Longenecker on Romans

Article by   September 2016
Richard N. Longenecker. The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. lxvii + 1140 pp. $80.00.

Because of the impact of Romans on the Church's overall theology, commentaries on Romans tend to take on disproportionally more importance than, for example, commentaries on Micah. Richard N. Longenecker has just produced a large (1,207 pages) scholarly commentary on Romans in the prestigious New International Greek Testament Commentary series. His The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text has a distinctive thesis as to the "central thrust" of Romans (p. 16). I do not agree with the thesis, but evangelical leaders, pastors, and professors probably ought to be at least aware of it. For those who specialize in Romans, the distinctive views in this commentary will soon be part of the scholarly literature.

Background Information on Longenecker

Before getting to Romans, some background on Longenecker and his previous books is useful. Longenecker is in his mid-80's and is professor emeritus of New Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He also taught for many years at McMaster Divinity College. I do not know how he would classify himself theologically, but I would say he is broadly evangelical and is concerned to have Scripture influence the Church. As to historical-critical issues, I would label him "left-leaning evangelical." He lists as his "'heroes of the past' in understanding Paul and his letters": Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Lightfoot, Westcott/Hort, Robertson, Deissmann, Barth, Stewart, Davies, and Moule (Paul, Apostle of Liberty, 2d. ed., pp. 363-71).

Longenecker is well known in scholarly circles for several important books. His Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (1975) was still required reading when I was a NT Ph.D. student in the late-1980's/early-1990's. In his Paul, Apostle of Liberty (1964), Longenecker anticipated several of Sanders' later emphases. A second edition of this book was published in 2015 with a new 113-page addendum covering 20 centuries of Pauline interpretation. Longenecker's Galatians (WBC, 1990) included several significant arguments against New Perspective on Paul (NPP) along with some agreements.

Especially pertinent to his Romans, Longenecker produced a substantial book (490 pages) entitled Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul's Most Famous Letter in 2011. Many of the background discussions in Romans are exact quotes and/or shorter versions of longer discussions from this book. Also, his major conclusions about the book of Romans have already been presented in Introducing Romans but without all of the exegetical support.

Introductory Matters

Paul is the author of all 16 chapters and wrote in the winter of 57/58 from greater Corinth. Tertius and Phoebe along with Christian leaders in Corinth and Cenchrea had input into the letter as they heard a preliminary version of it (pp. 5-7, 1085).

The Roman addressees included both ethnic Jews and Gentiles; however, both groups were closely connected to the Jerusalem church. Both "looked to the Jerusalem church as the mother church of Christianity, followed Jewish Christian liturgical rites and ethical practices, and reverenced the Mosaic law" (p. 9). That is, yes, there were Gentiles in the Roman church, but they thought in Jewish theological categories. These Roman Christians were not theologically similar to the Galatian Judaizers.

What is the genre of this epistle? It is an "instructional letter essay" which gives "instructional material set out within an epistolary frame" (p. 14). What rhetorical model did Paul use--whether consciously or unconsciously? He used a "protreptic" rhetorical model for 1:16-4:25, 5:1-8:39, and 12:1-15:13. This encouragement model includes (1) a negative argument against opposing views, (2) a positive argument for the preferred position, and (3) a hortatory section. A "Jewish remnant" rhetorical model was used for 9:1-11:36 (pp. 14-16, 145, 803-10).

There are two primary purposes, and both relate to Paul's missionary activity and not to problems at Rome: (1) explain his theology related to the Gentile mission and (2) get aid for his missionary trip to the Gentiles in Spain. There are three subsidiary purposes that do directly relate to the situation in Rome: (3) defend against misrepresentations of his Gentile mission, (4) give counsel as to paying taxes, and (5) give counsel as to weak/strong issues (10-11).

Distinctive Primary Thesis

What is Longenecker's distinctive primary thesis? The focus of Romans is not 1:16-4:25, but the "central thrust" is 5:1-8:39 (p. 16). "Our thesis is that in 5:1-8:39 Paul sets out the basic features of the Christian gospel as he had contextualized that message in his Gentile mission to those who had no Jewish heritage and no biblical instruction" (p. 547). As opposed to the forensic Jewish language of 1:16-4:25, in 5:1-8:39 Paul uses "much more personal, relational, and participatory language" (p. 539). This central thrust then relates to the "Christian love ethic" sections of 12:1-21 and 13:8-14 because they are "relevant ethical materials that function as corollaries to the theological materials in 5:1-8:39" (p. 16). These three sections are related to Paul's contextualization of the gospel to Gentiles. That is, these are the standard speeches that Paul would give in any Gentile context that was bereft of OT categories. This theology of Gentile contextualization is the "spiritual gift" (1:11) that Paul gives to Romans (p. 117).

What about the remainder of Romans? In 1:16-4:25, Paul uses the more forensic Jewish language that the Romans would agree to, both Jews and Gentiles, as both are influenced by the Jerusalem church. More specifically, 1:16-4:25 is designed "to dissuade any believer in Jesus, whether ethically Jewish or ethically Gentile, from being enticed by any form of religious legalism" (p. 149). Paul includes this assuming that the Romans will agree with him here. Given this agreement, the Romans will then be more apt to accept his Gentile contextualization presented in 5:1-8:39 (p. 150).

Paul includes 9:1-11:36 because this relates to Jewish and Jewish Christian "remnant theology" and includes a "distinctive type of remnant rhetoric" (p. 767). This section points back to the "elect" of 8:33. Given Paul's mission to the Gentiles, he needs to explain the election of both Jews and Gentiles throughout redemptive history (p. 769). This explanation was required as the Romans were well acquainted with remnant theology and remnant rhetoric. They would expect an answer.

What about the government/taxes section of 13:1-7 and the weak/strong section of 14:1-15:13? Longenecker sees these two sections as Roman contextualizations of the generic Gentile "Christian love ethic" sections. To say it another way, 12:1-21 is a standard speech that Paul would give to Gentiles and then he contextualizes it for the Roman church in 13:1-7 as they were confused on whether to pay taxes. Paul then restates the generic Gentile "Christian love ethic" in 13:8-14 and again contextualizes it for the Roman church in 14:1-15:13 related to their weak/strong issues (pp. 912-14, 948-49, 975).

To recap, 5:1-8:39 is the central thrust of Romans as this is Paul's contextualization of the gospel to Gentiles with 12:1-21 and 13:8-14 being corollaries. The 5:1-8:39 section is not the implication of 1:16-4:25. Longenecker explicitly contrasts himself with the traditional Protestant view of seeing 1:16-4:25 (or 1:16-5:21) as justification and then 5:1-8:39 (or 6:1-8:39) as sanctification. This traditional view includes that the sanctification section is the natural implication of the justification section. Instead Longenecker sees these two sections as parallel. He states:

These two sections could also be viewed as setting out somewhat parallel lines of thought with differing emphases and different modes of expression: the first in 1:16-4:25 using judicial and forensic language; the second in 5:1-8:39 using relational, personal, and participatory language--though with both sections speaking of much the same things. (p. 539)

What are some of the arguments for Longenecker's primary thesis? According to Longenecker, much of the language less is forensic in 5:1-8:39, e.g., "peace," "reconciliation," and "in Christ/Spirit" (pp. 539, 566, 570). The Adam discussion of chapter 5 fits well in a Gentile context as Adam better represents the universality of sin and was a "universal personage . . . that Gentiles could readily identify with" (p. 583). The "I" of 7:14-25 refers "in a gnomic fashion to the plight of all humanity" (p. 659). There are no OT quotes in 5:1-8:39 (pp. 21-23, 146).

New Perspective on Paul and Justification

For many readers of this review, the first question about any new commentary on Romans is the author's perspective of the NPP. Romans and Galatians are battlegrounds for arguments pro-and-con on NPP, and Longenecker has written a major commentary on both books. It is convenient here to summarize Longenecker's view from his various works, including Romans.

In sum, Longenecker is strongly against NPP despite having some affinities for certain NPP emphases. One affinity with NPP is that he agrees with Sanders that the Second-Temple Judaism documents do not present Judaism as works-righteousness oriented, but instead present a covenantal-nomism soteriology. However, as opposed to Sanders and other NPP authors, Longenecker sees these documents as also admitting that some other Jews did have a legalistic works-righteousness soteriology. In addition, Longenecker admits the general tendency of humans, not just Jews, toward works righteousness. Hence, in Second Temple Judaism, there were some Jews and Jewish Christians who had a covenantal-nomism soteriology, which was the dominant view, but there were also some who had a works-righteousness soteriology. (From my perspective, Sanders' "covenantal nomism" is semi-Pelagian; Longenecker's is not.)

Dunn and Wright take Sanders' new view of Judaism and conclude that Paul was not arguing against a works-righteousness soteriology because it did not exist in Second Temple Judaism. Instead, Paul was arguing against Jewish nationalism. "Works of the law" is primarily interpreted by Dunn and Wright as Jewish boundary markers, that is, Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision. Longenecker responds that Paul's use of "works of the law" was to counter works-righteousness legalism that did exist in various Jewish and Jewish Christian groups (although it did not exist in the Roman church). "Works of the law" refers to the whole law broadly understood (more than Mosaic law) and the legalistic misuse of if by some. Hence, Longenecker's conclusions concerning "works of the law" are compatible with the traditional Protestant view. For his discussions of the NPP, see Galatians (pp. 85-86), Introducing Romans (pp. 324-30), Paul, Apostle of Liberty (2d. ed., pp. 348-50), and Romans (pp. 362-70).

Given Longenecker's view of "works of the law," his conclusions concerning justification are generally compatible with the traditional Protestant view. Justification is related to the work of Christ, requires human faith, and results in a new status before God. In most texts, "righteousness of God" is a "communicative gift" (pp. 176, 186). Going beyond the traditional Protestant view, Longenecker sees "righteousness" in these texts as having both a forensic status and an ethical quality. He is following John Ziesler here (pp. 168-76). More technical issues about justification such as imputed righteousness and active/passive obedience are not discussed.

Πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate

The πίστις Χριστοῦ debate revolves around whether this phrase should be interpreted as the "faithfulness of Christ" (subjective genitive) or as more traditionally, "faith in Christ" (objective genitive). Key passages are Rom 3:22, 26, Gal 2:16, 20, 3:22, Eph 3:12, and Phil 3:9. All major English translations have the traditional view with the exception of the mainline-Protestant Common English Bible (2011). Although the subjective genitive view existed before the NPP, it is now the standard view of NPP authors (excepting Dunn) as they see it supporting their newer view of justification.

Before the NPP existed, Longenecker had been advocating for the subjective genitive interpretation of πίστις Χριστοῦ. He argues strongly for it in Romans (pp. 408-13). Hence, on the surface, this is another affinity he has with the NPP. However, he does not use it as the NPP does. He sees "the work of Christ as a faithful response to God's judicial requirements" (p. 186).

Longenecker's subjective genitive interpretation does produce some unusual conclusions. In the difficult expression ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν in 1:17, he interprets as "from divine (either God or Christ's) faithfulness to human faith" (pp. 178-79). In 3:30, he translates as "[God] will justify 'the circumcised' based on divine faithfulness of Jesus (ἐκ πίστεως) and 'the uncircumcised' through that same faithfulness (διὰ τῆς πίστεως)" (pp. 388, 450-51). Contra Longenecker, scholars from all different viewpoints take both Greek phrases as referring to human faith.


The format for each pericope begins with a translation and various text-critical notes. Then there is an extended introductory discussion of rhetorical features, use of the OT and other sources, and the logic of the passage. In addition, for many pericopes there is a significant discussion of the history of scholars' interpretive disagreements, including an impressive amount of German and pre-critical patristic-medieval-reformation views.

Following the introductory section, Longenecker presents his exegetical comments. This section is somewhat unusual in that he does not go through the pericope phrase-by-phrase but concentrates on phrases that relate to the introductory discussions. Relatively speaking, it is surprisingly short. Finally, he concludes each pericope with two sections where he theologizes: "Biblical Theology" and "Contextualization for Today."

Brief Evaluation

As to Longenecker's primary thesis that 5:1-8:39 is the central thrust of Romans and it that encapsulates Paul's message to the Gentiles, I strongly disagree. Longenecker wants to solve the perceived problem of Paul's forensic emphasis does not dovetail with his participatory ("in Christ") emphasis. Also, Longenecker sees Paul's participatory side as more prominent. His solution is that Paul gives two parallel speeches. One is forensic and contextualized for those connected to the Jerusalem church (1:16-4:25). The other, and more importantly, is participatory and contextualized for Gentiles unaware of Jewish/OT issues (5:1-8:39). From my perspective, the answer to this perceived problem is already available. A robust Reformed covenant theology teaches that union-with-Christ results in both justification and sanctification (and glorification) with justification having the logical priority.

Further, it is hard to believe exegetically that Paul intended 1:16-4:15 and 5:1-8:39 as parallel sections. There is no clear break between the two. Romans 5:1 clearly connects the two. Also, as the history of interpretation shows, scholars of all stripes see chapter 5 as a transition chapter, not a clear break. One of Longenecker's primary arguments is the lack of explicit OT quotes in 5:1-8:39. (According to Longenecker, the Ps 44:22 quote in Rom 8:36 is not really a quote as it was taken over by Paul from early Christian confessional material [p. 757]). However, there is plenty of OT usage in this section, for example, Adam, Moses, sin as a violation of God's law, divorce analogy, Spirit of God, Fatherhood of God, first fruits, creation, and the Ps 44:22 quote.

Yes, I have a negative view of Longenecker's primary thesis; however, positively, there is an amazing amount of scholarship in this commentary. Longenecker is very well acquainted with current issues in the interpretation of Romans. Also, he is outstanding in explaining the history of interpretation of various pericopes, including pre-critical, critical, and conservative views. From a scholarly perspective, these history-of-interpretation sections are worth the high price of this book. No matter one's view of Longenecker's primary thesis, my fellow NT professors ought to purchase this book.

Given the importance of the book of Romans, Reformed pastors need to be at least aware of Longenecker's primary thesis. Hopefully, this review and other summaries will accomplish that. Would I recommend this commentary to a typical Reformed pastor as an aid to preaching through Romans? Well . . . no. The unusual thesis, the length of introductory discussions, the short-shrift on exegetical comments, and the price mitigate against a Reformed pastor purchasing Longenecker's Romans.

Robert J. Cara, Ph.D. Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament, RTS Charlotte Provost and Chief Academic Officer, RTS System

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