Best Commentaries For Studying Romans: Case Study

I’ve been doing this series on Bible Study tools and was focusing on commentaries. In this post, I am going to list my commentary methodology, and a recommendation, with one book of the Bible: Romans.

I’ve read it quite a few times. Repeatedly. Taken notes on my perfect Bible and backed them up. Each time I find myself thinking “well, still don’t fully get it!” Paul had quite the brain.

But Paul was also in a certain culture. And Paul was also writing to a people in that culture. And he used words that were distinct to that culture.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve done hard work in the text. I’ve got an idea of the thought-flow. I have some fifty posts on Romans—and those are just the ones I’ve taken a chance to organize and post online! But there are some debatable things that stop me while I’m reading. Since I want to be faithful to what the God is saying in the inspired text, I get nervous. I had better consult my teachers with the questions that stop me.

For example: what was the socio-cultural milieu when Paul wrote Romans? How would they understand that whole section on the Law and divorce in Romans 7? What have other believers in Church History believed about the text? How would they struggle with Romans 3 and the justification by faith passages? How have they read Romans 9-11? Has the treatment of the passage always been the same? What would this mean today? How can it be properly applied?

Then I consult my Romans Collection (here’s a link to WorldCat if you wanted to try picking them up at the library or store: there are about 60). Witherington’s Socio-rhetorical commentary is self-explanatory. Newell tries to deal with the text verse by verse but seems to focus more on summarizing. Luther reflects the fire of the reformation. Calvin underscores a careful exegesis. MacArthur is constantly applying after dealing with the text. Barth looks like he’s responding to something (when you can understand him). Cranfield deals with the text as it stands. Hodge gives you a strong post-reformation exegesis. Augustine, Chrysostom and Origen reflect how the early church dealt with the text. Ironside tries to encourage the regular reader; Darby meditates on what the text is saying and tries to apply it.  Wright and Dunn give you another way to read the text if their historical references are right.  Moo counteracts many of their uncareful exegesis by upholding the traditional reading.

Now I’m careful. I take more care with the ones that make assumptions with the text, or with history, or with the original languages. The devotional ones, or the ones that are talking to the Regular Joe, might say things confidently without defending them and that’s a road fraught with error. I think it’s better to focus on what the text says than to focus on some flowery application that someone has made on the text. But I’m also careful with the ones who spend their time hovering over the text and creating a culture that changes the reading of the text. No good telling me the text doesn’t say what it says just because of some hypothetical historical drama.

All these commentators—giants of Biblical exegesis, theology and church history—sit around my office and discuss the text. And I let them talk.

So if you had to buy two commentaries on Romans, Moo and Cranfield are the best. Moo is easier to read and up to date with its argumentation; Cranfield often writes in Greek without bothering to translate but I think he’s more faithful with the text even if he doesn’t deal with New Perspective on Paul stuff.  If you only had to buy one, I’d say buy Moo since Cranfield’s is two volumes.

I didn’t recommend anything for the other books of the Bible since you should now have a tool for that. But remember this: if you’re going to study Scripture, especially if you plan to teach it, you had better be doing some serious work with the text and that should include consulting those people that have spent lifetimes struggling with it throughout Church history.We’re not alone.

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~ Originally posted at The Bible Archive

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