Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Ben Witherington III, with Darlene Hyatt. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 421 pages.
Ben Witherington’s commentary is a solid addition to the scholarly interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The commentary makes three valuable contributions: (1) it interprets Romans via the rules of ancient rhetoric, the rules for speaking and writing; (2) it interprets Romans within the larger framework of the “new perspective” on Paul, albeit with some clear qualifications; and (3) it interprets Romans from a self-consciously Arminian theological perspective, a welcome quality in a field dominated by Lutheran and Reformed perspectives.
Darlene Hyatt is a graduate student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury, is one of the major Evangelical interpreters of the writings of Paul. This commentary adds to an impressive list of earlier works on Paul: Paul’s Narrative Thought World (1994), Friendship and Finances in Philippi (1994), Conflict and Community in Corinth (1995), Grace in Galatia (1998), and The Paul Quest (1998). In addition, Witherington has published significant monographs on Jesus and the gospels and women in the early church, along with commentaries on Mark, John, and Acts.
Witherington is especially helpful in his interpretation of a series of key texts. The critical phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Xristou in 3:21-26 refers to the faith of Christ rather than faith in Christ; 7:7-25 offers a theological interpretation of the Adam story of 5:12-21; and chs. 9-11 are a defense of God’s integrity and faithfulness in relationship to the Jewish people. The interpretation of chs. 12-16 provides a good understanding of the sociological context of the letter and the Roman churches.
He also is clear in arguing that righteousness in Romans is not primarily forensic or legal language; rather, men and women are made righteous rather than simply declared righteous, they are genuinely transformed rather than merely receive an imputed righteousness. Because followers of Jesus are made righteous they are capable of walking in a different way than non-Christian people, and they are capable of apostasy, of falling away from the salvation experienced by faith in Christ. His interpretation of “election” language in Romans chs. 8 and 9-11 as collective rather than individual language is most helpful and very much on target.
Witherington’s commentary belongs within the new paradigm of interpreting Romans as represented by people like James Dunn (1988), Christopher Bryan (2000), Luke T. Johnson (2001), Katherine Grieb (2002), Charles Talbert (2002), N. T. Wright (2002), and this reviewer (2004).
The intended audience for this commentary is pastors, college and seminary students, and educated laypersons. Each chapter concludes with a helpful “bridging the horizons” section which helps translate the text unit and explain it for twenty-first century churches and Christians.
This commentary is highly recommended as an alternative to more traditional ways of reading Romans. That is not to say that this reviewer or others will agree with all of Witherington’s interpretations.