Reading the Scriptures with the Reformers: Romans 1-8

Gwenfair Walters Adams

Have you ever studied a Robert Silvers photograph? When Silvers was a student at the MIT Media Lab in the 1990s, he invented an art form. He merged ancient mosaic with modern photography and state-of-the art computer technology to create the photomosaic. If you gaze at one of his works from a distance, you think you’re looking at a large but normal photograph. But if you walk up closer to it, you start to notice something unusual. The massive photo is comprised of thousands of tiny photographs—digital tesserae, in effect. And if you whip out a magnifying glass, you’ll see that the minuscule photos are all related somehow to the giant photograph that they together create.

So, for a piece on Marilyn Monroe designed for a Life magazine cover, Silvers used only photographs of previous Life covers. For Van Gogh’s Starry Night, he assembled over 3000 NASA space program photos. For a portrait of Anne Frank, he used about 2000 photographs of the Holocaust. And his Girl with the Pearl Earring is comprised of reproductions of paintings and drawings from the Louvre and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reading Rom 1-8 with the Reformers is, in many ways, like looking through a magnifying glass at a literary photomosaic. It is a photomosaic of something that is at the heart of the Christian faith: the gospel. From a distance, seen as a whole, it shows the gospel. And as you look at each tiny tile in turn, you discover that each is portraying little chunks of the gospel as well. The impact of reading through all these “tesserae”—all the excerpts from the commentaries and sermons and letters and lives—is overwhelming. By the time you’re done, you’ve heard various facets of the gospel hundreds and hundreds of times. And what stands out amid this mosaic of words is the sheer joy of the Reformers.

The Reformers and Their Works on Romans

For seven years surrounding the Reformation’s 500th anniversary (2017), I lived with the artists of this “mosaic”: 140 sixteenth-century Reformers and seventeenth-century Puritans and Protestant scholastic theologians. All of them were passionately discussing or preaching from Rom 1-8. And I was editing the volume on Romans 1-8 in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series for InterVarsity Press. The volume ended up assembling together over a thousand “tesserae” that simultaneously portrayed Rom 1-8 both in miniature pieces and together as a whole.

Most of the material I was working with had never been translated into English and had thus been buried for almost 500 years. While the lecture notes of Martin Luther and the commentaries of John Calvin and Philipp Melanchthon were available in English, the works of many other highly influential figures—such as Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Johannes Brenz, and Peter Martyr Vermigli—were not. At times it felt like being the first to pan for gold in a freshly found stream: As I shook the sieve in my hand, glittering nuggets emerged from the sand. There were so many interesting insights.

There was also the delight of discovering dozens and dozens of lesser-known figures who had also written on Romans. The Reformation Commentary on Scripture covers the years 1500–1650, so I made the acquaintance of a number of fascinating figures. Some wrote full length commentaries; about seventy Romans commentaries were produced during the Reformation itself, including studies by both Catholics and Protestants. Some, like Bucer’s, were as long as 300,000 words! Other reformers, such as Rudolf Gwalther, the preacher who succeeded Zwingli and Bullinger at Zurich, preached long sermon series on Romans. The French queen Marguerite de Navarre wrote poetry and Katherine Zell composed hymns, both on verses and themes from Romans. As close friends, the artist Michelangelo and the lyric poetess Vittoria Colonna penned poems to each other on justification by faith alone, inspired by Paul’s epistle.

In general, the Anabaptists tended not to write commentaries on Scripture, since they were somewhat leery of human interpretation, so I wasn’t surprised not to be able to unearth any Romans commentaries by them. But they referred to the epistle in many of their treatises. They used it, for example, in lists of Scriptures to defend their stance against infant baptism—verses such as Rom 2:29 (“Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God,” NRSV), which they saw as downplaying circumcision and thus the baptism of infants. And Rom 8:17 (“and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him”) comes across as their favorite verse in the epistle, for they were enduring tremendous persecution, and the connection of Christ’s suffering and their own comforted them.

The Reformers, of course, didn’t agree with one another on everything. In their details, in what some of them came to term the adiaphora (the things indifferent, where disagreement was allowed), there could be great variety. Even on some of the essentials, there was vigorous debate. But when it came to the central doctrines, they were largely in agreement. And that is where, while you’re reading through their commentaries, the repeating themes and refrains can start to buttress one’s confidence in the gospel. Hearing one Reformer after another—eventually piling up by the dozens— proclaiming the gospel, is invigorating.

Three Movements

As I pulled together the comments of Lutherans, Reformed types, Anabaptists, and Puritans, I discerned three main movements for the Reformers as they commented on Rom 1-8, echoing the flow of the chapters in the letter itself. First, they studied the holiness of God, the high standard of the law, and the stark contrast of our sinfulness in contrast to them. Second, they pondered Christ’s death on the cross and the profound love that it reveals. Third, they exhorted readers not to take this for granted but rather, to respond by living a transformed life.

Early in the Reformation, the English Reformer William Tyndale—in his prologue to his translation of Romans—summarized the three:

Now, Reader, go and act according to the order of Paul’s writing. First, behold yourself diligently in the law of God, and there observe your just damnation. Secondly, turn your eyes to Christ, and see there the exceeding mercy of your most kind and loving Father. Thirdly, remember that Christ did not make this atonement so that you would anger God again. Nor did he die for your sins so that you would return, as a swine, to your old puddle again; but rather so that you would be a new creature and live a new life according to the will of God, and not to the flesh. And be diligent, so that you do not lose this favor and mercy again through your own negligence and ingratitude. (Tyndale, Prologue upon the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans [1526], in Gwenfair Walters Adams, ed., Romans 1-8, Reformation Commentary on Scripture 7 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019], 9-10; hereafter RCS 7).

We’ll take a closer look at these three.

1. God’s Holiness and Our Sinfulness

One of the repeating themes, especially in the Reformers’ comments on Roms 1:1–3:20, but continuing throughout, is that God is holy and we are sinners, and that we cannot ourselves fix this dire situation.

In twenty-first century American culture, we may have a hard time grasping these concepts. We tend to psychologize away our sin, blaming it on past experiences or the human predicament. And God’s holiness, majesty, and transcendence may feel like abstract, faraway concepts. For late medieval persons—which, of course, the Reformers were—the holiness of God had been, in a sense, concretized, in the beautiful cathedrals that soared above their cities. As the highest buildings, by far, in Europe, they pointed to the supremacy of God above all of life. And they dwarfed the humans who entered them, reminding them of their finitude and God’s magnificence. In addition, the life-consuming practices surrounding the sacrament of penance reinforced the fact that they were sinners. Although the Reformers would eliminate the practice of penance, they preserved its emphasis on the reality and culpability of our sin. Living in a culture where we sometimes drift into looking at God as one who exists to support our dreams and to serve our agendas, it can be bracing to be reminded repetitively, as we read through the Reformers’ comments, that we are sinners and that sin matters. And that, there is nothing we can do to eliminate our sinful nature and status. And that, therefore, we are in desperate need of a Savior.

2. Focus on Christ

For the Reformers, the focus was on Christ; only he could address the holiness-sinfulness dichotomy. Confronted by Rom 3:21–5:21 in light of the theology of their time, they were struck by the emphasis on faith and its role in justification. They were accustomed to other late medieval elements, such as the mediation of the priests, intercession of the saints, the sacrament of penance and its assignment of penalty-paying acts of almsgiving, prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, masses, and donations of objects and property to the church. Bringing that background to their reading of Romans, sola fide became a key and paradigm-shifting doctrine.

Justification by faith alone is the doctrine that permeates the Reformers’ commentaries on Romans. At times it feels like every verse serves as a springboard into discussion of the doctrine for one Reformer or another. Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer stated, “We are first taught that the gospel is only rightly preached when nothing else is preached but the righteousness of God, his perfect goodness and mercy, by which he freely remits sins and bestows the Spirit of righteousness. We then learn that this blessing is received when, by faith, we embrace this righteousness of God toward us, in no way doubting that God now counts us among those whom, snatched from among all the wicked, he will save eternally” (Commentary on Romans, in RCS 7:49). Faith was the means by which one approached Christ and salvation. Its power was not in its human actor taking action but rather in the object to which it pointed: Christ.

While justification by faith was important, the true centerpiece was Christ. He was the one that faith was in and the only reason it was effective. In essence, sola fide was a corollary of solus Christus. So many of the Reformers attested to the centrality of Christ. A brief sampling of their comments demonstrates this. Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, wrote, “The scope of the gospel is Jesus Christ, the salvation of the world” (Commentary on Romans, in RCS 7:21). In referring to the phrase “For I am not ashamed,” Zwingli wrote, “[It is] as if Paul were saying that the gospel—which is what he was now calling the gospel story, the objective content itself, the story of Christ—proclaims how Christ is the Son of God, and was seized … and crucified” (Notes on Romans, in RCS 7:44). Martin Bucer stated: “Paul will be announcing the gospel to them: that the Lord Jesus is for us, and he is deemed worthy to excel. He is the first and most prominent one” (Commentary on Romans, in RCS 7:42). Calvin wrote: “The whole gospel is bound up in Christ, so that if anybody moves a single foot away from Christ, he withdraws himself from the gospel” (Commentary on Romans, in RCS 7:21). Later in the century, the notes in the English Puritans’ Geneva Bible (1595) would proclaim that “Christ is the very substance and sum of the gospel” (RCS, 7:22).

3. A Transformed Life

Sometimes the Reformers are accused—because of their emphasis on justification by faith, of easy-believism—that is, of teaching that all that matters is faith, not works. Certainly, the Reformers agreed that one is saved by faith, not by one’s works. But what also comes through strongly is that they believed that one’s actions after conversion nevertheless matter. For many of the Reformers, obedience to God’s commands is fruit that serves as evidence of one’s conversion. A transformed life is important. One should not take Christ’s sacrifice for granted. Martin Bucer expressed this eloquently in his thoughts on Rom 5:6–8:

If we carefully consider that although we were being completely carried away contrary to his one, holy, and perfect will, and although we were offending him in the gravest possible manner, he nevertheless, embraced us with such love that he willed that his Son should die in order to redeem us, and the Son himself submitted to this death with ardent longing—what could stand in the way that would prevent you from entirely handing yourself over and devoting yourself completely to this God and Savior of yours who loves you in such an incomparable way? … What else, finally, could there be that could so inflame us with true and lasting love toward our neighbors, and even toward our enemies? … [God] in his infinite love for you restored you to himself in fellowship of eternal life. With this thought carefully pondered by faith and always repeated within the heart, who would not let go of all other things that are not God and devote themselves to him alone so much that they would freely wish to think upon, seek after and live for nothing other than God? (Commentary on Romans, in RCS 7:283).

The Joy of the Gospel

This intensity of appreciation for the gospel and the desire to express one’s gratitude to the savior through living a godly life shines through so many of the writings of the Reformers. Perhaps the most powerful thing I’ve absorbed from reading them on Rom 1-8 is their joy. In 1565, The Hutterite Confession of Faith declared: “The gospel is a joyful message” (Peter Riedemann, Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, Classics of the Radical Reformation 9, trans. and ed. John J. Friesen [Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1999], 100–101). And the Reformers’ response to this joyful message was to overflow with joy themselves. If ever there was a group of people who were “not ashamed of the gospel,” it was the sixteenth-century Reformers.

May their joy rub off on us as twenty-first century believers.

[Parts of this essay are adapted from the Introduction to Gwenfair Walters Adams, ed., Romans 1-8, Reformation Commentary on Scripture 7 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019); idem, “Shock and Awe: The Reformers and the Stunning Joy of Romans 1–8,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 61, no. 2 (2018): 231–44.]

Posted Oct 16, 2019