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SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ON
N. T. WRIGHT’S ROMANS COMMENTARY

BY RICH LUSK

Copyright © 2003

N. T. Wright’s commentary on Romans is destined to be a classic. The introduction alone is worth the hefty price of the book — but the exegesis itself is, well, priceless. I will not attempt a full review — these are just miscellaneous thoughts and random reflections — but I do want to point out several aspects of the commentary I greatly appreciate. This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give some feel as to why I think the commentary is a landmark work in Pauline scholarship and belongs on the shelf — if not the desk — of every Reformed pastor.

First, the commentary is written in Wright’s ever-fresh, breathtakingly clear prose. Wright has incorporated numerous biblical-theological and intertextual insights into the commentary, without making it overly technical. The Reflections sections at the end of each exegetical section provide countless fruitful avenues for practical, contemporary application. This commentary, unlike so many others, is actually useful and stimulating for the preacher.

Second, the commentary shows Wright’s primary commitment to Scripture and his secondary commitment to the Reformed faith. Wright takes the text of the Bible with utmost seriousness. While he often critiques the received Protestant tradition, he generally does so strictly on exegetical grounds. And even then, he affirms that the Reformers were giving the right answers to the questions of their day. So he is a true sola Scriptura Protestant: tradition is important, but the Word of God reigns supreme.

Third, Wright is cognizant of the fact that Romans is not a systematic theology, but a full scale exposition and defense of God’s covenant faithfulness to his creation though the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. But that’s not to say that Wright reads Paul in an a-systematic way. In fact, Wright has a keen eye for the logic and cohesion of Paul’s thought. Often, he points to Paul’s thickly packed summary statements and rightly shows how Paul moves from the wound up bud to the unfolding flower. Wright, as much as any commentator I’ve ever read, shows Paul was a true genius. He has crawled into Paul’s head and figured out “what makes his theology tick.”

Fourth, the commentary reveals Wright’s explicit commitment to sola fide and sola gratia. In his comments on Rom. 3:28, he acknowledges the long standing tradition, stretching back through Luther to Aquinas, of glossing Paul’s argument with the word “alone.” In Reflection #3 following the exegesis of Rom. 3:27-31, he acknowledges that though Paul is not dealing with a full blown system of Pelagianism, there is no doubt what Paul would have said about such a system: “It stinks.”

Fifth, Wright’s redemptive-historical approach to the book is not unique, but Wright does handle this approach uniquely well. Examples abound on nearly every page. He shows the significance of reading “law” as not “morality in general” but as specifically “Torah.” His use of the exile/exodus motif is brilliant, especially the way he ties in the narrative of Israel with Paul’s thought progression in Rom. 6-8. I’m not altogether convinced of his approach to Rom. 7, since I do not think Paul’s own experience with the law can be excised from the passage, but I do think we have to take into account the connections Wright draws with Israel’s history, and back of that, with Adam. Wright detects subtle echoes of Isa. and other OT prophets throughout Romans. In particular, the overtones of Isa. 53 form the basis of a very coherent and Reformational understanding of the cross. Wright finds a condensed reference to the sin offering in Rom. 8:3. And so on. Wright’s commentary is a self-contained course in biblical theology.

Sixth, Wright shows he has a BIG view of grace. Just as sin affects more than just individual hearts, wrecking institutions and structures as well, so grace brings healing and transforming power to more than just the individual heart. For Wright, grace is both “political” and “personal.” (I’m using “political” here in the classic sense, to stand for the organization of human life in community, though certainly civil government is included.) Wright rejects a truncated, pietistic view of the gospel that limits its concern to the horizon of individual soteriology. In other words, he is pro-Christendom. Those who have been influenced by worldview-oriented Dutch Calvinism and theocratic Puritanism will find much to rejoice over.

Seventh, Wright affirms an orthodox understanding of the resurrection and spells out its implications. Of course, he has done this more fully in his The Resurrection of the Son of God, but there are some gems in the Romans commentary as well. Space does not permit discussing examples, but the discussion of Jesus’ resurrection on pages 419 and 664 are two of many we could choose.

Eighth, Wright stands against the postmodern tide and rejects universalism. In his comments on Rom. 5:18-19, he affirms Christ is the only way of salvation. Even Jews must trust in Christ to fully realize the covenant blessings promised to their ancestors. Wright stands against post-Holocaust NT scholarship to boldly proclaim Christ alone as the hope of sinners, including Jewish sinners (427-8).

Ninth, Wright’s anti-Caesar polemic grasps an essential core feature of Paul’s theology that many commentators, especially in the wake of the post-Enlightenment split between religion and politics, have missed. Wright shows that Christ is the reality and Caesar the parody. But he extends this: now the church is the true empire, and Rome is merely a parody. His commentary on Rom. 13 is a brilliant working out of Paul’s counter-imperial worldview. Paul’s claim that Jesus is now Lord and Emperor of the world is heavily freighted with political implications. Even as Paul acknowledges that all government comes from God and is to be honored, he is ready to critique and challenge the hubris of rulers who exercise totalitarian tyranny. All these insights into Paul’s “politics” are relevant in our own day.

Tenth, Wright grasps the fundamentally eschatological nature of the gospel and the Christian life. These thoughts are developed with even greater fullness in his big book on the resurrection, but the Romans commentary introduces them as well. For example, Wright recognizes the Paul’s Gentile mission was eschatological in character (401f). Since the new age had dawned in Christ, Paul knew it was time for the Gentiles to come into the kingdom in accord with the prophetic promises. Wright also takes note of Paul’s eschatological ethic. As Wright reads Paul, the Torah has been transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Torah hinted at and pointed to this eschatological form of life in a myriad of ways, but only through the new Torah of Christ and the Spirit does it actually come to pass in the covenant community (580). Throughout the commentary, and especially in his reflections, Wright unpacks his notion of eschatological living — namely, that Christians are to live the life of the future in the present. We are to live now as we shall live then, in the resurrection, because the same Spirit who raised Jesus is at work in us. We do not merely keep the law as a collection of rules; rather, we fulfill it (cf. Rom. 13:8) — and in the theological discourse of the NT, “fulfill” is a term supercharged with eschatological significance!

Eleventh, Wright comes down on the right side of the “faith of Jesus Christ” debate. Precisely because Jesus is the new Adam and new Israel, he must be viewed as the ultimate man of faith (467) and therefore a model for properly responding to God. For Paul, speaking of Christ’s faith (e.g., Rom. 3:22) is simply another way of describing his obedience to his vocation. But, of course, Wright points out that this excludes any kind of merit theology (467, 470).

Twelveth, Wright refuses to join Dunn in spiritualizing away the references to baptism in Rom. 6. Wright is able to preserve a high view of baptismal efficacy that is not “magical” or “superstitious” because he reads Rom. 6 in light of the exodus account. Like Calvin, he also uses baptism as a pattern for the entire Christian life. He understands how Rom 6 works: since you have been united to Christ in baptism, be who you are (535)! For Wright, as for Calvin and Paul, the basic pattern of Christian living — of mortification and vivification — becomes ours in baptism.

Thirteenth, as Wright has done elsewhere, so here, he affirms his commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy. In Climax of the Covenant, he gives a wonderful defense of the Trinity from Paul’s reworked shema in 1 Cor. 8, showing how Paul has redrawn Jewish monotheism to include Jesus. He follows that up in the Romans commentary with several references to the Trinity. In his overview of Rom. 7:1-8:11, he says, “if the doctrine of the Trinity had never existed, we might be forced to reinvent it” (556). That is to say, Wright detects a continual Trinitarian subtext throughout Paul’s letter. While Paul does not come forward with a highly articulated, explicit statement of Trinity, as the church fathers would do over the next several centuries, he is constantly alluding to the truth of the Trinity (e.g., 575, 580-1, 600). In the Romans commentary, he also makes much of the deity of the man Jesus. He moves deftly from royal, Davidic associations with the “son of God” title to its full divine meaning (416, 419, 520). He shows how Paul applies OT texts about YHWH to Jesus (692), implicitly claiming divine status and prerogatives for the crucified one. He shows that the death of Jesus forces us to rethink our understanding of who God is, essentially painting a Christ-centered picture of God.

Fourteenth, Wright answers those critics who have suggested he has reduced faith to mere mental assent. He shows that faith in the Hebraic, and therefore Pauline, sense, includes faithfulness, trustworthiness, and loyalty (453, 468). His comments on Rom. 10:9 form a compact, systematic, and rather Calvinistic discussion of the nature of Christian faith.

Finally, Wright deals very ably with the various “tenses” of Paul’s doctrine of justification, while never losing sight of its covenantal and forensic character. For Wright, justification is an issue precisely because we will all someday stand before God’s judgment seat. Will we be a part of the people who are acquitted or condemned? Final acquittal comes to those who have kept the law. Taken out of context, Wright’s comments on page 440 may seem problematic: “Justification at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession [of Torah].” But this is not a raw legalism. Wright is simply holding together the two poles of Paul’s justification theology: future justification is according to works, while present justification is by faith alone. Future justification is granted to the doers of the law precisely because they are ones who are in Christ, and who therefore share in the verdict the Father passed over him, and because they are the ones who possess the Spirit, enabling them to fulfill Torah’s righteous requirements. On page 529, Wright ties it all together: “Justification, rooted in the cross and anticipating the verdict of the last day, gives people a new status, ahead of the performance of appropriate deeds.” An even fuller summary is given on page 613, commenting on Rom. 8:33-36:

[In] vv. 33-34, we are back in the lawcourt, as in the middle of chap. 3. In 2:1-16 the whole human family faced the judgment of God; in 3:19-20 the whole world was in the dock, with no defense to offer against massive charges. Now we look round for possible accusers, and find none. Any that might appear have to face that fact that God, the judge, is the justifier; in other words, that the verdict has already been pronounced by the judge whose righteousness has been fully displayed. And that verdict — that those in the Messiah, marked out by faith, are already to be seen as “righteous,” even ahead of the final vindication — is precisely what the lawcourt dimension of “justification” is all about. We should note that at this point Paul is once again speaking of the final day of judgment, as in 2:1-16 and 8:1. As he looks ahead to that future moment, he puts his confidence in the past event of justification and hence the present standing of God’s people that results from it, knowing that “those God justified, God also glorified.” The logic of justification comes full circle.

If nothing else, these comments should forever squelch the notion that justification is not a soteriological concept for Wright. It most certainly is soteriological — and indeed, is used to answer questions about accusers and condemnation at the last day. On page 664, Wright again affirms the soteric side of justification, but ties it in with his familiar concept of covenant membership:

“Righteousness” denotes the status people have on the basis the basis of faith: a present legal status that anticipates the future verdict of the divine lawcourt, a present covenantal status that anticipates final affirmation of membership in God’s people.

See also the discussion of Rom. 3:22ff on page 471. The passage needs to be read in full, but this is the real core of it:

This “justification” [in 3:22ff] takes place in the present time, rather than in the future as in 2:1-11. This particular “justification” is the surprising anticipation of the final verdict spoken of in that passage, and carries both the lawcourt metaphor and that we would expect from the sustained metaphor of 3:9, 19-20, and the covenantal meaning that we would expect from 2:17-3:8 — these two being, as we have already explained, dovetailed together in Paul. It is God’s declaration that those who believe are in the right; their sins have been dealt with; they are God’s true covenant people, God’s renewed humanity.

I do have a few gripes. As a Reformed pastor, I would have been gratified had Wright chosen to include John Murray as one of his discussion partners, along with Moo, Dunn, Fitzmeyer, and Byrne. Older Reformational and pre-Reformational discussion partners would have lengthened the commentary, no doubt, but also added to its value. (In this respect, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes’ commentary on Hebrews is still an excellent model.)

There are a few places where Wright seems to misunderstand the tradition, whether it is Anselm on the atonement or certain aspects of the Reformed doctrine of justification. He needs a quick course in historical theology from an American Reformed seminary.

Also, he does not apply the concept of covenant to the pre-fall situation consistently, ignoring one of the major insights of Reformed theology. For example, on 467, he says “the purpose for which the covenant was made” was to deal with sin. But, in truth, the covenant pre-dates sin. After the fall, God’s covenantal purposes expand to include rescue from sin, but this is only so the more ultimate covenantal purpose of a glorified and mature creation can be accomplished (cf. Rom. 8:17ff).

His comments on Rom. 7, which read the passage as a theological analysis of covenant life in the old creation, are excellent, but he should have given more attention to the traditional reading of the passage as an introspective examination of Christian experience. Even if Wright is right — and I do think he and others who read the passage the same way are on to something — there should be analogies in the passage with present Christian experience and Paul may in fact be calling upon those parallels, as well as covenant history, to develop his theology of Torah. Wright could have strengthened the value of his commentary, and perhaps of his argument, has he interacted with chapter 5 of Don Garlington’s Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance. Garlington is an NPP scholar, but but reads Rom. 7 in the more traditional sense of “living between two worlds,” as simultaneously Spiritual and fleshly, as “already” saved in one sense but “not yet” fully saved in another.

Finally, his explanation of predestination and election in Rom. 8-11 lacked the clarity of the rest of the commentary. He is attempting to walk a thin line, avoiding questions that cannot really be avoided. He is correct that Paul’s concerns are specific to redemptive-history and the problem of Israel’s unbelief, rather than giving an abstract philosophy of providence. He is also correct that chapters 9-11 form the real core of Paul’s argument in Romans. The unbelief of Israel is not a sidebar to a larger issue; rather, it is the issue that generates the matrix of arguments in the entire letter precisely because Israel’s infidelity calls into question God’s own fidelity. But Wright should have more forthrightly admitted that something very much like Calvinism must have served as a presupposition for Paul’s explication of Israel’s twisted story. Israel’s history makes no sense apart God’s absolute sovereignty standing behind it. Frankly, it is clear enough from Wright’s other comments (e.g., 603, 620, 641, 642) that he is essentially Calvinistic in his view of providence and soteriology, but he seemed to want to hedge a bit in the commentary. He could have comforted a lot of Reformed readers by saying, “Well, yes, Paul believed very much in absolute predestination, but that isn’t quite the topic here . . . .” Wright does that in other published writings, so his reluctance to do it here is odd.

Wright also has some funky views on economics, seen fullest in The Millennium Myth, but also showing up occasionally in the Romans commentary. The struggling, debt enslaved third world needs rescue, but I do not see anyway Wright’s suggested plans (e.g., 548) could actually help things. His use of the Jubilee concept seems out of place, given his hesitancy to apply other aspects of the Mosaic legislation to social problems (see, e.g., 586-7).

But overall the commentary is a masterpiece and will serve students of Paul for years to come. I highly recommend it.

Copyright © 2003

Rich Lusk is a Minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America and the Assistant Pastor of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church.



4 Responses to “Wright on Romans”

  1. 1
    Paul Clutterbuck Says:

    I haven’t read this commentary, so can’t comment on it directly. However, this review has certainly whetted my appetite for more of NTW’s work. What I would ask here is whether some of the weaknesses in this commentary (e.g., his bypassing the discussion of predestination in Rom 9-11) may be editorial rather than authorial. Maybe Fortress Press and SPCK are more open to these topics than Abingdon’s editors, at least in the context of the NIB?

  2. 2
    Steven Carr Says:

    Some questions that I hope the commentary can answer…

    Romans 3
    What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

    Had it been an advantage to the Jew having Jesus live among them, preaching, teaching and working miracles?

    If the Jews had been entrusted with the very words of God, who had been entrusted with the words of Jesus?

    Romans 10
    How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent?

    Had Jews heard of Jesus, apart from Christians preaching about him? Who does Paul think had sent Christians to preach about Jesus to the Jews?

    Romans 15
    For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

    Did the words of Jesus not give Christians hope and encouragement?

    Romans 16
    Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him

    Had the Gospel been made known through the Old Testament prophetic writings? Had Jesus not come to earth so that all nations might believe and obey him, or was this belief supposed to come from the new way of reading the Old Testament, which now revealed the long hidden mystery?

    On a general point, Romans is about how Jesus had changed the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the Law and sin, between faith and salvation. Had Jesus said much that Paul thought was relevant to those topics?

  3. 3
    David Baldwin Says:

    Can you point me to the texts in which Wright is explicit about his belief in predestination?

  4. 4
    Terry Jones Says:

    Random thoughts? Like to read you when you’re being systematic!
    I have known Tom since Oxford days and have followed his work closely. I find your comments very astute, complimantary and critical where they need to be. Nice to hear the ‘tone of your voise’ through what you have said. NTW is not only a predigious Scholar but a very great man of prayer and I think you can sense that in what he writes oth Scholarly and popular. Thanks Rich for your helpful comments. I a re-reading Romans just now with the help of Tom’s commentary and others. Jimmy Dunn’s is interesting alongside Wright as is Moo…. Must look up John Murray at your suggestion. Shalom. TJ

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