Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary (Michael J. Gorman) - A Review

ROMANS: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary. By Michael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022. Xxiii + 325.

Can a preacher have too many commentaries on Paul's letter to the Romans? After all, Paul’s Romans letter has been an inspiration for many down through the centuries. Augustine, Luther, and John Wesley, all point to Romans as the key to either their conversion or enlightenment. So, obviously, this is an important letter.

When it comes to commentaries on the Romans letter, they abound, ranging from the popular/devotional to the highly academic versions. Depending on your need, you should find something of value, perhaps even profound. Consider Karl Barth’s famous Der Romer Brief, the commentary written while he was still a pastor in a Swiss village that fell on the theological world as if a bombshell. That commentary is deeply theological. The truth is, if you are looking for a commentary that speaks to your particular need or concern—ranging from those that take a deep dive into exegeting the Greek words to more pastoral or even devotional commentaries, you will find it. The question many will ask is: Do I need another commentary to add to the shelf? I can’t answer that question for you, because I don’t know what you need at this moment. However, I can suggest that if you are a preacher or simply want to explore more deeply the letter to Romans you might take a look at Michael Gorman’s recent contribution. I should note that this commentary does not appear to be part of a larger series.

So, we have before us this commentary on the Romans letter written by Michael Gorman, who is the Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. He's a widely published author and I had the opportunity to hear him present on kenosis and cruciformity at a conference. He is a highly accomplished biblical scholar with a strong theological and pastoral sense of his offerings. It is the theological and pastoral components of this commentary that merit consideration for this commentary.

As noted, this is first and foremost a commentary that was written with an eye on the theological and pastoral concerns present in the letter.  It is the kind of commentary that preachers and bible study teachers will find useful. It's not a word-for-word or even verse-by-verse commentary. While Greek and Hebrew words are lifted up and explained, this is not an exegetical commentary, like that of C.E.B. Cranfield’stwo-volume contribution to the International Critical Commentary series. While I’m not a Pauline scholar, I’m assuming that Cranfield remains one of the standard academic commentaries. Gorman is fully aware of the exegetical dimensions of the conversation, but that is not his focus. Instead, he focuses on what he calls "discourse units." That is, larger units that hold together, as well as the theological content and significance of those units (p. xviii).

Gorman devotes a little over fifty pages of this commentary of 300-plus pages by first introducing Paul. This includes a look at Paul’s theology, with a special focus on the human condition and the divine response to that condition, along with the death and resurrection of Jesus, Jesus as Lord and the Gift of the Spirit, and the human response to the Gospel and finally Paul's spirituality. That's Paul as a person. Then he spends about thirty pages of this introductory section focusing specifically on the letter itself, including the story behind the letter, the shape of the letter, and the story within the letter (here he deals with among other things participation in Christ and God's peace and justice). There is then a conversation about the story in front of the letter, dealing with the church's mission, ecumenical relations, and interfaith relations. Regarding the last concern, he addresses the idea that the gospel is for Gentiles and not Jews, such that Paul did not expect that Jews should confess faith in Jesus as Messiah. He rejects that idea. He does not see this as an expression of the notorious replacement theory as he believes that Paul envisioned Jews ultimately embracing Jesus. He deals with this in greater detail in his commentary on chapters 9-11. This is currently a major topic of conversation, so even if one doesn’t agree with Gorman on it, he offers a well-laid-out argument for his position.

He of course addresses the whole question of justification and what that means. He challenges Luther's view that justification by faith is the primary/guiding principle of the letter, instead suggesting that participation in Christ is Paul’s guiding principle. He writes that "the commentary will show that justification is not simply about being forgiven or pronounced righteous, but about being made just/righteous. This is often thought to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant view of justification. As a Protestant, however, I contend that it is a Pauline view of justification" (p. 43).

Having laid out the major issues of the letter, he begins the commentary, which takes up the remaining 250 pages of text. It's hard to describe a commentary, except to speak to tone and coverage. While Gorman writes as a Protestant who teaches at a Catholic seminary and university, I felt as if he leaned in an evangelical direction. The problem with that designation is that evangelical has now become so embroiled in politics that might not be a useful descriptor. I might better describe him as sitting in the center of the conversation, with a bit of the traditionalist present in him. Nevertheless, he also exhibits an open perspective as seen in how he deals with justification and righteousness. I appreciated his discussion of Romans 13, where he suggests that Paul's concern there was with paying imperial taxes rather than arguing for full support of the imperial government. On the question of sexuality, including same-sex relationships, he discusses a range of positions but ultimately comes down on the side of maintaining traditional understandings. While he believes this is the best reading of the biblical text, and he wishes to be guided by it, he advises that one must remain humble in arguing one’s position. I, of course, disagree with his position, but he sets it out in a way that invites discussion. I already noted that he sees the overall message of Romans as dealing with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles within the congregation. In Gorman's mind, Paul may be focusing on reaching Gentiles, but he also embraces the importance of sharing the Gospel with fellow Jews. I find myself struggling with this question, but he provides a helpful discussion that is worth considering.

Overall, I found the commentary to be useful and helpful. It's accessible and yet scholarly in orientation. In other words, he doesn't cut corners. What is especially helpful are three sections at the end of each unit. There is a set of reflections and questions, which summarize helpfully the elements of the section. Then there are questions for those who read, teach, and preach. In other words, discussion questions. Finally, he provides a set of further readings. Those readings helpfully expand the conversation. Again, this is written for an audience that might include fellow scholars, but more to preachers and teachers of the Bible (like me). 

So, the question remains. Do you need another commentary on Romans? I can’t answer that for you, but you might want to check Michael Gorman's Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary.  


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