Book Review: Romans, by Paul J. Achtemeier

Journal of Biblical Literature 106:4 (1987): 725–27

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This book’s intended readership is “those who interpret the Bible through teaching and preaching in the church.” Its comments are written “in the light of the needs and questions which arise in the use of the Bible as Holy Scripture” (p. v). Viewing his book as a supplement, not a corrective, to commentaries like Barrett’s and Käsemann’s, Achtemeier aims at “another kind of reading . . . not burdened with the necessity of focusing on the problems which occupy such scholarly debate” (p. 4). There are no footnotes or indexes. Therefore, Achtemeier stresses the need “to use this commentary in conjunction with others” (p. 24). The comments do not focus on words, phrases, or verses, but rather consist of “expository essays” on paragraphs and larger units. The aim is “to explicate the line of thought Paul is following both within the paragraph and within the larger argument of Romans” (p. 23). And since Romans “is unabashedly theological, the comments have theology as their primary concern” (p. 2).

A “fair guess” is that Romans was written around A.D. 55–64 from somewhere in Macedonia or Achaia while Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. The letter should be understood as a “formulation of the commonly-held Christian tradition.” It is “very likely intended to lay the theological groundwork for Rome’s support of his mission to the western part of their world” (p. 29).

Paul’s thought is shaped by the Jewish apocalyptic view of reality. “History is the basic category and everything else is understood in terms of God’s plan for his people, now being worked out in the history of the world” (p. 7). Thus Romans is not best understood as the exposition of doctrine—say, the doctrine of justification by faith—but rather the story of God’s dealing with his creation, from its rebellion against him to its final redemption (pp. 10–14). Passages like 3:1–8 and chaps. 9–11 support this view. What of doctrine? “It is precisely through reflection on the story of the chosen people as Israel and as church that one is driven to formulate doctrines to clarify the implications of, and interrelationships within, that story” (p. 14).

The central theme of Romans “is the plan God is pursuing to extend his gracious lordship to all peoples by his act in Christ” (p. 22). Righteousness by faith is “the means by which God’s gracious lordship may now be accepted by all . . . [and] the way the ungodly come under his gracious lordship.” Justification is thus “understood within the larger context of the universality of God’s gracious lordship over his creation exercised in Jesus Christ . . . but is not the central theme” of the book.

Thus the book falls into four historically related parts: God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Past: Grace and Wrath (1:1–4:22); God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Present: Grace and Law (4:23–8:39); God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Future: Israel and God’s Gracious Plan (9:1–11:36); God’s Lordship and the Problems of Daily Living: Grace and the Structures of Life (12:1–16:27).

This book was a pleasure to read for several reasons. First, it was written for people like me: a pastor who seeks to live and preach the truth of Holy Scripture. Second, because Achtemeier lets some of his passion for the grace of God show through. The book is not dull. The bold analysis of human sinfulness is one of the great strengths of the commentary. Enslaved to rebellion, held by “incorrigible ignorance,” “incurably prone to idolatry” we recognize ourselves with Achtemeier’s help. The description of fallen society in Romans “is so contemporary as to send a chill through the most hardened reader” (p. 66). What could be more faithful to Paul and yet relevant to American selfism than this: “If we are acceptable to God only because of his mercy, not because of our own value, then in the final analysis we must not be worth very much at all. It is just that confession that is so hard for any self-sufficient modern person to make” (p. 81). “How we want to be lovable! How we do want to think that our relationship with God is due, in some small measure at least, to our own religious value, to our own worth in God’s eyes!” (p. 168).

Against the vigorous and penetrating display of human sin, the power and beauty of grace takes its proper priority. There is divine wrath, peril, judgment, and even “eternal fire” (p. 103), but wrath and grace are not symmetrical. Grace super-abounds. Disobedience serves mercy in the plan of a sovereign Creator. The resounding triumph of grace in Romans reclaims a rebellious humanity and rings through Achtemeier’s pages.

If I had space to discuss my misgiving I would ask the following questions: Is it really sufficient to define righteousness as God’s faithfulness to his “beneficent purposes” toward creation even though it is proved precisely in judgment (3:4)? Is not God’s deepest loyalty to his own glory (v. 7), as is hinted on p. 37? But even more, is not the terminology of “righteousness” flexible enough to affirm the centrality of God’s faithfulness without abandoning the forensic dimension of justification (p. 62)? If not, what becomes of the distinction between justification and sanctification? Do they not become indistinguishable in this sentence: “To be made righteous in this kind of covenantal understanding means to accept the lordship of God, and therefore to seek to do his will rather than the will of some other lord” (p. 63)?

Correspondingly, in the amazing absence of any discussion of “propitiation,” “blood,” or “death of Christ” in the essay on 3:21–30 (pp. 67–73), do I detect a blurring of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption in the cross and the ongoing application of redemption through faith? Is the first and fundamental problem solved by the death of Christ the overcoming of our rebellion or God’s wrath?

Can we really say (on the basis of 7:18b) that the problem with one outside Christ “does not lie in willing the good” but only in doing it (p. 111)? Should we abandon Luther’s “bondage of the will” in order to give a (Wesleyan?) answer to the question, “If, prior to baptism, one is enslaved to sin, how can one choose to accept baptism?” Or is this not what is done when it is said, “What is new, with the advent of Christ and the breaking of the power of sin, is that now the good that one wills can in fact be accomplished. It is now possible to ‘try harder’ and accomplish something!” Is not the “cannot” of 8:7–8 (1 Cor 2:14), a cannot of the will? Otherwise what becomes of the sovereign power of grace “differentiating between creatures” (p. 179) and all the volume’s repeated and irrefutable insight that “inclusion in the story of God’s grace is a matter of the choice of a gracious God, a God who continues to dispose over his creation as he sees fit” (p. 183)?