Sherwood Aaron. Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. xv+949 pp.; Hb.; $54.99. Link to Lexham Press
In the introduction to this new commentary on Romans, Aaron Sherwood states his goal is an accessible commentary that avoids atomistic approaches, one that “notes the trees but focus on the forest… the investigation especially looks at how Paul uses the letter structure to help convey his message. This approach allows Paul to set the theological priorities of Romans, ensuring that modern readers take Paul’s own meaning and theology from his discussion” (p. 1). Sherwood previously published a revision of his 2010 Ph.D. dissertation supervised by John Barclay, Paul and the Restoration of Humanity in Light of Ancient Jewish Traditions (Ancient Judaism and early Christianity 82; Brill, 2013) and The Word of God Has Not Failed: Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9 (Lexham 2015).
In the 91-page introduction to the book focuses more upon the overall shape and message of Romans. Sherwood offers three reasons Paul wrote the book of Romans. First, Paul wants to establish a warm relationship with his audience (1:1-15; 15:14-33). Second, Paul wants to care for his audience pastorally (12:1-15:13). Third, Paul must defend himself against a negative reputation that has preceded him to the Roman churches. So 1:16-11:36 is Paul’s apology for his gospel. Paul’s goal in this large section of the letter is to ensure that nothing prevents his pastoral care from being effective nor hinders his mission to Spain. What is unusual in this commentary is Sherwood’s view that the main body of the letter is 12:1-15:13 rather than the eleven-chapter theological section. Scholars often wonder why Paul wrote such a detailed theological treatise to churches he had not yet visited.
Sherman observes that scholars generally agree on most critical introductory issues for the book of Romans. Paul wrote the letter from Corinth in the winter of AD 56-57. The audience is a combination of Jews and non-Jews who were committed to Israel’s scriptural heritage. Paul wrote to numerous house churches, which were healthy, although they were facing a few challenges. Scholars are equally unanimous interview that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome and was the initial reader of the letter (p. 778). He agrees with Esther Ng’s conclusion that Phoebe was not the leader of a congregation, Paul’s patron, nor his serving helper. She worked as the provider of hospitality and a supporting member of Paul’s missionary organization.
Regarding the theology of Romans, Sherwood argues the main point of the book is the Gospel and the Christ-event which inaugurated God’s Kingdom on earth, so that believers are as eschatologically restored. Israel is located in Jesus, so those who trust in Jesus are Israel (p. 42). All believers are quote God’s “humanity of Israel,” so they ought to live out their relationship with Jesus and their identity as Jesus’s disciples (ethics, pastoral care). Since God’s goal in the Christ event his eschatological restoration of humanity, missions is God’s vehicle for working with God to provide salvation for unreached people.
With respect to Christology, Sherwood detects a (proto)Trinitarianism in Romans. Jesus is God’s Messiah, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share unique divine identity of Israel’s God. Soteriology saturates the book of Romans. He coins the term “righteousization,” which is more or less equivalent to the more common theological word “justification.” This term appears consistently throughout the commentary where one would expect the word justification. Believers are righteousized by entering into a trust relationship with God in Christ. In Romans, “the process of righteousization (or justification) seems to follow a certain algorithm:
- Believers believe in the report of the Christ event.
- At the same time, believers trust God’s declaration of who Christ is and what he accomplished, as well as what God accomplished through him.
- Also at the same time, believers are in a trusting personal relationship with Jesus, and with God in Jesus.
- Then, with the above three elements in place, God gifts believers with the removal of sin and guilt against himself.
- God also gifts them with a transformation of their identity, by which their character emulates God’s own divine character (p. 60).
Sherwood observes that soteriology is relatively distant from the center of Paul’s theology in the book of Romans. “It is profound, but it is less substantial than is typically assumed” (p. 62). For example, Paul’s limited references to soteriology in Romans do not show God’s grace is inherently irresistible, nor does Sherwood find any idea of imputed righteousness in the book. Rather than imputed righteousness, “righteousizing is transformational” (p. 61).
This rejection of imputed righteousness is associated with a New Perspective on Paul, but Sherwood is not a representative of this view. He thinks the New Perspective provides two helpful correctives to the traditional view of Paul. First, Romans does not focus on the tension between grace and works (or Law), and second, Second Temple Judaism was not a legalistic religion. However, Sherwood thinks the New Perspective reduces Paul’s theology to its sociological dimension, something he calls “an unsound methodological emphasis” (p. 67). Sherwood takes the “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου) in Romans 3:20 as the whole law rather than limiting the phrase to the boundary markers (such as circumcision, food taboos and Sabbath). In fact, Sherwood translates ἔργων νόμου as Torah rather than “works of the law.” He says this phrase means “the Jewish commonplace of Torah observance, in the sense of having a lifestyle, identity, and devotion to righteousness that is characterized by habitually living in faithfulness to the Torah” (p. 227). He includes a lengthy digression on the use of the phrase “works of the law” in 4QMMT. He concludes the similarity between Romans 3:20 and 4QMMT is “rather incidental” and 4QMMT “should not be allowed to distract from a proper understanding of Paul’s message” (p. 234). This discussion is somewhat disappointing since the primary source he cites in this section is a 1994 Biblical Archaeology Review magazine article by Martin Abegg rather than the two major articles on Paul and 4QMMT by James Dunn or N. T. Wright.
Given Sherwood’s previous work on Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 9, it is not surprising he devotes a large section of his introduction to Paul’s use of scripture. He provides two charts of Paul’s citations of the Hebrew Bible, one in canonical order in a second in order of appearance in Romans. Sometimes Paul’s use of Scripture is described as a midrash, although it is certainly not exegesis. Sherwood points out Paul has already done his exegesis and is now using cited Scripture in a “faithful, contextually determined meaning of that scripture in a way that serves his communicative strategy” (p. 74). He suggests Paul uses references to Scripture in a way analogous to a modern academic. Paul makes his theological point and then offers a “footnote of authorities” to support his point (p. 77). He argues Romans was not written from the perspective of New Testament studies, “Paul’s use of Scripture requires an interpretation that comes out of Old Testament studies” (p. 77).
The introduction concludes with helpful a ten-page glossary of key terms.
In the body of the commentary itself, individual units begin with Sherwood, his own translation. This is followed by a paragraph highlighting key idea of the pericope with the thesis statement for the unit set out in bold type. He then outlines the structure of the unit by means of a syntactical display of the English text. Although there are some comments on the structure, he avoids technical rhetorical terms. “Analysis and Interpretation” is a phrase-by-phrase commentary on the English text. There is no Greek in the commentary’s body, and it is rare in the footnotes. Occasionally he refers to textual critical issues in the footnotes, but this is not the focus of the commentary. There are references to contemporary scholarship in the footnotes, but in the main text Sherwood provides a readable and accessible commentary on Paul’s key ideas uncluttered by scholarly debate. As he stressed in the introduction, his commentary is selective and non-comprehensive. Each unit concludes with a summary and theological reflection. These reflections focus on the unit itself rather than larger ideas of Pauline or canonical theology.
In addition to the commentary Sherwood provides several short digressions throughout the commentary. These deal with controversial issues such as homosexuality in Romans 1 (155-57), imputed righteousness (269-71), and Paul’s view of empire (p. 673-76). Following the commentary are seven substantial excurses on controversial theological topics commonly addressed in a Romans commentary.
- Natural Theology and the Identity of the Accused in Romans 1:18-32
- Interplay between Romans 3:27-8:17 and Galatians 3:1-4:7
- Salvation, Redemption, Deliverance, and Atonement in Romans
- The “I” In Romans7
- Divine Foreknowledge and Predestination in Romans 8:28-30
- The Salvation of “All Israel” In Romans 11:25-27
- The Disputed Originality of Romans 16
These excurses are substantial (over fifty pages total). By separating them from their context in the main commentary, Sherwood achieves his goal of an accessible and readable commentary since the average reader is not prepared for a protracted discussion of the “I” in Romans 7. Sherwood argues Paul’s speaker in Chapter 7 is “a representative Jew who is both convicted of his obligation to obey Torah perfectly and is perfectly appalled by his inability to do so” (p. 629). Regarding predestination and Election in Romans 8:28-30, Sherwood avoids both Reformed and Arminian positions, stating that his exegesis is compatible with either position (which is probably not going to make either side very happy). Regarding the originality of Romans 16, he states clearly “all things considered, there are no compelling let alone sound reasons for rejecting the originality of Romans 16:1-23” (p. 851).
He does not think that “all Israel” in Romans 11:25- 27 refers to future salvation of unbelieving Jews (p. 841). In his view, the best reading of this passage is that Paul is making a positive statement about God’s process of reconstituting his people, come what may. “All Israel” therefore “refers to God’s corporate Christocentric people” (p. 846) and that a reading of Romans 11:25-32 “with an expectation of ethnic Jews’ salvation would be a mistake” (p. 847).
Conclusion. Sherwood achieves his goal of providing an accessible commentary that sheds light on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He avoids tedious comparisons of views from other major commentaries, although he is certainly informed by them. Nor he does not get bogged down in exegetical details which distract the commentator from Paul’s overarching theological themes.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.