I have heard remarks in Sunday School class like “Paul is like Isaiah; I don’t understand what he is saying” or “Romans is the most difficult and confusing book of the New Testament.” Difficulty with Paul's writing, particularly Romans, goes so far that sometimes, in jest, someone will suggest that Paul was perhaps not well informed about the gospel. In addition, as a missionary—both full-time and in the stake—I found Romans used more than any other book of the Bible as evidence that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches false doctrine. For example, many who do not believe that baptism is necessary or who believe that a single act of faith can save them find what they take to be evidence for their positions in Romans.
I write this book in response to both these problems. This book is intended to help Latter-day Saints understand Paul's message in the book of Romans, to help us see that it contains a great deal that is applicable to our situation today. In his letter, Paul teaches what it means to be faithfully obedient, contrasting faithful obedience with sinfulness and the hypocrisy of mere seeming obedience, both dangers we face today. I have also written this book to show that Paul preaches the same gospel taught by all the prophets—Isaiah, Habakkuk, Nephi, Jacob, Moroni, Joseph Smith, Spencer W. Kimball, and Gordon B. Hinckley. When we understand Romans, it is obvious that not only need we not fear having others discuss Paul’s teachings, but we can use those very teachings to teach the truthfulness of the gospel understood through latter-day revelation. When understood correctly, Romans and the Book of Mormon teach the same things.
A Latter-day Saint might ask, “Why study Romans in particular, and why study one chapter in this much detail?” I have no easy answer except that the New Testament book of Romans has attracted my attention for ten years or more. I have read Romans and reread it; I have thought and written about it. I cannot seem to get it out of my mind, so I have undertaken to write this book, which contains a translation of chapter 1 of the book of Romans to use for comparison to the King James Version (KJV),1 a discussion of the text of the letter, and a comparison of the contemporary critical Greek text and the King James Version with the Joseph Smith Translation.
Why only chapter 1? A flippant answer might be that it took so many pages to do chapter one that I quit there. A more serious answer is that the kind of reflections found in this book would require perhaps ten large volumes to discuss the entire book of Romans, considerably more than almost any reader would want. However, choosing several excerpts from Romans and discussing them in some detail provides an opportunity to discuss most of the crucial issues of Romans and allows people to use what they feel they have learned from that discussion to think about the rest of Romans on their own. Because it sets the stage for what comes in the following fifteen chapters, Romans 1 is crucial. At present I plan to follow this book with a similar set of reflections on Romans 6–8 and on Romans 12.
Whatever else may also be true, I think it fair to say that the project of writing this book is a result of my religious experience. I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Protestantism. (I was a member of the Disciples of Christ.) When I was a Protestant, Paul’s letter to the Romans was important to me, though I did not understand it as I now do. It helped me understand what it means to be a Christian. I served a full-time mission and several part-time missions, and as part of that work I often met with people who preached salvation by faith alone, a doctrine they took from Paul’s letter. Talking to them about the letter to the Romans and trying to understand both our agreements and differences was an important part of trying to teach them the fulness of the gospel. Discussing Romans with other Christians has also been an important part of my own spiritual growth and learning; we often turned out to have more in common than either of us thought when we began our discussions.
Romans is important to me because it teaches the doctrine of salvation by grace. I have studied and taught philosophy for more than twenty years, and that study brings me to appreciate more and more the necessity of grace. After many years as a believing member of the church, some time ago I came to better understand the importance of the Book of Mormon, and I began to read and study it more faithfully.2 As I did so, I saw what I had not expected to see, namely, an emphasis on grace and thus a close connection between the teachings of the Book of Mormon prophets and the teachings of Paul. In addition, my conversion experience, though not publicly dramatic, was a powerful illustration to me of divine grace. I had studied and prayed, but there came a moment when the Spirit bore powerful witness of the truth of the restored gospel in a way that went far beyond what I could have expected based on either my worthiness or even my prayers. I could not but understand that moment as a gift, a moment of grace.
In spite of its length, this work is not in any sense definitive, one that says everything there is to be said about a chapter of scripture. It is not even intended to give a coherent interpretation of part of Paul’s letter, much less the best interpretation possible using the resources available. This book is exactly what its subtitle says it is: a collection of notes and reflections on chapter 1 of Romans. The notes tend to be notes about linguistic and cultural matters, notes about details that I hope will help students of the scriptures read and talk with each other about Paul’s letter more carefully, notes that may inspire new thought and reflection and, so, new insights. The reflections are ideas that occurred to me as I worked on writing about chapter 1. They are the things I thought about as I studied, so they may be helpful for others who are studying. For example, they may spark similar or related thoughts. Because my reflections are personal, though I try to present evidence for what I say to show that it is not just subjective reflection, others may have very different reactions to or understandings of the passages on which I reflect. (There is a good chance that I will also see things differently on another reading of the same passage.)3 There is room for difference as well as disagreement in this. My reflections are intended to stimulate thinking and conversation about Romans, not to bring that thinking and conversation to an end by offering oracular or definitive pronouncements about what Paul’s letter means.
Of course, the personal nature of my reflections does not relieve me of the responsibility to be accurate. I may make mistakes. Where there are errors, I stand ready to be corrected by those who know more about Greek, about biblical history and exegesis, and about Latter-day Saint (LDS) doctrine. I especially stand ready to be corrected by those who have spiritual authority over me, especially those whom I recognize as apostles of Jesus Christ and prophets of God.
A number of dangers face those who write about scripture. These are the same dangers that face us when we read scripture, but when we write about it, whether we fall prey to those dangers is more publicly manifest. Some of these dangers can be paired with each other for contrast. On the one hand there is the violence of creating unity where there is none. A variety of people wrote our scriptures. Some were prophets and apostles. Others, such as Luke, were interested onlookers who seem not to have had relevant ecclesiastical authority. In some cases, such as the book of Job, we do not know who wrote the book. The scriptures were also written at different times in human history, when the Lord’s people faced different problems. Because of these varied problems, the scriptures were written in response to different cultural and historical expectations and understandings and in different languages with different possibilities for expression. These kinds of differences suggest that though we must assume that because they come from the same divine source the scriptures are ultimately unified, that unity may not be obvious to us. We may make the unity of the scriptures too easy, assuming not only that the same God has spoken to the prophets throughout the ages, but that our understanding of what he has said is the same as the understanding of previous generations and peoples.
Paired with the danger of forcing unity on the scriptures prematurely or inappropriately is the danger of supplementing the texts that we have, of uncritically adding our personal understanding or the understanding of scholars to the scriptures and then taking our supplements as if they were themselves scripture. We cannot understand what we read, scripture or otherwise, if we do not supplement it with our own understanding and experience, but we must be careful to remember that we are doing so. We must remember that every reading is an interpretation and that every interpretation involves supplementation. However, the logical necessity of interpretation and, therefore, supplementation does not justify the substitution of our interpretations for the scriptures we are reading.
That brings us to another danger: unrecognized supplementation. Sometimes we do violence to the scriptures because they are so familiar to us. We have read some passages so often that we no longer really read them. We pass our eyes over the words. We say the words in our heads or out loud. We talk about and recall passages, but we no longer read them. We no longer allow them to speak to us; we speak for them instead. Reading can be difficult for any number of reasons. One is that the material is difficult to understand. Many find Isaiah difficult in that way. But reading can also be difficult because it is easy to understand, for when it is easy, we tend to hear only what we expect, and we may well overlook the things written that could bring us up short.
Paired with this danger of overlooking things because they are too easy is the danger of relying on supposedly canonical interpretations of scripture. Of course, there are canonical interpretations of scripture. The prophets have sometimes interpreted scripture in ways that are doctrinally binding. The First Presidency’s 1916 proclamation about the Godhead is a clear example of such canonical interpretation of scripture. Though never officially canonized by the church, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s revisions to the King James Bible may also be an example. But many of us go far beyond accepting the words of the prophets. We grow up hearing something taught repeatedly or hear it taught by a favorite teacher, and we assume that what we have heard is doctrinal. We do not search the scriptures to discover the truth of what we have heard (which often does, in fact, turn out to be true). Instead, we allow what we have always been taught to become the standard for what we believe rather than making the scriptures our standard. Then when we read the scriptures, we may force them to conform to that standard, though they may have something different to say to us—or something more that we will miss.
In each of these cases we wrest scripture. Rather than being wrested by scripture, we twist it to serve our own purposes. There can be no fail-safe method for preventing such wresting, but I have hoped that by attention to details I might help guard myself against it. By thinking about words and phrases rather than trying to bring everything together into a whole, I hope to avoid the temptation to substitute my false unity for the true unity of Paul’s letter. The result of that hope is this set of notes and reflections.4
As a set of notes and reflections, this work is not a doctrinal exposition, where the word doctrine means something like “a systematic set of propositions that describes as completely as possible the beliefs and relations among beliefs held by Latter-day Saints.” I am suspicious of that approach to understanding the gospel. I fear that more often than not it puts our interpretations of the teachings of God ahead of those teachings as they appear in the scriptures and the teachings of the latter-day prophets. I think that such an approach implicitly refuses to recognize the scriptures as the standard works.5 Instead, our ruminations and traditions often become the standard.
Though perhaps this approach is not recognized openly, it seems to me that one common idea of what it means to interpret scripture is to use scripture as a sourcebook for backing up the beliefs we hold. That is a very old idea of what scripture study is, but I think it not too inaccurate to say that it begins to flower in the work of Thomas Aquinas and comes into full bloom only with the rise of Protestant orthodoxy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is an idea of scripture study that we Latter-day Saints have commonly adopted from the early Protestants and their modern heirs.6
Among academics, a more common kind of scriptural interpretation is one that uses the tools of history and textual history to explain the development of the texts from which we get our scriptures and then uses that historical insight to understand the content of scripture. Though in most ways quite different from what we might call the orthodox approach to scripture, the usual academic approach to scripture shares with the orthodox approach the assumption that we must understand scripture using something outside the scriptures themselves. The supposedly orthodox approach assumes that we must use the systems of beliefs that we already accept, while the academic approach assumes that we must use academic tools. Those different assumptions result in vastly different, even contradicting, interpretations of scripture. But they share the assumption that some system of thought is prior to scripture and that we interpret scripture best when we accommodate it to that system.7
I prefer an older, though less common, approach. I prefer to do my best to look to the scriptures themselves and let them teach me their doctrines. The meaning of the word doctrine is, after all, “teaching.” In this approach, I seek to be taught by scriptures without knowing in advance what they will teach. Rather than beginning by implicitly (or even explicitly) knowing what I will find—by assuming the doctrinal content of the scriptures—I hope to allow the scriptures to teach me. Of course, I would hardly want to deny that I come to Paul’s letter to the Romans with preconceptions, ideas, and beliefs. Neither would I want to deny that I use those preconceptions, ideas, and beliefs to help me understand Paul’s letter. It is impossible to read and understand even the back of a cereal box, much less something as interesting and fruitful as Romans, without using what we already understand and take to be true. But my goal is to test my beliefs against the texts of scripture rather than to use scripture to justify the beliefs I hold when I come to scripture.
There are times when showing how passages of scripture justify particular beliefs is necessary and important. I doubt that I would have converted to the church had not someone been willing to take that approach with me. On the other hand, there are many things that the academic approach to scripture study can teach us, and it will be obvious that I owe a considerable debt to various scholars for helping me think about Romans. Nevertheless, for most purposes, especially for personal study, I think it is better to come to the scriptures ready to be brought up short—to be questioned and taught in my response to the questions the scriptures ask of me and the demands they make of me. What follows is an attempt to read the first chapter of Paul’s letter in that way and to help others to do the same.
As I said earlier, my experience in the church suggests that many of us find Paul’s writings, especially the letter to the Romans, intimidating because they are about grace and works and because opponents of the church have often used them to argue that we are doctrinally wrong and even cultic. That is unfortunate, and I hope this book will make some small step toward changing that intimidation. As Edward Schillebeeckx says, “Paul is less concerned with the problem of ‘grace’ and ‘human activity’ [i.e., works] than with discovering decisive salvation . . . in the divine gift of Christ Jesus.”8 I want to read Paul’s letter and the other scriptures in that same spirit: I want to read them as sermons that preach of Christ rather than as theological treatises, and I hope what I write helps others to read them as such sermons.9
Paul’s letter to the Romans is sixteen chapters long, and several years of work in my spare time have produced only my response to the first chapter. As a result, I have decided not to write a response to the book of Romans as a whole. The points I think are important can be made in responses to a few chapters. This is my work on the first chapter, a book that I intend to follow with one or two others. Notes and reflections on parts of the book of Romans rather than the whole of it have the advantage of helping to remind readers that they are as prepared and qualified to think about these issues as I am. To that end, I hope readers will respond to my notes and reflections, especially with criticisms or alternative understandings. These thoughts and criticisms will be much appreciated, and they should improve the quality of the notes on chapters that follow. In matters of New Testament study, I am an interested and enthusiastic amateur, not a scholar.
I have already received a great deal of help from many people, from friends and students, from several good teaching assistants, and from colleagues at Brigham Young University. I am grateful to them all and I should thank them by name, but I fear that I will leave someone out. Nevertheless, I am especially grateful to James Siebach, who has spent many hours arguing with me and teaching me how to read. Though I would like to blame any mistakes in this work and any examples of poor judgment on him and the others who have helped me, I have to admit that they are mine. I am also grateful to Daniel B. McKinlay for hours spent cleaning up this manuscript and for conversations about the theological issues raised in Romans 1, and to Larry and Pat Wimmer for being guinea pigs in reading and responding to this work. Thanks are due to those members of the FARMS staff who worked on this manuscript, especially Mary Mahan for her editing, as well as Robyn Patterson for her source checking and Josi J. Brewer for her computer work.
I must also acknowledge that I have relied heavily on the scholarly work of those outside the church. Though I have read many commentaries, Bible dictionaries, grammars, historical works and other scholarly pieces, I have referred particularly to the commentaries of Cranfield10 and Fitzmyer,11 the former a Protestant and the latter a Catholic, because doing so allows me not only to learn from two thoughtful scholars, but also to contrast a Latter-day Saint understanding with representations of the two most common ways of understanding the book of Romans.
1. Though I have made a new translation of Romans for this commentary, I do not offer it as a stand-alone translation. I intend it to be used along with the edition of the scriptures published by the church in 1981. I offer it to help readers understand more clearly what Romans is saying by giving them something to which to compare the KJV, not to replace the KJV. The KJV is not the only good translation, but its beauty and accuracy make it tough competition for any other translation. Its beauty is such that it has become a classic of literature in its own right, and it is accurate in that it goes out of its way to reproduce the Hebrew and Greek as literally as possible. Sometimes that is part of the reason we have trouble reading it. More often, however, we have trouble because we are not literate enough; we need to know more about our language. The KJV is perhaps most important because it is the translation from which the language of latter-day scriptures comes. If we do not know the King James Bible, we will miss many allusions in latter-day scripture.
2. I remain grateful to Bruce Jorgensen for helping me appreciate the Book of Mormon. His writing about the Book of Mormon (for example, “The Dark Way to the Tree: Typological Unity in the Book Mormon,” Encyclia 54/2 : 16–24; reprinted in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981), 217–31, was immensely helpful, but watching him teach students from the Book of Mormon was of even more help.
3. See Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign, January 1995, 6–9.
4. It should be clear that is a commentary for laymen, not for scholars. It is unfortunate that there are so few scholarly commentaries on the scriptures and their background by qualified Latter-day Saints, but my training in Greek, Bible history, etc., is insufficient for me to be able to change that. Instead, this is a commentary by a layman with some background, and it is written for other lay people who do not know Greek but would like to understand more about what the letter to the Romans says without delving into various complexities of word usage or textual problems. This is written for those who might be called to teach the gospel in a Sunday School class or as missionaries, and for anyone who would like some help studying the scriptures more closely.
5. It also implicitly undermines the significance and possibility of continuing revelation, of learning things from the prophets that may radically alter our previous understanding.
6. For more about the varieties of approaches to scriptural interpretation and about the history of those approaches, see Werner E. Lemke and Robert Morgan, “Theology,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:448–83.
7. As noted, both conservative Protestant orthodoxy and contemporary academics share a common assumption, namely, that some metaphysical thing exterior to, logically prior to, the scriptures is essential to understanding them. That assumption is a version of a common belief of the Enlightenment, the belief that everything in this world that can be understood is understood only if there is, standing behind it, a metaphysical entity that gives it meaning and reality. Most twentieth-century philosophy argues that such a belief is difficult or even impossible to make sense of. Without exploring the complexities of that argument, let me simply say that the Latter-day Saint belief that God is an embodied person rather than a metaphysical entity should at least make us suspicious of that belief. For more on this issue and an alternative view, see my “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2000).
Of course, the situation is also more complicated than my discussion makes it seem: For one thing, the doctrines we believe are relevant to the interpretations of scripture. They often provide a necessary framework for our understanding. For another, it is clear that history is also relevant to our scripture study. The New Testament and the Book of Mormon are radically different documents than they claim to be and they mean something quite different than they claim to mean if they are not, in some strong sense, historical records. Often, not to know something about the culture and practices of New Testament people is not to understand well the documents that make up the New Testament. However, as important as doctrine and history are, neither can be assumed to be the conceptual or metaphysical foundation or standard for our understanding of the scriptures without damaging our understanding that the scriptures are in fact scripture.
8. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1980), 146.
9. I suspect that the common interpretation that Paul’s letters strongly separate the law of Moses, with its requirement of obedience, from faith is partly a result of anti-Semitism. I see Paul as arguing that the Mosaic law is not sufficient in a context that includes two aspects that he must consider: first, the Pharisees believed that the law of Moses was sufficient and, second, the question had not been settled among first-century Christians (many of whom were Pharisees) and therefore had taken on special urgency as the question of how to deal with gentile converts arose. Later generations took Paul’s response to a rhetorical situation and reinterpreted it as a rejection of the necessary connection between obedience and faith. This interpretation was initially strengthened by early Christianity’s minority status in Judaism and the feelings that we can speculate Christians had toward Judaism as they were marginalized and eventually rejected as non-Jewish. It was strengthened even further because of a complex of factors that was and continues to be often an unconscious and sometimes a conscious anti-Semitism. This interpretation existed in spite of the obvious connections of grace and works in first-century Judaism, including even Pharisaism, and in spite of the fact that Paul nowhere disparages the Jews themselves. (See Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993], 230.)
If I am right, the irony is that in spite of the anti-Semitic origins of this interpretation, even Jews who read the Pauline texts are sometime guilty of taking up this traditional Christian interpretation that creates a dichotomy between obedience and faith. (Levenson is an example, see Death and Resurrection, 219.) Following Christian anti-Semitism, they read something into the text that is not there.
10. See C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975–79).
11. See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
I say unto you, if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men; and also, the atonement which has been prepared from the foundation of the world, that thereby salvation might come to him that should put his trust in the Lord, and should be diligent in keeping his commandments, and continue in the faith even unto the end of his life, I mean the life of the mortal body—I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation, through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind, which ever were since the fall of Adam, or who are, or who ever shall be, even unto the end of the world. (Mosiah 4:6–7)
But you, our God, are kind and true, slow to anger, and ruling all with mercy. For even if we sin, we are yours since we acknowledge your power. But we will not sin, knowing that we are accounted yours. For to know you is the perfection of justice, and to recognize your power is the root of immortality. (Wisdom of Solomon 15:1–3)