Book Review: Colin Kruse, Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

Colin G. Kruse, Romans. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012., xlii + 627 pp., HB; $52.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Colin G. Kruse is senior lecturer at Melbourne School of Theology and author of several other fine commentaries including the Letters of John in the Pillar series and two short commentaries on 2 Corinthians and John in the Tyndale New Testament series. He wrote a monograph on Paul in 1997 (Paul, the Law, and Justification, Hendrickson, now reprinted by Wipf & Stock, 2006). Kruse is not a representative of the New Perspective (which would not be expected in a series edited by D. A. Carson), but he does not march lock-step with the traditional view of Paul either. This provides something of a fresh perspective on Romans, a fairly readable commentary which is focused on the text of Romans without being overly distracted by the current scholarly debate on the relationship between Paul and Judaism.

This commentary replaces the 1988 Leon Morris volume in the Pillar series. While it might seem strange to replace a commentary after only 25 years, much has happened in the study of Paul since Morris’s work was completed. While E. P. Sanders wrote his Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1979, there is nothing in Morris’s commentary which interacts with Sanders or his view on Judaism. In fact, Morris had a single paragraph in his introduction on the topic of Romans and Judaism and he cites only J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle. Morris’s Romans commentary is still valuable, but it reads like a commentary produced in the seventies and does not address some of the questions more recent scholars have put to the book of Romans.

Since Morris’s commentary appeared, scholars associated with the New Perspective on Paul have developed many of Sanders’ ideas well beyond Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  Commentaries from James Dunn and N. T. Wright have brought the insights of the New Perspective to bear on the letter to the Romans, while others such as Schreiner and Moo have contributed major commentaries from a more traditional perspective. In addition, Robert Jewett’s excellent commentary on Romans appeared in the Hermenia series in 2006, providing yet another excellent and detailed study of Romans. It is therefore understandable that the Pillar Series would offer a new commentary on this important Pauline letter.

The Introduction. The thirty-three page introduction covers the standard issues expected in a Romans commentary and Kruse does not stray far from a traditional view of when the book was written. He understands the primary purpose of the book to be Paul’s attempt to minister via a letter to Christians in Rome for whom he had an apostolic responsibility. The Christians addressed are a mixed congregation of Jew and Gentile, like Paul’s churches in Galatia and Corinth. Paul wants to “exercise ministry by letter” as a forerunner to his planned ministry in person (10). The secondary purpose is to prepare for a planned mission to Spain.

The longest section of the introduction (14-22) is devoted to the New Perspective on Paul and how that perspective has understood the book of Romans. He primarily interacts with Wright and Dunn since they have adapted and extended Sanders’ initial insights and both have written major commentaries on Romans. Kruse does not engage in strawman tactics by using early statements which have been revised and clarified. Rather he cites the most recent work by Dunn and Wright (Justification, 2009). Kruse makes several conclusions on the New Perspective which guide his commentary.

First, he finds that the New Perspective has correctly pointed out Covenantal Nomism in some Second Temple Period literature, but legalism does appear in some texts (especially 4 Ezra). This seems to be the conclusion of many Pauline scholars who have read Sanders and attempted to work with the literature of the Second Temple Period. In many ways, the New Perspective is a helpful correction, but Sanders’ description of Second Temple Period Judaism is not the only form known from the sources (see the essays in Justification and Varigated Nomism, Baker, 2004).

Second, for Kruse, by the time Paul wrote Romans the phrase “works of the law” referred to the “whole law” not simply the “boundary markers” of circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws (176). After evaluating Wright and Dunn, Kruse concludes that when Paul says “no one is justified by works of the Law” (Romans 3:20) he means keeping the whole law, not simply the boundary markers. What I find missing here is any discussion of the phrase “works of the Law” in the Qumran literature, especially 4QMMT. Since he has a substantial excursus on the phrase “works of the law” (173-6), I would have expected some interaction with Qumran, especially since Wright emphasizes 4QMMT frequently. I think that this is implied by Kruse’s comment that the earlier use of the phrase primarily meant “boundary markers,” but the text is not referred to in the introduction or commentary.

Third, Paul was critical of ethnocentricism and exclusivism as well as legalistic tendencies of Second Temple Period Judaism. While Sanders is famous for saying that Judaism was not a legalistic religion in the Second Temple Period, Kruse understands that at least some Jews were in fact legalistic, and it is this legalism which Paul argues against in Romans.

Fourth, justification by faith “was articulated as part of his defense of the incorporation of Gentile believers into the people of God without having to submit to circumcision or take upon themselves the yoke of the Law” (21). This does not mean that Paul created “justification by faith” so that he could do Gentile ministry. Kruse cites Machen, “Paul was not devoted to the doctrine of justification by faith because of the gentile mission, he was devoted to gentile mission because of the doctrine of justification by faith” (20).

Fifth, Paul’s law-free gospel did not imply a denigration of the law. Rather, Paul argues that the Law functions as a great privilege for Israel, but one that ultimately increased sin and awareness of sin (29). Believers are free from the Law, but they are not free to live sinful lives. While they live under grace, the Law can have a “educative role for believers,” a guidance for godly living (29).

Last, with respect to the controversial topic of justification, Kruse states that his understanding of Paul is that justification is “God’s declaration in favor of the believer” (22). Justification is forensic, referring to “God’s decision as a judge to justify sinners (27). This sounds very much like the traditional view of Paul, although Kruse does admit that justification is not itself the whole gospel message. Wright frequently quips that his critics use the word justification to mean “total salvation,” Kruse seems to agree with this critique.

The Commentary. The commentary proper moves through Romans pericope by pericope. Each section begins with a brief introduction and text of the NIV 2011 is provided. The body of the section then moves verse by verse, commenting on the English text of Romans (in italics). All references to Greek are transliterated and for the most part appear in the footnotes of the commentary. In addition, Kruse often interacts with subtle exegetical points in the notes which may not be of interest to the general reader. This makes the body of the commentary more readable and useful for a pastor or teacher preparing to preach a text in Romans.

Kruse interacts with a broad range of scholarship, including both classic commentaries as well major recent contributions. He makes frequent reference to Cranfield (ICC, 1975, 1979), but also to Dunn, (WBC 1988), Fitzmyer (AB, 1993), Byrne (1996, Sacra Pagina), Moo (NICNT, 1996), Wright (NIB, 2002), and Jewett (2006, Hermenia). I especially appreciate Kruse’s style of listing several options (usually with Roman numerals) and clearly identifying his view. This respectful weighing of options makes it easy to wade through what might be an otherwise daunting array of opinions.

Like most of the commentaries in the Pillar series, Kruse deals with details which go beyond the text in a series of excursus, or “additional notes.” These are sometimes aspects of the New Perspective, such as “Justification” or “Works of the Law.” A few of these sections deal with troubling exegetical problems, such as “All Israel will be Saved” (448-9) or the “Identity of the ‘I’ in 7:7-25.” More often Kruse develops an element of Pauline theology, such as “Natural Theology” or “Eternal Life in the Pauline Corpus.” These sections are usual brief and could be skipped, but they do provide a connection to larger issues of Pauline theology. These brief notes form a sort of mini-Dictionary of Pauline Theology.  I would have appreciated seeing a list of them in the index sorted by topic, but the do appear in the table of contents.

Conclusion. Kruse has contributed an important commentary on what most consider Paul’s most important book. While it is not as lengthy or detailed as some, it is an excellent commentary for teaching and preaching the book of Romans. I am not sure if it will become the “first commentary off the shelf” for me, but it is instructive and stimulating. Kruse is a careful scholar who has written a commentary which will serve the church for years to come.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for providing a copy of this book for review

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Colin Kruse, Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

  1. Indeed, myself after spending much time (few years back now) with the whole so-called New Perspective, I find it wanting, and not really the best of the Second Temple ideas. In the end, we are always left with the Text itself, and not with history alone or by itself! And even a biblical form of existentialism is much more helpful here, as in a Pauiine Mystcism. But, certainly Faith first, and somewhat alone, as in Luther and his grand Simul Iustus et Peccator – Simultaneously Sinner & Saint!

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    • Maybe not. Kruse is good, perhaps I might take Cranfield off to make room for Kruse. He interacts with Cranfield enough that the reader has the “gist” of the commentary without investing the money to buy it. I think that Kruse is a better value, probably a third of the price (retail).

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      • Thank you. I’m if I ever buy another Romans commentary Jewett may be the top of the list.

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      • I am sure I will buy another Romans commentary, and Jewett will be one of them! Unfortunately, the Hermenia series do not come cheap.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I need to get a copy soon. I think it is helpful to see “works of the law” as referring to the “whole law.” And this understanding probably best fits into what Paul discusses in Rom 2:12-16. That the Gentiles are “doers of the law” (v.13) and “do what the law requires” (v.14) seems to suggest that the law in its totality is in view. (Though it should be said, by way of note, that Doug Moo doesn’t think “doers of the law” in Rom 2 and “works of the law” in Galatians are synonymous; I personally think they are.)

    But even so, I’m not so sure that what’s in view is indeed “the totality of the law,” since the substance of Rom 2 in general seems to coalesce into, and conclude with, a discussion on “circumcision” in Rom 2:25-29. The point in context for Paul, it seems, is discussing the “value of circumcision” (Rom 3:1).

    Anyway, good stuff from Kruse. Thanks for sharing! I look froward to reading it.

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    • I think that it is necessary to read the Works of the Law in the context, and try to keep Romans and Galatians separate. Probably impossible to bracket out one while reading the other, but it is not required that Paul means the same thing in every context. Maybe we should, but I would like to try to stay within the world of the text.

      I appreciate the comment, I look forward to your own discussion of these issues on your blog!

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  3. For those of you looking to acquire Jewett, look on Ebay for the CD of the Hermeneia series up to 2006. It regularly appears for about $50. If you don’t require a print version, this is an excellent deal. Uses an older version of Libronix, which I have had no trouble using, even though I had nothing installed previously. In addition to Jewett, you get Achtemeier on I Pet, Attridge on Hebrews, vol. 1 of Bovon on Luke, vols. 2 and 3 of Luz on Matthew, and many other fine commentaries, both OT and NT, including classics: Betz, Bultmann, Conzelmann, etc.

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    • David – I got the Hermeneia disc and it worked fine. Had to call Logos and give them the code directly, but they unlocked all 38 volumes. There are another 8 or so volumes that they have as “upgrades” to this set, all recent publications like Luz on Matthew and Pervo on Acts. Thanks for the tip!

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      • Phil, I’m so glad it has worked out for you. I may well go for the upgrade, as I’d particularly like to have both the volumes you mentioned, but, yikes, there are so many of these I haven’t even touched yet! Best in the New Year.

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