God Is One and God Is Fair: Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Jon Isaak. Luminaire Studies. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Publications, 2006. 281 pages.
Jon Isaak, Associate Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, has produced an impressive volume in this latest contribution to the Luminaire Studies commentary series. Acknowledging that the goal of reading or hearing “Paul on his own terms” (12, 15) is a difficult task today, requiring “much courage, persistence and imagination,” Isaak deftly brings the fruits of recent scholarship on Paul to a popular audience. Knowing that what is often heard in a study of Romans are merely “the voices of later commentators fighting their own theological battles, using and even misusing Paul’s words,” Isaak pursues an interpretation that is both faithful to Paul’s ancient voice, but ultimately transformational, drawing forth the “dividends” for the church’s ongoing life today. His goal is “to discern the living and transforming word of the Lord percolating up through this ancient text and reaching forward to the present.” Isaak carefully unpacks Paul’s difficult and rich vocabulary on sin, salvation, atonement, and transformation in an accessible and engaging manner.
Primary guideposts for his own reading include the recent Romans commentaries by Luke Timothy Johnson (1997) and John E. Toews (2004), while the contributions of J. Christiaan Beker (1980) on Paul’s theology and E. P. Sanders (1977) on contemporaneous Judaism, figure significantly (even if more below the surface) in his presentation. Deciding which topics or details of Romans to explain in brief compass is not an easy task. Isaak has remarkably kept the key features of the Romans forest in view, while attending to the details of crucial individual trees. Helpful especially for general readers will be his discussions of complex theological issues on sin, Christology, soteriology (e.g., understandings of the atonement or predestination), and ecclesiology. The sections on application and reflection, a standard element of the Luminaire series, flow naturally from his biblical exposition, and Isaak displays a passion for the contemporary horizon of Paul’s witness. Venturing into contested terrain, for instance, he spends 9 pages (altogether) reflecting on two verses (1:26-27), where Paul touches on the topic of homosexuality.
Some minor oversights, however, can be noted. (1) Isaak discusses the Christological “enthronement drama” at the outset of Romans (1:3-4) with reference only to later Christological preoccupations (adoptionism, etc.), and without any reference to the crucial, political impact of this for anyone living in Rome (and for the modern reader)—the obvious assault on in the imperial claimants to world reign. The bracketing impact of this inaugural Messianic enthronement together with the closing Christological flourish in 15:8-12, with its claim that the Messiah will “rule all the nations,” is thus muted. (2) Despite Isaak’s interest in seeking to read Paul “on his own terms” and from the standpoint of “Paul’s situation,” the use of terms such as Jewish, Christian, and Jewish Christian, without careful explanation of the anachronism is potentially misleading. When it is understood that Paul never ceased to be a self-identified Jew, and never thought of “Christianity” as separate from the faith of Abraham, even though he objected to certain forms of “Judaizing,” this is a most crucial matter. Thus, to label certain sections of Romans as “Jewish objections” is almost dangerous (at best, they might represent the objections of certain kinds of Jewish thinkers and even their Gentile adherents), and to note that 11:13-24 is a “digression” when it forms the beginning of the climax of Paul’s argument against “Gentile arrogance” (the arrogance of the nations) is unfortunate. (3) While the title of the volume is catchy (“God is One and God is Fair,” adopted from L. Johnson), it is not precisely appropriate to Isaak’s own argument. “Fairness” today is almost too connected with notions of distributive justice (with its primarily forensic or legal connotations, which Isaak wishes to downplay) to be an appropriate headline for Paul. While Isaak is to be commended for placing God and God’s Oneness at the center of Romans, what is at stake in Romans is God’s impartial and inclusive welcoming on the basis of God’s fidelity and reliability to peoples and promises old and new (and ultimately to the whole of the cosmos).