by Herman C. Waetjen
Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, England. 390 pages.
Just as Paul’s Letter to the Romans arrived as the summation of his service as a missionary, theologian and pastor, so Herman Waetjen’s “The Letter to the Romans” represents something of a capstone to his service of the church as a professor of New Testament. Dr. Waetjen, now retired, received his doctorate from Tubingen University, then taught at U.S.C., the Graduate Theological Union at Berkley, and served most recently as Robert S. Dollar Professor of New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Throughout his career, Waetjen has also maintained a strong interest in the developing world, which led him to hold visiting professorships in Africa on four different occasions. Waetjen has written book-length treatments of the Gospel of John, Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels — each of which brings significant erudition and sociopolitical insight to bear on problems posed by the texts.
Waetjen’s commentary on Romans opens with a lengthy preface that does a lot of good, hard philosophical work to get the reader to rethink how best to look at Scripture. He uses the philosophy of Heidegger to emphasize that readings of Scripture since the Enlightenment have been governed by a “hermeneutics of correspondence,” which — roughly — means the Bible has been treated as an “object for scientific investigation.” Instead, Waetjen proposes to have his interpretation be “governed by a postmodern hermeneutics of disclosure,” which means that it will own the subjective nature of the interpretation offered without throwing out what is helpful and true in historical-critical and sociological-anthropological approaches. As this short description indicates, the preface is tough sledding, but rewarding, and will require some careful reading along with a willingness to come to terms with difficult philosophical concepts.
Rather than an attempt to settle broad, ethnic disputes with the Roman Christian community, Waetjen suggests this impetus for Paul’s letter: the possibility of Paul’s martyrdom in Jerusalem. The prospect of his death gave birth to “a theological testament that would hopefully serve as a manifesto for the future of the Christ movement.” Because Paul had this broader goal in mind, Romans should be understood to convey “a fundamental deconstruction of law, and not only the law of the Sinai covenant but all law.” At this point Waetjen takes a much-needed jab at attempts to limit “works of law” to mean only circumcision, food laws and feast days. But, the most provocative parts of Waetjen’s commentary for Reformed readers will be those where he discusses what Paul means by the continuing reality of sin in the life of the believer, all of which lay the groundwork for a critique of Luther’s and Calvin’s readings of these key passages, found in the appendix.
This is a commentary that requires some theological and philosophical skill to navigate, but also offers rich, new insight into Paul’s letters that if critically engaged and used will only refine a pastor’s preaching and sharpen a church member’s insight into the greatest of Paul’s letters.
James Cubie is director of children’s ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.