The Epistle to the Romans by Richard N. Longenecker

Jeffrey C. Waddington

The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Greek Testament Commentary Series, by Richard N. Longenecker. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, 1140 pages, $80.00.

This is a commentary long in the making and many of us have waited long in eager anticipation. Ever since the New International Greek Testament series was launched in the late 1970s, it has increasingly established itself as a standard commentary set among broadly conservative evangelical scholars and pastors. Not only has the prestige of the series increased over the years, so, too, has the average size of each volume. One thinks of Greg Beale’s volume on Revelation or Anthony Thiselton’s on 1 Corinthians. The new volume on Romans is no lightweight volume in either page length or substance.

Richard Longenecker, professor emeritus of New Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, comes as no stranger to Pauline studies with The Epistle to the Romans. This commentary was preceded by his Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Eerdmans, 2011) in which he laid out the various critical questions that Romans scholars have wrestled with over the last century and more and in which he offers his own take on such issues as the new perspective(s) on Paul, the proper understanding and role of justification in Paul’s theology, the ethnic constitution of the Roman church(es), the nature of Romans (a letter or a theological treatise?), and the rationale for the letter. Longenecker tackles these issues and more in the earlier introduction, which he summarizes in Romans (1–39).

Longenecker divides Romans into three sections that he describes as the body opening (1:13–15), the body middle (with four subsections: 1:16–4:25, 5:1–8:39, 9:1–11:36, and 12:1–15:13), and the body closing (15:14–16:27). The author argues that in the first section of the body middle (1:16–4:25), Paul offers an account of the gospel that he preached in terms he and the Romans would agree on. In other words, regardless of how the interpretation of this portion of Romans has played out in subsequent church history (i.e., the Reformation), for Paul, and presumably for the saints at Rome, there is nothing controversial about justification as Paul lays it out here (186–88). Longenecker sees the fulcrum of Paul’s letter in the second subsection of the body middle (5:1–8:39). Here Paul contextualizes the gospel for a Gentile audience unfamiliar with the history of God’s dealings with Israel and equally unfamiliar with the Scriptures of the Old Testament (547).

It is not possible to deal with all of the author’s treatment of the contentious issues in Romans in a brief review. For instance, the author’s treatment of Romans 1:3–4 (63–77) in the body opening shows no familiarity with the difference between the traditional reading in which Paul is understood to be discussing the two natures of the one person of Jesus Christ (supported by Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield) and the redemptive historical reading which sees Paul referencing the two estates of Christ in terms of humiliation and exaltation (supported by Geerhardus Vos and John Murray).

While there is much of tremendous value in this substantial commentary, on the whole it is disappointing. Longenecker’s assumption that the first subsection of the body middle (1:16–4:25) deals with uncontroversial material is based on, among other things, his belief that the Roman saints, while predominantly Gentile, were Jerusalem oriented, and Paul is offering there an account of the gospel that he knew he and they would share. The saints at Rome were exposed to and familiar with the OT Scriptures.

Conversely, the second subsection of the body middle (5:1–8:39) deals with a contextualization of the same gospel for Gentiles who would not recognize Scripture or grant it any authority. This fails to adequately deal with chapter 5 as a hinge connecting Paul’s discussion of justification and sanctification. Longenecker treats the first two subsections of the body middle as two versions of the same thing, or seemingly so. But this fails to guard the distinction between justification and sanctification. While Calvin is surely correct that justification and sanctification are a twofold blessing which we receive when we are united to Christ by faith, this does not obliterate the distinction. Calvin’s Chalcedonian dictum (“distinct, yet inseparable”) is relevant here. Justification is not sanctification, nor is sanctification justification. Longenecker erroneously appears to equate union with Christ with sanctification (a view shared with such critical scholars as Albert Schweitzer). This failure to guard the deposit of the faith and the gains of the Reformation is regrettable.

Related to the above is Longenecker’s description of Paul’s contextualization of the gospel as accounting for the great difference in OT citation between the first and second subsections of the body middle. The author states that Paul could not have demonstrated the truthfulness of his exposition from the OT (547), nor was it necessary that he do so since his Gentile audience would not have appreciated the authority of the Scriptures had they been cited to the extent done in the first subsection. Besides, Paul based his gospel on his encounter with the exalted Christ on the road to Damascus and on his ongoing spiritual relationship with the living Christ. This pitting of Scripture against experience is unfortunate. The truth be told, Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ was revelation itself. It wasn’t just the apostle’s private spiritual experience. It was such a pivotal revelation that account of it is given three times in Acts. It was a further unfolding of God’s redemptive plan. That Paul could not justify or provide warrant for his gospel in its contextualized form from the OT is problematic to say the least. We cannot consider all the facets of this problem. But one appears to be the relativizing of biblical authority.

This volume, with all its shortcomings, will be a must-read for those who want to keep abreast of Romans scholarship. I should note that it is available in the Logos electronic library which makes it easily searchable. Richard Longenecker is an accomplished NT scholar. While this is not a Reformed commentary in any meaningful sense, it has the merit of being nearly encyclopedic. As ministers we should read widely, wisely, and well. All three adverbs should apply to our studies and to our digestion of this commentary in particular.

Jeffrey C. Waddington is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and serves as stated supply of Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, December 2016.

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Ordained Servant: December 2016

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