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A Review of Romans by William Dumbrell

Steven R. Coxhead, review of William J. Dumbrell, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary, Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 375–8 (used with permission).

WTJ 68 (2006): 375

By William J. Dumbrell, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2005. Pp. 147. $19.00, paper.

William Dumbrell has made his name as an OT scholar, but it is totally appropriate that he should put his hand to writing a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans from a perspective that is informed by his own masterly understanding of the OT. As the title of the book suggests, this commentary is an attempt to interpret Paul’s teaching in Romans in the light of the OT prophecies of the new covenant. Dumbrell states that his rationale “for yet a further commentary on Romans” stems from the fact that there is a great need for Paul to be understood in closer connection with “the operation of the New Covenant” (p. ix).

Given that Paul makes the claim in Rom 1:2 that the gospel that he preaches is the gospel that God “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,” Dumbrell’s desire to read Romans in the light of the OT teaching concerning the new covenant is to be greatly commended, because it can be argued that the interpretation of Romans has generally suffered throughout the history of the interpretation of this epistle by the tendency for scholars to read and understand Paul in varying degrees of isolation from the prophetic hope recorded in the OT. When it is understood, however, that the OT looked forward to the new covenant as a time when the regenerating power of God’s Spirit would be active in a greater way than what existed under the old covenant, such that God would act through his Spirit to write his law on the hearts of the people of Israel (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-27) and even on the hearts of Gentiles (Isa 2:1-3), so that people from all the families of the earth would be brought back into covenant submission to God (Isa 56:1-8; 66:18-21), in order that the promised covenant blessing of eternal life might finally be realized in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 12:2-3; Isa 12:1-6; 25:6-8; 66:22-23), then Paul’s argument in Romans takes on new significance.

Dumbrell’s new covenant paradigm is important to consider precisely because it interacts with this OT vision of the new covenant. An important component of Dumbrell’s paradigm is the epochal significance of the death of Christ in Paul’s thinking. Paul understood that Christ came to establish the new covenant, and this means that the new covenant in Christ has brought the era of the Mosaic covenant to an end. As Dumbrell puts it, the Mosaic law and its system of atonement ceased with the death of Christ (p. ix). In this context, the problem that Paul is addressing in Romans relates to the failure of the majority of the Jews of Paul’s day to realize the significance of the supersession of the old covenant by the new. Paul’s Jewish opponents had made the mistake of attempting in the “post-cross situation” to “persu[e] a covenant relationship under the [now] defunct Mosaic Covenant” (p. ix).

Applying this new covenant paradigm to Romans produces a number of distinctive interpretations that are worthy of consideration. For example, Dumbrell interprets 2:1–3:20 as establishing the fate of Jews (and Gentiles) outside of the new covenant in Christ (p. 28), not in a general sense but “in a specific post-cross context” (p. 41). Since judgment is universal and on the basis of works, Jews and Gentiles outside of Christ will inevitably face God’s wrath (pp. 30-33). For the Jews in particular, because they have lost their covenant connection with God by not receiving the new covenant in Christ, they

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have no covenantal redress for their sins under the now defunct Mosaic covenant (pp. 29-30).

Dumbrell’s interpretation of Rom 2:1–3:20 is consistent with his new covenant paradigm, although he surprisingly takes 2:14-16, 26-27 as referring to the moral Gentile rather than to Gentile Christians who have had the law written on their hearts by God’s Spirit (pp. 34-35), even though the latter interpretation is a strong possibility in the light of the new covenant prophecy of Jer 31:31-33 and makes good sense of Paul’s argument in chapter 2 if his argument in this chapter is understood as functioning on the level of covenant righteousness rather than on the level of absolute righteousness as it has commonly been taken.

It should be noted that Dumbrell’s “post-cross” approach to Rom 2:1–3:20 is not absolute. A number of times he indicates that Paul’s critique in this section could also apply to Jews during the old covenant age (e.g., pp. 29-30, 34), but Paul nonetheless has in focus “the era of his present post-cross ministry” (p. 41) and how Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant age are all equally under sin if they are outside of Christ. There was a valid system of atonement in the Mosaic covenant that previously permitted the forgiveness of sin, but atonement is no longer available as part of the old covenant now that the new covenant age has dawned.

Dumbrell’s understanding of the important issue of the relationship between faith and works in Romans can be seen in his treatment of Rom 3:20-21 where he notes that during the old covenant age the phrase the works of the law could denote a legitimate obedience to the Mosaic law that was the “evidence of continuing faith, personal and national” (p. 41). In Dumbrell’s opinion, “most modern discussion” on the works of the law has considered this concept “in isolation from its legitimate place in the OT as a justifying component within the theology of grace” (p. 42). Thus, for Dumbrell, “it is only when the theology of grace for Israel is gone with the death of Christ that ‘works of the law’ becomes an ominous term” (p. 42). The works of the law that Paul opposed are linked to the mistaken Jewish attempt to continue in the way of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant despite the fact that a new covenant had come in the person of Jesus. Advocating the way of obedience to the Mosaic law in the new covenant age is to be ignorant of the fact that the Mosaic covenant has become obsolete and devoid of atoning grace through the establishment of the new covenant in the death of Christ.

While this reviewer agrees with Dumbrell that the common Protestant assumption that Paul was against “justification through self-effort” is to misunderstand the historical issue that existed in Paul’s day (p. 41) and that Paul was concerned in the writing of this epistle to oppose the common but mistaken Jewish advocacy of old covenant obedience in the new covenant age, there is arguably room for improvement with Dumbrell’s “post-cross” paradigm. Is it true, as Dumbrell seems to indicate, that the works of the Mosaic law only became ominous following the end of the old covenant upon the death of Christ (p. 42)?

Dumbrell is correct to note that the concept of the works of the law in the OT denotes Israel’s covenantal obligation under the Mosaic covenant (p. 41). From this reviewer’s perspective, the works of the law is simply a catch-phrase reflecting the language of Moses himself (e.g., Deut 6:25—Israel must be careful to do all of the law) that sets forth the covenantal condition of the acceptance on the part of Israel of the revelation of God

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that was delivered through Moses, which involves a holistic commitment to perform all of God’s will in the context of atoning grace. Thus, according to the language of the OT, the works of the law could be done and in fact were done by certain individuals who were recipients of the work of God’s Spirit writing the law in their hearts (e.g., David—1 Kgs 14:8; Ps 18:20-24; the writer of Ps 119—vv. 22, 55, 67, 69, 100, 129, 166-168; even Abraham is described as a keeper of torah—Gen 26:5). It is true, therefore, that the presence of atoning grace within old covenant law meant that old covenant law could be kept in a covenantal sense. But this is not the whole story. There is another, more ominous side to the works of the law in the OT. If the law of Moses was not internalized in the national heart of Israel so that Israel would be committed to the covenant with God, then the promised covenant blessing of life would not be realized, but instead Israel would experience the curse of death (Deut 30:17-18). In fact, Moses himself prophesied that the Mosaic covenant would not be kept on the required national level by Israel (Deut 30:1; 31:27, 29; 32:1-35) until after the exile when God would establish the new covenant and circumcise the hearts of the people of Israel (Deut 30:1-14). In other words, the theology of grace within the Mosaic covenant was always conditional upon the covenant commitment of Israel, and a lack of the requisite covenant commitment did not only emerge as a problem with Israel after the cross.

On the reasonable assumption that Paul was aware of the OT teaching on the historical priority of the condemnatory and mortifying function of the law for national Israel, Paul’s thought in Rom 3:20 seems to be, therefore, not merely the idea that old covenant obedience is inefficacious for a righteous standing before God in the new covenant age, but rather that the Mosaic law was generally impotent throughout the old covenant age in terms of its ability to bring about eschatological justification and the fullness of covenant blessing to “all flesh” (Rom 3:20), that is, the Mosaic covenant was unable to achieve the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). It is not necessary, therefore, to appeal to a post-cross situation to explain how the Mosaic law has effectively lost the justifying and vivifying power that the OT ascribes to it in a real and not just hypothetical sense. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6; see also Rom 2:27-29). This is the summary of the history of Israel under the old covenant. Thus, it appears that the “post-cross” component of Dumbrell’s paradigm has been over-played. More room needs to be allowed for Paul to make more general statements concerning the planned failure of the old covenant in God’s sovereign purposes as a backdrop for the greater work of God’s grace and Spirit through the new covenant in Christ in accordance with Paul’s reasoning in Rom 5:20-21.

Concerning Rom 7:7-25, Dumbrell correctly (in this reviewer’s opinion) takes Paul’s I language as referring to carnal Israel under the old covenant. Although he seems to take v. 10 as being a summary of Israel’s general situation under the law, he understands vv. 13-24 as speaking of the situation of Israel under the law in the post-cross era (pp. 78-79). Once again, however, perhaps it would be best to take vv. 13-24 as also summarizing Israel’s tragic situation under the old covenant in general (and particularly the post-exilic experience of Israel under the Mosaic law) while still allowing for the Jewish rejection of Christ to be seen as the climax of Israel’s covenant rebellion, which is no doubt what Paul has in mind in Rom 9:30–10:3.

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Having interpreted Rom 7:7-25 in terms of national Israel, it makes perfect sense then for Dumbrell to understand Rom 8:1-4 as speaking of the life that is available to Israel (and Gentile believers) under the new covenant through the work of the Holy Spirit (pp. 83-86). Although Dumbrell does not explicitly connect his interpretation of Rom 8:1-11 with the OT prophecies of eschatological restoration and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is obvious that his hermeneutical approach has been informed by this OT prophetic outlook.

Concerning Rom 9–11, Dumbrell takes these chapters as explaining that the unbelief of the majority of the Jews in relation to Jesus is ironically part of “Israel’s covenant vocation” in accordance with Exod 19:5-6 under the new covenant in the sense that through Israel’s unbelief the gospel has gone to the nations (p. 97). Dumbrell explains the “all Israel” of Rom 11:26 in terms of “the fully and finally developed tree of 11:17-24,” which includes Gentiles (p. 114). Although he understands a future return of ethnic Israel more as speculation than “a definite expectation” on Paul’s part, he does not exclude “a divine movement to a national Israel at the Parousia inducing national repentance” (p. 112).

In addition to the criticism offered above that Dumbrell’s new covenant paradigm identifies Israel’s problem too closely with the post-cross situation of Israel rather than with the general impotency of the Mosaic law to bring about the fullness of covenant blessing to all humanity, it must be acknowledged that Dumbrell’s language can at times appear a little stilted and that the editorial work in this book is not up to the standard that one might expect in a serious scholarly work. Nevertheless, these weaknesses in no way take away from the significance of the scholarship presented in the commentary, which is well worth close study.

For anyone who takes seriously the shape of OT and early Jewish covenantal theology this commentary is recommended reading. Dumbrell states in the preface to the book that he hopes through the writing of this commentary to fulfill a need for “an exposition of Romans” that understands Paul and his message from the perspective of the new covenant. Dumbrell has certainly come close to fulfilling this need in Romans: A New Covenant Commentary and is to be congratulated for seeking to understand Paul’s teaching in Romans in the light of the OT prophecies of the new covenant, which is arguably the way in God’s design that the new covenant is meant to be understood.

New South Wales, Australia