woensdag 6 februari 2013

Review of: Charles H. Talbert, Romans (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2002; in: Interpretation

Charles H. Talbert, Romans (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2002

Review in: Interpretation 2004 58: 292
Review door: Richard P. Carlson
Gevonden op: http://int.sagepub.com/content/58/3/292.full.pdf+html

by Charles H. Talbert
Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth 8t Helwys, Macon, 2002.
360 pp. $50.00 (cloth). ISBN 1-57312-081-2.

CHARLES TALBERT'S COMMENTARY on Romans is the fifth addition to the new Smyth 8c Helwys Bible Commentary series. The basic format in this series consists of a commentary on the text (multifaceted exegetical analyses); sidebars supplementing the text (a plethora of material including outlines of literary structure, definitions, maps, historical information, history of interpretation, art, music, and photographs); and a consideration of the connections and implications the biblical text has for contemporary Christian life and ministry. Included is a CD-Rom (in an Adobe Acrobat format) that contains the entire commentary in an indexed and searchable format with hyperlinks. All of these elements combine to make this one of the most user-friendly, stimulating series on the market.

This particular commentary is no exception. On the one hand, Talbert is recognized as one of the most prominent New Testament scholars on the North American scene over the past three decades. He brings his expertise on Paul and the ancient world to bear in his analysis of the letter, its literary dynamics, and its theological claims. On the other hand, the reader is treated to an array of insights ranging from Luther to Barth, from African-American art to Rembrandt, from Vaughan's Easter Hymn to a John Donne sonnet. The commentary demonstrates on page after page the relevance and resilience PauPs letter has had throughout the centuries.

With regard to Romans itself, Talbert begins by laying out the historical context (and audiences) Paul is addressing and Paul's goals in writing this particular letter. Talbert sees Romans as "an occasional letter but with universal applicability" (p. 12) in which Paul is seeking to bring theological and communal unity to a community divided particularly along Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian lines. Somewhat problematic is the polemical edge Talbert (p. 16) identifies in the overarching purposes of Romans 1-8 ("the destruction of Jewish presumption and objections"), 9-11 ("overturning of Gentile pride"), 12-15 ("opposition to mutual arrogance"). While there are certainly polemical points throughout Romans, Paul's aims and tone are much more positive and edifying than Talbert states. Each of the letter's sections ends not with dire warnings or polemics but with hymnic crescendos praising God for the ultimate, merciful goals of the divine plan and activity accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Any commentary on Romans has to deal with some basic exegetical/interpretive issues such as an understanding of the righteousness of God as the letter's theme (1:16-17), how phrases such aspistis Christou and hilastërion (3:21-26) should be understood, and how one should regard Paul's comment that all Israel shall be saved (11:26). In each instance, Talbert seeks to lay out the issues and options at hand and then presents his perspectives in cogent, understandable ways. Thus he argues that God's righteousness is to be understood in terms of God's covenantal faithfulness and pistis Christou is to be regarded as a subjective genitive referring to the faithfulness of Christ; hilastërion more than likely is a noun referring to the mercy seat; and all Israel will be saved because all Israel will come to believe in Christ. While not everyone will agree with Talbert's readings, he does seek to play fair by taking seriously the alternatives and by drawing on material beyond Romans to ascertain how such terms or concepts were used in the ancient world and how the letter's audience would thus be expected to understand them. At times, however, these attempts to marshal evidence from beyond the New Testament present their own set of problems. There is no uniform attempt at dating such material, and evidence from a wide array of ancient sources (e.g., Second Temple Judaism; Josephus; Stoicism; Roman historians and rhetoricians; rabbinic Judaism) can be placed side by side without discerning differences in setting, date, milieu, content, purpose, or religious perspective. Thus occasionally the sheer weight of evidence substitutes for applicability and probability. Even worse, the amount of references in the body of the text can become tedious to sort through and at some points detracts from the otherwise lucid flow of the commentary.

Anyone who has ever sought to exegete Romans will at times disagree with Talbert's exegetical decisions. That is a given, and that is why it is helpful to study a mammoth work like Romans with three or four commentaries at hand. The one aspect of this commentary that will prove to be consistently disappointing to some readers, however, is not the exegetical decisions it makes but the interpretive connections it offers. Generally the section on connections reflects a conservative (at times somewhat polemical) application of Romans for the contemporary church. The problem is not simply the conservative perspective itself, but that it sometimes serves as the major application of texts from Romans. Thus the main focus in the connections section for Rom 1:1-17 involves traditional language for God rather than the radical implications of inclusive justification. In discussing the implications of 1:18-32, unambiguous categories from the 1950 work of Chester Quimby are used to establish society's attitudes toward sex. In 2:1-3:20, near-atheistic modern culture is a root problem of idolatry. A major focus of the hermeneutical implications of 5:1-11 is a complete rejection of feminist critiques of some atonement theologies with three quotations by William Barclay offered as the hermeneutical key to Paul's thought. In considering the implications of Romans 9-11, the conclusion is drawn that for Christians not to evangelize non-Christians (including Jews) "is a demand for the sacrifice of something central to Christian identity" (p. 274). A rejection of egalitarianism in Christian communities is part of the connective focus for 15:14-16:27. Certainly the author of a commentary has every right to present his or her theological perspectives, and Talbert does so without compromising the exegetical integrity of the Romans text itself. Yet at times the implication that the implication that Romans has for life and mission in the twentieth-first century seems too narrowly drawn.

Because of the scope, power, and influence of Romans, it is also fairly common for commentaries on Paul's epistle to reflect the doctrinal perspectives of their authors at various points, and Talbert's Baptist stance comes through from time to time. For example, in analyzing Romans 6, he resorts to Galatians 3 to claim that baptism is "effective because! of the initiates' faith" (p. 166), even though the original audience of Romans did not have Galatians 3, and in Romans 6 baptism is effective because it is inclusion into Christ's death apart from any direct mention of the initiates' faith. The English Baptists are presented as the example for holding together individuation and participation in community (p. 179), and more than once Baptists are held up as the model of religious liberty including the separation of church and state (e.g., pp. 271, 322-23). This latter point may not ring true for contemporary readers who are concerned about potential threats to American civil liberties stemming from the political and legislative involvement in the Republican Party of the religious right, which includes significant figures from the independent Baptist tradition.

No commentary on Romans can be regarded as "the" commentary on Romans. There are, however, some commentaries that deserve space on one's desk when studying this landmark Christian document. Because of the intelligent, readable, and accessible analysis on the text of Romans itself, this new commentary deserves such space.

Richard P. Carlson

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