Reading Romans like a Jew

I reviewed Contours of Pauline Theology by Tom Holland and it changed the way I read the New Testament. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of his second book about Romans.

The same themes developed in Contours of Pauline Theology are unpacked in Romans: The Divine Marriage. He argues against those who have said the Christian message was Hellenized and argues instead that Paul’s message was distinctively Jewish (pp. 2-3). He demonstrates this Jewishness by examining the theme of the New Exodus and the corporate nature of much of the New Testament (pp. 18-22).

When I was struggling with my salvation and the weight of my sin was bearing down on me Romans was balm to my soul. It’s the book I’ve read the most and am most familiar. But after reading Holland’s commentary I’ve experienced the gospel in Romans anew.

A Balancing Act
What I appreciate most about Holland’s methodology is his carefulness with the text. For instance, he stands within the Reformed stream on justification but also persuasively and carefully argues we must not assume every instance of the word justification carries the legal connotation. He points out

“Justification” (Rom 3:24) is also a new exodus term. When Israel was brought out of exile in Babylon, she was said to have been justified (Isa 50:8; 53:11). The expression spoke of being removed from one kingdom and placed in another. (p. 91)

Some might feel uncomfortable with this idea of justification meaning more but again Holland doesn’t deny the forensic meaning rather that both meanings are linguistically valid and paint a much grander and clearer picture of the work of God. I won’t get into all the details but this balance and richness shines in his exegesis of Romans 4 and the progression in Paul’s argument from the justification Abraham (covenantal thrust pp. 110-112, 147) to David (forensic thrust pp. 117-19, 206). Also, Holland walks the line with his emphasis on the corporate election. He understands election primarily as corporate a la the covenant community but he argues that doesn’t wipe out a possible individual aspect of election.

Chewing On This
I’ve been digesting Romans: The Divine Marriage for the last few days but two passages in particular hit home. I could’ve come up with a dozen more passages but these two were my favorite. First, Holland just briefly made a comment about Jesus’s parables but his point stuck with me. He says,

This understanding of the reason for Israel’s blessing [God doesn’t show favortism] is found in many of the parables of Jesus. Often they are read as teaching for the church, and while there is obviously instruction in them, they were not intended or delivered in that way. The parables were essentially critical assessments of Israel’s failure to be the true servant of Yahweh. So, for example, the “talents” of Jesus’ parable recorded in Matt 25:14-15 are not natural abilities but money or treasure. They were symbolic of the treasure of the knowledge of God that Israel was to share with the Gentiles. The severity of God’s judgement is the measure of how signally Israel failed in her task (p. 60)

Second, I have often wrestled with my own depression through the message of Romans. I’ve cried out “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” (Rom 8:33) but Hollands drives the point of this passage home forcefully. He expounds,

Paul already dealt the possibility of an accusation of guilt being brought against the church for entering into another marriage relationship (Rom 6:7; 7:1-4). Satan will accuse Christ and the church that their union is not lawful. Should the call go out: “if anyone can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let him now declare it, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace” he is read to cry out: “She is mine. She is already married.” It is into this awful scene that Paul confidently declares: “It is God who justifies!” The judge of the whole earth will accept there is a charge to answer, and Paul states why this is so in the next verse [i.e., we have died with Christ and have risen to new life]. Of course, if Satan cannot persuade believers that it was unlawful for Christ to take his people as his bride then he will find other means to charge them. The answer to all charges, whatever they may be, is: “Christ has died and is rise! Hallelujah!” (p. 287)

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions you will appreciate Holland’s respect for the Word of God and his desire to be faithful to the text. If you want to wrestle with a view different from yours which highly values the Word of God you shouldn’t ignore Holland. As a matter of fact, I would argue that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you have been. We all have cultural glasses which impact our reading of Scripture. Holland provides a necessary splash of water to the face of the slumbering evangelicalism–especially our infectious individualism. Bottom line: if you buy one commentary on Romans it should be this one.

Matt Sim Grace4Sinners

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