John E. Toews. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004. 463 pages.
Praise goes to John E. Toews for his commentary on Romans in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series. After thirty years of studying and teaching Romans, Toews—now adjunct Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California, and former President of Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario—has provided a crucial interpretation of Romans in his characteristically provocative style.
As with all commentaries in this series, Toews explores each passage in four sections: a preview, explanatory notes, comment on the text in biblical context, and comment on the text in the life of the church. Toews excels in keeping the big picture in view, while offering breakthrough translations, eye-popping structural analyses, and a cornucopia of insights derived from Jewish and Greco-Roman history and current Pauline scholarship. Throughout, Toews places Mennonites and Anabaptists in conversation with Paul, which is unparalleled by any other Romans commentary. For example, after analysis of Romans 5:1-11, readers hear the story of P. M. Friesen making peace (149); after Romans 5:12-21, Sebastian Franck expresses his opinion on “original sin” (167); and after Romans 13:1-7, Menno Simons speaks out on what we owe civil magistrates (326). And, like other commentaries in the series, Toews provides short, sapient essays at the end, including essays on faith, law, obedience, sin (as power), righteousness, and wrath.
Toews’ commentary is notably fresh and vigorous. Here is a summary. Paul’s thesis and gospel is that God’s end-time power has arrived to save or set-right the world, both Jews and Gentiles, which is revealed through both the righteousness of God and the wrath of God (1:16-18). According to Toews, Paul’s thesis is then expanded in three major arguments.
In the first argument, Paul describes how the wrath of God is poured out impartially on all humanity (1:18–3:20). In the second, Paul explains how the righteousness of God is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus (3:21-26) and through God’s power to make people righteous through faith, exemplified by Abraham (4:3-25). This accomplishes peace with God (5:1-11), solidarity with Christ (5:12-21), liberation from sin as power (which exploits the law), submission to the Spirit (who fulfills the law in us, 6:1–8:11), and incorporation into the family of God (8:12-39). The inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan raises grave questions for Jews, which forces Paul to explain himself (9:1–11:36). Toews moves deftly through the hermeneutical and political minefields of these difficult and debated chapters, sensitive to both Paul’s sociohistorical location as well as our own post-holocaust environment. According to Toews, Paul argues that God is saving Gentiles and a remnant of Jewish Christians (275-77), but in the future “all Israel will be saved. All Israel means Israel as a corporate people, not every Israelite (282, Toews’ emphasis). Since Jews have priority in God’s plan, “the Gentiles will join the Jews, not the reverse, in the renewal and unification of the eschatological people of God” (289). In this way, Toews rejects supersessionism (the belief that Christians replace Jews as God’s people) and two covenant theology (the belief that Jews and Christians have two distinct covenant relationships with God) as fundamental misunderstandings of Paul (289).
In the third argument, God’s righteousness is revealed in the righteous and faithful community (12:1–15:13), characterized by sacrificial living; non-conformity; transformation (298-301); renewed minds and loving relationships (302-8); commitment to the “political realism” of non-retaliation, paying taxes, and loving neighbors (310); and tolerant welcoming of one another (344).
For many readers, studying Toews’ commentary will be like reading Romans again for the first time. There are three primary reasons.
First, Toews embraces “the New Perspective on Paul” (NP), which might be unknown to some readers. In contrast to traditional Protestant interpretations, NP places Paul squarely within first-century Judaism. From this perspective, Paul thinks in continuity with Judaism, rather than opposing it; teaches salvation by grace and obedience to the law, rather than pitting grace against law; focuses on corporate, rather than individual, salvation; and is theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, concerned primarily with defending the righteousness (faithfulness) of God, rather than explaining how sinners can be saved.
Second, Toews offers unique translations that might put off some readers. Take, for example, Romans 3:22: “The righteousness of God has been revealed through the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus to all the ones believing” (101). Arguably, it is the best translation (108-10; 375-79), but it is acknowledged only by the KJV and footnotes in the NRSV. Other translations by Toews, equally defensible, sound awkward to English ears and might also raise resistance. For example, in commenting on 3:26, Toews writes:
Paul’s final purpose clause offers a ringing conclusion, to be himself righteous even in making righteous the one living out of the faithfulness of Jesus. (106, Toews’ emphasis)
What that means is not transparent. Readers will need to work at keeping Toews’ translations and explanations in mind as they glance back and forth between their Bibles and the commentary. But, in my opinion, the effort is generally worth it; the translations are sound, though at times awkward, and the explanations clear and arousing.
Third, he emphasizes Paul’s apocalyptic worldview, which might sound strange to twenty-first century ears. Yet this lets Paul be Paul. And Toews’ masterful elucidation of Paul’s apocalyptic—especially sin as an enslaving cosmic power, distinct from acts of transgressions—has much to say to modern people.
For Anabaptist and Mennonite readers, Toews’ commentary will be a delight as he points out how Paul encourages faithful obedience, links salvation and ethics, exonerates God’s justice and peace, presents baptism as a transfer from one community to another, and proclaims God’s “right making” purposes for all humanity—themes, to name a few, that Anabaptists’ swear by. Clearly, Toews has a keen awareness of how Romans interfaces with Anabaptism. At one point, he even chides early Anabaptists for missing the Anabaptism of Paul!
The sixteenth-century Anabaptists did not make much of this text [Rom. 3:21-26], but they should have. It provides the strongest possible theological foundation for their argument with the mainline reformers that “justification” does more than give people a right status with God. It transforms the nature of believers. (113)
Unfortunately, the commentary suffers from occasional repetitiveness, awkward phrases (Toews represents the Greek too literally at times), an unconvincing argument that the “I” of Romans 7:14-25 represents collective Israel (194-97), and the lack of a full translation of Romans by the author (a criticism aimed at the editorial board, 15).
Still, Toews’ commentary is a brilliant gift to the church, deserving attention by scholars and careful reading by all. As a former student of Toews, and on behalf of all his students, I say, “Congratulations, Professor Toews. I’ve been waiting for this!”