Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators

By J. Patout Burns Jr.; Constantine Newman | Go to book overview

Romans 3

In the third chapter, Paul began to address the role of faith in the process of salvation. The commentators offered different explanations of God’s fidelity and victory over human rejection. Ambrosiaster identified God’s victory as fulfilling promises even when humans had not trusted them. John Chrysostom also noted that God’s goodness toward humans is not conditioned by their response. Augustine was most straightforward: God will prove true by denying to sinners what was promised to the saints.

Origen, as he does regularly throughout his commentary, distinguished the Mosaic law from the natural law written in the human heart which, at a certain age, enables an individual to distinguish right from wrong, and thereby to become subject to an imposed law, such as that of Moses. This natural law also made humans responsible for sin prior to the Mosaic law. Within the Mosaic law, Ambrosiaster distinguished the moral precepts of the natural law from the promises of God and from the rituals which were enjoined until those promises were fulfilled. Augustine here introduced his characteristic thesisechoed by Theodoretthat the law revealed human sinfulness and that humans needed grace to fulfill its precepts.

Both faith and works were taken as necessary for righteousness by all commentators. Origen and Ambrosiaster explained that the promises of God which are fulfilled in Christ were included in the Mosaic law, so that obeying that law requires both following its moral precepts which mirror the natural law and believing that the promises have been fulfilled in Christ. The ritual part of the law, the commentators claim, was intended to be in force only until the promises were fulfilled and was thus no longer binding once Christ had come.

Paul’s assertion that righteousness is given apart from the law was explained in different ways. In Origen’s view, either faith or works may precede but one usually must be complemented or perfected by the other. Faith, however, would suffice for a personlike the thief crucified with Christwho does not live long enough to do good deeds after conversion to faith. Ambrosiaster explained that God’s righteousness is given for faith in the promises alone because Christ makes the ritual law irrelevant and gives forgiveness for sins against the natural law. Augustine introduced a different explanation: the precepts of the law prepare for faith and forgiveness by convicting a person of sin and demonstrating human inability to fulfill its precepts. Faith in Christ and the righteousness of God given by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit win forgiveness of sins and empower good deeds. Grace precedes faith and its works, which fulfill the law. The teachings of Paul and James are thus shown to be complementary rather than opposed.

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Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Church’s Bible i
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Series Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Interpreting the New Testament xiii
  • An Introduction to Romans xxiii
  • Preface to Romans 1
  • Romans 1 13
  • Romans 2 37
  • Romans 3 61
  • Romans 4 83
  • Romans 5 102
  • Romans 6 132
  • Romans 7 154
  • Romans 8 182
  • Romans 9 217
  • Romans 10 245
  • Romans 11 260
  • Romans 12 289
  • Romans 13 314
  • Romans 14 334
  • Romans 15 359
  • Romans 16 381
  • Appendix 1- Authors of Works Excerpted 394
  • Appendix 2- Sources of Texts Translated 396
  • Index of Names 414
  • Index of Subjects 417
  • Index of Scripture References 422
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