Reading Romans with a Master Guide

Joel B. Green

Years ago, in the New Testament postgraduate seminar at the University of Aberdeen, we took a break from our usual diet of engaging each other’s papers and guest presentations in order to read through Romans together. The late I. Howard Marshall, a British Methodist, led the seminar. His procedure was to call on one of us to translate a section of Paul’s letter, then he would lead a discussion of that passage. My chief memory from that term was the impromptu gathering of students after our meetings to lament the persistently strange (and obviously flawed) readings Howard would offer. Most of my peers leaned into their understanding of John Calvin, and they were put off by Howard’s repeated interpretive moves—which, admittedly, were more at home in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition than in Reformed circles. As a participant-observer in those dueling conversations, I learned early on that, often, what separates this and that reading of a letter like Romans might not be philology or exegetical technique, but one’s theological formation.

I was thrilled, then, to hold in my hands the new commentary on Romans by Michael J. Gorman: Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans, 2022). On the one hand, I have long appreciated Gorman’s work on Paul. Indeed, his perspectives on Paul, available in a range of significant publications (for a partial list, see here), are widely celebrated, and justly so. On the other hand, Gorman’s faith and life are rooted in the Wesleyan tradition and seasoned through his years of teaching in an ecumenical context. How might this shape his reading of Paul’s most theologically formidable work, the Letter to the Romans?

As soon as Gorman’s Romans arrived on my doorstep, I set aside some time to do something I have never before attempted: Carving out some space that very afternoon, I read Gorman’s commentary from cover to cover. With nary a hint of exaggeration or mockery, I can report that I found my heart strangely warmed as I came face-to-face again and again with the good news about which Paul writes, and which Gorman illumines so well.

Those familiar with Gorman’s earlier work on Paul will recognize some of the practical and theological motifs this study emphasizes: mission, participation, cruciformity, and (trans)formation. This pastoral letter-essay is also political, he urges. “The power, peace, and justice of Rome have met their match in the power, peace, and justice of God” (31; italics original). In his analysis, these motifs—along with each of Paul’s moves in this letter—parade under the banner of “life,” since Romans is the “epistle of life.”

Students and pastors will be drawn to this commentary. The entire book centers on Gorman’s sustained interpretation of the book—that is, it is a commentary on Romans, not a commentary on the scholarly discussion of Romans. Of course, Gorman is conversant with the panoply of scholarly debate on this letter, but his engagement with that debate lies beneath the surface of his commentary. (We get the tip of the iceberg, but there is no doubt that, just out of sight, the bulk of the iceberg rumbles.) Although this work does not shy away from difficult exegetical questions, its focus is on the theological and pastoral significance of the letter.

The bulk of the commentary is given over to Gorman’s discussion of each thought unit comprising the letter. Additionally, his pages are dotted with tables that help to clarify Paul’s argument; section summaries; spiritual, personal, and theological reflections; questions for those who read, teach, and preach; and suggestions for further reading. Throughout, Gorman keeps his eyes resolutely on the life, faith, and mission of the church. And to all of this, we must add Gorman’s rare gift for interlacing profound theological insight with down-to-earth prose.

I can imagine groups of Christian leaders gathering around Romans for a season—Paul’s letter in one hand, this faithful interpretation of Paul’s letter in the other. It is the sort of book I would put in the hands of those in the classroom, whether in a seminary or undergraduate context or in an adult education class at a local church. Of course, you know already my report that Gorman’s commentary makes for good reading in the afternoon sun!

Posted Apr 25, 2022

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