Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Romans

I don't read through many commentaries in a short period of time very often, but I was in need of a refresher on Romans to aid me in my Galatians study and Keener's commentary was brief enough to tackle in the space of a week. Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University. He's published several other notable commentaries, including one on Revelation. His newest commentary is Romans: A New Covenant Commentary (soon to be overtaken by a forthcoming Acts commentary that will be published by Hendrickson).

The New Covenant Commentary Series is a relatively new series published by Wipf and Stock. Keener is one of the editors. The other is Michael Bird. The series aims for somewhere between a popular level treatment and a mid-level commentary. Keener definitely was in that range. The commentary was written clearly and not in an academic style. However, some technical jargon is used so at least a little bit of familiarity with the discipline of biblical studies on the part of the reader would be helpful (though not required). Much of the technical information and references to primary sources are relegated to the footnotes leaving the main text highly readable. Commenting is done section by section rather than verse by verse with each chapter of Romans earning its own chapter in the commentary.

I thought that Keener's introduction was very solid, especially in how he situates it both within its Jewish and Greco-Roman setting. He most clearly displays his deftness in his analysis of the rhetoric of Romans (more on this later). There is also a good brief overview of recent clashes over Paul in the law. Keener takes a mediating position, between old and new perspectives but he definitely leans a bit towards a traditional reading. My biggest criticism of his introduction is that he doesn't put much stress on the Spanish mission as being a main driver (if not the main driver) behind Paul's writing of Romans as I believe Jewett has helpfully shown it was in his commentary.

As for rhetorical analysis, some have admittedly pushed their analysis of rhetorical elements of Paul's letters (and other New Testament texts as well) too far, causing some to question the validity of the approach. Keener is much more measured. He doesn't seek to force Romans as a whole to fit into a rhetorical pattern and any neat classification. What Keener does is to draw attention to parallels in Greco-Roman rhetoric (with primary sources cited) between Paul's construction of phrases, sentences, or paragraphs when significant. Similar parallels are also drawn on the many occasions when Paul argues in a distinctively Jewish manner.

Scattered throughout the commentary are excurses and practical application sections called 'Fusing the Horizons.' Some of these were gems, especially his section on homosexuality. He gave a brief overview of homosexuality in Jewish and Greco-Roman society, after which he situated Paul in that context. Additionally he discussed some similarities and differences between their cultural attitudes and practices and our own.

Several of his treatments of individual chapters were outstanding. Particularly noteworthy in my estimation were his treatment of chapters 2, 7, and 12; especially chapter 2. I think that many commentaries get too mired down in debates over judgment by works and questions over who it is that keeps the law that they miss (or fail to emphasize) what Paul's main point is: God's impartiality in judgment between Jew and Gentile. Keener doesn't make that mistake. Instead he situates the complex debates on justification and the identity of the law keepers within Paul's larger argument.

Throughout the commentary Keener sprinkles tables. These tables provide a visual presentation of a comparison of the current section under discussion with other parts of the letter. These tables were so helpful, especially in his discussion of Romans 7:7-25. There he showed 10 statements from Romans 7:7-25 that would contradict what Paul says elsewhere if we were to understand them as referring to Paul's present struggle with sin.

My biggest disagreement with Keener is that I think he's still stuck a little bit too much within the 'old perspective on Paul' at times on matters of Paul and the law and justification. I question where he places him emphasis. I would have made his secondary points more central (justification in relation to covenant membership) and his central points (justification by faith opposing legalism) a little more secondary.

Overall, I think that Keener has written a knockout of a commentary. He does an excellent job of nailing down the main points of Paul's argument and situating the letter in its ancient context. I think that there may be some real advantage to reading shorter commentaries such as this one. It's much easier to see the forest. If the rest of the New Covenant Commentary Series reaches the bar that Keener set then we will have an excellent little series that will be of much help for busy pastors and lay people. I give Romans: A New Covenant Commentary 5 stars out of 5.

5 comments:

  1. I've been jonesing for this commentary since it came out, now I really want to get it. I'm especially interesting in his discussion of chapter 7.

    How much did he get into the calvinist/arminian debates?

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  2. He didn't get into them all that much, but he doesn't get into many of the major debates in Romans in general (he can't in 200 pages). He acknowledges them and takes a side, but doesn't go very far into them. I found that refreshing. We have enough of Cranfield/Moo/Schreiner/Jewett/Dunn types. I don't think we need another of those for a good 10 years or so.

    Keener's an Arminian (based on this commentary I'd probably call him a soft Arminian), but his Arminianism doesn't dominate his exegesis. It comes out clearly only in chapter 8. His positions in chapter 9 are positions that Calvinists could hold to as well. There's certainly no anti-calvinism in his work (if there was it probably wouldn't have gotten 5 stars from me :P ).

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  3. Is there any chance you could reproduce the chart on Rom 7:7-25 you mention? I do something similar on a smaller scale in my own teaching, but I bet Keener does it better.

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  4. Sure, I'm a little on the tired side tonight, I've been sick and I had to work late. I'll post it for you tomorrow.

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  5. Sick. Working late. Young baby. I think I understand.

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