Unlocking Romans


Unlocking Romans
By J.R. Daniel Kirk
245 p.
Eerdmans (November 2008)

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of E. P. Sanders's scholarship on the academic study of Paul. Since Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983), it has become something of a commonplace to speak of "pre-Sanders" and "post-Sanders" readings of Paul. This periodization highlights the degree to which the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) has influenced Pauline scholarship in the last quarter century.

It is also fair to say that the NPP is no longer the agenda-setting item that it was even fifteen years ago. It is probably best to describe the opening years of the twenty-first century in terms of "post-NPP scholarship." Post-NPP scholarship accepts as "given" many of the NPP's conclusions concerning ancient Judaism and Paul's teaching on the law and justification by faith. No longer, it is argued, can we speak of first century Judaism as a meritorious religion, since Judaism and Christianity were both religions of grace. The question that defines the apostle Paul is not "how can I find a gracious God?" but "how are the people of God identified or marked out as the people of God?"

Post-NPP scholarship works within this framework but pursues questions, adopts methods, and proposes conclusions that the first generation of NPP scholarship did not. One illustrative example of the aspirations and trajectories of post-NPP scholarship is J. R. Daniel Kirk's Unlocking Romans.

Unlocking Romans is a revision of the author's doctoral dissertation. Kirk, recently appointed as assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, claims sympathies not only with the scholarship of E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright, but also with the biblical-theological projects of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard B. Gaffin. Kirk applies this attempted synthesis of the NPP and conservative Reformed biblical theology to the question of the role of the resurrection in Romans. What's more, Kirk is concerned to apply the results of his research to the life of the contemporary American evangelical church.

Unlocking Romans
consists of an introductory chapter, nine exegetical chapters, and a concluding chapter. Kirk's book advances two basic claims, one formal, and the other material. The first is that resurrection is a unique interpretative key to the epistle to the Romans. The second is that resurrection informs, shapes, and gives content to the great themes and concerns of the letter.

Resurrection - Key to Romans?

Kirk's thesis is, at one level, simple. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a key Paul has given us to unlock the book of Romans. Identifying Jesus' resurrection in both the formal introduction and an important concluding paragraph of Romans (1:1-5, 15:7-12), Kirk concludes that Paul has thereby signaled the resurrection of Jesus to be such a key for this epistle. Kirk proceeds to examine several passages (4:13-25; 5:9-10; 5:1-8:11; 8:12-39; 10:6-13; 11:15; 13:8-14; 14:1-9) in order to argue that Paul sustains his controlling interest in the resurrection throughout Romans.

Is Kirk successful in establishing this claim? It is unclear that he has. Paul undoubtedly mentions Jesus' resurrection in the letter's introduction (1:4). Kirk claims that Paul references resurrection in 15:7-12 at 15:12 ("And again Isaiah says, 'The Root of Jesse will come, even he who arises (Gk. anistamenos) to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope"). This claim is tenuous. Kirk acknowledges that, lexically, the Greek word anistamenos need not refer to resurrection. He furthermore states that the Hebrew text of Isaiah 11:10 underlying Rom 15:12 "would have excluded the possibility of a reference to Christ's resurrection" (50). If Paul is establishing the kind of connection between Rom 1:1-5 and Rom 15:7-12 that Kirk claims he is, one would instead have expected Paul to have referenced the resurrection in Rom 15:7-12 in far less ambiguous terms.

Kirk does show that Paul discusses resurrection throughout the letter and throughout many of the letter's sections. It is one thing to observe the frequency and distribution of references to the resurrection in Romans. It is another to prove that resurrection is "a key for unlocking the message of Romans" so as "to probe Romans in a more coherent manner than can be done using traditional focus points such as justification or union with Christ" (55, 204). Kirk is claiming that "resurrection" is able to unlock the letter's meaning in a way that justification or union with Christ cannot. In this respect, Kirk is claiming for "resurrection" a unique and privileged role in the interpretation of the letter.

But does resurrection have such a role in Romans? Part of the reader's difficulty in answering this question is that it is unclear how Kirk understands resurrection to function "as key" in the letter. Kirk specifies the resurrection rather than the crucifixion as the "focal point of Romans" (217). Elsewhere he speaks of the resurrection in conjunction with the death of Christ in terms of an "organizing principle" not only for Romans but also for "Paul's gospel" (207). Is Kirk assigning a unique role to the resurrection in the interpretation of Romans, or does he understand the resurrection to share this role with the crucifixion? At different points, Kirk makes both claims.

Elsewhere in the book, Kirk identifies the "Christ event - most notably ... the enthronement of Jesus the Davidic Messiah by means of the resurrection" as "the hermeneutical key by which the prophetic voices of the Jewish Scriptures are to be understood." He adds in a note, "This is a claim for neither an absolute priority to be given to the resurrection in Paul's thought in general nor for an absolute separation between crucifixion and resurrection" (45n.57).

This qualification is undoubtedly an effort to prevent readers from drawing precisely those inferences from his statement. But if Kirk is not claiming an "absolute priority" for resurrection in Paul's thought, or an "absolute separation between crucifixion and resurrection," then what exactly is he claiming? If the "Christ event" is the "hermeneutical key" of Old Testament prophecy, and if resurrection is part of that Christ event, then precisely what role does resurrection play in Paul's interpretation of Old Testament prophecy?

These questions highlight one methodological shortcoming of the work. Unlocking Romans lacks, but needs, an extended discussion detailing precisely how Kirk understands resurrection to relate to other important topics in Romans, especially as such relationships come to bear on the interpretation of the letter. Much of the book consists of Kirk detailing how he understands the resurrection to surface in various passages of Romans. What Kirk fails to do is to synthesize his results in such a way that the reader has a clear grasp of how Kirk sees resurrection functioning in the interpretation of Romans and in Paul's interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.

Resurrection and the Message of Romans

In the end, the success of Kirk's thesis is to be measured by the degree to which he establishes that the resurrection informs and gives content to the leading concerns and arguments of the epistle. This is where consideration of Kirk's thesis becomes considerably more complex. Kirk understands resurrection to surface in at least three main areas of the letter: theodicy, justification, and church unity.

Interpreters have long held Romans to contain an extended theodicy in Rom 9-11. In these chapters, Paul asks "Why are so many of God's Old Covenant people, Israel, rejecting the gospel? Does this mean that the 'word of God has failed' (9:6)?" They have understood this theodicy to fall within a larger argument that is devoted to unfolding the saving mercies of God in Christ.

Increasingly and in the wake of the NPP's interest in understanding Paul as concerned particularly with the relationship between Jew and Gentile, recent interpretation has been arguing that the entirety of Romans is a theodicy. In other words, the primary if not sole purpose of the letter is to defend God's fidelity in view of unbelieving Israel. Kirk acknowledges that the question "how can I find a gracious God?" is a concern of Romans. It is, however, a subsidiary question. Primary is the question "if the God of Israel has acted to save his people, but Israel is not participating in that salvation, then in what respect can this God be said to be righteous?" (4).

Central to this large-scale project of theodicy is the resurrection. Kirk claims that, for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus "provides a sphere in which God can make good on his promises to his people and thus justify himself" (11). Furthermore, "the formation of a mixed Jew and Gentile community through Paul's own apostleship" demonstrates God's fidelity to the Scriptures of the Old Testament (207).

Paul's theodicy, then, is closely tied to Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament. Kirk speaks of Paul's reading of the Old Testament in at least two different ways. At certain points, Kirk claims that Paul straightforwardly understood the resurrection to bring the promises of the Old Testament to fulfillment, "Thus Paul's theodicy project entails demonstrating that such a Christ event can function as the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel" (217). Consequently, Kirk can speak of "the Law and the Prophets bear[ing] witness" to the "sending and raising of Christ" (175). The Old Testament itself speaks of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The person and work of Jesus Christ has brought the Old Testament Scripture to fulfillment.

For the most part, however, Kirk prefers to say that Paul used the resurrection of Jesus to "reinterpret the Scriptures and stories of Israel" (8, cf. 133, 169). Similar language abounds in this book. Paul "rereads" Scripture (49, 55); "reframes" Israel's stories "in light of the Christ event" (74); "transforms" the Old Testament text (54); "reinterprets" both the "function" and "content" of "Israel's Scriptures" (57); has a "revisionist hermeneutic" (169); advances a "revisionist definition of the people of God" (59); "recasts" the Abraham narrative "for his own situation" (63, cf. 85, 134, 156); "reinterprets the role of the law within the story of Israel" (131); and has "transformed" Isaiah "into a witness of resurrection-faith" (176). In sum, while Paul did not "rewrite the [Old Testament] story as such, we do see nearly every major element reconfigured around the Christ event" (206). Kirk labels this interpretative project "christological revisionism" (209). So far-reaching is this project that Paul is said, in applying Old Testament language of deity to Jesus, to have reinterpreted God himself (203). 

There are at least three problems with Kirk's "christological revisionism." The first problem is that this "revisionism" compromises Kirk's statements that the Old Testament itself speaks of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can we meaningfully speak of the Old Testament's fulfillment if the New Testament writers have "reinterpreted" the Old Testament text? To be sure, the New Testament writers read the Old Testament in very different ways than their Jewish contemporaries. It is one thing to say that Saul the Christian read the Old Testament very differently than Saul the Pharisee. It is quite another to say that Saul the Christian engaged in wholesale revisionism when he turned to the Old Testament. It is surprising that, in a project whose concern is to explore Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament, Kirk never directly attempts to resolve this tension.

A second problem is that "christological revisionism" is unable to sustain the weight of the theodicy project that Kirk claims Paul has undertaken in Romans. After all, if Paul's goal is to defend God as faithful to his promises, to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, then doesn't interpretative revision of those Scriptures undercut that goal? Isn't Paul simply rewriting the historical record rather than answering the concern? If God's apologists are engaging in such tactics, how does this relieve, much less resolve, the charge that God has been faithless to his commitments?

A third problem with "christological revisionism" is that this project goes contrary to the evidence of the New Testament. In the book of Acts, we find the church advancing its claim to unbelieving Israelites that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Scripture. In Acts 9:22, Luke tells us that newly converted Saul "confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ." In the Thessalonican synagogue, Paul over three Sabbath days "reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'" (17:3). In Corinth, Apollos "powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus" (18:28). Each of these examples shows that the early church demonstrated from a plain reading of the text of the Old Testament that Jesus was Israel's Messiah. The early church was not twisting the Old Testament to make it say something that it did not say. Had the early church engaged in the kind of revisionism for which Kirk pleas, Luke could not have authored these statements.

A second area in which Kirk sees resurrection at work in Romans is the doctrine of justification. Kirk sets his discussion of justification in context by faulting Western theology for what he terms its "abstractions" in precisely this area. Augustine, Anselm, and the Westminster Divines are said to conceive God under the deleterious influence of "the Greek philosophical tradition" (1-2). The Protestant Reformation, for instance, was "kindled [by] an ethically abstract conception of God, insufficiently grounded in the identity of God as the God of Israel" (3). Luther's "tower experience," specifically, "grew, in part, from the de-contextualization of two related themes in Romans," namely "law" and "righteousness." Kirk specifically attributes the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ to the abstracting tendencies of the Reformation (3-4). Kirk faults contemporary students of the New Testament sympathetic to the Reformation for what he terms their abstraction of "grace" and "works" in Paul (166, 169). 

Kirk argues that what is needed is an understanding of these important concepts that is informed by the "particularity of the God who works in the story of Israel" (4). We must leave Luther's "righteous God" behind (4). For Kirk, this recognition is part of what it means to conduct exegesis in the "post-Sanders era." No longer can "works" and "grace" remain in their classical abstraction. We must see, rather, Paul "contrasting the works of the Mosaic law over against the grace embodied in the dead and risen Christ" (227).

Kirk, however, provides no evidence to substantiate these sweeping generalizations. His dichotomization of what he labels "abstract" and "historical" readings of important New Testament terminology becomes the occasion for him summarily to dismiss rather than to engage the positions with which he disagrees. Consequently, one will find no critical engagement of the classical formulation of imputed righteousness in Unlocking Romans. Kirk's definition of the "righteousness of God" as God's fidelity to his own covenant obligations is simply assumed without argument.

How does Kirk understand the doctrine of justification in Romans? How does "resurrection" intersect justification? Justification, Kirk claims, is "God's vindication of his faithful people which shows God himself to be faithful" (10). Justification, therefore, is in service of what is said to be Paul's project of theodicy in Romans. Kirk, citing Vos and Gaffin, argues that Jesus' resurrection was his justification (222), God's declaration that Jesus was just or righteous (78). This verdict of "righteous" had in view Jesus' act of obedience in going to the cross. It did not have in view "a whole life of obedience to the law" (103n.20). Therefore, what has been classically termed the "active obedience of Christ" is in no way imputed to the believer for justification.

For Kirk, believers were and are "justified" in the verdict that God pronounced over Jesus ("righteous"). In other words, they share in Jesus' verdict. His verdict becomes their verdict. What does the believer's verdict look like? What does it mean that the believer is justified? Kirk argues that there is in Romans an "already" and "not yet" structure to justification. How does Kirk understand this structure? Believers are "already" justified in that they now receive the verdict of Jesus' resurrection ("righteous") and the benefits of Jesus' death (no condemnation, acquittal), (224). They presently await "a future verdict that they are righteous in Christ" (225). What connects "already" justification with "not yet" justification is this "righteousness which flows from union with the resurrected Christ in the present," a "life on earth that manifests the righteousness which springs from the resurrection life of Christ." The believer, now justified, is "now able to do deeds of righteousness which are congruous with such a judicial verdict" (ibid.).

Are these "deeds of righteousness" justifying? Kirk answers in the affirmative. Citing Rom 2:13, Kirk claims that the "future aspect" of justification is "based on works" (226). These works can be the basis of this future verdict, Kirk claims, "because [Jesus' death and resurrection] is the person and place in which the grace of God has been manifested, because transfer into this realm is based solely on the grace of God..." (226). Such a claim does not answer the charge that such works supplement the work of Christ as the basis of the believer's justification.

Kirk cites Westminster Confession of Faith 33.1 to support his claim that "final judgment is based on works" (226n.21). The Westminster Divines, however, do not claim that the believer's obedience is in any way the ground of his justification. They claim that the believer's obedience simply evidences the truth of the believer's justification. Kirk is not in agreement with the Confession at this point. The classical meaning of the language he chooses to use ("based on works") is that the believer's obedience contributes to the basis of his justification.
For Kirk, then, justification is a two-staged process. In the "already" stage, the believer comes to share in Jesus' resurrection verdict ("righteous"). His sins are pardoned because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ. There is no transfer of Jesus' perfect obedience to the believer in justification. In the "not yet" stage, God will pronounce the believer "just" on the basis of the deeds of righteousness the believer has done in union with and by the power of the resurrected Christ.

Kirk is correct to observe the connection that Paul makes between resurrection and justification in Romans (see Rom 4:25). He mistakes the connection, however, when he attributes the "righteousness" in a believer's justification to the life of obedience made possible by the believer's union with the risen Jesus. Justification, Paul teaches, is an act grounded only upon the imputed righteousness of Christ - his perfect obedience to the law and his full satisfaction for sin, imputed to the believer and received by faith alone.  Whereas Paul distinguishes without separating justification and sanctification, Kirk's formulations conflate them. Whereas Kirk wishes to establish his labors upon the prior biblical-theological efforts of Vos, Ridderbos, and Gaffin, he departs from the clear testimony that Vos, Ridderbos, and Gaffin have given to the sufficiency of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ for the believer's justification.

A third area in Romans in which Kirk sees resurrection playing a contributing role is the unity of the church. Kirk argues that, at Rom 14:1-9, Paul appeals to the lordship of the resurrected Jesus as the basis for Christian unity (199-203). It is not the Mosaic law or observance of the Mosaic law that provides the people of God their identity. "A people defined and ruled by this resurrected Christ is therefore not defined and ruled by the law and thus is free from requirements to keep kosher and observe Sabbaths," including the weekly Sabbath enjoined by the Fourth Commandment (204, 229). Kirk concludes that Christian unity is not based upon "a common moral ethic derived from the Old Testament." The Christian community, rather, is "defined solely by submission to the new work of God through confession of, submission to, and union with the resurrected Lord Jesus" (229).

Kirk reasons that because the church "consists almost entirely of those who form the 'and Greek' half of the 'Jew and Greek' dichotomy, ... we have far less ground for creating, propagating, and sustaining divisions among ourselves than did the first-century church" (230).
One contemporary barrier that Kirk addresses is "correct theology": "a unity based on theological articulation is a dead end for the unity of the church" (231-2). Kirk laments that the Reformation and its heirs have separated soteriology from ecclesiology, using justification as a "wedge for dividing the church" and rendering division all but inevitable (232, citing N. T. Wright). "The doctrine of justification by faith becomes the doctrine of justification by believing the right doctrine of justification by faith and the mighty act of the harrowing of heaven is performed in the name of Christ" (232). Alternatively, Kirk claims that "a return to the Christ event, and to God's act of enfolding us into it, as the basis of ecclesiastical unity is perhaps the most urgent need of the church in the early years of the twenty-first century" (233). He proceeds to query whether "those of us in Protestant churches [may] begin by asking the Roman Catholic Church for forgiveness?" or "those of us in denominational spin-offs [may] begin by asking the mother churches for forgiveness?" (233-4).

Kirk's prescriptions for ecclesiastical unity are provocative, to be sure. They are, however, unable to deliver the unity that the Scripture calls the church to demonstrate and to pursue. First, Kirk suggests that, in the pursuit of Christian unity, one must choose between "a common moral ethic derived from the Old Testament" and submission to the resurrected Lord Jesus. This is to rend asunder what Christ has put together (Matt 5:17-20). Relatedly, Kirk advances no argument to defend his assertion that Paul in Rom 14 has abrogated the Fourth Commandment, much less to respond to the body of commentators who see Paul in this passage teaching the abrogation of the Jewish calendar but not the weekly Sabbath. It is therefore difficult to accept his claim that the apostle was willing to abrogate part of the Decalogue in service of Christian unity. Christian unity in the New Testament is never achieved at the expense of the integrity of the moral law of God.

Second, Kirk's proposed basis for unity, "a return to the Christ event, and to God's act of enfolding us into it," is vague. Three comments are in order. First, the proto-Docetists of the first century could easily have subscribed such a proposition. It is, however, precisely this group that the New Testament writers exclude from the Christian church on doctrinal grounds (2 John 7-9).

Second, such a banner could easily encompass the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, whose theologies the Christian church has long recognized to be fundamentally unchristian. Any formulation that tolerates in the Christian church what is theologically unchristian is an insufficient basis for Christian unity.

Third, in view of his prescription for unity, Kirk's call that Protestants ask the Roman Catholic Church for forgiveness is inadequate. Kirk's understanding of unity in fact requires that Protestants acknowledge that they are schismatic and seek immediate and unqualified entrance into the Roman Catholic Church. In his view, if the basis of Christian unity is "a return to the Christ event, and to God's act of enfolding us into it," it is inconceivable that the Reformation remains justifiable. After all, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike can subscribe this statement. Those who uphold the theology of the Reformation as the theology of the Bible require a more precise basis for the pursuit and achievement of Christian unity.

Unlocking Romans is a striking piece of the post-NPP academic landscape. This book serves as a reminder to the church that we may never assume or take for granted the exegetical foundations of our teaching and preaching. In each generation, these foundations must be articulated and rearticulated in the face of new questions and fresh challenges to biblical teaching. If readers want to see how a scholar attempts to synthesize the NPP and Reformed theology, then a study of this work will repay the effort. In the end, Kirk's efforts do not rescue the NPP from the charge that the NPP's understanding of Paul's doctrine of salvation compromises Reformed theology.

Guy Waters is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

Guy Waters, "Unlocking Romans", Reformation 21 (March 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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