Researching Romans: Trent, Calvin, and Contemporary Commentaries

Well, having hauled my brain off strike after it had its week off, I have managed to get myself organized for the research paper for my independent study. Since what I’m really interested in is how Paul is perceived and preached differently in different Christian traditions, I decided to pick out a few key passages in Romans (since the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, at least, hold Romans up as the jewel of the gospel, and it is the primary scriptural foundation for the understanding of justification by faith alone) that looked likely to be interpreted differently by Catholics and Protestants.

I first thought I’d compare citations to Romans in the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification and the article on justification from the Augsburg Confession, since they seem to be documents of similar confessional weight. But Trent is far more detailed in its citations than Augsburg. So, following a footnote in Michael Horton’s View on justification, I turned to the sections of Calvin’s Institutes that treat the subject. I also checked out the Catholic Catechism and my notes from the reading I’ve been doing.

So here are the passages I’d like to look at:

– 5:1-5: The Tridentine Decree on Justification Canon 11 cites 5:5 in its anathema.

– 6:13-22: Trent cites 6:13-19 in chapter 10, in the context of faith cooperating with good works. The Catechism cites 6:19, 22 in paragraph 1995 on justification and sanctification.

– 8:28-34: Calvin identifies 8:33 as a key text establishing the forensic nature of the term justification, and 8:30-33 was cited several times by Reformed authors in my reading.

– 10:3-9: Calvin cites 10:5-9, and Trent cites 10:3

I’m also going to look at 4:23-25, because Frank Macchia, in his response to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification from a Pentecostal perspective, emphasized 4:25 as missing from the Traditional Reformed view of justification as he encountered it in seminary.

Realistically, I probably have to narrow this down some, and I think the passages from chapters 6 and 8 are likely to be most productive.

The other part of the project is to identify contemporary commentaries from a variety of confessional/denominational perspectives. I set out to find commentaries that were academically informed, but intended for preachers and bible studies rather than for theologians, so I can get a feel for what the people in the pews might be hearing from the pulpit. And I’m particularly looking for commentaries that articulate their ecclesial tradition’s distinctive interpretive stance on these passages in particular and Romans in general.

I haven’t got all these in hand yet, but I’m looking to include commentaries from the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, Baptist, Anabaptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Black Church traditions.

(See, this is why I have to limit the number of passages..!)

So… what’s your favorite Romans commentary, and within what ecclesial tradition do you study or preach? If you went to a denominational seminary, what commentaries did you use there?

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10 Responses to Researching Romans: Trent, Calvin, and Contemporary Commentaries

  1. mirabilis says:

    Just a suggestion…as you’re already seeing, different traditions/commenters within traditions focus on different passages in Romans. Why not rock and roll with that approach, instead of trying to shoehorn everything into “how XYZ traditions interpret Q passage”? You could also, instead of trying to identify random commentaries that talk about what you want them to talk about, find the commentaries by *founders* (or close thereto) of traditions. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Trent (tradition there being Counter Reformation Catholicism), etc.

    In any case, be sure to hit up Barth and Luther. πŸ™‚ Definitely read Luther, as there is stuff in his fuller commentary and his preface to the translation that pertain directly to your subject. I have many, many theological disagreements with the man, but his exegesis is generally enjoyable reading on one level or another, and, well, Romans mattered for him.

    • Thanks for your interest and comment! As you mention, I *have* already seen that different traditions focus on different passages. For this paper, I want to look at the other side of the coin, and see whether and how we interpret the *same* passages differently. It seems to me that this is an important question for ecumenical dialogue and rapprochement, because it potentially brings to light more difficult differences than just a difference in which parts of the canon we emphasize.

      Similarly, in order to do an apples-to-apples comparison, I need to pick contemporary commentaries, because not all traditions had a singular founder, and those that did, vary in terms of how significant that founder’s influence is today — it’s my perception that Lutherans are something of an outlier there in terms of how critical Luther’s own works are to Lutheran theology today. (And even there, recently the Finnish Lutherans are finding material in Luther’s writings that was de-emphasized by his successors that seem to bear a familial resemblance to the Orthodox understanding of theosis.)

      I’m more interested in how people are hearing Paul preached *today* than in a historical comparison.

      I do know that Luther considered Romans “the most important piece in the New Testament” and “purest Gospel”, but I don’t really get why: especially given that there are four other books in the New Testament to which the early church gave the name “gospel”. Can you shed any light on that for me?

      • mirabilis says:

        Ah, I can’t really speak to contemporary relevance*, although I have noticed that my Methodist preacher friends are very strongly Wesleyan, so his notes on Romans might be worth checking out. But as for Luther himself, Romans had, to generalize, two basic areas of importance. One, possibly more important historically than theologically but perhaps relevant for YOUR purposes, is that Rom 1:17 he credited as fundamental to helping him understand sola fide (his “tower experience”).

        * After all, I clicked on the link that involved Calvin and the Council of Trent. This should not come as a surprise.

        Theologically/pastorally–and this is key to understanding Luther–is that he saw Romans as the most perfect summary of the Gospels, and for Luther, the Gospels were absolutely, 100% the soul and heart of Christianity. (Hence distinguishing him from the hyper-Pauline tinge of modern “diet evangelism,” which tends to treat Paul/Pseudo-Paul as Gospel). He talks about this in the preface to his translation of Romans, if you’re interested.

        • Ah, I can’t really speak to contemporary relevance*, …

          * After all, I clicked on the link that involved Calvin and the Council of Trent. This should not come as a surprise.

          Tee hee! πŸ˜€

          Thanks for the thoughts on why Luther had such a high opinion of Romans. It does seem a little backwards to me: I mean, I’m a little suspicious that he had such a high opinion of Romans because he considered the forensic understanding of justification to be so fundamental: whereas, considering how many other metaphors there are for salvation in the New Testament or even in the Pauline letters, I’m looking for a separate reason to consider Romans so important and therefore consider placing a higher emphasis on the forensic metaphor.

          I did notice with interest today while reading through parts of the Orthodox commentary that some of the patristic writers, too, considered it in a similar way. And one of the points the author made was that Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was, essentially, written to the church in the capital city of the whole world. That context gives some reason why Paul himself might have written it more carefully and considered it more important.

        • mirabilis says:

          Let Luther explain why Rom 1:17 was such a big deal for him. πŸ™‚ The medieval context is also helpful here. The Church, via confession and absolution, had set itself up as a sort of intermediary between Christ’s righteousness (justice) and humanity, handing out righteousness, and then humans would more or less take that righteousness with them before God on Judgment Day to see whether it was enough. From that view, Luther couldn’t make sense of 1:17. Understanding Christ’s righteousness as the same thing as God’s righteousness, and already present in the lives of the faithful, was his “Reformation breakthrough,” or at least, one of them.

          As for Romans itself, I think it has a lot to do with how Romans was generally seen at the time (a proto-systematic treatment of Christian theology) and a lot to do with Luther as pastor/preacher. It’s not just the content of the epistle but its order and structure, which to him mirrored the order in which it is most helpful to learn Christian truth. And more pragmatically, Romans was one of the books with which he was most familiar and about which he had thought the most, given his early lecture series on it.

          I am not a Luther scholar, sorry if I am only muddying the waters further. And I love the idea that Paul deliberately chose the Roman church to mark the importance of the letter, rather than it being a random “oh, I’m coming to see you, here’s what you need to know.” Perhaps I should start reading things written after 1530…

  2. Dana Ames says:

    You’re not going to find commentaries like you are used to in the Orthodox Church. We don’t have them. We do have theologians who, in the process of explaining things, will quote scripture. But the way specific passages are interpreted are linked to how they are used in the prayer services and the Liturgy. For example, during the long prayer of consecration in the Liturgy, Rom 12.1-2 is alluded to, meaning that this thing we’re doin’ here is in fact that rational worship. Similarly, scripture passages which are read during the services commemorating the different feasts are juxtaposed to explain the meaning of the feast. For one of the feasts of Mary called the Entrance of the Theotokos, the OT readings are about the Ark of the Covenant being taken into the Tabernacle and then the first Temple. There is also a reading from Hebrews about the Ark. The thing we are being led to see is the paradox of the one who became the Ark carrying the Living Covenant herself going to live in the place that contained the thing that foreshadowed her. Hopefully that makes some sense to you πŸ™‚

    So if you wanted to know how the Orthodox Church interprets a passage from Romans, you have to find out where it is used in the services. It’s the service books that fill shelves of bookcases, not commentaries. However, there are folks far more knowledgeable than I who could point you to what you’d be looking for. You could try emailing Dr. Peter Bouteneff at St Vladimir’s Seminary for some sources. See here for short bio and address:


    • Hi Dana, thanks for your comment and suggestion! I actually did find one commentary published by St. Vladimir’s Press. But I’ll definitely look into the liturgical approach as well. (I’m hoping this commentary will include some pointers in that direction, at least identifying passages that are used in the liturgy.)

      I personally tend to treat the liturgy as a primary interpretive framework for scripture, which I think is one reason I often appreciate the Orthodox perspective. πŸ™‚

      • Dana Ames says:

        Awesome. That book should help you. The late Abp Dimitri was a fine scholar and linguist.

        Best regards-

        • Thanks, that is good to know! I’m definitely impressed by the level of detailed attention to the Greek in what I’ve read so far. (And it’s re-inspiring me to really, really want to learn Greek so I can read the text myself and not be at the mercy of translators, drat it!)

  3. Pingback: Parsing Paul: Quantitative and Qualitative Results | Gaudete Theology

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