Thursday, January 6, 2011
Frank Matera: Romans Interview
The writing of a commentary is an intensely personal endeavor. It requires concentration, discipline, and most of all, long periods of uninterrupted time. Somewhere in the midst of such a project, one begins to feel as though he or she has become a monk or a hermit, cut off from the familiar social world of family and friends who are about the business of earning their daily bread. At such moments the noonday devil appears and interrogates the would-be author: 'Why are you composing yet another commentary when there are so many, most of which are better than what you will write?' But if the temptation to abandon the task is resisted, and if the work is completed, the commentator finally receives his or her answer: the privilege of studying the sacred page, of asking it questions and being questioned by it, is itself sufficient reason to write yet another commentary. Thus every commentator eventually learns that even if the work falls short of one's expectations, as inevitably it will, the effort has not been in vain (Frank J. Matera, 2 Corinthians: A Commentary [The New Testament Library; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003]italics mine), Preface ix.
Fast forwarding seven years, is this the same sentiment you had in writing your most recent commentary on Romans?
It has been a long time since I read those words. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. As I read them—as if for the first time—they continue to ring true, perhaps even more so with Romans. Since there are so many great commentaries on Romans, I often felt inadequate to the task, and I continually asked myself why I needed to add my voice to that of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Barth, etc. But the writing of a commentary is its own reward. After writing it, one feels a special kinship with the text that did not and could not have existed before.
2. I have always been fascinated with the actual process that a commentator undertakes when writing his/her commentary. What is your specific approach, and has it changed since writing your first, Galatians?
My commentary on Galatians was my first attempt at commentary writing. This meant that, apart from the structure of the Sacra Pagina Series, I had to find a commentary style. What I most remember about writing that commentary is the attention I gave to word studies through the use of a concordance. I wanted to see how every word in Galatians was used in the other Pauline letters. While I continued to use this approach, my commentary on Romans gives greater attention to the structure of the text. In a word, I have become more interested in how Paul structures his letters as a whole and in their individual parts.
3. Talk a bit about the Paideia series and what about it drew your interest in writing the volume on Romans?
Every commentary series asks its authors to follow a specific format. The distinctive approach of the Paideia series is its threefold format: (1) Introductory Issues in which the author discusses background issues, (2) Tracing the Train of Thought in which the author tries to clarify the logic of the text, and (3) Theological Issues in which the author tries to clarify the theological significance of the text. It was this third element that attracted me to this series. Romans is an unabashedly theological text, and it was a privilege for me to engage its profound theology.
4. In your Preface (xiii) to this particular volume, you mention two inspirations that have guided your journey in Romans, one an instructor, Jean Giblet, and the second, Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans. Can you speak of how these influences shaped your writing of this commentary?
Professor Jean Giblet, a Belgian Priest, was my Professor of New Testament for four years, when I was a student at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, 1964-68. His exegetical approach was philological and historical-critical, and it always paid attention to the pastoral dimension of the text: what the text means for the life of the church. This is the approach that he taught me. I read Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans about the same time; it was the most powerful book I have ever read. It was a sustained sermon that confronted with the awesome power of God’s Word. While commentaries are not usually written in this way, I tried to incorporate some of that passion into my own commentary.
5. Moving on to some interpretive issues, could you discuss how you interpreted the phrases δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, (3.21) and διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστου (3.22) and some of the main issues involved in dealing with these phrases?
These two phrases have traditionally been interpreted as “the righteousness of God,” the righteousness that comes from God and which God imputes to the justified, and “faith in Jesus Christ.” In more recent exegesis the first has been interpreted as referring to God’s own righteousness, God’s saving justice manifested in Christ’s death on the cross. The second has been interpreted as referring to the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ, which Christ manifested by his obedient death on the cross. Thus God’s own righteousness is manifested in Christ’s faithful obedience on the cross. I have chosen this interpretation—without excluding the other—because it coheres with the overall thrust of Romans, which is a letter about God as revealed in Christ.
6. In Romans 4, Paul presents his own view of Abraham. What are some of the distinctive aspects of Paul’s portrayal that differ from Second Temple Jewish portrayals?
The most distinctive aspect of Paul’s portrayal of Abraham in Romans 4 is the way in which he presents Abraham as the father of Gentiles as well as Jews. Whereas second temple Judaism rightly saw Abraham as the father of the Jewish people and the first monotheist, Paul argues that the faith of Abraham enables him to be the father of all, Gentiles as well as Jews, provided they believe in God as he (Abraham) did.
7. Another portrayal, this of Adam in Romans 5, is also distinctive. Could you summarize Paul’s portrayal here as opposed to Second Temple portrayals?
In Romans 5, Paul argues that Adam’s transgression introduced the powers of sin and death into the world in such a way that all, without exception, find themselves in a predicament from which they cannot free themselves—what later theology calls original sin. While some writers in second temple Judaism pointed to Adam’s sin as the beginning of sin, none highlighted the result of Adam’s transgression in the way Paul did: namely, Adam’s transgression resulted in a situation of universal sinfulness that required an act of God to reverse.
8. What are some of the ways Romans 8 recaps chapters 5-7 and what role does the Spirit play in developing some of these themes?
Romans 8 recaps chapters 5–7 in two ways. First, Romans 8:14-38 completes the theme of eschatological hope and final salvation that Paul introduces in Romans 8:14-39. Second, in Romans 8:1-14, Paul shows how the Spirit enables the justified to overcome the power of sin that frustrates the law as described in Romans 5:12–7:25. Thus, the Spirit that the justified have already received is the assurance that they will be raised with Christ and enjoy final salvation. That same Spirit frees them from the powers of the sin and death and enables the law to be fulfilled in them in a way that it could not have been fulfilled previously.
9. Much has been made of the church as being the ‘new Israel’ based on a particular reading of Romans 9-11. What would your response be to those who hold that the church has superseded Israel in God’s plan of salvation?
Paul never calls the church the “new Israel,” nor does he say that God has rejected Israel. In Romans 9–11, his point is that God has not rejected Israel, even though a temporary hardening has come upon a part of Israel. In God’s way, in God’ time, all Israel will be saved because God’s promises to Israel are irrevocable. The church is the eschatological people—the people of the new age—made up of Gentiles and Jews. It grows out of Israel and does not replace Israel. It is not a new Israel but God’s eschatological people. Israel continues to have a role in God’s mysterious salvific plan. The Jewish people remain God’s chosen people.
10. Thanks for your time and for your contribution in writing this commentary. It is one of the clearest expressions I have ever read on Romans and would recommend it to seminary professors and church leaders as a must-have in any serious engagement with this great book.
In closing, I was wondering what other research and writing projects are you undertaking and will we see some more commentaries from your pen in the near future?
I am presently writing a Pauline theology entitled God’s Saving Grace: A Concise Pauline Theology. As the title indicates it will be a shorter theology of the Pauline letters intended for students and teachers. Thank you for allowing me to express my views on this wonderful letter