Romans in Widescreen

A review of Sigve K. Tonstad’s The Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists. The Earth Bible Commentary #7 (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016).

From the title and this work’s presence in the Earth Bible Commentary Series a reader might conclude that this is a narrow study of one small aspect of Paul’s message in the letter to the Romans. This would be a serious mistake, for nothing could be further from the truth. This commentary is a magisterial work on the entire letter that not only embraces virtually all the issues in Pauline studies, but also enters into fruitful dialogue with most of the major interpreters of Romans in both the past and the present. No one who is serious about the study of Romans can ignore this commentary.

In his preface, Dr. Tonstad says that he writes with three goals. First he wishes to write a genuine commentary respectful of Paul’s concerns and reflecting his purpose. Second, he writes for those already interested in Paul, and third, he goes in search of readers who are interested in ecology, but have little or no prior knowledge of Paul. He has succeeded on all three counts.

First we will review the basic theological stance of the commentary and then move to the ecological significance. Dr. Tonstad is in line with scholars such as J. Christiaan Beker and J. Louis Martyn who emphasize apocalyptic and revelation in Paul. He also agrees with scholars such as Richard Hays, Douglas Campbell, and many others, who hold that the phrase “faith of Christ” does not mean “faith in Christ” but rather “the faithfulness of Christ.” For Tonstad, righteousness by faith refers to God’s work of “right-making” through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness. This “right-making” should be understood in participatory rather than legal terms, and it includes God’s work of transforming the whole creation, whether human or non-human.

Why does creation need “right-making”? According to Tonstad the creation has been deceived into misunderstanding God and God’s character. As in Habakkuk, which Paul quotes in chapter one, the question is about God’s faithfulness. The misrepresentation and misperception of God’s character is at the root of sin. Sinners are not merely villains, but victims of deceit (p. 217), which is not only a personal problem but a cosmic one. This misunderstanding leaves humans helpless, hopeless, violent, and in need of revelation that sets things right and brings hope and compassion. Paul’s greatest concern is a revelation of God (p. 9). God is both the source and the subject of this revelation that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The revelation of God’s faithfulness structures and empowers human faithfulness (p. 68), although human faithfulness can never match God’s faithfulness. The “obedience of faith” of which Paul speaks at the beginning and end of his letter is obedience grounded in divine faithfulness.

Paul’s presentation of this theology, however, is not without a specific historical background. According to Tonstad, counter-missionaries, who are not a part of the Romans house churches, have come in to Rome and in a way very similar to the opponents in Galatians and are demanding circumcision, which is a denial of God’s right-making inclusiveness.

For Tonstad, the theological climax of Romans comes in 15:12, where Paul quotes Isaiah by saying: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” The final chapter of Tonstad’s work is a masterful exegesis of the interplay between Isaiah’s message and Paul’s message that concludes by showing how Christ’s faithfulness reveals God’s true character. (One of the great values throughout this commentary is its careful and insightful presentation of Paul’s use of the Old Testament.) The result is that Christ sings God’s praise among the Gentiles, Gentiles sing God’s praise with God’s people, and all, both Jew and Gentiles, sing God’s praise. Paul’s message moves from misperception and hopelessness to hope (p. 364). This is Tonstad’s “widescreen” view of Romans.

But how does this fit with ecology? Tonstad’s view of ecology is also “widescreen.” For him ecology is fundamentally the science of relationships (p. 293) and in biblical perspective, from Genesis to Romans, becomes the eloquent and evocative handmaid of theology (p. 297). The commentary devotes an entire chapter to Romans 8:22, where Paul turns over the pulpit to nature (p. 238). The non-human creation groans (Romans 8:22) along with humans (verse 23) and the Spirit (verse 26). The non-human creation takes a redemptive interest in the human plight, eager to see human suffering give way to relief and future glory (p. 247). When the creation was cursed in Genesis after the Fall, this was not an act of God’s cursing. God simply acknowledged how human sinfulness would now exploit the creation and dominate it rather than care for it compassionately. The non-human and human creation are bonded together in the same material world. As Tonstad says:

Hope is not that the immortal soul will be delivered from the prison of the body or even for the soul to be united with the body. Humans and non-humans are earthlings and materially constituted, and the believer’s hope is for “the redemption of our body” (8:23).

When Tonstad turns to the paraenetic section of Romans (12:1-15:21) he notes the flashbacks to Genesis and enters into an extended discussion of the relevance of three elements in Genesis for ecological issues today. These are seeds, land, and animals. In a poignant and empathetic way Tonstad shows how the divine compassion Paul reveals should lead us away from our insensitive exploitation in all three of these areas. (In the preface Tonstad shares that he spent time herding sheep as a boy, and his love for both land and animal shows through in this discussion.)

Whether the reader fully agrees with Tonstad’s widescreen view of Romans and of ecology, he or she cannot help but be stimulated, challenged, intrigued, inspired, and blessed by engaging with him in this monumental work. He is an excellent writer whose prose often approaches the poetic. One feature that makes the work much easier to understand is a series of boxes where Tonstad simplifies and summarizes his basic arguments. Even when the argument may be somewhat complicated, the boxes are extremely helpful for the reader.

Another value of this commentary is its engagement with other commentators. Tonstad devotes chapter two to a dialogue with five of Romans’ most famous readers of the past: Origen, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth. He concludes that Wesley is the only one to understand the larger ecological significance of Romans.

There are some unique features of Tonstad’s interpretation that present intriguing possibilities, though not all will be convinced. Tonstad sees Romans 1:18-32, the section about the revelation of God’s wrath, not as Paul’s thought, but as that of his opponents. In these verses he simply outlines their view in order to refute it. In an appendix on God’s wrath Tonstad discusses the theological significance of this view.

Another intriguing interpretation comes in Romans 7. Scholars have long argued over whether the frustration Paul expresses is autobiographical or not. Tonstad believes that it is not Paul, but Eve who speaks in this section. In his view this shifts the passage away from the human-centered, individualistic, introspective reading and makes it more “extrospective” (p. 219), although he admits that even though the focus is on Eve it does not exclude Paul.

It is hard to fault anything in this incredibly helpful and creative work, but I do hesitantly share two disappointments. The first has to do with chapter 14, the debate between the “weak” and “strong” over food and days. After presenting a good summary of various views on the historical situation behind this chapter, Tonstad uses the chapter as a springboard to discuss our present day need to follow a plant-based diet and have a Sabbath rest. Both discussions are persuasively and sensitively presented. They do not, however, speak to Paul’s real concern in this chapter. Paul does not spend much time defining the specifics of food and days because he seems anxious to move on to his real concern, which is how people relate to each other when opinions and practices differ. Although Tonstad gives a nod to Paul’s concern on page 337 when he says that it seems clear that “Paul seeks to ensure unity in diversity whether the diversity in question relates of opinions or practice,” he never fleshes out Paul’s ethically relevant arguments. Instead, on page 354 he says, (emphasis mine)

The distinction between “the weak” and “the strong”, if relevant at all, will need to be redefined in ways that are ethically and ecologically meaningful with respect to present reality.

Paul’s message is not about food or days (these specifics could be replaced by any number of issues) but about people and their ability to relate positively with each other in Christ even amid their differences. At a time when a lack of civility in both religious and political discourse seems to make welcoming others who are different or think differently a rare commodity, it seems that a discussion of Paul’s real concerns and the principles involving interpersonal relationships in Romans 14 would be highly relevant.

My other disappointment is Tonstad’s omission of any major treatment of most of Romans 16, the list of names to whom Paul sends greetings and those from whom he sends greetings to Rome. Although Tonstad refers to the original readers in chapter three on the human ecology of Romans, and includes a creative liturgy between Phoebe and the Romans congregation at the end of chapter twelve, there is no detailed treatment of these names. Yet this list of names is hardly an irrelevant appendage to the letter. In many ways it is where the rubber hits the road. Paul’s concern for the inclusive “all” throughout Romans finds expression in these diverse people who make up the churches in Rome and Corinth. I am disappointed that Tonstad does not treat them more fully.

These “disappointments” are very minor, however, in light of the work as a whole. I strongly recommend that any reader who cares about Romans, ecology, or both engage Tonstad’s creative, intriguing and challenging commentary.

John Brunt is retired after fifty years of educational and pastoral ministry. In retirement he serves as pastor of the Edmonds Adventist Church in Edmonds, Washington.

Image Credit: Sheffield Phoenix Press

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8093
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Timely and useful analysis. Next quarter in our Adult SS lessons we will study Romans. This article helps me to also understand the context of Galatians which also presents Paul in a different style with another audience in mind.

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no kidding…i really think our whole issue with WO can benefit from a thorough reading of this chapter, which i think really begins with Rom 13:8, and ends with Rom 15:7…

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I think it would be helpful to readers to know Dr. Brunt’s degree and work as a New Testament scholar, not to mention any and all other reviewers.

After presenting a good summary of various views on the historical situation behind this chapter, Tonstad uses the chapter as a springboard to discuss our present day need to follow a plant-based diet and have a Sabbath rest.


It is a shame that a work of solid scholarship on Romans would seem to go off the rails when it comes to 14:1-15:7. How one could arrive at the above conclusions concerning this section is absolutely mystifying.

In the context of the life situation of Romans itself, some form of division over Jewish/Gentile differences concerning diet and holy times are in view, quite possibly kosher and Sabbath observance. Paul’s focus is on maintaining unity within diversity of practice over such non essentials to the faith. But, even the possibility of that can’t be seriously treated outside of cataloguing such within a history of interpretation. Instead, according to this review, a case for these non essentials is extrapolated from this section, a seeming impossibility from this text!

It just seems that when it comes to Adventist core doctrines, the fundamentalist, administrative pressure in this denomination trumps unbiased treatment of the biblical text (pun not intended?), and hamstrings real scholarly work.

Thanks…

Frank

Ole,

I have no doubt that he’s not a fundamentalist. Nor do I take issue with the reasons you give for his stance on Sabbath and vegetarianism. I just find it curious that this would be extrapolated from Romans 14:1-15:7. What reason could there be for that, when it seems so outside the purview of the text? Outside publication notwithstanding, I know that our denominational machinery has a history of exerting pressure on its scholars in its employ to toe the party line, or not cross it on peculiar Adventist doctrines. This passage falls in that area. I’m sorry if I’ve assumed too much.

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My good friend Sigve is not a ‘fundamentalist’, nor someone who gives in to ‘administrative pressure’. Far from it. And his emphasis on diet and sabbath-rest should be understood in an ecological perspective, rather than in an traditional SDA perspective. One further point: this is not an SDA pulication, but was published by the departement of biblical studies at Sheffield University, UK. Sigve Tonstad is one of the few SDA biblical scholars who has gained the attention of the wider scholarly community, outside SDA circles, based on his scholarly excellence.

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We need more theologians like Tonstad and Brunt who understand and appreciate ecology. I’ve heard these gentlemen speak in local churches, and have much respect for their approach and witness.

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I congratulate Sigve Tonstad on the publication of his commentary on Romans, and I thank John Brunt for this most helpful review. I look forward to some happy hours reading the book, which according with this review will both stimulate a careful rethinking of some passages and also provoke some disappointments in the passages which Brunt finds problematic.

Very appreciative of the review here, and insights of both the author and reviewer. Although I am very interested in the book, it’s not one I’m likely to put in my Amazon cart given its price and my available time for reading.

I am grateful to John Brunt for his generous review of my Romans commentary. In my study, I have incorporated what I see as the most important insights in recent scholarship on Paul and Romans. This is so much a feature of my commentary that it will fast-track many a reader to understand the state of the subject today. Let me add that the changes in perspective are legion, and there will be more than one surprise for those who have been out of the loop for a while. John’s disappointments concern me for reasons near and dear to my project. Romans 16 is indeed deserving of more detailed work, but the chapter gets considerably more attention in my work than most major commentaries tend to give it. Indeed, I make Romans 16 count as crucial background for understanding the letter as a whole–the prior contact between Paul and believers in Rome, the sense that Rome, a city he has never visited, is his “home church,” and the notion that Paul’s theology is a communal (and not an individual) enterprise. Romans 14 is a complex chapter. Many of the assumptions readers bring to their reading are most likely misguided, especially the entrenched notion that we have a conflict in Rome between “weak” (and somewhat legalistic) Jewish believers and “strong” (and liberated) Gentile members. The specifics remain ambiguous, and it would have been helpful for readers of John Brunt’s review to be made aware of the ambiguities. The two most influential scholars on this chapter, John Barclay and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, read the evidence very differently. Not only that–they come to completely different PASTORAL conclusions, a feature I have endeavored to represent. I do not consider the mediation between “the weak” and “the strong,” then or now, to be irrelevant. Not at all! My concern about relevance has a contemporary, ecological focus. Readers will have to judge success or failure in this regard for themselves, but they should be assured that my suggestions are constructive; they do not leave the pastoral and interpersonal perspective behind; and they are not motivated by a narrow, apologetic agenda, as at least one comment in this space infers. Seventh-day Adventists may be self-conscious about “food” and “days” in a way Paul was not–and in a way I am not in my commentary. It has been said well that Paul’s letters are “profoundly occasional” and by that criterion profoundly situational. How to read this situational letter in a way that makes a difference to our situation – including our ecological situation – has been my foremost concern.

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