13 April 2009

Unlocking Romans

Just read Daniel's Kirk's fascinating Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God (Eerdmans, 2008), a revised dissertation written under R. Hays at Duke. His thesis is that the pervasive underlying theme of and hermeneutical key to Romans is resurrection, through which Paul reinterprets the stories of Israel en route to justifying the ways of God (i.e. a theodicy). If I had to summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the book, here's what I would say. (I would be helped by the corrections of others who have read the book. Two other online reviews of the book, by Jim West and Guy Waters, can be found, respectively, here and here.)

This book has many strengths. Kirk's writing is clear and moves along at a good clip without getting bogged down, even at texts crucial to his argument--something I need to take to heart in my own dissertation writing. He reiterates his central theses time and again in a way that keeps both him and his reader on track, with one eye ever on the forest even as he tackles the thorniest of trees. Secondary literature is appropriately consulted yet without letting the footnotes get out of hand (don't bother with the name index in the back, though--it includes only a small fraction of the actual occurrences of names). An irenic tone throughout is refreshing and an ever-appropriate word in season for me. The continued recovery of the importance to Paul of Jew-gentile issues remains timely and important to current issues facing the church. Above all, Kirk has put forth an intriguing thesis as to the hermeneutical key to Romans, fleshing out a neglected dimension of Paul's theology, that of resurrection.

I must confess that it is just here, though, that at least two red flags are raised in my mind. For while the book has certainly unearthed a sorely neglected theme (excluding Gaffin) of Romans in particular and a core soteriological dimension to Pauline theology in general, he pushes his thesis to the point that it is difficult to escape the sense that he has overpressed his argument. On a macro level, how clarifying is it to proclaim resurrection to be the 'hermeneutical key' (83, 162, 209) to Romans when this entails largely ignoring 1:18-4:8? While previous generations have overly centralized these chapters, the relative inconsequentiality of resur. in these ch's may not have sufficiently sobered Kirk's claim to have unlocked Rom with this interpretive key. On a micro level, Kirk's exegesis is at times similarly strained. Is 'the one who is righteous by faith' of Hab 2:4/Rom 1:17 (47-48) or 'the one who has died' of Rom 6:7 (113) really referring to Jesus?

A similar imbalance occurs, second, in the explication of the 'gospel.' On the one hand, Kirk's emphases are most welcome. He reminds us that according to Paul, the gospel is not merely a conscience-alleviating salve for the soul but includes the good news that Christ has been raised from the dead as Lord over all. Again, though, too much is, to quote Jerry Jenkins, left behind. While he identifies legitimate neglects in evangelical Paul scholarship, Kirk's cure, if swallowed, will leave us worse off than the disease. For his gospel is all solution and no plight. While sin is mentioned at times (69, 76-80, 104-5, 207, 222), the gospel is repeatedly defined in reductionistic terms, as good news that God has raised Jesus in accord with God's promises to Israel and resulting in a unified church consisting of both Jews and gentiles (e.g. 38, 45, 130, 163-69, 206, 217). All this is true enough, and wonderful, but only 'good news' to one who sees one's own treasonous rebellion against God, divests oneself of all self-resourced efforts at partial moral recompense, and looks in trusting faith to Christ. Then one can consider, e.g., the ethnic openness of the gospel.

The problematic nature of these imbalances manifests itself in various ways. Justification, e.g., is said to be for 'those who submit to the reign of this resurrected Messiah' (54). Yet is submission to Christ a means, as Kirk seems to say, or a result of justification? Regarding final judgment, 'those who so serve God by virtue of the resurrection life of Christ are assured of final vindication' (130; similarly 204, 226). Yet is our own service the locus of assurance in the Christian life? The crucifixion, despite an attempt to alleviate this concern (45 n57), is unavoidably muted in the hermeneutically controlling fixation on the resurrection. Might we not assimilate a rejuvenated appreciation of the resurrection while duly remembering that, e.g., Paul came to Corinth intent to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified (not Christ and him raised)? And historically, Kirk falls prey to the current epidemic of Luther-persecution which has become a veritable initiation rite into the magisterium of NT studies, trotting out the usual caricatures of the reformer and reading the rest of the Reformation through this muddy lens (3-4; cf. 7, 10).

Has Kirk unlocked Rom for us? To be sure, his fascinating study gives us one very useful and neglected key for unlocking the many doors that line the Rom hallway. Yet to speak of resurrection as the hermeneutical key creates just the kind of overly controlling lens the author eschews in past generations' readings of Rom through a single lens (e.g. justification by faith). Chock full of illuminating insights and well argued exegetical proposals, Unlocking Romans ultimately fails to provide a cumulatively convincing alternative reading of Rom, pushing an otherwise helpful thesis too far and distorting several crucial elements of Paul's thought as a result.

No comments: