Romans. IVP New Testament Commentary Series

By Grant Osborne
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2004). 447 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 263-265

The contemporary evangelical movement is experiencing something of an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans. In the last quarter of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twentyfirst, we have been blessed with a large number of substantive works written at various scholarly levels. Just to list a few of the authors that come to mind with the date of their publication: Cranfield in the International Critical Commentary series (1978); Hendricksen in the New Testament Commentary series (1981); Bruce in the Tyndale series (1985); Morris in the Pillar series (1988); Moo in the New International Commentary series (1996); Schreiner in the Baker Exegetical series (1998); and Wright in the New Interpreter’s Bible (2001). The “word on the street” is that N. T. Wright is also writing the Romans commentary for the New International Greek Testament series. On the broader theological canvass, one also recalls Dunn’s two volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series (1988), plus Kasemann’s (1980) and Stuhlmacher’s (1994) individual volumes. Of course, this list does not include the classic commentaries contributed in days past by John Murray, Charles Hodge, and Robert Haldane, which are usually kept in print somewhere, plus the always available Reformation classics of Calvin and Luther. But even when limiting the list to new commentaries in the last generation, one must conclude that evangelicals have been blessed beyond their wants—and some might say, their needs! Of course, the dozens of helpful works on Romans that are more on a devotional or homiletical level are not included above.

And now another substantive contribution on Romans by a major NT scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School! Osborne does appear to be sensitive to the question of why, in light of the contributions already available, another commentary on Romans is needed. His response to that question should be noted.

No doubt, we in the West have published too much, while churches in the rest of the world have been unable to publish what they need. Yet many Western commentaries, for the most part, are too technical for many pastors and nearly all laypersons. Others are too shallow and miss the meaning of the text. There still needs to be a work that will make all the deep insights of the critical commentaries accessible and understand able to those without technical training, and that will show the way to apply these truths to modern life. This balance—deeply committed to the God-intended meaning of Romans and yet at the same time relevant for the daily life of the Christian—is somewhat rare in a commentary. This is one of the primary purposes for this work on Romans. The reader will have to judge how well I succeed (12).

If that is Osborne’s purpose in this commentary, then in this reviewer’s opinion, he has succeeded in accomplishing it. I would not say that this is the only commentary that succeeds in maintaining this “balance,” but it would be hard to find one that does it any better than this one.

As is the case with the other volumes in the NIV-based IVP Commentary on the NT, more technical matters are relegated to the footnotes with transliterated Greek words utilized. (One of the other authors in this series complained to me privately that the publishers had severely edited out many of his technical notes.) The comments that are directly in the main body of the text, however, indicate that there exists a scholarly sub structure beneath them.

Osborne espouses traditional evangelical views on the authorship and date of Romans (13-15). He sees Paul’s purpose as primarily ministerial, not theological, i.e., to solve existing problems in the Roman church by setting forth good theology (21). In regard to theme, Osborne sees “themes” as a better approach and seems to agree with Moo’s suggestion of three themes, related to (1) Christology, (2) Salvation History, and (3) the Gospel (21). There is nothing radically new here. Perhaps mention of Wright’s approach of suggesting a grand narrative or “story” that Paul is telling in Romans, whether one agrees with it or not, would have strengthened Osborne’s comments at this point (see Wright’s commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible mentioned earlier).

The epistle raises some controversial issues that scholars have wrestled with in recent years. Osborne shows familiarity with these discussions, and though usually mentioning the alternative views, he usually will tip his hand as to what direction he leans in these “controversies.” He does briefly refer to the recent discussions over what has been called the “New Pauline Perspective,” most often associated with the names of Sanders, Dunn, and (sometimes) Wright. In his footnotes on various passages from 3:27–4:25 (100-124), he agrees with the critics of Sanders and Dunn, and affirms that dependence on works righteousness in the Judaism of Paul’s day was a real problem that he was addressing in this epistle. These discussions most often are limited to the footnotes. In the main body of his commentary he faithfully seeks to explicate Paul’s meaning without digressions into controversial issues.

In his discussion of the meaning of the “hilasmos/ hilasterion” word group in Rom 3:21-26, Osborne agrees with Morris’ and Ridderbos’ criticisms of C. H. Dodd’s idea that God’s wrath is absent from the concept of “expiation”—the translation that Dodd prefers to “propitiation.” Osborne affirms: “Both the appeasing of Divine wrath and the forgiveness of sins are part of the concept” (97). Osborne mentions the association of the “hilasterion” with the OT mercy-seat and refers to a 1987 article by N. S. L. Fryer that defends the metaphorical “mercy seat” translation in Rom 3:25 (97). He could have strengthened his argument further if he had referred to a recent dissertation which also defends that translation by Daniel Bailey (“Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1999); see also his summary article with the same title in Tyndale Bulletin 51/1 [2000]:155-58).

Though space forbids an examination of other individual texts, some notice should be made of Osborne’s treatment of “Israel” in Romans 9–11. Simply stated, he agrees with Cranfield and Dunn that the word, especially in its use in 11:25-27, refers neither symbolically to the church nor to an elect group in Israel, but to the Jewish people as an ethnic group existing at the Parousia who will experience corporate spiritual salvation by faith in Jesus the Redeemer (305-7). Though not engaging the implications of this interpretation for the millennial debate, Osborne does appear to underscore a premillennial reading of Romans 11. He does this, not out of some blind commitment to an eschatological system, but out of a reading that arises from the texts involved.

Pastors and teachers will especially appreciate Osborne’s commentary. To be honest, pastors and even many professors have often been frustrated in plowing through pages of detailed exegetical discussions in a commentary to find the point that they want elucidated. Osborne clearly summarizes the main interpretations of the difficult passages, but he always proceeds to “give the sense” of the passage itself. He does not, like some commentators, neglect to see the forest as he wanders interminably among its many trees.

Yes, here is still another commentary on Romans. It will not replace anyone else’s volume. It will not be the standard for all commentaries for years to come. It should, however, assume a role as a very helpful aid to studying and teaching this foundational document of the Christian faith.