Book Overview - Romans
by William Nicoll
BY THE RIGHT REVEREND HANDLEY C.G. MOULE, D.D.
BISHOP MOULE was Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, from 1881 until he was elected Norrisian Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University, in 1899. He was consecrated Bishop of Durham in 1901 and maintained the distinction given this Episcopal See by his predecessors, Bishop Lightfoot and Bishop Westcott. He wrote many expositions, commentaries, theological and devotional works and biographies. Among them were “Outlines of Christian Doctrine,” “Veni Creator,” “Cathedral, University and Other Sermons,” “Ephesian Studies.” His Biography was written by J.B. Harford and F. C. Macdonald.
The Epistle to the Romans is the most constructive writing of the Apostle Paul. This systematic exposition of the Christian Faith met the difficulties of Jewish unbelief and pagan scepticism and confirmed the confidence of Christians in the revelation of eternal facts and principles, based upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The problem, of faith and conduct are discussed in a truly catholic spirit without the narrowness of sectarianism. Its comprehensive outlook contemplates the unity of mankind in Christ.
Bishop Moule’s exposition of this encyclical letter is marked by the rare spiritual insight of cultured evangelicalism. He also shows how this letter, dictated by St. Paul in the house of the wealthy Gaius of Corinth, in the spring of 58 A.D., has continued to refresh and replenish the resources of Christians in every age by giving them access to the fountain of eternal life and redemption.
HE who attempts to expound the Epistle to the Romans, when his sacred task is over, is little disposed to speak about his Commentary; he is occupied rather with an ever deeper reverence and wonder over the Text which he has been permitted to handle, a Text so full of a marvellous man, above all so full of God.
But it seems needful to say a few words about the style of the running Translation of the Epistle which will be found interwoven with this Exposition.
The writer is aware that the translation is often rough and formless. His apology is that it has been done with a view not to a connected reading, but to the explanation of details. A rough piece of rendering, which would be a misrepresentation in a continuous version, because it would be out of scale with the general style, seems to be another matter when it only calls the reader’s attention to a particular point presented for study at the moment.
Again, he is aware that his rendering of the Greek article in many passages (for example, where he has ventured to explain it by “our,” “true” (etc.), is open to criticism. But he intends no more in such places than a suggestion; and he is conscious, as he has said sometimes at the place, that it is almost impossible to render the article as he has done in these cases without a certain exaggeration, which must be discounted by the reader.
The use of the article in Greek is one of the simplest and most assured things in grammar, as to its main principles. But as regards some details of the application of principle, there is nothing in grammar which seems so easily to elude the line of law.
It is scarcely necessary to say that on questions of literary criticism, which in no respect, or at most remotely, concern exposition, this Commentary says little or nothing. It is well known to literary students of the Epistle that some phenomena in the text, from the close of ch. 14 onwards, have raised important and complex questions. It has been asked whether the great Doxology (Romans 16:25-27) always stood where it now stands; whether it should stand at the close of our ch. 14; whether its style and wording allow us to regard it as contemporary with the Epistle as a whole, or whether they indicate that it was written later in St. Paul’s course; whether our fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, while Pauline, are not out of place in an Epistle to Rome; in particular, whether the list of names in ch. 16 is compatible with a Roman destination.
These questions, with one exception, that which affects the list of names, are not even touched upon in the present Exposition. The expositor, personally convinced that the pages we know as the Epistle to the Romans are not only all genuine but all intimately coherent, has not felt himself called to discuss, in a devotional writing, subjects more proper to the lecture room and the study; and which certainly would be out of place in the ministry of the pulpit.
Meantime, those who care to read a masterly debate on the literary problems in question may consult the recently published volume (1893) “Biblical Studies,” by the late Bishop Lightfoot of Durham. That volume contains (pp. 287-374) three critical Essays (1869, 1871), two by Bishop Lightfoot, one by the late Dr. Hort, on “The Structure and Destination of the Epistle to the Romans.” The two illustrious friends, - Hort criticising Lightfoot, Lightfoot replying to Hort, - examine the phenomena of Romans 15:1-33; Romans 16:1-27. Lightfoot advocates the theory that St. Paul, some time after writing the Epistle, issued an abridged edition for wider circulation, omitting the direction to Rome, closing the document with our ch. 14, and then (not before) writing, as a finale, the great Doxology. Hort holds to the practical entirety of the Epistle as we have it, and reasons at length for the contemporaneousness of Romans 16:25-27 with the rest.
We may note here that both Hort and Lightfoot contend for the conciliatory aim of the Roman Epistle. They regard the great passage about Israel (9-11) as in some sense the heart of the Epistle, and the doctrinal passages preceding this as all more or less meant to bear on the relations not only of the Law and the Gospel, but of the Jew and the Gentile as members of the one Christian Church. There is great value in this suggestion, explained and illustrated as it is in the Essays in question. But the thought may easily be worked to excess. It seems plain to the present writer that when the Epistle is studied from within its deepest spiritual element, it shows us the Apostle fully mindful of the largest aspects of the life and work of the Church, but also, and yet more, occupied with the problem of the relation of the believing sinner to God. The question of personal salvation was never, by St. Paul, forgotten in that of Christian policy.
To return for a moment to this Exposition, or rather to its setting; it may be doubted whether, in imagining the dictation of the Epistle to be begun and completed by St. Paul within one day we have not imagined “a hard thing.” But at worst it is not an impossible thing, if the Apostle’s utterance was as sustained as his thought.
It remains only to express the hope that these pages may serve in some degree to convey to their readers a new Tolle, Lege for the divine Text itself; if only by suggesting to them sometimes the words of St. Augustine, “To Paul I appeal from all interpreters of his writings.”
TIME, PLACE, AND OCCASION
IT is the month of February, in the year of Christ 58. In a room in the house of Gaius, a wealthy Corinthian Christian, Paul the Apostle, having at his side his amanuensis Tertius, addresses himself to write to the converts of the mission at Rome.
The great world meanwhile is rolling on its way. It is the fourth year of Nero; he is Consul the third time, with Valerius Messala for his colleague; Poppaea has lately caught the unworthy Prince in the net of her bad influence. Domitius Corbulo has just resumed the war with Parthia, and prepares to penetrate the highlands of Armenia. Within a few weeks, in the full spring, an Egyptian imposter is about to inflame Jerusalem with his Messianic claim, to lead four thousand fanatics into the desert, and to return to the city with a host of thirty thousand men, only to be totally routed by the legionaries of Felix. For himself, the Apostle is about to close his three months’ stay at Corinth; he has heard of plots against his life, and will in prudence decline the more direct route from Cenchrea by sea, striking northward for Philippi, and thence over the Aegaean to Troas. Jerusalem he must visit, if possible, before May is over, for he has by him the Greek collections to deliver to the poor converts of Jerusalem. Then, in the vista of his further movements, he sees Rome, and thinks with a certain apprehension, yet with longing hope, about life and witness there.
A Greek Christian woman is about to visit the City, Phoebe, a ministrant of the mission at Cenchrea. He must commend her to the Roman brethren; and a deliberate Letter to them is suggested by this personal need.
His thoughts have long gravitated to the City of the World. Not many months before, at Ephesus, when he had "purposed in the Spirit" to visit Jerusalem, he had said, with an emphasis which his biographer remembered, "I must also see Rome"; [Acts 19:21] "I must," in the sense of a divine decree, which had written this journey down in the plan of his life. He was assured too by circumstantial and perhaps by supernatural signs, that he had "now no more place in these parts" [Romans 15:23] - that is, in the Eastern Roman world where hitherto all his labour had been spent. The Lord, who in former days had shut Paul up to a track which led him through Asia Minor to the Aegaean, and across the Aegaean to Europe, [Acts 16:1-40] now prepared to guide him, though by paths which His servant knew not, from Eastern Europe to Western, and before all things to the City. Amongst these providential preparations was a growing occupation of the Apostle’s thought with persons and interests in the Christian circle there. Here, as we have seen, was Phoebe, about to take ship for Italy. Yonder, in the great Capital, were now resident again the beloved and faithful Aquila and Prisca, no longer excluded by the Claudian edict, and proving already, we may fairly conclude, the central influence in the mission, whose first days perhaps dated from the Pentecost itself, when Roman "strangers" [Acts 2:10] saw and heard the wonders and the message of that hour. At Rome also lived other believers personally known to Paul, drawn by unrecorded circumstances to the Centre of the world. "His well-beloved" Epaenetus was there; Mary, who had sometimes tried hard to help him; Andronicus, and Junias, and Herodion, his relatives; Amplias and Stachys, men very dear to him; Urbanus, who had worked for Christ at his side; Rufus, no common Christian in his esteem, and Rufus’ mother, who had once watched over Paul with a mother’s love. All these rise before him as he thinks of Phoebe, and her arrival, and the faces and the hands which at his appeal would welcome her in the Lord, under the holy freemasonry of primeval Christian fellowship.
Besides, he has been hearing about the actual state of that all-important mission. As "all roads led to Rome," so all roads led from Rome, and there were Christian travellers everywhere [Romans 1:8] who could tell him how the Gospel fared among the metropolitan brethren. As he heard of them, so he prayed for them, "without ceasing," [Romans 1:9] and made request too for himself, now definitely and urgently, that his way might be opened to visit them at last.
To pray for others, if the prayer is prayer indeed, and based to some extent on knowledge, is a sure way to deepen our interest in them, and our sympathetic insight into their hearts and conditions. From the human side, nothing more than these tidings and these prayers was needed to draw from St. Paul a written message to be placed in Phoebe’s care. From this same human side again, when he once addressed himself to write, there were circumstances of thought and action which would naturally give direction to his message.
He stood amidst circumstances most significant and suggestive in matters of Christian truth. Quite recently his Judaist rivals had invaded the congregations of Galatia, and had led the impulsive converts there to quit what seemed their firm grasp on the truth of Justification by Faith only. To St. Paul this was no mere battle of abstract definitions, nor again was it a matter of merely local importance. The success of the alien teachers in Galatia showed him that the same specious mischiefs might win their way, more or less quickly, anywhere. And what would success mean? It would mean the loss of the joy of the Lord, and the strength of that joy, in the misguided Churches. Justification by Faith meant nothing less than Christ all in all, literally all in all, for sinful man’s pardon and acceptance. It meant a profound simplicity of personal reliance altogether upon Him before the fiery holiness of eternal Law. It meant a look out and up, at once intense and unanxious, from alike the virtues and the guilt of man, to the mighty merits of the Saviour. It was precisely the foundation fact of salvation, which secured that the process should be, from its beginning, not humanitarian but divine. To discredit that was not merely to disturb the order of a missionary community; it was to hurt the vitals of the Christian soul, tingeing with impure elements the mountain springs of the peace of God. Fresh as he was now from combating this evil in Galatia, St. Paul would be sure to have it in his thoughts when he turned to Rome; for there it was only too certain that his active adversaries would do their worst; probably they were at work already.
Then, he had been just engaged also with the problems of Christian life, in the mission fit Corinth. There the main trouble was less of creed than of conduct. In the Corinthian Epistles we find no great traces of an energetic heretical propaganda, but rather a bias in the converts towards a strange license of temper and life. Perhaps this was even accentuated by a popular logical assent to the truth of Justification taken alone, isolated from other concurrent truths, tempting the Corinthian to dream that he might "continue in sin that grace might abound." If such were his state of spiritual thought, he would encounter (by his own fault) a positive moral danger in the supernatural "Gifts" which at Corinth about that time seem to have appeared with quite abnormal power. An Antinomian theory, in the presence of such exaltations, would lead the man easily to the conception that he was too free and too rich in the supernatural order to be the servant of common duties, and even of common morals. Thus the Apostle’s soul would be full of the need of expounding to its depths the vital harmony of the Lord’s work for the believer and the Lord’s work in him; the coordination of a free acceptance with both the precept and the possibility of holiness. He must show once for all how the justified are bound to be pure and humble, and how they can so be, and what forms of practical dutifulness their life must take. He must make it clear forever that the Ransom which releases also purchases; that the Lord’s freeman is the Lord’s property; that the Death of the Cross, reckoned as the death of the justified sinner, leads direct to his living union with the Risen One, including a union of will with will; and that thus the Christian life, if true to itself, must be a life of loyalty to every obligation, every relation, constituted in God’s providence among men. The Christian who is not attentive to others, even where their mere prejudices and mistakes are in question, is a Christian out of character. So is the Christian who is not a scrupulously loyal citizen, recognising civil order as the will of God. So is the Christian who in any respect claims to live as he pleases, instead of as the bondservant of his Redeemer should live.
Another question had been pressing the Apostle’s mind, and that for years, but recently with a special weight. It was the mystery of Jewish unbelief. Who can estimate the pain and greatness of that mystery in the mind of St. Paul? His own conversion, while it taught him patience with his old associates, must have filled him also with some eager hopes for them. Every deep and self-evidencing manifestation of God in a man’s soul suggests to him naturally the thought of the glorious things possible in the souls of others. Why should not the leading Pharisee, now converted, be the signal, and the means, of the conversion of the Sanhedrin, and of the people? But the hard mystery of sin crossed such paths of expectation, and more and more so as the years went on. Judaism outside the Church was stubborn, and energetically, hostile. And within the Church, sad and ominous fact, it crept in underground, and sprung up in an embittered opposition to the central truths. What did all this mean? Where would it end? Had Israel sinned, collectively, beyond pardon and repentance? Had God cast off His people? These troublers of Galatia, these fiery rioters before the tribunal of Gallio at Corinth, did their conduct mean that all was over for the race of Abraham? The question was agony to Paul; and he sought his Lord’s answer to it as a thing without which he could not live. That answer was full in his soul when he meditated his Letter to Rome, and thought of the Judaists there, and also of the loving Jewish friends of his heart there who would read his message when it came.
Thus we venture to describe the possible outward and inward conditions under which the Epistle to the Romans was conceived and written. Well do we recollect that our account is conjectural. But the Epistle in its wonderful fulness, both of outline and of detail, gives to such conjectures more than a shadow for basis. We do not forget again that the Epistle, whatever the Writer saw around him or felt within him, was, when produced, infinitely more than the resultant of Paul’s mind and life; it was, and is, an oracle of God, a Scripture, a revelation of eternal facts and principles by which to live and die. As such we approach it in this book; not to analyse only or explain, but to submit and to believe; taking it as not only Pauline, but Divine. But then, it is not the less therefore Pauline. And this means that both the thought and the circumstances of St. Paul are to be traced and felt in it as truly, and as naturally, as if we had before us the letter of an Augustine, or a Luther, or a Pascal. He who chose the writers of the Holy Scriptures, many men scattered over many ages, used them each in his surroundings and in his character, yet so as to harmonise them all in the Book which, while many, is one. He used them with the sovereign skill of Deity. And that skilful use meant that He used their whole being, which He had made, and their whole circumstances, which He had ordered. They were indeed His amanuenses; nay, I fear not to say they were His pens. But He is such that He can manipulate as His facile implement no mere piece of mechanism, which, however subtle and powerful, is mechanism still, and can never truly cause anything: He can take a human personality, made in His own image, pregnant, formative, causative, in all its living thought, sensibility, and will, and can throw it freely upon its task of thinking and expression-and behold, the product will be His; His matter, His thought, His exposition, His Word, "living and abiding forever."
Thus we enter in spirit the Corinthian citizen’s house, in the sunshine of the early Greek spring, and find our way, invisible and unheard, to where Tertius sits with his reed pen and strips of papyrus, and where Paul is prepared to give him, word by word, sentence by sentence, this immortal message. Perhaps the corner of the room is heaped with hair cloth from Cilicia, and the implements of the tentmaker. But the Apostle is now the guest of Gaius, a man whose means enable him to be "the host of the whole Church"; so we may rather think that for the time this manual toil is intermitted. Do we seem to see the form and face of him who is about to dictate? The mist of time is in our eyes; but we may credibly report that we find a small and much emaciated frame, and a face remarkable for its arched brows and wide forehead, and for the expressive mobility of the lips. We trace in looks, in manner and tone of utterance, and even in unconscious attitude and action, tokens of a mind rich in every faculty, a nature equally strong in energy and in sympathy, made both to govern and to win, to will and to love. The man is great and wonderful, a master soul, subtle, wise, and strong. Yet he draws us with pathetic force to his heart, as one who asks and will repay affection.
As we look on his face we think, with awe and gladness, that with those same thought-tired eyes (and are they not also troubled with disease?) he has literally seen, only twenty years ago, so he will quietly assure us, the risen and glorified Jesus. His work during those twenty years, his innumerable sufferings, above all, his spirit of perfect mental and moral sanity, yet of supernatural peace and love-all make his assurance absolutely trustworthy. He is a transfigured man since that sight of Jesus Christ, who now "dwells in his heart by faith," and uses him as the vehicle of His will and work. And now listen. The Lord is speaking through His servant. The scribe is busy with his pen, as the message of Christ is uttered through the soul and from the lips of Paul.
the Third Sunday after Epiphany