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Bible Commentaries

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

- Romans

by Adam Clarke

Preface to the Epistle to the Romans

That St. Paul was the author of this epistle, and that it possesses every evidence of authenticity that any work of the kind can possess, or that even the most fastidious skepticism can require, has been most amply proved by Dr. W. Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle, in his work entitled "Horae Paulinae; or, the Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul evinced, by a comparison of the Epistles which bear his name with the Acts of the Apostles, and with one another."

Of this apostle I have spoken at large in the notes on the preceding book, and especially in the observations at the close of the ninth chapter, to which I beg leave to refer the reader. It will be sufficient to state here, that Saul, (afterwards called Paul), was born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, of Jewish parents, who possessed the right of Roman citizens; (see the note on Acts 22:28); that, when young, he was sent to Jerusalem for the purpose of receiving a Jewish education; that he was there put under the tuition of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, and was incorporated with the sect of the Pharisees, of whose system he imbibed all the pride, self-confidence, and intolerance; and distinguished himself as one of the most inveterate enemies of the Christian cause; but, being converted by a most singular interposition of Divine Providence and grace, he became one of the most zealous promoters and successful defenders of the cause which he had before so inveterately persecuted.

Though this epistle is directed to the Romans, yet we are not to suppose that Romans, in the proper sense of the word, are meant; but rather those who dwelt at Rome, and composed the Christian Church in that city: that there were among these Romans, properly such, that is heathens who had been converted to the Christian faith, there can be no doubt; but the principal part of the Church in that city seems to have been formed from Jews, sojourners at Rome, and from such as were proselytes to the Jewish religion.

When, or by whom, the Gospel was first preached at Rome cannot be ascertained. Those who assert that St. Peter was its founder, can produce no solid reason for the support of their opinion. Had this apostle first preached the Gospel in that city, it is not likely that such an event would have been unnoticed in the Acts of the Apostles, where the labors of St. Peter are particularly detailed with those of St. Paul, which indeed form the chief subject of this book. Nor is it likely that the author of this epistle should have made no reference to this circumstance, had it been true. Those who say that this Church was founded by these two apostles conjointly, have still less reason on their side; for it is evident, from Romans 1:8, etc., that St. Paul had never been at Rome previously to his writing this epistle. It is most likely that no apostle was employed in this important work, and that the Gospel was first preached there by some of those persons who were converted at Jerusalem on the day of pentecost; for we find, from Acts 2:10, that there were at Jerusalem strangers of Rome, Jews, and proselytes; and these, on their return, would naturally declare the wonders they had witnessed, and proclaim that truth by which they themselves had received salvation. Of Rome itself, then the metropolis of the world, a particular account has been given in the note on Acts 28:16 (note); to which the reader is requested to refer.

The occasion of writing this epistle may be easily collected from the epistle itself. It appears that St. Paul had been made acquainted with all the circumstances of the Christians at Rome, by Aquila and Priscilla, (see Romans 16:3), and by other Jews who had been expelled from Rome by the decree of Claudius, (mentioned Acts 18:2); and, finding that they consisted partly of heathens converted to Christianity, and partly of Jews who had, with many remaining prejudices, believed in Jesus as the true Messiah, and that many contentions arose from the claims of the Gentile converts to equal privileges with the Jews, and from the absolute refusal of the Jews to admit these claims unless the Gentile converts became circumcised, he wrote to adjust and settle these differences.

Dr. Paley, with his usual perspicuity, has shown that the principal object of the argumentative part of the epistle is "to place the Gentile convert upon a parity of situation with the Jewish, in respect of his religious condition, and his rank in the Divine favor." The epistle supports this point by a variety of arguments; such as, that no man of either description was justified by the works of the law - or this plain reason, that no man had performed them; that it became therefore necessary to appoint another medium, or condition of justification, in which new medium the Jewish peculiarity was merged and lost; that Abraham's own justification was antecedent to the law, and independent of it; that the Jewish converts were to consider the law as now dead, and themselves as married to another; that what the law in truth could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God had done by sending his Son; that God had rejected the unbelieving Jews, and had substituted in their place a society of believers in Christ, collected indifferently from Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, in an epistle directed to Roman believers, the point to be endeavored after by St. Paul was to reconcile the Jewish converts to the opinion that the Gentiles were admitted by God to a parity of religious situation with themselves, and that without their being obliged to keep the law of Moses. In this epistle, though directed to the Roman Church in general, it is, in truth, a Jew writing to Jews. Accordingly, as often as his argument leads him to say any thing derogatory from the Jewish institution, he constantly follows it by a softening clause. Having, Romans 2:28, Romans 2:29, pronounced "that he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor that circumcision which is outward in the flesh," he adds immediately, "What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there in circumcision? Much every way." Having in Romans 3:28, brought his argument to this formal conclusion, "that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law," he presently subjoins, Romans 3:31, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law." In the seventh chapter, when in Romans 7:6 he had advanced the bold assertion, "that now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held;" in the next verse he comes in with this healing question, "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid! Nay, I had not known sin but by the law." Having, in the following words, more than insinuated the inefficacy of the Jewish law, Romans 8:3 : "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh;" after a digression indeed, but that sort of a digression which he could never resist, a rapturous contemplation of his Christian hope, and which occupies the latter part of this chapter; we find him in the next, as if sensible that he had said something which would give offense, returning to his Jewish brethren in terms of the warmest affection and respect: "I say the truth in Christ Jesus, I lie not; my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart; for I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers; and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came." When, in the 31st and 32nd verses of the ninth chapter, he represented to the Jews the error of even the best of their nation, by telling them that "Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, had not attained to the law of righteousness, because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law, for they stumbled at that stumbling-stone;" he takes care to annex to this declaration these conciliating expressions: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved; for I bear them record, that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." Lastly, having, Romans 10:20, Romans 10:21, by the application of a passage in Isaiah, insinuated the most ungrateful of all propositions to a Jewish ear, the rejection of the Jewish nation as God's peculiar people; he hastens, as it were, to qualify the intelligence of their fall by this interesting exposition: "I say then, hath God cast away his people, (i.e. wholly and entirely?) God forbid! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew;" and follows this throughout the whole of the eleventh chapter, in a series of reflections calculated to soothe the Jewish converts, as well as to procure from their Gentile brethren respect to the Jewish institution. Dr. Paley, drawing an argument from this manner of writing, in behalf of the genuineness of this epistle, adds, "Now all this is perfectly natural. In a real St. Paul writing to real converts, it is what anxiety to bring them over to his persuasion would naturally produce; but there is an earnestness and a personality, if I may so call it, in the manner, which a cold forgery, I apprehend, would neither have conceived nor supported." Horae Paulinae, p. 49, etc.

From a proper consideration of the design of the apostle in writing this epistle, and from the nature and circumstances of the persons to whom it was directed, much light may be derived for a proper understanding of the epistle itself. When the reader considers that the Church at Rome was composed of heathens and Jews, that the latter were taught to consider themselves the only people on earth to whom the Divine favor extended; that these alone had a right to all the blessings of the Messiah's kingdom; that the giving them the law and the prophets, which had not been given to any other people, was the fullest proof that these privileges did not extend to the nations of the earth; and that, though it was possible for the Gentiles to be saved, yet it must be in consequence of their becoming circumcised, and taking on them the yoke of the law: - when, on the other hand, the reader considers the Roman Gentiles, who formed the other part of the Church at Rome, as educated in the most perfect contempt of Judaism and of the Jews, who were deemed to be haters of all mankind, and degraded with the silliest superstitions, and now evidently rejected and abandoned by that God in whom they professed to trust; it is no wonder if, from these causes, many contentions and scandals arose, especially at a time when the spirit of Christianity was but little understood, and among a people, too, who do not appear to have had any apostolic authority established among them to compose feuds and settle religious differences.

That the apostle had these things particularly in his eye is evident from the epistle itself. His first object is to confound the pride of the Jews and the Gentiles; and this he does by showing the former that they had broken their own law, and, consequently, forfeited all the privileges which the obedient had a right to expect. He shows the latter that, however they might boast of eminent men, who had been an honor to their country, nevertheless, the Gentiles, as a people, were degraded by the basest of crimes, and the lowest idolatry; that, in a word, the Gentiles had as little cause to boast in their philosophers as the Jews had to boast in the faith and piety of their ancestors; "for all had sinned and come short of the glory of God." This subject is particularly handled in the five first chapters, and often referred to in other places.

Concerning the time in which this epistle was written, there is not much difference of opinion: it is most likely that it was written about a.d. 58, when Paul was at Corinth: see Romans 16:23, conferred with Colossians 1:1:14; and Romans 16:1, conferred with 2 Timothy 4:20. It appears, from Romans 16:22, that Paul did not write this epistle with his own hand, but used a person called Tertius as his amanuensis; and that it was sent by the hands of Phoebe, a deaconess, (δια φοιβης της διακυνου), of the Church of Cenchrea, which was the eastern port on the Isthmus of Corinth.

From internal evidence Dr. Paley has demonstrated the authenticity of this epistle; and its existence in the ancient Antehieronymian versions and the Syriac, as well as its being mentioned by the Apostolic Fathers, Barnabas, chap. xii. 13; Clemens Romanus, Ep. i. c. i. 30, 32, 35, 46; Ignatius, Epist. ad Ephes. 20, ad Smyrn. 1, ad Trall. 8; and Polycarp, 3 and 6, and by all succeeding writers, puts it beyond all dispute.

Of the fourteen epistles attributed to St. Paul, (thirteen only of which bear his name), this has been reckoned the first in importance, though certainly not in order of time; for there is every reason to believe that both the epistles to the Thessalonians, that to the Galatians, those to the Corinthians, the first to Timothy, and that to Titus, were all written before the epistle to the Romans. See the dates of the books of the New Testament at the end of the introduction to the Gospels, etc..

In the arrangement of the epistles nothing seems to have been consulted besides the length of the epistle, the character of the writer, and the importance of the place to which it was sent. Rome, being the mistress of the world, the epistle to that city was placed first. Those to the Corinthians, because of the great importance of their city, next. Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica, follow in graduated order. Timothy, Titus, and Philemon succeed in the same way: and the epistle to the Hebrews, because the author of it was long in dispute, was placed at the end of the epistles of Paul, as being probably written by him. James, as Bp. of Jerusalem, precedes Peter, Peter precedes John, as the supposed chief of the apostles; and John the beloved disciple, Jude. The book of the Revelation, as being long disputed in the Christian Church, was thrown to the conclusion of the New Testament Scriptures. The surats or chapters of the Koran were disposed in the same sort of order; the longest being put first, and all the short ones thrown to the end, without any regard to the times in which it was pretended they were revealed.

There have been some doubts concerning the language in which this epistle was written. John Adrian Bolten endeavored to prove that St. Paul wrote it in Syriac, and that it was translated into Greek by Tertius: but this supposition has been amply refuted by Griesbach. Others think that it must have been written originally in Latin, the language of the people to whom it was addressed; "for although the Greek tongue was well known in Rome, yet it was the language of the great and the learned; and it is more natural to suppose that the apostle would write in the language of the common people, as those were most likely to be his chief readers, than that of the great and the learned." This argument is more specious than solid. -

1. It is certain that at this time the Greek language was very generally cultivated in Rome, as it was in most parts of the Roman empire. Cicer., pro Arch. 10, says Graeca leguntur in omnibus fere gentibus: Latina, suis finibus, exiguis sane continentur. "The Greek writings are read in almost all nations: those of the Latin within their own narrow limits." Tacitus, Orator. 29, observes, Nunc natus infans delegatur Graeculae alicui ancillae. "Now the new-born child is put under the care of some Greek maid;" and this undoubtedly for the purpose of its learning to speak the Greek tongue. And Juvenal, Sat. vi. ver. 184, ridicules this affectation of his countrymen, which in his time appears to have been carried to a most extravagant excess.

Nam quid rancidius, quam quod se non putat ulla

Formosam, nisi quae de Tusca Graecula facta est?

De Sulmonensi mera Cecropis? Omnia Graece,

Cum sit turpe magis nostris nescire Latine.

Hoc sermone pavent, hoc Iram, Gaudia, Curas,

Hoc cuncta effundunt animi secreta. Quid ultrae

"For what so nauseous and affected too,

As those that think they due perfection want

Who have not learned to lisp the Grecian cant?

In Greece their whole accomplishments they seek:

Their fashion, breeding, language must be Greek,

But raw in all that does to Rome belong,

They scorn to cultivate their mother-tongue,

In Greek they flatter, all their fears they speak,

Tell all their secrets, nay they scold in Greek."


From these testimonies it is evident that the Greek was a common language in Rome in the days of the apostle; and that in writing in this language, which he probably understood better than he did Latin, he consulted the taste and propensity of the Romans, as well as the probability of his epistle being more extensively read in consequence of its being written in Greek.

2. But were these arguments wanting, there are others of great weight that evince the propriety of choosing this language in preference to any other. The sacred writings of the Old Testament were, at that time, confined to two languages, the Hebrew and the Greek. The former was known only within the confines of Palestine; the latter over the whole Roman empire: and the Latin tongue appears to have been as much confined to Italy as the Hebrew was to Judea. The epistle, therefore, being designed by the Spirit of God to be of general use to the Christian Churches, not only in Italy, but through Greece and all Asia Minor, where the Greek language was spoken and understood, it was requisite that the instructions to be conveyed by it should be put in a language the most generally known; and a language too which was then in high and in daily increasing credit.

3. As the Jews were the principal objects of the epistle, and they must be convinced of the truth of Christianity from the evidence of their own Scriptures; and as the Greek version of the Septuagint was then their universal text-book, in all their dispersions, it was absolutely requisite that the epistle should be written in a tongue with which they were best acquainted, and in which their acknowledged Scriptures were contained. These arguments seem conclusive for a Greek and not a Latin original of this epistle.

From the manner in which this epistle has been interpreted and applied, various most discordant and conflicting opinions have originated. Many commentators, forgetting the scope and design of it, have applied that to men in general which most obviously belongs to the Jews, as distinguished from the Gentiles, and to them only. From this one mistake the principal controversies that have agitated and divided the Church of Christ concerning the doctrines of unconditional reprobation and election have arisen. Men, eminent for their talents, learning, and piety, have interpreted and applied the whole on this mistaken ground. They have been opposed by others, not at all their inferiors either in religion or learning, who, not attending properly to the scope of the apostle, have rather argued from the perfections of the Divine nature, and the general concurrent sense of Scripture, and thus proved that such doctrines cannot comport with those perfections, nor with the analogy of faith; and that the apostle is to be interpreted according to these, and not according to the apparent grammatical import of the phraseology which he employs. On both sides the disputes have run high; the cause of truth has gained little, and Christian charity and candour have been nearly lost. Dispassionate men, on seeing this, have been obliged to exclaim: -

- tantaene animis coelestibus irae!

Can such fierce zeal in heavenly bosoms dwell!

To compose these differences, and do justice to the apostle, and set an important portion of the word of God in its true and genuine light, Dr. John Taylor of Norwich, a divine who yielded to few in command of temper, benevolent feeling, and deep acquaintance with the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, undertook the elucidation of this much-controverted epistle. The result of his labors was a paraphrase and notes on the whole book, to which is prefixed "A Key to the Apostolic Writings; or, an essay to explain the Gospel scheme, and the principal words and phrases the apostles have used in describing it." 4to. 1769, fourth edition. This Key, in the main, is a most invaluable work, and has done great justice to the subject. Christians, whether advocates for general or particular redemption, might have derived great service from this work, in explaining the Epistle to the Romans; but the author's creed, who was an Arian, (for he certainly cannot be ranked with modern Unitarians), has prevented many from consulting his book.

To bring the subject of this epistle before the reader, into the fairest and most luminous point of view in my power, I think it right to make a large extract from this Key, steering as clear as possible of those points in which my own creed is certainly at variance with that of my author; especially in the articles of Original Sin, the Atonement, and Deity of Christ; but as these points are seldom directly touched in this introductory key, the reader need be under no apprehension that he shall meet with any thing in hostility to the orthodoxy of his own creed.

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