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