A review of Charles Talbert's, "Romans," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Talbert, Charles H. Romans. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth and Helwys. 2002. xxii + 360 pp. $53.25. Includes CD-ROM. ISBN 1-57312-081-2.
A significant new commentary series from Smyth and Helwys has produced two OT and two NT volumes as of this writing. Commissioned authors appear to be largely from the breakaway “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship”-the group of moderate scholars who were disenfranchised by the conservative takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention. C. H. Talbert, of course, is widely known far beyond Baptist circles for a lifetime of scholarship and teaching at Wake Forest and, in very recent years, at Baylor. The format of this commentary is designed to be very user-friendly: sidebars, pictures, “Connections” sections after each segment of commentary reflecting on contemporary theological debates that emerge from the text, and a CD-ROM with the entire text and hyper-links to all of the additional side-features found in the hard copy form.
In recent years, Talbert's most well-known books have probably been his contributions to the “Reading the New Testament” series-originally published by Crossroad and now taken over also by Smyth and Helwys. Like those volumes (on Luke, John, Acts and Corinthians), Romans majors consistently on historical background-particularly via cross-references to other ancient Jewish, Greek, Roman and Christian literature with relevant excerpts quoted-and literary structure-with frequent appeal to chiasmus, sometimes convincingly but often not.
The introduction produces few controversies: Paul is writing to a predominantly Gentile congregation in Rome ca. A.D. 56 to prepare the way for a hoped for visit, setting out his understanding of the gospel in detail to a church he did not found, hoping to unify Jewish and Gentile members especially in light of the return of the former after the end of the banishment under Claudius. Talbert does surprise, however, with respect to the elements of the “new look on Paul” that he does and does not embrace. Despite recognizing the diversity within the Judaism of Paul's day, Talbert argues vigorously for a very traditional form of Reformation Christianity-a pervasive merit theology against which Paul is reacting, especially in light of his own agonizing wrestling with his inability to keep the Law as a Jew (7:14-25). On the other hand, Talbert rejects Reformation and particularly Lutheran emphases, by seeing the “righteousness of God” as God's covenant faithfulness (with issues of imputation to believers very subordinate) and by rendering the controversial pistis Iesou (or Christou) as a subjective genitive-the faithfulness Jesus exhibited-rather than objective (our faith in Christ). It is arguable that Talbert has picked the wrong parts of both the “old look” and the “new look” to embrace.
Numerous other exegetical emphases, however, seem solidly defended. There is a general revelation but not a natural theology taught in chapter 1. The Scriptures resolutely and consistently condemn homosexual practice (and churches that deny this can no longer be considered “apostolic”–p. 77). Judgment by works only condemns; it never saves. Neither “propitiation” nor “expiation” captures the sense of hilasterion in chapter 3 as well as the concept of “the new locus of the divine presence” (p. 115). Suffering is not automatically abusive-for God's Son or for us his children, despite key feminist claims to the contrary. The real dividing point in chapters 3-8 may be neither at the beginning nor at the end of chapter 5 but at 5:11/12. The tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility with respect to both predestination and perseverance must be allowed to stand, since Paul affirms both simultaneously and repeatedly.
The current hostility to Christianity by most Jews will one day give way to a widespread outpouring of faith in Jesus as Messiah, but this is not tied in to their living in the land of Israel. Christian reflection on events there must seek peace and justice for all parties without privileging any of them. But not to evangelize the Jews would be anti-Semitic, uniquely condemning them by our silence. The sequence in the exhortational material of using gifts in love mirrors 1 Corinthians 12-13 and is thus probably deliberate. Love is the unifying theme by way of inclusio of much of the disparate parenetic material in Romans 12-13. Numerous textual features relativize the submission to government enjoined in 13:1-7. A key to reproducing the tolerance of chaps. 14-15 in today's world is the Baptist emphasis on liberty of conscience-we can respect others' differing convictions or even world views without preventing them or us from sharing those views with one another in polite attempts to persuade one another. The number and prominence of roles for women in chap. 16 is both striking and significant for current application.
There are a surprising number of typos in what is otherwise a very attractively formatted volume. “Genetive” should be “genitive” (p. 45); “mades” should be “made” (p. 55); “ECNT” should be “BECNT” (p. 144, n.7); “missionzary” should be “missionary” (p. 196; footnotes 13-21 are misnumbered on p. 237, with n. 21 having metathesized into n. 12; “supersede” and cognates are misspelled seven times on pp. 244, 270-71; “Shreiner” should be “Schreiner” (p. 254); there are two “(4)'s” on p. 272, throwing the rest of the enumeration off; p. 276, n. 32 reads “Kolchba” instead of “Kochba”; n. 33 has “see” instead of “sees”; p. 282 is missing an entire “or-clause”; p. 286 has “than” for “that” and p. 309, n. 12 has “Downer's” for “Downers.”
Nevertheless, this book is well worth reading, though perhaps not purchasing at the extravagant price at which it is offered, especially since the CD reproduces exactly what is in the text and nothing more. For a quick, convenient introduction to the thought of Romans, but one nevertheless immersed in the most recent scholarship, Talbert can prove very handy.
Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament