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Paul's Letter to the Romans Paul's Letter to the Romans
A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

Ben Witherington III with Darlene Hyatt
ISBN 9780802845047 (0802845045)
Eerdmans, 2004

Category: Commentaries

(Paperback, 421 pages)

Yes, another commentary on Romans. It is with some justification that we all chorus, "What more can there be to say?" and feel justified in suggesting that it can only be a re-hash of the preceding ones. Yet Romans is an almost inexhaustible source of discussion and reflection both at a scholarly and a popular level, though representatives of the latter frequently feel completely out of their depth. Let me hasten to say that the fantastically prolific Ben Witherington really does have some new perspectives which have not been aired in commentary form before. The first is enshrined in the title. Witherington makes much of applying socio-rhetorical insights to the text. The whole of Romans is mapped out with such conventions in mind. Striking examples would include Witherington's view that in 2:1-16 Paul addresses an imaginary interlocutor and in 2:17-3:20 he is engaging in the ancient practice of diatribe. Furthermore in chapter 7:7-13 he is impersonating Adam and in 7:14-25 the whole of fallen and helpless humanity is considered from the perspective of a Christian. All perfectly comprehensible on the basis of first century rhetorical norms.

The second original contribution is that of being written from a position which is sympathetic to an Arminian/Wesleyan theological perspective. Indeed, nearly all serious commentaries on Romans are written from within a Reformed perspective or are strongly influenced by it. This means that Witherington is disinclined to read original sin as classically expounded from Romans 5. Neither does he take a classical view of election/predestination and the perseverence of the saints in Romans 8-11. There are, after all, other ways of making sense of these passages within the context of the rest of Romans and Witherington places the debate securely within the field of contemporary Jewish discussions of election. Indeed Israel were called but many failed the test. This puzzled the rabbis.

The third innovation is familiar from Witherington's previous "socio-rhetorical" commentaries — that of the periodic sections entitled "Bridging the Horizons". Here he takes seriously the need to answer the question, "So what?" What might we do with this text now? Strangely enough Witherington does not always seem to be sure. Sometimes there is little comment — only one and a half pages follow Romans 3:21-31. He is certainly not about to suggest how the preceding verses might have been used in dogmatic discussion. On other occasions he seems inspired to the point of exposition — six and a bit pages follow chapter 12! The intention seems to be laudable but ill-defined. Is it intended to be pointers towards sermons or what? These sections are very patchy. In fact this would be my criticism of the whole commentary. Reasonably frequently one is left wanting more discussion or fuller treatment. A traditional reading of Romans 1:26-27 is offered in less than a page with no discussion of alternative readings. Surely the contemporary church and world demands more than this! "Bridging the Horizons" does not take it up…

But I would not wish the reader of this review to conclude that this is not a really good addition to our commentaries on Romans. Each of the three main innovations make it that. But the commentary is also well-written, superbly up-to-date, addresses matters of special significance in separate boxes and is judiciously conservative. It is a very worthwhile addition to the student's bookshelf. But only if you have something of similar stature to fill the gaps and offer a different perspective.

Robert Willoughby, August 2004

Robert Willoughby teaches New Testament and Children's Ministry at London School of Theology. He is the author of The Children's Guide to the Bible, Angels and So, who is God?, all from Scripture Union, and is a regular contributor to Scripture Union's daily Bible reading notes, Encounter with God.

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