In his 2005 book Romans in Full Circle, Mark Reasoner traced the varying ways that interpreters across centuries and wide-ranging geographical locales—from Origen and Augustine to the Protestant Reformers, Karl Barth, and contemporary scholars—have read the apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.1 Across two millennia of diverse reception history, commentaries on Romans have powerfully shaped Christian worship and witness in decisive ways. The work of reading and rereading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans must again and again be taken up afresh and not merely because Romans is sufficiently complex to elicit continued literary and historical inquiry. If the apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is in fact a heralding of the gospel, then its testimony, along with the rest of Holy Scripture, summons us before its judgments and enlivens us by its reminders, exhortations, and promises about Christ Jesus, in whom we find our rest.
One of the most recent additions in the venerable tradition of Romans commentaries comes from Frederick Dale Bruner, whose publications span more than fifty years of biblical and theological research. He is perhaps most well-known for having contributed significant commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and John, which skillfully attend to the historical and grammatical contexts of New Testament texts and contemporary biblical scholarship while contributing a self-consciously theological approach to interpreting the Bible.2 Bruner is a careful listener to the Scriptures in the company of both historically minded contemporary scholars and the testimony of the communion of saints. In some ways, his commentaries resemble an older tradition of ecclesial readings of Scripture. Today, many of us take for granted the modern division of the theological disciplines into fields of historical critical inquiry on the Bible, pastoral theology, systematic theology, and more, whereas the older tradition of Christian commentary on Romans, which began with Origen, used historical and grammatical tools but sought to listen verse-by-verse for the express purpose of glorifying God and edifying the church. These commentators, ranging from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, kept an eye on how the rule of faith and theological synthesis illuminated the diverse parts of Scripture in view of the testimony of the whole canon to Jesus Christ. Likewise, when you read one of Bruner’s commentaries, on page after page you encounter wisdom from patristic, medieval, Reformation, early modern, and contemporary readers alike, from bishops and monks to pastors and academics. Bruner’s latest commentary, The Letter to the Romans, continues this fruitful approach to interpreting Scripture.
However, Romans is about a thousand pages shorter than Bruner’s earlier commentaries, and it is less of an argument about the epistle and more of a verse-by-verse series of stimulating meditations in the company of great interpreters. Many of us today expect a commentary to make one coherent argument about the text in question or to offer a sustained development of key themes across an entire epistle. Upon my initial reading, the commentary seemed incomplete, as though I were reviewing the finalized notes from a skilled interpreter before production into a more polished essay. But while many of us are accustomed to realist portraiture in Pauline commentary, Bruner operates here as more of an impressionist.
The greatest strengths of this commentary are that it is explicitly written to serve those preaching the gospel today and that it celebrates the free gift of God given to us in Jesus Christ. Its unique style will especially reward meditative or contemplative rereading of Romans, and its ample use of Old Testament citations invites canonical reflection. For Bruner, Christ’s shedding of blood on the cross demonstrates that God is righteous and cannot tolerate the evil and sin that harms God’s beloved creatures while also showing that “God adores human beings and longs for them to have the deepest peace of all: close fellowship with himself” (61).
Bruner’s catena of lengthy and sometimes conflicting quotations at times reminds me of reading medieval florilegia and their extended comments from the church fathers on theological topics that are sometimes not easily squared with one another, such as the compilation of patristic quotations in Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Consequently, the overall theological outlook of the commentary is not easy to characterize or to map onto the various schools of Pauline scholarship that have emerged, such as the so-called old and new perspectives on Paul, readings of Paul within Judaism, and apocalyptic approaches to Paul. The latest is not necessarily the greatest when it comes to secondary literature in any given field, but this commentary is noteworthy for how it largely interacts with twentieth century Pauline scholarship and finds few conversation partners from the last couple of decades. For instance, readings of Paul within Judaism frame the epistle not as Paul’s theological proclamation to universal humanity but rather an epistle written only to gentile Christ-believers, exhorting them that they do not need to live like nor become Jews because they are in Christ as gentiles (Rom. 15:8). Such proposals, if they are apt, might challenge or at least reframe Bruner’s conclusions on many points, and their absence is palpable to those familiar with contemporary debates.
Bruner’s own reading of Romans, which is deeply indebted to Martin Luther and Calvin on many points, would have greater explanatory power if he had incorporated insights such as those of John Barclay in his 2016 book Paul and the Gift about the different ways that gift and grace language were used in Paul’s context and throughout the reception history of Romans.3 Barclay clarifies that the language of gift or grace could be used to mean a wide range of different things—and sometimes multiple things at once—in Paul’s Jewish and Greco-Roman context but that, overall, “Paul took the Christ-gift, the ultimate gift of God to the world, to be given without regard to worth, and in the absence of worth—an unconditioned or incongruous gift that did not match the worth of its recipients but created it.”4 Bruner’s sparse comments on grace in Romans are not unhelpful (7), and his quotations of Luther, Calvin, J. B. Lightfoot, and Adolf Schlatter on grace are interesting (71–73), but surely the work of interpreters such as Barclay could have strengthened this commentary.
A sustained reading of this commentary feels comparable to reading rabbinic literature, where meaning is created through a quasi-Socratic dialectic of disagreement between various perspectives on the same topic. Bruner is indebted to historical Protestant readings of Romans from Luther and Calvin while also strongly critical of their antisemitism. Ernst Käsemann’s and Charles Cranfield’s works on Romans are extensively drawn upon, but so also are a great many Pauline scholars of widely differing persuasions. Bruner’s compilation of authorities on Romans does not develop the many differences among them, and it is not always easy to square how the insight of one is compatible with another. Moreover, while any commentary that aims for brevity on an epistle as complex as Romans will inevitably leave some stones unturned, there are key passages from Romans that here receive scarcely a comment, such as Paul’s crucial declaration of how Christ’s resurrection relates to justification in Romans 4:25. Again, to be clear, no commentary can cover every important text and topic in Romans, but surely the culmination of Paul’s multiple-chapter argument that the Messiah was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:25) deserves our attention.
By analogy to a mathematics homework assignment, in this commentary Bruner does not always show his exegetical work in reaching the conclusions he draws. That makes for a succinct and accessible commentary but one that at times involves more assertion than argumentation or demonstration. Granted, many of Bruner’s meditations are positively delightful; he relates, for example, that “when I teach this Gospel-of-Paul text in my Sunday School classes, I like to play the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ especially as sung by the King’s Singers, asking the classes to use their imaginations and hear the words ‘Hear Comes the Son’ in the song’s title refrain, and a fourfold ‘Here He Comes’ in the song’s next-to-last refrain” (61).
But a notable problem related to Bruner’s approach is his treatment of faith early in the commentary. Bruner opts to read Paul’s faith language as indicating that it is God’s grace and not human performance that effects salvation, but this is more of a statement of theological preference than a direct reading of the texts. In the context of Romans 1:16, Bruner writes: “I will often preface the word ‘simple’ or ‘simply’ to the apostle’s words ‘faith’ or ‘believe’ in order to emphasize the wonder and grace of Paul’s crucially simple word for receiving salvation” (10). The problem is that this word is not simple at all, and Bruner doesn’t bother to interact with interlocutors of a different persuasion. It is disappointing to find Benjamin Schliesser, Teresa Morgan, Jeanette Hagen Pifer, Nijay Gupta, and many others absent from this discussion.5
Other times, Bruner’s comments are more indeterminate or perhaps evasive. On Paul’s condemnation of illicit sexual behavior in Romans 1:24–27, Bruner begins by rightly criticizing dehumanizing “antihomosexual” bigotry, like that exemplified by Westboro Baptist Church (17). Yet, when it comes to commenting on the verses that are perhaps the most significant scriptural texts in contemporary sexual ethics debates, he is noncommittal. Initially, he comments “We now rightly dismiss the Paul-attributed texts against women teaching or preaching in the church (1 Tim. 2:11 and 1 Cor. 14:33b–36), not least because the risen Lord had women sent as his first resurrection messengers in all four Gospels. Should we also, perhaps, pass over Paul’s present condemnation of homosexual practice in the light of Jesus’ general silence on the subject?” (17). Bruner finds recent arguments unpersuasive that in Romans 1:24–27 Paul condemns only pederasty or violent and coercive same-sex relations; just as Bruner finds no support for women’s ordination in 1 Timothy 2, so Bruner does not find support for condoning homosexual practice in Romans 1. Finally, Bruner describes reading a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about a story time for little children that is hosted by drag queens; he cryptically notes that this article “moved me, however, to appreciate afresh Paul’s present conviction. The churches’ major decisions on this important matter will be made in our time. May the Lord lead us into the truth by his Holy Spirit” (17). With Bruner, I too pray the Lord would lead us into the truth through the Holy Spirit—and that will inevitably mean reaching some kind of conclusion about these verses and their contemporary import for the church’s life. It is not entirely clear under which circumstances Bruner appears to approve of categorically dismissing some benighted-seeming passages of Scripture, such as 1 Timothy 2, rather than attempting to rightly interpret and heed the whole of Holy Scripture, “in whose sentence we are to rest,” as The Westminster Confession describes (1.10). In this early portion of Romans, the unveiling of God’s righteousness might be a word that cuts us, even as it heals and restores us into fullness of life; that is, although the gospel is light, we may not want to hear it in our idolatrous preference for darkness. Paul opens the Epistle to the Romans by writing that “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (1:16); notably, that declaration is addressed to the church, which presumably is supposed to believe the gospel but can drift off course. I warmly appreciate Bruner’s strong condemnation of any form of bigotry. Simultaneously, if we hesitate to heed what the apostle writes about sexual ethics then we might need to rediscover again that the gospel is not something to be ashamed of; it is good news (Rom. 1:16).
Another area where Bruner’s Romans commentary suffers a lack of clarity or nuance is in his discussion of agency in the sacraments. Bruner claims that our union with Christ in his death and resurrection through baptism, as described in Romans 6:1–4, perhaps makes sense for adult converts but not for those who are baptized as infants and never knew a time when they did not love the Lord. Bruner opines, “Honestly, we didn’t consciously die with, receive burial with, or rise with Christ believingly at all in our baptisms. We just did what our parents were told to do. What shall we make of these voids? Perhaps if we occasionally paraphrase Paul’s word ‘baptism’ with the word ‘conversion,’ we could better understand Paul’s present phrase ‘the glory of the Father’ (Rom. 6:4). I believe this is Paul’s initial reference to the Holy Spirit in our passage” (83, italics in original). Commendably, Bruner concedes that “the church’s major theologians through the centuries (with the possible exception of the modern Karl Barth) have honored infant (or early Christian) Baptism. So I could well be mistaken in my questioning of this impressive tradition” (83). But despite interacting elsewhere with the Westminster Standards, he does not here interact with Westminster Confession 28.6, which explains how the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration. Indeed, Romans 6 becomes unintelligible only if we regard the significance and efficacy of the sacrament of baptism as tied to personal experience and cognition, which is by no means how Augustine, Calvin, and a great many others have understood the sacrament historically.
Furthermore, Bruner’s suggestion that we paraphrase or translate Paul’s message in Romans 6 to concern “conversion” rather than “baptism” veers off course from illuminating and expanding upon Paul’s words to suggesting what words Paul should have written to convey what we think he meant to teach us today. One thing lost in Bruner’s framing of Romans 6 as a passage about conversion, a term he never defines, is the rich intertextual resonances between this passage and what Paul says elsewhere about baptism, as baptism is a vital theme across many Pauline texts (see Gal. 3:26, 1 Cor. 10:2, Rom. 13:14). Of course we don’t do anything in baptism. In Romans 6, through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, in grace that precedes our very existence and is given to us who do not deserve it, not only for us as self-making individuals but for us as fellow members of the body of Christ. What better illustrates such grace than infant baptism?
In some places, Bruner offers insights that should be practical for all kinds of readers. He is particularly successful at this in his commentary for Romans 7, which is a famously challenging text on bondage to sin and the frustration of the self’s inability to do what one wants to do. Bruner primarily tackles this text with reference to his own Christian experience, recalling teachings from Henrietta Mears at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and his doctoral adviser, Walter Freytag at the University of Hamburg. He shares how he had encountered perfectionist, “victorious” forms of spirituality that taught that Christians shouldn’t struggle with sin, so it became liberating for Bruner to consider this passage as a contrast in which Christians continue to fall and are constantly in need of grace. After considering the Pentecostal idea of the “second blessing” of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” which he rejected because all of God’s spiritual blessings are given to us in Christ (Eph. 1:3) and we are only in Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3), Bruner eventually came to realize that the chapter’s descriptions are of the Adamic self rather than the self that is reconstituted in Christ. In other words, the story of the Christian life is not a story of bondage and despair, a kind of hopelessness such that nothing but failure is inevitable; it is the joy and freedom to obey God through life in the spirit of Christ, as described in Romans 8, even if that life still involves weakness (8:26) and some stumbling. In relating all of this to his readers, Bruner offers a valuable narration of how Romans can be read in more and less helpful ways, not merely by New Testament scholars but by the overwhelming majority of people who read Romans in the pew.
Other passages contain less helpful pastoral suggestions, such as when Bruner attempts to thread a difficult needle in his response to Romans 13 and Paul’s writing about submission to the governing authorities. Christians at times might need to resist the state, and accordingly, Bruner quotes the Barmen Declaration and instances of theological criticism of apartheid. At the same time, heeding Paul’s words, Bruner explains why Christians should recognize the authority of the civil government. These are sensible responses, but Bruner runs into difficulty when he attempts to strike a middle-ground position in the context of the recent unrest in the United States following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. There, Bruner concludes, “Both sides—protestors and police, Christians and non-Christians—can learn a great deal about responsibly relating (to governments, to enemies and to the Great God and his Son) from both Paul’s present admonitions and from Jesus’s own words, life, death, and resurrection” (172). Again, Bruner is correct—reading Romans today means reflecting on these matters in light of God’s action in Jesus Christ, which should generate criticism of both racialized state violence and the indiscriminate destruction of anarchy—but his position needs further nuance. Bruner’s case would be stronger if buttressed with an acknowledgment of the long and troubling history of racism and misuse of civil authority and policing in particular in the United States. Also, it is far from clear what this both-sides approach gestures toward in terms of policy outcomes or material changes in the world today in the specific example raised of Black Lives Matter protests. Similarly, while I find some of Bruner’s comments stimulating on election in Romans 9 or the scope of redemption and Israel in Romans 11, they lack clear argumentation and are not likely to persuade those who do not already share his outlook.
Although I have raised some probing and hopefully constructive questions, Bruner’s commentary is nevertheless a tremendous resource for proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ today. Crucially, in Romans 1:15 Paul is eager to preach the gospel not merely to those who do not presently believe but to those at Rome who already believe; in other words, the gospel is something we must continually hear afresh and be reminded of, again and again, and Bruner’s unique style may be just the thing for making the gospel new. As Bruner writes, “for Paul, the Gospel is not only an object that he presents; it is a Subject that presents itself to and through him and to and through other believers, hence using the precious noun—euangelion (Good news)—as a verb here: ‘hence my longing to Good News you there in Rome as well’(v. 15). The Living Lord Jesus Christ is the Good News in person, who proclaims himself through and to his believing people” (9). If we as readers of Romans wish to hear and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, Bruner’s reflections and resourceful assembly of past interpreters will unsettle and challenge us, and it will welcome us to hear the gospel afresh in the society of the saints.
- Mark Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
- Reasoner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012); Reasoner, Matthew 1–12: The Christbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007); and Reasoner, Matthew 13–28: The Churchbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
- See John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).
- Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), xvi.
- See Schliesser, Was ist Glaube?: Paulinische Perspektiven (Zürich, Switzerland: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2011); Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017); Pifer, Faith as Participation: An Exegetical Study of Some Key Pauline Texts (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2019); Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020).