Stephen Westerholm, Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation

Westerholm, Stephen. Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. ix+413 pp. Hb; $49.99  Link to Eerdmans

Rather than a commentary on Romans, this new volume by Stephen Westerholm in on the reception history of Romans. He is writing the Romans volume for Illuminations commentary series. (I reviewed Amy Erickson’s Jonah commentary in this series here.) This book is not a commentary on Romans, rather it is a commentary on the reception of Romans by later readers. Westerholm surveys commentaries from Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Armenian perspectives many well-known but others quite obscure.

Westerholm RomansThe first section (pages 1-40) deals with the text of Romans as a witness to the earliest reception of Romans. He begins with a detailed description of papyrus 46, the earliest papyri copy of the book of Romans as an example of an early reception of the letter. Papyrus 46 dates to around A.D. 200 and was produced by a “blundering and not always attentive scribe,” to cite Michael Holmes (5). The codex contains 52 sheets folded to produce 104 leaves, 208 total pages. Only 86 pages survive (56 are in the Chester Beatty library and 30 are at the University of Michigan). The text was probably prepared for public reading. Westerholm suggests “his patron should have demanded a refund” (7). There are many variant readings comma often unintentional and easily recognized period. But there are some attempts at improvement that are unique to this manuscript. An early reader actively and thoughtfully engaged with the content of the text being read. “In limited but real ways, liberty was taken with the text of the epistle” (9). for example, the scribe had little use for Paul’s rhetorical repetitions, in Romans 8:17 he deliberately eliminated a redundancy. Occasionally the copiest substituted “what Paul might have said” for “what he appears to have written.” For example, when quoting Isaiah 9:27, the scribe replaces Paul’s word for remnant with a synonym because that is what is found in the Septuagint. Occasionally the text is simplified. Westerholm suggests this list of changes is “underwhelming” (12), but his point is that there are many different readings and not all these minor variants are accidental. “The word of the Lord (or of his apostle) is not tied to a particular wording” (12).

The second section (pages 41-76) is entitled “Readers” and interacts with how the “Paul within Judaism” scholarship reads Romans. The section begins with a short sketch on what can be known about the Roman church before Paul wrote his letter (following Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinius). Westerholm then introduces the so-called radical new perspective on Paul. Essentially, this view states that Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity and continued to live as a Jew for the rest of his life.

Romans has been wrongfully universalized; it addresses a specific situation in the Roman church. For “Paul within Judaism” scholars, Romans deals with the problem of how Gentile sinners become righteous, enjoy salvation, and become the people of God. Paul’s solution, according to this view, is that Gentiles are made right by faith in Christ, but Jews were already right with God because of God’s covenant with Israel. Paul is positive towards the Law, but the Law was only given to the Jews. Gentiles were never intended to keep the Law, so Paul essentially tells them the distinctively Jewish practices do not apply to them.

Westerholm thinks “Paul within Judaism” scholars are correct in denying that Paul in any of his letters denounces Judaism, but after his encounter with the risen Jesus Paul rethought the place of the Law ion God’s plan. The Law is hold, good, and righteous, but it paid out a path to righteousness humans are neither able nor inclined to take. The Law is weak to alter human capacities and dispositions since humans are sinners. Therefore, Westerholm concludes, righteousness can only be found apart from the Law.

As for the purpose of the letter, Westerholm surveys the usual suggestions, but ultimately suggests an unfavorable view of Paul’s theology may have reached Rome before Paul. Paul therefore presents his theology and calls on Jews and Gentiles to live in a single community of faith (73).

The bulk of this book is a survey of interpreters beginning with the Patristic Period, with short chapters on Origen, “Antiochene Interpreters” (John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus), and Early Latin Interpreters (Ambrosiaster, Pelagius, Augustine).  For the Medieval Period, Westerholm focuses on Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. For the Sixteenth century, Calvin and Luther are the main lights, but Westerholm includes John Colet and Desiderius Erasmus, and Philip Melanchthon. He concludes with comments on several English translations of Romans (Wyclif, Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, The Rheims New Testament and the King James Version).

The Modern Period begins in the 1600s with Philipp Jakob Spener, Matthew Poole, Richard Baxter, John Locke. Augustin Calmet, Cotton Mather, Robert Witham, and John Gill. He surveys several Arminian interpreters before covering nineteenth century interpreters John Taylor, Heinrich Meyer, Henry Alford, Benjamin Jowett, and John William Colenso. The final chapter is devoted to Karl Barth, perhaps the only writer that might be considered contemporary. In the introduction Westerholm specifically sets aside recent commentaries in this survey.

Westerholm concludes the book with an appendix on the popular Romans commentary by British writer D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who preached 372 sermons on Romans which were edited and published in fourteen volumes. I. H. Marshall said “if we ask who has been the most influential interpreter of Romans in the church in the twentieth century, one strong candidate is David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. You don’t hear about him in academic circles. Quite simply, he was the finest preacher and expositor of Romans in the evangelical wing of the church, and John Calvin and Martin Luther will have been the major influences on him. He did not always get it right, but of the breadth of his influence in the U.K. there can be no doubt” (351). Although he was not a great exegete, Westerholm describes Lloyd-Jones as “theological controlled preaching,” so the bulk of the chapter is devoted to describing how Lloyd-Jones develops key theological themes like justification and sanctification.

Conclusion. Westerholm’s book is a kind of pre-commentary on Romans, focusing on how a wide range of people in different theological traditions throughout the history of the church have read the Book of Romans. As a result, the book is more theological than exegetical, as a book on reception history must be. Someone might object their favorite ancient commentator was overlooked, but Westerholm provides clear summaries of the major interpreters of Paul’s letter.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.