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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 60, 2012

J. R. DANIEL KIRK, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Pp. xiv + 245. Paperback. $US32.00.

Daniel Kirk has written an important book on Paul’s letter to God’s beloved in Rome, and has done so in relatively brief compass and with an obvious concern for exegetical clarity and theological insight. This is no mean achievement, and Kirk is to be congratulated on taking a doctoral thesis (written at Duke under Richard Hays) and turning it into a readable, comprehensive and consistently suggestive guide to Paul’s letter and the theology that comes to expression within it.

In many ways the book traverses familiar terrain: why did Paul write Romans? How can Romans be genuinely read as a letter (rather than as a systematic treatise)? What, if anything, might be the fundamental organising principle of Pauline theology? How does Paul read Israel’s Scripture? What are we to do with what Paul offers in Romans, not least in terms of contemporary reflection on ethics, hermeneutics and mission? These questions, and many others besides, are explored in relation to the theme of resurrection, mentioned explicitly by Paul in the letter opening (Rom 1:4), and playing a crucial role in Paul’s argumentation thereafter (1:16–17, according to Kirk; 4:16–23; 5:9–10, 15–21; 6:1–23; 7:1–6; 8:1–39; 10:1–13; 11:13–15; 13:8–14; 14:1–12; 15:12, the last again depending on Kirk’s exegesis of the text in question). Noting that the theme of resurrection has been neglected in studies of Romans in favour of the more usual considerations of justification by faith or the faithfulness of God to Israel, Kirk makes a persuasive case for seeing resurrection as the theme that binds together what Paul says about salvation or salvation history. Resurrection, for Paul, is the gospel, and therefore becomes, in Romans, “the lens whose refraction brings the other elements into focus” (208).

There are many things to admire about Kirk’s book besides its readability and clearly argued proposal about the significance of the resurrection for an understanding of Romans. In some ways the book succeeds in steering a path between the commitments of New Perspective scholars and the emphases found in the more ‘apocalyptic’ readings of Paul. Kirk offers an integrated reading of the letter in which themes of continuity and discontinuity, soteriology and ecclesiology, eschatology and theodicy, Christology and ethics are considered in terms of their interrelatedness. Along the way there are a number of new exegetical suggestions which will no doubt be assessed more fully in subsequent scholarly discussion. For example, Kirk affirms the minority view that ho anistamenos in Rom 15:12 is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection. Or again, Kirk argues that the ek nekron of Rom 11:15 is not a reference to the end-time general resurrection, but an image of Israel’s own future, grounded in God’s acceptance and Christ’s resurrection. I valued the insistence that Paul’s gospel must be viewed less as some kind of soteriological system, and more as the proclamation of God’s faithfulness as this is manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As he puts it: “[l]abeling either justification or participation in Christ as the gospel is a category mistake” (208). Kirk also rightly points out that the interpretation of Romans must take seriously its epistolary frame, with the so-called “thesis statement” of 1:16–17 understood as a re-articulation of what Paul has already stated in Rom 1:3–4. At these and other points, Kirk’s treatment of the scholarship is even-handed, and in the concluding chapter he pushes beyond the typical concerns of Pauline scholarship to engage some of the implications of his reading of Paul for contemporary ecclesiology.

All this is not to say that one will agree with everything here. I, for one, looked in vain for any consideration of the way in which the same epistolary frame construes Paul’s implied audience as Gentile (see Romans 1:13; 15:16, 27); this makes a difference to our reading of the purpose of the letter. Again, there is little consideration given to the specific circumstances that may have given rise to the writing of the letter, and so the impression is given that the highly contextual rhetoric of Romans can be easily treated as an expression of the apostle’s theological position. But the points made above still stand. In an age of lengthy commentaries and numerous monograph length treatments of Romans, Kirk’s book stands out as an insightful and important guide to the interpretation of the letter.

Review by
United Faculty of Theology, MCD University of Divinity