature of the aorist tense (e.g. pp. 27, 29, 39, 42; cf. 38 on continuous nature of the present tense, 53) and the limitations of historical circumstances for evoking timeless theological statements, to name only two. Yet he builds upon these to give a reading of the entire book of Romans, a reading which will be very convincing if one believes Wedderburn’s reconstruction, less so if one does not.

A factor which makes many of Wedderburn’s readings plausible, however, has less to do with his particular reconstruction than with the consensus interpretation of much of Paul’s language. Wedderburn says of his attempt to relate Paul to the Roman church, however, that ‘In trying to do this we will often find ourselves reading more into the text of Romans than actually lies upon the surface of the text, and may often seem to extract more from the text than it actually seems to say. In case this seems to be an illegitimate or arbitrary way of proceeding it may be said in its defence that often one has to read between the lines of texts in order to make sense of what they say …’ (p. 66). I hope I will be excused for remembering the trenchant words of C.S. Lewis, when he said that biblical critics ‘ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves’.

Wedderburn’s myopia appears most readily in the major premise of his entire argument, that the book of Romans is not a theological treatise but an epistle which addresses a particular situation in the Roman church. Wedderburn is occasionally given to speaking in extremes (see p. 2 last paragraph) and this illegitimate disjunction is no exception. Wedderburn must force 1:16–17 into being only a justification for Paul’s proclaiming the gospel to the Romans in view of possible opposition there. Not only does Wedderburn go against the majority of scholarly opinion here (not necessarily an argument against his position, to be sure) but he neglects important contextual features, such as the strength of the second explanatory gar, language about belief, justification and righteousness, and most importantly reference to Jews and Gentiles. I find much more convincing an explanation which sees verses 16–17 as a timeless statement used in support of Paul’s particular argument to the Romans. The same criticism can be made of Wedderburn’s treatment of the relation of Romans to Galatians (e.g. pp. 35–37), where he admits that there are pertinent parallels though resists the conclusion that Paul is referring to timeless truths, and his reference to renewal of the mind being crucial to understanding 12:1ff., a clear parallel to Philippians 2 (pp. 76–78, 86–87).

I have refrained from quibbling over small individual points of reconstruction with Wedderburn, first because I believe that he is probably right at a far greater number of points than he is wrong, but second, and more importantly, because methodological issues lie at the heart of a venture of this sort. There is much here to stimulate further thought.

Stanley E. Porter

Roehampton Institute, London