On taking up this book, one of the most important in the New Testament, there are several preliminary inquiries to be made, the answers to which will enable us to understand the Epistle much more clearly. It is of course impossible in our space, and indeed unnecessary for the specific purposes of this Devotional Commentary, to do much more than make suggestions, referring readers to general Commentaries for fuller information. The following points should receive attention:—
I. The Writer.—There is no question as to this Epistle being written by St Paul. "The letter is so characteristic of Paul's genius that to doubt its authenticity is to confess that we have not, and cannot have, any knowledge of the Apostolic age at all" (Garvie, Century Bible, Introduction). Romans is at once a revelation of the man, his teaching, and his work, and when studied from the purely personal standpoint is full of fascinating interest. A knowledge of the life of the Apostle is an important factor in the due appreciation of his writings, and this is especially true of the Epistle to the Romans. It may be said that we should be less in danger of misunderstanding the Apostle's teaching if we knew more of the essential features of his career. Three factors must carefully be noted.
His antecedents formed quite a striking combination. His Jewish birth, his Hebrew language, his Roman citizenship, his Jewish training, and his Greek culture, all helped to make him the man he was. As Principal David Brown has put it:—
"His natural characteristics, so far as they can be gathered from his life and writings, seem to have been a masterful and versatile intellect, capable alike of profound thought and close reasoning; a rare combina-tion of masculine courage and womanly tenderness; a combination, too, of impetuous zeal, sound discretion, and indomitable perseverance; in character straightforward and honest, and in the discharge of duty, as he understood it" (Romans, Introduction, p. 5).
Then came his conversion. Pharisaism did not satisfy him, and contact with Jesus Christ necessarily brought about a revolution which thenceforward affected everything in his nature and life.
Then followed his thirty years of Christian life and apostleship, of which some twenty years had been spent before Romans was written. Through the whole of this time the Apostle's personal contact with Christ was the source of all that was deepest in his theology. Whatever he may have derived from Pharisaism, or mere controversy, or even the Old Testament, Christ was the soul of the man, and influenced with transforming, uplifting, and inspiring power the thoughts of his mind and the feelings of his heart. His profound experiences and his strenuous service constituted tie finest preparation for the writing of his Epistles.
A sketch of the Apostle's life in relation to his writings appears in all the important Commentaries on the Epistle, but there are three books of brief compass that may be specially recommended as in every way full of suggestion for study: The Life of St. Paul, by Dr. Stalker; The Epistles of St. Paul, by Dr. G. G. Findlay; Epochs in the Life of St. Paul, by Dr. A. T. Robertson.
II. The Date and Place of Writing.—Bishop Lightfoot says that "the date of this Epistle is fixed with more absolute certainty, and within narrower limits than that of any other of St. Paul's Epistles" (Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, Second Edition). Certain names point clearly to Corinth as the place whence this Epistle was written. Thus Phoebe (ch. 16:1, 2), Gaius (ch. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14), Erastus (ch. 16:23), are all connected with Corinth, while Timothy (ch. 16:21) was with St Paul at this time (Acts 19:22; 1 Cor. 16:10). The Epistle was probably written when the Apostle was at Corinth, as recorded in Acts 20:3, while on his way to Jerusalem with contributions for the poor Christians there (Acts 20:22; 1 Cor. 16:4; 2 Cor. 8:1, 2). According to the older chronology the date was probably the spring of the year 58, when St Paul had been a believer twenty years, though more recent chronological scholarship suggests the year 55 or 56 (C. H. Turner, Hastings' Bible Dictionary). The Epistle was thus written some eight or ten years before his death.
III. The Occasion and Circumstances of Writing.—Rome had a natural fascination for St. Paul, as a Roman citizen and as the Apostle to the Gentiles. He had long purposed to visit the metropolis (ch. 1:9-13; 15:22-29), but had been unavoidably hindered. So he sends this Epistle to explain his absence, to pave the way for his coming, and to supply meanwhile the lack of personal teaching. Other Epistles of his were addressed to Churches founded by him, or to those closely associated with him and his disciples, but here he writes to a Church already experiencing a Christian life which had not originated through his instrumentality. He was on his way to Jerusalem bearing contributions from Gentile Churches to Judæan Christians, and he intended afterwards to travel westwards to Spain (ch. 15:28), and to take Rome on his way thither.
IV. The Destination.—How and when the Church in Rome was founded is entirely unknown. It would seem clear that no Apostle had been there (ch. 15:20), and the fact that the Christians in Rome were able to enter fully into the Pauline Gospel of this Epistle perhaps indicates that the Church was not founded more than ten years before the Apostle wrote, and therefore not, as is sometimes imagined, shortly after the Day of Pentecost. The door of faith was not opened to the Gentiles for several years after Pentecost. But in any case the close and frequent communication between Palestine and Rome through Asia Minor and Greece would easily give the opportunity for Christianity to reach the metropolis of the Empire.
The Church seems to have been composed partly of Jews and partly of Gentiles, though pretty certainly with Gentile predominance. The names in ch. xvi. are mostly Gentile, and the way in which the Apostle speaks from time to time (ch. 1:13-15; 15:15, 16) also suggests a strong, prominent Gentile influence. But the constant reference to Jewish questions clearly shows that there must either have been a strong Jewish element, or else that the Gentiles were thoroughly conversant with Jewish teaching. In several chap-ters it is evident that the readers were well acquainted with the Old Testament, and there is no trace of antagonism between Jew and Gentile, for the Apostle's argument turns now to one side and now to the other. As evidence is available for both Jewish and Gentile elements, it has been suggested, with great probability, that the Church was largely composed of Jewish proselytes. This fact would certainly account for the manifest unity between both sections which is assumed and clearly implied in the Epistle.
V. The Character.—Romans is one of the few Epistles written to a Church with which the Apostle had had no personal dealing, either as founder or visitor. Consequently it is as much a treatise as a letter, and, indeed, some authorities consider that, apart from the personal introduction and closing verses, it might have been addressed to any Church. Perhaps this goes, too far, but the contrast between Romans and the personal character of Epistles like those to Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi is very striking.
As the result of recent discoveries of papyri in Egypt and elsewhere, Deissmann distinguishes between literary and non-literary documents, and argues strongly in favor of St. Paul's Epistles being all non-literary, that is, letters, not epistles. While therefore he thinks that at first we might be in doubt whether Romans is a letter or an epistle, he comes to the conclusion that it is not an epistle addressed to all the world, or even to Christendom, containing a compendium of the Apostle's teaching, but a long letter written to pave the way for his visit to the Roman Christians (Light from the Ancient East, p. 231). We shall probably be nearer the truth if we regard Romans as at once a personal letter and a theological treatise. Godet calls it "a treatise contained in a letter," and the versatility of St. Paul would easily lead to a combination of both elements. The Apostle was a man whose theology was thoroughly saturated with his spiritual experience, and this twofold point of view is pre-eminently seen in Romans. As Sanday and Headlam well say, "A man of St Paul's ability, sitting down to write a letter on matters of weight, would be likely to have several influences present to his mind at once, and his language would be moulded now by one, and now by another (Introduction to Romans, p. xl.). Then, again, as we have now been made familiar through the writings of Sir William Ramsay, "St Paul had early grasped the importance of the Roman Empire as a vehicle for the dissemination of the Gospel" (Robertson, Hastings' Bible Dictionary, Art on "Romans," p. 299). So that it was no accident which addressed this letter to the great metropolis, for it was peculiarly appropriate to all the existing circumstances of the Apostle's life.
VI. The Purpose.—St. Paul at the date of writing Romans was just closing his work in Asia Minor, and the time seemed to have come to review and discuss the general position in view of his completed tasks and the circumstances awaiting him in Jerusalem. He was naturally, and rightly, desirous of winning the sympathy of the Roman Christians for his Gospel, and for his plans in furtherance of it. He wished to obtain their support for the operations contemplated by him, and so he writes this comprehensive letter, stating fully his position. It is scarcely possible to omit a further consideration; he evidently looked forward to serious difficulties, and even dangers, in Jerusalem, and this might therefore easily be his last Epistle.
One crisis in his strenuous life was just over, but another was now upon him. The problem of the Gentile reception of the Gospel had necessarily forced the Doctrine of Justification into prominence, and that had been definitely settled in connection with the Churches of Galatia. But now the question of Jewish unbelief was coming to the front. The relation of the Gospel to the Jews and the Gentiles respectively was pressing upon the Apostle. To the Gentile he had preached a free, full, and universal message, and yet there was the enigma of Jewish unbelief and rejection facing him and his fellow-Christians. How was it that in spite of everything the Jews were still rejecting Jesus Christ? St Paul could not, and had no wish to, ignore the Jew, and now he takes up the great question of the relation of the Jew to Christ and His salvation. He points out that the Gospel is for the Jew "first," and yet "also to the Greek," and that though the Jew is now outside the Gospel owing to his rejection of it, there is a future for him which is divinely certain and assured. He desired to show Gentile believers in Rome and elsewhere that his Gospel did not ignore the Jew, but, on the contrary, regarded him as either occupying a definite place in the Christian Church, or else as constituting a large unbelieving section outside it. Sanday and Headlam thud clearly and convincingly state the problem which faced the Apostle after his victory over the Judaisers in Galatia:—
"This battle had been fought and won. But it left behind a question which was intellectually more troublesome—a question brought home by the actual effect of the preaching of Christianity, very largely welcomed and eagerly embraced by Gentiles, but as a rule spurned and rejected by the Jews—how it could be that Israel, the chosen recipient of the promises of the Old Testament, should be excluded from the benefit now that those promises came to be fulfilled. Clearly this question belongs to the later reflective stage of the controversy relating to Jew and Gentile. The active contending for Gentile liberties would come first, the philosophic or theological assignment of the due place of Jew and Gentile in the Divine scheme would naturally come afterwards. This more advanced stage has now been reached; the Apostle has made up his mind on the whole series of questions at issue; and he takes the opportunity of writing to the Romans at the very centre of the Empire, to lay down calmly and deliberately the conclusions to which he has come" (Introduction to Romans, p. xliii.).
In view of these important considerations, it will be readily seen that chs. ix.-xi., which deal specially with the subject of the Jew, are an integral and necessary part of the Epistle, and in our judgment no view of the Apostle's purpose in writing Romans can possibly be right which ignores or minimizes the importance of this section, which is essential to the true understanding of his attitude. In some respects the closing verses of ch. xi. are the culminating point of the Epistle. God's attitude to both divisions of mankind, Jew and Gentile, is there stated with special reference to the future salvation of both. Indeed, the entire Epistle is full of "the Jewish Question," as may be seen from the earliest reference in ch. 1:2 and a careful study of the allusions in chs. ii., iii., iv., xiv., and xv.
The peculiar position of the Apostle at the time of writing, as he reviews the past and anticipates the future, enables us to understand the absence of controversy in this Epistle, the conciliatory attitude, and the didactic and apologetic elements which are all found combined herein. Both of the great doctrinal sections, chs. i.-viii. and ix.-xi. are absolutely essential to the full understanding of the Apostle's purpose, and there is no necessary contradiction between the various elements of the apologetic and didactic which are found in Romans, for, as Dr. Denney says, these are not by any means mutually exclusive. Dr. Barmby (Pulpit Commentary, p. x.) remarks that this Epistle is,
"in its ultimate drift, a setting forth of what we may call the philosophy of the gospel, showing how it meets human needs, and satisfies human yearnings, and is the true solution of the problems of existence, and the remedy for the present mystery of sin. And so it is meant for philosophers as well as for simple souls; and it is sent, therefore, in the first place, to Rome, in the hope that it may reach even the most cultured there, and through them commend itself to earnest thinkers generally."
Dr. Elder Gumming some years ago (Life of Faith, September 19, 1894) made a suggestive contribution to the consideration of the purpose of Romans. He thought that we have in it the record of the personal mental history of the Apostle, in which, after his conversion, he worked his way from the old Jewish standpoint to his standpoint under the Gospel. In writing he takes himself as a representative of all his fellow-countrymen who had accepted Christ, and putting his own process of thought into general terms, makes it applicable to all. As he went along, working from principle to principle in his own case, he discovered that the Gentiles also had had to face the same problems, and to go through with necessary modifications the same process. Hence, Dr. Cumming argues, the entire Epistle bristles with personal allusions which we can read between the lines. For the same reason the Apostle is never really out of sight of Jewish questions, and so as the light into which he himself came was clear and cloudless, he endeavours to lead all his readers into the same. Dr. Cumming points out that it is not without weight that in the closing chapter we have more information given about the family and relatives of St. Paul than in all other places put together. In Rome itself there were three kinsmen, who had been converted to Christ while he himself was still a persecutor (vs. 7, 11), and in Corinth there were three other kinsmen who joined him in greeting relatives and others in Rome. So the man Paul "really pervades the whole Epistle; going back over the road he once trod so slowly and carefully, and taking us with him as our guide."
We believe this suggestion is a very fruitful one, and may well prove the unifying factor to bring together various elements in the Epistle which, if considered by themselves, do not satisfy the requirements of the situation. The contents of the Epistle seem to fit this view, which opens the door to a number of difficult places, especially the references to Sin, Righteousness, Union with Christ, the fight with self and the law, the references to "Abraham our father," and the touching personal mention of Israel and his brethren according to the flesh. When thus considered we can the more readily understand the fulness and depth of meaning of the Apostle's significant phrase, "My Gospel," for Romans then reveals to us what the Apostle himself had received, what he was proclaiming, and what he wished to commend to Jew and Gentile everywhere as "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth."
VII. The Integrity.—The only question that arises here is with reference to the last two chapters, which present some curious phenomena of text in the manuscripts, and have therefore been regarded by some scholars as either mutilated or misplaced. But all the great manuscripts present these chapters in the ordinary connection with one slight exception in regard to the closing doxology. Those who desire to have a general outline of the critical problems connected with this subject, will find it useful to look at the Introduction to Romans in the Cambridge Bible for Schools, by the Bishop of Durham (p. 27).