Q & A with Frank Theilman on his Romans commentary

romans bible commentary thielman cover

Frank Thielman (Ph.D., Duke University) is the Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School where he has been since 1989. He is also the author of the Romans volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series.

Dr. Thielman is a noted New Testament scholar, concentrating primarily in the Pauline epistles. He is the author of many books including, Ephesians (links go to Amazon) in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament and Philippians in the NIV Application Commentary.

The complete list of his publications is listed on Dr. Thielman’s faculty page.

He is a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS), and is an ordained Presbyterian (PCA) minister. He and his wife, Abby, have three adult children, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson.

7 Questions on Romans in the ZECNT Commentary Series

Recently, Dr. Thielman graciously answered my questions about his Romans commentary. Readers will learn how this commentary came to be, what is unique about it among Romans commentaries, and how the project edified him personally.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Romans?

My interest in studying Romans goes back to the early 1980’s and my work toward an undergraduate degree in Theology and Religious Studies.

I had a wonderful teacher during my first year of that study, N. T. Wright, who helped me prepare for an examination at the end of the year over John’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. Dr. Wright was a clear, patient teacher who was excited about Romans and communicated that excitement to his students.

Several years later, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on Paul’s view of the Mosaic law, and much of that dissertation was devoted to a study of the law in Romans. Since then, I have published a couple of book-length studies of Paul’s view of the Mosaic law and written articles that deal with passages in Romans or theological themes important to the argument of the letter.

I have taught the Greek text of Romans many times, first to undergraduates and then, since 1989, to divinity school students.

Romans never gets old. Every time I work through this theologically rich, intellectually challenging letter, the wonderful gospel that it explains remains encouraging and edifying.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

I suspect this commentary will be most beneficial to pastors, teachers, and students with some knowledge of ancient Greek.

Since all the Greek is translated, however, and the format is designed to make the commentary widely accessible, I hope that anyone, from layperson to scholar, who is interested in both the historical setting of the letter and its modern significance will find the commentary helpful.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Romans?

The literature on Romans is vast, and Christians have many good resources available to them for understanding the letter. A couple of features of this commentary, however, may set it apart from most others.

First, the commentary contains a full diagram of the literary structure of each passage (in English) before commenting on it. This slows the reader down and lets the reader see in a diagrammatic way some of the major exegetical decisions in the commentary before reading the commentary’s exposition of each passage.

Commentaries are typically difficult books to read, and the diagram hopefully makes reading and understanding the commentary easier.

Second, the commentary devotes a bit more energy, perhaps, than is common in exegetical commentaries on Romans to theological reflection on the text and the application of that reflection to the life of the church.

It is important to say that neither of these features of my commentary on Romans were my idea. They are part of the format of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series.

As I progressed in writing the commentary, I became more and more convinced that the series editors had made wise choices when they put the format together this way.

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

It is so difficult to select a favorite part of Romans! It’s joyful, life-giving message and symphonically complex structure make the study of every paragraph enormously rewarding. Probably, Romans 8:31–39 is my favorite passage in the letter simply because of the cheerful hope that it gives the believer.

But your question has to do with a passage that was particularly memorable to research and write, and I think I have to answer (to my surprise!) 16:1–16. It was immensely enjoyable to see how these seemingly mundane greetings help the letter’s first century context come alive and demonstrate the practical effect of the gospel that Paul had been explaining in the preceding fifteen chapters.

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

As I worked on this commentary over the last seven years or so, I was reminded weekly and often daily of the profound, steady, costly love of God for his people and for me personally.

Romans tells us that God is a God of immense love, shown most perfectly in the death of his Son for the sins of his people, but also displayed in the gift of the Holy Spirit’s power to transform their lives. Turning over every word and phrase of Paul’s exposition of this message was profoundly enriching.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Romans?

It is hard not to talk in superlatives when talking about Romans, and this is also true of the vast body of literature written down through the centuries on this wonderful text.

In chronological order, I would recommend Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (links go to Amazon), available in two volumes, translated by Thomas P. Scheck. Origen anticipates many of the exegetical problems that commentators still discuss and often provides them with interesting, sensible solutions.

John Calvin’s commentary on Romans, written in 1540, is a model of concise, clear, and sensible exegesis together with rich theological reflection. The same is true of the 1886 edition of Charles Hodge’s commentary.

The International Critical Commentary on the Greek text by William Sanday and Arthur Headlam (5th edition, 1902) is outstanding for its clear treatment of the grammar, its reasonable exegetical decisions, and its lucid presentation of the letter’s overall argument. C. E. B. Cranfield’s two-volumes on Romans replaced Sanday and Headlam’s commentary in the ICC and has quickly achieved the status of a classic. It is precise, clear, exhaustive in its examination of key exegetical problems, and often theologically rich.

James D. G. Dunn’s Word Biblical Commentary explains the letter through the lens of the so-called New Perspective, but does much more than this. It is also a beautifully written and enormously learned study of the Jewish context out of which Paul wrote.

The commentaries by Douglas Moo and Thomas R. Schreiner are models of expositional and theological accuracy and clarity. Robert Jewett’s Hermeneia volume is especially helpful in understanding the historical and cultural setting of the letter in the mid-first century Roman Empire.

For any readers of German, Eckhard Schnabel’s exhaustively researched two-volume commentary in the Historisch Theologische Auslegung series will be enormously helpful.

Two books that touch on significant themes in Romans will help their readers not only understand what Paul means by “law” and “grace” in the letter, but guide them through the web of recent scholarly discussion on these issues. The first is Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. Westerholm provides a clear, sensible, and often delightfully humorous look at the modern discussion of law and righteousness in Paul’s theology.

The second book is John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. This book puts the concept of God’s grace in Paul’s theology into its original first-century setting and helps the reader understand how Paul’s concept is both similar to and different from the concepts of grace in his cultural world.

If I could only buy five books to help me understand Romans, however, I would invest in Calvin, Cranfield, Moo, Schreiner, and Westerholm. German readers should add Schnabel’s learned work to that list.

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

Lord willing, I’ll continue teaching the wonderful students at Beeson Divinity School. I just finished an article on Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 9:32–33 that should appear soon in the journal New Testament Studies.

I am also currently working on a book on Paul’s missionary career and letters, but it is in its infancy. I don’t have much of an online presence, but from time to time I show up in a podcast or chapel sermon on Beeson’s web site.

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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