Book Review: Frank Thielman, Romans (ZECNT)

Thielman, Frank. Romans. ZECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2018. 812 pp. Hb. $59.99   Link to Zondervan  

Frank Thielman’s new contribution to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series enters an already crowded field of recent major Romans commentaries. Thielman serves as Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. His previous work includes From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (Brill, 1989), Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Inter-Varsity, 1994) and Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Zondervan, 2005).

Thielman, RomansThe thirty-one page introduction is quite different than the average exegetical commentary on Romans. Thielman begins with a brief synopsis of state of the Roman Empire in A.D. 57 followed by an account of how Christian first reached Rome. The purpose of both sections is to place the reader into the world of Rome in the mid-first century. He draws attention to the social problems of slavery, infanticide, and the despair of people living in abject poverty. Thielman paints a picture of “Rome’s Christians as relatively poor, hardworking people with roots in the East and speaking Greek as well as or better than Latin” (p. 32).

With respect to traditional introductory questions, the Letter to the Romans was written from Corinth about A.D. 57 and delivered by Phoebe to ethnically diverse but mostly Gentile churches in Rome. Phoebe may have been a woman of wealth and high social status based the word προστάτις in Romans 16:2, and Thielman thinks she holds the position of deacon. The role of deacon, however, “involved a lot of running around” as was considered lowly service by Greco-Roman standards (p. 712).

As for the purpose of the letter, Thielman observes there are several reasons Paul wrote to a congregation he did not yet know. Paul says his desire is to visit them in order to preach the Gospel (1:13). The rest of Romans describes Paul’s gospel and its implications for Christian living. Since the Roman churches were predominately Gentile, Thielman suggests Paul may have considered the Roman Christians part of his apostolic responsibility (p. 37). But Paul also needed the support of the Roman congregations if he was to continue his mission by preaching the Gospel in Spain (Rom 15:28-29).

Each chapter in the body of the commentary begins with the literary context of the section of Romans under examination. This is more than a summary of the pericope since Thielman connects the smaller unit with the larger aims of the letter. Following this is a snippet of the detailed outline of Romans in a faux computer window graphic. Thielman then offers a concise main idea for the section to be studied in the chapter.

Like other volumes in this series, the English translation of the pericope is presented in a graphical layout marked with interpretive labels for each clause. The series introduction indicates these labels are “informed by discourse analysis and narrative criticism, but the editors have also attempted to avoid technical jargon. In order to help the reader follow the flow of Paul’s argument, main clauses appear in bold print, subordinate clauses are indented.

Following this graphical display of the text, Thielman makes a series of observations on the structure of the pericope followed by an exegetical outline. Since these are slightly more detailed than the outline provided under the literary context, it makes little sense to me to include both; the faux window under literary context could be deleted without any loss in clarity. In fact, the structure section could easily be combined with the literary context since it is a slightly more detailed version of the same material. This is a problem for the commentary series and not the fault of Thielman.

After setting the context in several different ways, Thielman moves on to the commentary proper under the heading “Explanation of the Text.” Here the style of the commentary breaks up into two columns. The commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase, with the English text in bold followed by the Greek text in parenthesis. Since key Greek words are repeated in the commentary, printing the full Greek text may not be necessary. Thielman does not often comment on the syntax in the body of the commentary, but there are ample footnotes directing readers to Wallace, Zerwick, Moule and other advanced koine Greek grammars. The same is true for lexical issues. He often comments on the use of a word elsewhere in the LXX or Greek New Testament and uses the footnotes to point readers to lexicons and theological dictionaries. This makes the body of the commentary uncluttered and easy to read. Thielman interacts with secondary literature in the footnotes, pointing interested readers to a wide range of literature on Romans, both classic and modern.

The final unit in each chapter is labeled “Theology in Application.” Here Thielman offers two or three points of contact with Pauline theology or contemporary church issues which arise from his exegesis. For example, commenting on honor and shame in Romans 12:1-8, Thielman says “competition and seeking honor for one’s self are no less a part of modern human societies than they were of ancient Roman society. Paul’s call upon believers to be vigilant against allowing this spirit to infect the church is as relevant now as it was in his own time” (p. 581).

Thielman covers technical details excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These sidebars are labeled “In Depth” and are printed in a sans-serf font and a grey background. Like most excurses, the reader may skip over them thinking they are not very important. This is not the case, Thielman uses these sidebars to deal with a few important issues for the study of Romans. Several deal with textual criticism such as the doxology at the end of Roman 16 or the difficult problem of ἔχομεν or ἔχωμεν in Romans 5:1. Other sidebars focus on the background to special vocabulary, such as ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25 or “height” and “depth” in Romans 8:39 (are these astrological terms? Thielman says no). Sometimes the excursus covers a difficult problem in Romans studies such as the identity of “I” in 7:7-25 or the nature of the house church which met in the home of Prisca and Aquila in 16:3. I expected a sidebar on Junia (16:7), Thielman quickly covers the identity Junia in the commentary (she is an apostle, Thielman includes more than two pages on Paul’s understanding of Israel’s stumbling in Romans 9-11 and another two pages on his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8.

Conclusion. Frank Thielman’s contribution to the study of Romans is not a massive exegetical commentary like Richard Longenecker or Douglas Moo, but it is far more detailed than other light commentaries like Grant Osborne or Craig Keener. This commentary falls between those two extremes and should provide pastors and teachers with the exegetical details they need to present this important book to their students.

NB: The original publication of this commentary (ISBN: 9780310243687) contained errors in the footnotes. It was replaced in December 2018 with a new ISBN (9780310104032). Be sure to purchase the new edition by checking the ISBN. Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Thinking About Others More Highly Than Yourself – Romans 12:3

humble-sign

In order to define how we ought to think of one another, Paul redefines how we related to one another. First, he says we ought to think with humility. The ESV “more highly than we ought” is a translation of a single Greek word (ὑπερφρονέω). It used only here in the New Testament. Although it can be used in a positive sense of “excel in intelligence” it is usually negative, “to be haughty” (BDAG).

Second, we ought to consider one another with sober judgment. The noun (σωφρονέω) has the sense of reasonable, sensible action. Paul uses this same word in 2 Cor 5:13 with the sense of “be in my right mind.” Grammatically this phrase is an articular infinitive expressing purpose (εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν), modifying another infinitive. We are to think of others first because it is the right way to think. To put ourselves first would be non-sensible thinking, something to be avoided.

In Rom 1:18–32 Paul argued humans have lost some of their rationality when they reject the clear revelation of God existence and attributes. No he is able to say to those who are “in Christ” that they can think reasonably and sensibly, but the outcome of that sensible thinking his service to others.

Third, Paul uses the phrase “according to the measure of faith given to us.” This can be taken several ways in the context of spiritual gifts. The verb (μερίζω) refers to dividing something up and allotting or distributing it to a group. For example in Mark 6:41 Jesus divides the fish and bread amongst the disciples to distribute to the crowd.  With this in mind, some have argued God has given varying levels of spiritual gifts to individuals so that some have more (and are held more responsible) and some have less (and are therefore less responsible) for how they use that gift.

The problem is some individuals will appear to have more faith than others. This would naturally lead to an inequality in the body of Christ. In addition it implies that someone with less faith is somehow less able to serve God. But that is not the way faith works in the Pauline letters. In 1 Cor 10:13 the word is used to describe God assigning an “area of influence” for believers, so that the believer exercises their gifts in the area to which God has called them to work. In this view, all are given the same thing (the Holy Spirit and his enablement to do ministry), but the area of that influence varies.

It is better to understand the word measure as the standard by which each individual this judge. In this view, a person is the judge by the measure of faith they have been giving rather than the measure of faith another person has been given.  “Paul defines ‘sober-mindedness’ as the refusal to impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” (Jewett, 742).

This is radically different than the way the Greco-Roman world thought. Jewett cites Aristotle, who thought humans “should make themselves immortal through the exercise of reason” (Jewett, 741). Sober mindedness is a kind of “divine element in humankind.” But for Paul, our ability to think rationally is part of the image of God and is corrupted by sin.

Humans often think rationally, but it is inconsistent, twisted and (to use Paul’s metaphor), less-than-sober. What is an example of applying “humble thinking” to how the children of God relate to their world? If Jewett is right and humble-mindedness is “impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” – how does that work in an evangelical community where the preaching of the Gospel is a key value?

 

There is No Condemnation – Romans 8:1-17

Those who are in Christ have been set free from the Law of sin and Death (8:1-4). Condemnation refers to a “the punishment following sentence” (BDAG). This is a rare word, only used in the New Testament here and Romans 5:16 and 5:18. In Romans 5, condemnation was the result of the first Adam’s rebellion against God. In that case, God acts as judge, finds Adam guilty and gives him the appropriate punishment for his rebellion, death.

In Wisdom literature, this word can have the sense of people getting what they deserve. For example, in Wisdom 4:16, “The righteous who have died will condemn (κατακρίνω) the ungodly who are living, and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn (κατακρίνω) the prolonged old age of the unrighteous” (NRSV). Someone who persecutes the righteous will “get their comeuppance” and be persecuted themselves in the final judgment.

But Paul’s use here does not have the idea of recompense “but rather the principle of correspondence of deed and condition” (EDNT 2:260). The result of Adam’s sin was death because that was the natural result of his rebellion. In fact, God promised Adam that he would die if he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Those who were under the law were also under the condemnation of the Law. The point of Romans 7 is all those under the law fell short of the righteous requirements of the law and were therefore condemned by it.

God accomplished what the law could not by sending his son. Law may refer to the Mosaic Law, keeping to the context of Romans 7:1-12 or as a “principle” as in 7:21 (the “sin principle”). James Dunn and N. T. Wright argue Paul is consistently contrasting the Mosaic Law (or at least the boundary markers of the Law) in Romans 7 and it makes sense he should continue to contrast the written code (7:6) and the law of the Spirit. Although the Law promised life to those who kept it perfectly, it was powerless to deal with the real problem facing humanity, the problem of sin.

Colin Kruse argues the second view is preferable since it makes Romans 8:1 a continuation of 7:21-25. There is a principle at work in the people who desire to do what is good, but find themselves doing what they know to be wrong. The person who is in Christ is freed from the sin principle (7:25) and is not able to be punished for that sin principle because it has been fulfilled by Christ.

God dealt with the problem of sin by sending his Son. That God could send his son Jesus into the world implies the pre-existence of Jesus. There are other texts in the Pauline literature which describe Jesus as sent by God (Phil 2:5-11, Gal 4:4). Although this is not yet the detailed Christology in John, there is evidence that Paul considered Jesus to have existed before his incarnation.

The son was sent into the world in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” This very careful statement, since Paul does not say Jesus came in the same sort of flesh human have, since that flesh is corrupted by sin. Jesus was real human, but not a fallen human.

This incarnation was necessary in order to fulfill the righteous requirement (δικαίωμα) of the law. If the law is the Mosaic Law, the Jesus kept the Law perfectly. This does not mean Jesus did ever break the cleanliness laws, but that when he naturally encountered uncleanliness he would have followed the Law’s directions for treating that breach. There is a difference between choosing to break the Sabbath and inadvertently coming into contact with a person who was unclean.

If the law is the ‘sin principle,” then Jesus was able to live a human life without succumbing to temptation. As the second Adam, Jesus was tempted and did not rebel against God. These are not mutually exclusive, since breaking the Law means succumbing to the sin principle (as Adam did).

If we who are in Christ are no longer under the condemnation of the Law, what are the ramifications for our relationship with God? How do we live not that we are no longer under the threat of the “wrath of God” (Romans 1:18)?

Should We Sin? – Romans 6:1-4

In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul has shown that no one is able to merit salvation by their good works. Even Abraham failed to merit salvation, so God credited him with righteousness” (Romans 4:3). In Romans 5:12-21 Paul makes the case that God has declared righteous those who have believed in Jesus,

In Romans 6:1–4 Paul describes the believer as united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. If it is true grace increases where sin abounds, should we sin so that grace will about all the more? (6:1-2). Paul asks this rhetorical question to expose a potential problem with his view of grace and justification. As he did earlier in the book, he answers his question with a strong negative, “by no means!”

The question concerns remaining or abiding in sin (a present subjunctive, ἐπιμένω). It is possible Paul is not talking about sin in general, but a specific sin in which the Christian continues to commit despite their understanding it as a sin. For example, a Roman man might decide that because they are saved by God’s grace through faith, going to a prostitute at a pagan temple does not “count” as a sin. Since that is a conscious choice and a regular practice, the person is choosing to remain in a sin. The question is not, “should we ever sin?” but should be persistently sin.

Where there people actually sinning so that grace might abound? It is always possible Paul is raising a hypothetical objection to his argument up through chapter 5. “Someone might say” may mean Paul could imagine this objection, so he answers it before it arises.

However, there seem to have been at least some early Christians who did in fact “sin that grace may abound.” In Jude 4, for example, there were people who used the grace of God as a license to sin. Revelation 2:20 implies some Christians in Thyatira were teaching people they could participate in banquets at pagan temples (cf. Rev 2:14-15). Certainly the congregation in Corinth struggled with how Christianity affects how the believer lives in a Gentile world.

With respect to the modern church, it seems strange someone might think they could consciously break a clear principle of God and think they were not offending God with their rebellion. It is possible the issue is breaking the Jewish boundary markers. A Gentile Christian could break Sabbath or food laws without any fear of it being a sin before God.

But there are some behaviors which clearly offend the general revelation of God so that no one, Jew or Gentile, could do them and not consider them sin!

  • As an extreme example, someone could not say, “the Law says do not murder, I am not under the Law, so I am going to kill people for fun.” No one in the Jewish or Greek world think murder is ever permissible.
  • A less absurd example is adultery. The Law does forbid adultery, but a Gentile might not consider than command applicable to going to a prostitute or using a slave for sexual pleasure.
  • More troublesome would be eating meat sacrificed to idols. This may not be expressly forbidden in the Law, but it was certainly Jewish practice in the first century. Could a Gentile eat meat purchased from the temples, with the full knowledge this meat was sacrificed to a God and not have that “count” as sin?

Whether this is a real or potential objection, Paul’s response is one of the most important elements of Pauline theology: our total identification with Jesus the death, burial and resurrection has serious ethical implications. If we are in Christ, we are no longer what we were. If that is true, can no longer live the same way because everything has changed in Christ.

Is There Any Advantage to Being a Jew? – Romans 3:1-8

Paul deals with a potential objection from his dialogue partner, a Jewish person who has tried to keep the Law but now discovers he is just as guilty as the Gentile. If the Jews have spectacularly failed to keep the Law and are enslaved to the “power of sin” in the same way the Gentiles are, what advantage is there to being a Jew?

If it is the case that God chose Israel as his people and gave to them the Law, then their failure may appear to make God’s plan in the Old Testament out to be a failure. This is a problem some readers will have when they read the Old Testament, Israel spectacularly fails in their calling to be the light to the Gentiles; they cannot even “save themselves.”

Image result for Jewish scriptureFor Paul, being Jewish is still of great advantage, Paul will return to this in Romans 9:4-5 in much more detail, here he only gives a short answer.

Paul says first, the Jewish people were entrusted with the “oracles of God” (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ). The word translated “first” (πρῶτος) can mean first in a sequence. The ESV translates this as “to begin with…” implying the first of a series. There is no “second” item in the list, so commentators think Paul started the list, dropped it until chapter 9. But the word can also mean “of first importance.” In this view, the oracles of God are the most important advantage the Jewish people were given.

The oracles are sayings, but Acts 7:38 uses the same word for the law that was given to Moses (living oracles, λόγια ζῶντα). In Hebrews 5:12 the writer chides his readers for not having understood the “the basic principles of the oracles of God” yet. The phrase is used in 1 Peter 4:11 for words given through the Holy Spirit. In each example the logia of God are the “very words of God” given in the Law and Prophets (Kruse, Romans, 160).

Does Jewish unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? If the Jews were given the “very words of God” and failed to respond properly to them, perhaps God is not obligated to be faithful toward them.

By way of analogy, if someone acts rude and offensively toward you, sometimes it is socially acceptable to be rude back to them. Since they have broken politeness, you are no longer obligated to be polite. (Someone might react to a spouse who cheats by cheating themselves, since one covenant partner has been unfaithful, the other is released from their own commitment to faithfulness). (If you get pranked, the proper response to prank back?)

Paul’s response to this question is no, God is not released from his covenant with Israel because Israel was unfaithful. To use an analogy from Hosea and the marriage metaphor, Israel was an unfaithful partner who behaved abominably toward God’s loving kindness. Yet God has not divorced his unfaithful spouse, but is in the process of wooing them back to the relationship they had at the beginning in the wilderness.

Even though Israel was an unfaithful covenant partner, God is the ideal example of a faithful covenant partner and will fulfill his side of the covenant regardless of the rebellion of his partner.

In this verse he says only some Jews were unfaithful. Although Romans 9-11 indicates that Israel as a whole failed, there was always a righteous remnant that was faithful to the covenant. Yet even the righteous remnant failed to wholly keep the Law! Therefore Paul can conclude there is no one who can please God (Law-Keeping Jews or righteous Gentiles).

Paul’s Mission to Spain

From the book of Acts we know Paul wrote Romans after a long and bitter controversies in both Galatia and Corinth. As a result of these conflicts, Romans “constitutes a ‘manifesto’ setting forth his deepest convictions on central issues” (Kruse, Romans, 9). This manifesto was written and published to gain the widest publicity. It is possible the core of the letter was sent to other Pauline churches, although there is no manuscript evidence for this.

Paul also wrote Romans just prior to his trip to Jerusalem to deliver the collection to the poor saints in Jerusalem. The book of Romans may have been intended to gain the favor of the Roman church as he approached the contentious Jerusalem church. Romans 15:30-33 specifically asks the Roman church to pray for Paul because he is not sure what reception he will receive when he arrives in Jerusalem.

paul-statue-romeThat he calls his potential opponents in Jerusalem “unbelievers” is instructive. It is at least possible he means the gentile, Roman authority in Judea. Certainly the Romans would be suspicious of a cash gift to potential revolutionaries! He also may mean Jews who have not accepted Jesus as messiah and are therefore not part of the community led by James? But could Paul be referring to the Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah who insisted on Gentiles keeping the Law, the Judaizers who worked against his mission in Galatia.

Whatever the case, Paul assumes Roman church had close ties with Jerusalem and some communication regularly occurred between these two communities. Paul may have though the Roman church had some level of influence on Jerusalem leaders like James, the brother of Jesus. In fact. At least one scholar suggested the real target audience of the letter is the Jerusalem church. Paul wants the letter to get to the potentially hostile Jerusalem church to make clear his theology in order to diffuse any suspicion.

With this in mind, Paul wrote Romans gain the cooperation of the Roman church for his mission to Spain. He needed the assistance of the Roman Christians to provide contacts in Spain because of the lack of Jewish population there that could provide him with a base of operations. Paul faced an unusual problem in Spain, Greek was commonly spoken. He may have needed local help from Romans to assist him in Latin. Romans would then be a kind of discipleship letter which ensured the Roman churches were equipped with his Gospel and were not exported a Roman system of pursuit of honor to “barbarian Spain.” Paul argues in Romans that God saves all sinners impartially regardless of culture through Jesus Christ.

As F. F. Bruce pointed out in The Romans Debate, any combination of the suggestions made over my last several posts may be in the background of Romans. Paul had several motivations to write a complex book like Romans, in contrast to a letter like Galatians which is targeted at a single issue, or 1 Corinthians which deals with serious problems in the church and answers several questions.

Why Did Paul Write Romans?

Unlike most of Paul’s letters, the occasion for the letter is not obvious. Although there seems to be a clear purpose statement in 15:24-29, it is not clear why Paul would have written the bulk of the book to support that purpose. There is no indication he is responding to questions from the Roman church nor does he address reported problems in the church similar to 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians. Paul has yet to visit the church and it does not appear he has had an influence on the church prior to this letter (unlike Colossians, for example, a church founded by a disciple of Paul).

scribe-at-workThe consensus view until modern scholarship is that the main purpose of Romans is to set forth Paul’s theology in clear terms. He begins with sin, then on to salvation by grace, the role of the law, sanctification and finally the practice of the Christian life. For many, Romans is as close to a systematic theology as we get from Paul. In fact, many modern Systematic theologies follow this same general outline.

But if this is a “compendium of Pauline Theology,” there is a great deal missing (the resurrection of Jesus, for example), and it is difficult to account for Romans 9-11. Paul’s discussion of Israel is often treated like a digression from his main point, as if it could be dropped from the book without damaging Paul’s argument. One additional factor is fact Paul’s letters are all written in some historical and social context. He did not appear to write books for the sake of putting his thoughts down for future generations to read and ponder.

Is Paul responding to a situation within the Roman Church? (I am heavily indebted to Colin Kruse, Romans, 8-9 for this section.) There are several suggestions for explaining Paul’s pastoral response.

First, since the Roman church was not established by an apostle, Paul wrote Romans to provide the church with an “apostolic presentation of the gospel (Fitzmyer, Romans, 75; Kruse, Romans, 8).” Paul would do this in person when he arrives in Rome, but the letter offers a “pre-read” for the church prior to Paul’s arrival.

Second, Christian Jews expelled from Rome by Claudius returned to find the house churches in Rome now organized much differently than the Jewish synagogue. The Jewish Christians found they were not the minority within a Gentile church. Paul therefore wrote Romans to encourage the Gentiles to live in harmony with Jewish Christian. But this suggestion has some difficult because there is no evidence Gentile converts had rejected distinctive Jewish practices. Unlike Galatia, it is possible the only Gentile converts in Rome were God Fearing Gentiles and quite happy with most Jewish practices.

Third, since the status of the Law is an important issue in Romans, Paul may have written because Christian Jews who continue to observe the law were now in conflict with law-free Gentile Christians. This is like other Pauline churches, but it is not clear Gentiles in the Roman church had rejected the Jewish Law. Nor is there evidence of Judaizers in Rome. Roman Gentile Christians do not seem to have struggled with Judaizers like the Galatia Christians did. Romans 14-15 is unclear on who the weak and strong are and vague about the actually issues at stake. There may have been some God-fearing Gentiles who kept some the Law and other Gentiles who came into the church who were not at all attracted to Jewish traditions.

Fourth, it is possible Paul did not consider the Roman Christians to have been “evangelized” yet. In Romans 15:15-16 Paul says he has written boldly to the church, so that “so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” The letter therefore demands a response to the gospel from the Roman readers with respect to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.

Fifth, it is also possible Paul wanted the Roman Christians to hear his gospel in order to draw them “apostolic orbit” (Kruse, Romans, 8). Since Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, he may have felt the Gentile believers were part of his commission regardless of how they originally came to hear the Gospel. Perhaps Romans 15:20 is an apology for taking as long as he has to come to Rome, the largest and most important city in the Empire (Fitzmyer, Romans, 76). If the Roman churches had grown to the extent Nero could use them as a scapegoat (ten years after Romans was written), then Paul cold be accused of overlooking a significant population of Gentile Christians.

In summary, any of these suggestions (or a combination of them) could explain why Paul wrote the letter to the Roman church. But it is possible he was motivated to write the later because he was moving into a new stage of his apostolic ministry rather than to meet some pastoral need in the church.