What Has Gone Wrong in Commentary Writing on Romans?

I recently reviewed about fifty commentaries on the book of Romans as part of a major writing project. I included commentaries from John Bengel’s of 1742 to the latest that I could get my hands on. I wanted to examine the state of play in commentary writing on Romans over most of the modern period. I eliminated the popular and “application-oriented” commentaries, and concentrated on those that present themselves as treatments of the text of Romans. If any book of the New Testament should bring out the best in commentary writing, Romans should be the one—and was I sadly disappointed.

No, I did not read through every commentary, but I concentrated on their introductions and especially Romans 5:1-11, a passage that I have written on many times and hence know something about. I wanted to see how up-to-date each commentary was for the time in which it was written (note this!), in the following areas: Greek language and linguistics, textual criticism, theology, literary and epistolary and rhetorical issues, audience concerns, and history of interpretation.

I gave precedence to Greek language and linguistics, because I strongly believe that commentaries should be commenting on the text, not primarily on other commentators—as so many commentaries are—and because, whatever else it is, New Testament studies is a text-based discipline. I also strongly believe that most interpretive problems are caused by language can only be resolved by study of language, and that we need to use the latest and best resources available for this task.

The linguistic issues also have an impact on the major text-critical problem in Romans 5:1, the use of the subjunctive or indicative of the verb ἔχω/ομεν. I was also concerned with reconciliation as a theological issue, how Romans 5 fits within the argument of Romans as an example of epistolary or rhetorical analysis, and related topics.

At the end of my exhausting analysis, I have to admit that I was sadly disappointed—though not entirely surprised. I could only find six commentaries that stand out for their overall strength—

Joseph Agar Beet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1877; 7th ed.; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890).

William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans (1895; 5th ed.; ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1902).

Heinrich Schlier, Der Römerbrief (Herders 6; Freiburg: Herder, 1977).

J. P. Louw, A Semantic Discourse Analysis of Romans (2 vols.; Pretoria: Department of Greek, 1987).

Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of Law (NTM 32; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

Not all of these are without blemish, mind you. But these are the best I could find. I cannot comment on each of them here, but they each stand out in the time in which they were written—and some of them have not been superseded.

You probably notice that a number of your “favorite” commentators are missing. Absolutely. I won’t mention names, but some of their commentaries were already out of date the moment they were published, not only linguistically but in other areas. I do not insist that the commentaries agree with me on any particular area, including linguistics, but they at least need to show awareness of the issues and address them appropriately—ignoring them is not the solution, and certainly not the means to convincing or responsible exegesis.

One of the major shortcomings of commentaries of the late twentieth century is their continued dependence upon language tools first developed in the nineteenth century! This may have been appropriate when Beet and Sanday and Headlam wrote, but it is not appropriate for commenting in the post-Barr and verbal-aspect-inspired era of New Testament studies. Few commentators have fully grasped the implications of modern linguistic thought for their handling of the Greek text, and many continue to commit lexical fallacies that Barr warned us against.

I believe this deplorable condition is not only the result of a lack of adequate preparation for the task—however, many commentators are clearly not up to speed in recent interpretive thought, especially linguistic. It is also the fault of New Testament studies as a discipline and publishers as a whole. New Testament studies for some time now has been a branch of theology, rather than being a discipline that emphasizes the latest linguistic and general knowledge—as did such commentators as Sanday and Headlam—but without losing sight of the importance of theology as a second order discipline (exegesis being first order). Publishers—and their buying public—also demand more and more commentaries in series, without allowing authors to take the time with their texts that they deserve or demanding that they reach a certain level of informed critical engagement.

So, there you have my take on commentaries on Romans.

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Filed under Commentaries, Greek, Linguistics, Romans

18 responses to “What Has Gone Wrong in Commentary Writing on Romans?

  1. Jeff Martin

    Did you happen to read Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary? That is my favorite one at this point

    • Dear Jeff,

      Yes, I did consider Luke Timothy Johnson’s Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997). I found him deficient on a number of counts. One is that he endorses the old time-based view of the Greek tense-forms and so equates an aorist participle with past action (p. 78)—a view that was called into question some time ago (e.g. A. T. Robertson) and is rightly abandoned. He tries to read the Hebrew shalom into understanding of “peace” in this context (p. 79), one of Barr’s lexical fallacies. He claims the textual evidence between the subjunctive and indicative in Romans 5:1 is evenly divided, when it is not (p. 79). He also uses Friedrich Büchsel’s article on ἀλλάσσω κτλ. in TDNT for his understanding of reconciliation (p. 85)—an article written in 1933 and clearly surpassed by at least three later major monographs. I find all of this highly problematic and not worthy of a front-line commentary.

      • Stephen Beck

        I don’t mean to be pedantic at all, and by all accounts I am a simple, naive Greek student who’s only read a few commentaries (Moo is the only one on this list I have even picked up, much less read any substantial portions), but is it possible that these commentators simply disagreed with your assessments of Greek aspect theory or thought it not relevant to the discussions in Romans 5? If dikaiwthentes is not past time in the context of Romans 5 then what is it? Certainly there is room in the evangelical world for disagreeing with modern scholarship on a number of issues, though I agree that replacing it with 19th century scholarship on Greek linguistics is not the answer.

  2. Kari Valkama

    Is it possible to get a copy of the writing project in question?

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  4. mvpcworshipblog

    Professor Porter,

    Thank you for blogging and for this particular post.

    As a pastor, one of the frustrating things that I find with commentaries is how many of them are commentaries on the history of commentaries rather than commentaries on the text. I also wish that more commentators would avoid the “trust me” approach where they substitute assertions for reasoned arguments. On the other hand, while I lack your expertise – I am inclined to add Cranfield’s ICC on Romans to those that seek to seriously engage the text.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts in a forum where pastors like myself have easy access to them. I look forward to your NIGTC on Acts as well as the Intermediate Greek Grammar that you, along with Profs. Reed & O’Donnell, have planned with Eerdmans.

    In Christ,


    • Dear David,

      Thanks for your interest in my future publishing projects.

      As for C. E. B. Cranfield’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1975–1979), I found a lot of merit in Cranfield also. However, in assessing it in relation to its time, I thought that he had not pushed things forward very much, especially in Greek language issues when compared to his predecessor Sanday and Headlam. As a result, he ends up making some confusing comments on Greek language (e.g. 1:259 on the perfect tense-form). He is also far too heavily influenced by Barth. I consider Barth a highly unreliable interpreter of the Bible—and incidentally no friend of evangelicals, despite recent attempts to rejuvenate and reconstruct him in that mold.

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  6. Have you commented on this to Richard Longknecker? I’ve seen he’s up for the next NIGTC . . . maybe there’s still time. I love his Galatians in the WBC, particularly the part where he dubunks the arguments used for the north/south Galatian theories :-)

  7. Thanks for sharing some of your research with us. I am teaching Romans at Tyndale this summer and I’m glad the text I chose (Douglas Moo) made the cut. Looking forward to your work on Romans.

  8. Ronald V. Huggins

    A very curious list, especially in light of the non-inclusion of certain key ninteenth century commentaries (e.g. Tholuck, Moses Stuart). Really for the list to be meaningful one would need to know which fifty served as your basis for selecting this short list. Was that list unduly weighted toward commentaries after 1890? Also were commentaries truly evaluated in terms of their iimportance for moving things forward in their time, or, for their importance in moving us toward where we find ourselves now (since the two are not necessarily the same)? Thank you for your faithful labors in advancing our understanding of commenting on Romans!

  9. Jeff Martin

    Bob Davies – Sadly commentaries for Galatians are also bad. I can recommend only one! I did a research project on Gal. 3:6-14, arguebly the most difficult NT passage to understand as well as Romans 10:5. There are a couple gems in more popular treatments of Galatians – Scot McKnight, Gordon Fee, and Charles Cousar, but as far as Academic really only J. Louis Martyn’s commentary is good! Sorry Longenecker!

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  12. Herb

    I’d like to recommend the 2 volume set by Jack Cottrell,which is now available in a condensed single volume.

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