Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation

By Gombis, Timothy G. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation


Gombis, Timothy G., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation. By Mark Reasoner. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005, xxvii + 194 pp., $24.95 paper. Reading Romans through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth. Edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larsen. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005, 223 pp. $24.99 paper.

Paul's letter to the Romans is rivaled perhaps only by the Gospel of John as the most influential NT text in the history of Christianity. While it has been the object of considerable attention by each generation of the church for the last two millennia, this last generation has witnessed Paul's epistle becoming an especially intense battleground. This is driven by the explosion in Pauline studies occasioned by what has been called the "new perspective" on Paul, re-examining his relationship to Judaism and related issues such as justification by faith and its place in Paul's thought generally. This discussion has raised questions as to whether Paul's thought is oriented by eschatology or soteriology, or whether these are not actually the same thing in his theology-and, more interestingly, whether Paul even has what may be called a "theology."

Now, with this debate waning somewhat and with a potentially fruitful discussion emerging on latent anti-imperial rhetoric in Paul's letters, it is encouraging to be well served with works investigating the history of the interpretation of Romans, two offerings of which are here reviewed. It is helpful to gain a wide vision of the field, to find models of theological interpretation and exegesis, and to make note of readings that ought to be regarded with more or less skepticism. Current proposed readings that have little historical precedent must not be ruled out immediately, but it would be wise to hold them a bit lightly. Then again, there are readings that run down well-worn paths but also bring with them longstanding problems. Just because an interpretation has a long pedigree does not mean it more faithfully captures Paul's thought. All this is just to say that in our day, with historical awareness in general at a low ebb, it is utterly necessary for interpreters of Paul to be conversant with the history of interpretation.

The organization of the two books is different, which makes reading them in tandem quite useful. The title of Reasoner's volume points to the route he traces beginning with Origen, who saw Paul's major concern as having to do with the relationship between the Jews and the ethnë (Reasoner leaves this term untranslated, referring, of course, to "non-Jews who name Jesus as their Christ," p. xx). He moves to Augustine, who initiated the long history of Romans being read in the Western church as involving answers to questions regarding the status of individuals before God. This perspective held hegemony until the initiation of Earth's project early in the twentieth century of turning the Enlightenment on its head and reading Paul as announcing the radical invasion of God's grace to vindicate the righteousness of God. The last third of the previous century, of course, saw a return to Origen's viewpoint on the relationship of the Jews to the ethne with "new perspective" concerns on the removal in Christ of Jewish badges of identity for the people of God. Reasoner views this final return to Origen especially through the narrative approaches of N. T. Wright and Katherine Grieb.

Reasoner structures his book around twelve "loci," major interpretive points throughout Romans, and surveys how significant interpreters handle the exegetical and theological challenges. For the amount of ground Reasoner attempts to cover, this approach is as good as any other. In fact, it ends up working quite well, allowing him to cover pivotal portions of the letter and also to give readers a sense of how influential figures in the history of interpretation read each section. A further benefit is that it is highly accessible, so that students of Romans wanting to know how Barth read Romans 7 will find such a discussion easily.

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