Wrestling with Romans

Written by J. A. T. Robinson Reviewed By Steven Motyer

One always looks with special anticipation at the products of Bishop Robinson’s pen, and in this case anticipation is well fulfilled. Here he gives us not a commentary, but a selective exposition which treats the NEB text of Romans section by section, pausing to concentrate on those passages about which Robinson feels he has something to say and passing over others. This makes for a very uneven treatment (ch. 4 receives only two pages of comment, and chs. 12–16 only eight), but the book is ideal for the student who wants an introduction to the main ideas of the Epistle and the topics most fiercely discussed in Romans study in the last forty years. Robinson’s summaries of these debates is excellent, especially that over hilasterion in 3:25 and over the interpretation of ch. 7. But it is a book to use as a spring-board for further reading and reflection, for he does not simply aim to describe the debates, but firmly presents his own viewpoint and thus challenges the reader to interact with him. The only problem about which he sits on the fence is the punctuation of 9:5!

Conservative students will find this book all the more useful, for some of his positions are uncongenial. Dodd is his great mentor, and we meet him at several places: in the assertion of dependence on Stoicism in 2:13–16, in the interpretation of hilasterion as ‘expiation’, in the cavalier dismissal of Paul’s use of the Old Testament as misuse. He follows Dodd also in regarding ‘wrath’ as basically impersonal, but here adds a typically Robinsonian qualification: Dodd should not have been hesitant over ascribing wrath to God, for it is a relational term, describing not a divine attitude but the way in which we as sinners encounter His love. This is a theme which underlies Robinson’s thinking and paves the way for his acceptance of Dodd’s universalistic interpretation of 11:32. The problem with this view is what it always has been: that it does not allow ‘wrath’ to have the eschatological significance which it plainly bears in 2:5, 5:9 and 9:22. But Robinson writes so well that the whole question is given new freshness.

His understanding of faith, works, and justification is basically traditional, although he displays a modern churchman’s ecumenical concern. The Reformation division over justification is ‘now happily healed’, because the villains of the piece have been nailed: those who insist on attaching to justification the ‘false or one-sided ideas of propitiation, satisfaction and penal substitution’ (p. 48). The problem is that these views of the atonement were as typical of the Medieval church as of the Reformers, and the sixteenth-century debate concerned not the mode of the atonement but its sufficiency. Thus Robinson parts company not just with certain Protestant, but rather with certain orthodox, models of the atonement. We have already met his own view in ‘The Body’: ‘Paul sees Christ as going on by untiring obedience simply absorbing evil, soaking it up, refusing to pay it back or give it out, until on the cross he exhausts its power.… Evil … is simply finished, and … has not conquered him in the only way evil can really conquer a man, that is by making him evil’ (p. 46).

There is undoubtedly real insight here, but it cannot be a sufficient view of the atonement; for how can the death of Christ be thought of as merely an attempt by evil to make Christ evil? and how can a refusal to be overcome by evil be equated in and of itself with a crushing victory over it? Although Robinson accepts the NEB translation of peri hamartias in 8:3 (‘as a sacrifice for sin’), he feels that the emphasis in Paul’s mind falls ‘rather’ on Christ’s positive obedience, so that it is the incarnation, rather than the crucifixion, which is the focus of the atonement (pp. 94f). But we may reply that it is precisely Christ’s sinlessness which for Paul gives sense to the application of sacrificial categories to Him, and that many different models are found in Paul’s mind to illumine the sacrificial significance of Christ’s death: propitiation, expiation, representation, incorporation—none of them complete without the others.

One cannot resist the challenge to engage in debate with him precisely because he writes so well and so clearly and this reviewer therefore commends the book warmly to those who are not just fascinated by Romans, but also keen to wrestle with its central doctrines.

Steven Motyer

Lecturer in New Testament and Hermeneutics at London Bible College