J. Patout Burns Jr. is the editor and translator of the latest volume in “The Church’s Bible” series by Eerdmans (general ed. Robert L. Wilken). This text brings together select lengthy excerpts from early Christian writings on Romans from such Patristic authors as Origen, Rufinus, Pelagius, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Augustine, and Theodoret. The purpose of this volume is to allow “readers today to benefit from the church’s rich treasure trove of commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans.”
I found interesting that Burns believes that Romans heads up the Pauline canonical corpus, not because it was written first, or even because it “introduces” Paul, but simply because of its length (p. xxiii). It is interesting how Burns reflects on the Patristic use of Romans in view of Paul’s theology of election. Obviously Romans made a big impact on Augustine, and later on Calvin. As for the former, Burns notes that folks like Augustine used Romans to emphasize “the sinfulness of humanity and the absolute gratuity of all God’s operations which led chosen individuals to that salvation provided by Christ” (p. xxv).
On the other hand, Burns points out Origen’s interest in Romans in terms of free will. Origen, then, tried to teach from Romans in such a way that Paul was exhorting believers to take seriously “moral responsibility essential to understanding God’s justice in condemning sinners and rewarding the faithful” (p. xxv).
Burns’ text is about 400 pages, but it could have been much longer, given the prominence of Romans. How did he decide which discussions to include? He used 2 criteria.
First, interpretations that have relevance for current living and understanding of Christian life have been preferred to observations and explanations of the text which have only historical value…Second, interpretations representing different perspectives and thereby illustrating the range of ancient Christian understandings of the Letter to the Romans have been included (p. xxvi)
I could comment on any number of interesting Patristic reflections on Romans, but I will limit it to Romans 2, particularly the reference to judgment by works (2:6). I am doing some research on Paul’s view of final judgment, so I thought this was fascinating.
In terms of Paul’s mention of rendering to every person “according to works” (2:6), Origen comments that this is important because God does not judge people based on their “nature” – whether good or bad. By saying this, Origen is eliminating any cop-outs. He goes on: “the faithful should be taught that faith alone is not sufficient.” Origen is insistent that God’s people must act like God’s people. What does that look like? “They [must] do something good and act in a praiseworthy way.” (see p. 41).
I was surprised to see even Augustine underscore the importance of good deeds in view of judgment, but he is also very careful to give the reminder that “Good works do not earn grace but rather follow from grace” (p. 45). Still, we see early Christian theologians integrating justification and judgment. They do not sweep final judgment according to works under the soteriological carpet. They face it head on and accept the challenge of making sense of it. I admire that and I get terribly frustrated when people like Wright are accused of works-righteousness because of the emphasis on final judgment and works.
So, I am pleased with Burns’ work and it is a great benefit to have these ancient texts newly translated in English that is easy to comprehend. Thank you Burns. Thank you Wilken. Thank you Eerdmans!