Studying the Book of Romans (Book Reviews)

romans-epistleEvery year I have the opportunity to lead two Bible studies for folks in my church (one for men, another for women).  Our last topic was the biblical book of Romans: the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  By all accounts it was a profitable year.  We took our time slowly working through all 16 chapters in order to get a better grasp of this well-respected but often misunderstood book of the Bible.  Many people only know Romans as the book that contains the “Roman Road to Salvation.”  Others think of Romans as the Bible’s systematic theology textbook.  Still others see it as an encouraging book, except for those pesky chapters 9-11 that teach predestination and God’s sovereignty over salvation.  Nowadays the first chapter of Romans has become a battlefield in biblical interpretation as LGBT advocates seek ways to reinterpret Roman’s clear condemnation of homosexual behavior.

With all that in mind, I sought a well-trod path to lead my study partners through the book of Romans in an honest, faithful, careful, and relevant way.  Before we started, I chose two resources as primary study aids to prepare lesson plans through Romans.

The first book, simply called Romans is published by St. Helen’s Bishopsgate in their acclaimed Read/Mark/Learn series.  Honed through 30 years of group study use, it is a simple yet thorough introduction to the book of Romans for small group study.  This is the book each of my study partners used to prepare for weekly discussions.  The second book, Romans: The Revelation of God’s Righteousness, is a popular level commentary written by respected teacher Paul Barnett, retired bishop of North Sydney, and fellow and faculty member at various universities and colleges in the Anglican tradition.  Both books are written from the historic Reformed Anglican perspective.

romans-read-mark-learnEach book has its strengths.  Romans (Read/Mark/Learn) is the best study guide (by far) for the book of Romans that I have seen.  Its format is engaging, the division of passages is natural and of digestible size, and the suggested group preparation and study discussion questions proved stimulating.  Each chapter is structured accordingly:

  1. Read the Bible passage from the book of Romans
  2. Context (historical and biblical)
  3. Structure (outline)
  4. Old Testament Background (brief commentary on relevant passages that enlighten the text)
  5. Text Notes (commentary outlined according to the passage’s structure)
  6. Key Themes and Application (theological synthesis of ideas)
  7. Unanswered Questions (questions the text is preparing to answer in subsequent passages)
  8. The Aim of this Study (the big idea or summary of the passage, including the goal for the study)
  9. Suggested Questions (including ice-breaker, textual, theological, and application questions organized according to the passage’s structure)

Also, all passages fit together into larger literary units.  These larger units are introduced in Section Notes according to the following pattern:

  1. Main Topic
  2. Key Themes
  3. Structure

One of the things I appreciated about Romans (Read/Mark/Learn) is its broad intended audience.  Unbelievers, new Christians, the biblically uninformed, and more mature Christians may all profit from this book.  Not just on different levels.  The less informed and beginners are brought along by the books content and the nature of group discussions so that it is not long before everyone is fully engaged and able to participate.  Another good feature about this study guide is it tries to refrain from straying from the main ideas of the book of Romans, but also seeks to apply it to contemporary life and the human heart.  Because Romans is a book for believers and unbelievers, for Jew and Gentile, the lessons and discussion questions deal with the perspectives of each group.  Even so, the study guide was produced in a primarily English Gentile Christian environment, so that is the bent of the study.  Throughout the study my groups raised a few friendly disagreements with the author’s applications.  One disagreement that I shared was a curious place in Romans 8:17-30 where the commentary and suggested questions seemed to disparage conservation and environmental concerns that some Christians hold.  Perhaps the author wanted to leave this topic an “open question” for the group to more thoroughly discuss.  But my group shared the impression that the book leaned too far in the direction of letting God take care of the earth because it’s a fool’s errand for people.  “No use polishing the brass on the Titanic!”  That’s not their quote, but I can see them believing something like it.  Regardless, on the whole this is a minor quibble with an excellent resource for studying the book of Romans.

romans-barnettBarnett’s book, Romans: The Revelation of God’s Righteousness, proved an insightful teacher’s supplement.  It also could be used profitably for small group study as discussion questions are included.  But with its original (transliterated) language and technical theological footnotes, many readers might be intimidated.  And if not, other readers might be carried away into the weeds of interpretation and theological controversy, and so lose the forest of Romans for the leaves on the trees.  As a commentary, one of the useful features of Barnett’s book is its presentation of various interpretive options.  This helps to see how various Christians have attempted to solve some of Roman’s less clear verses.  Barnett proves to be a reliable guide, interacting with both evangelical and critical scholarship.  While he usually sides with other evangelical interpreters, he gleans valuable insights from more critical scholarly studies.  As a commentary, one of its weaknesses is a small bibliography.  While the study guide Romans (Read/Mark/Learn) lists 9 books in its bibliography, the Romans commentary only lists 5.  Barnett interacts with many more sources in the footnotes, but his primary commentary sources on the book of Romans appear to be just 5 books.  I think that list should be longer.  If the 5 are his top recommended commentaries for further study, that should be stated.  Such a list would be more helpful if it was longer, categorized, and annotated.

Both the study guide and the commentary worked well together.  They mostly complemented each other.  I don’t recall any significant conflicting perspectives.  Thus they serve as a good team of resources for studying Romans in a group.  A teacher might choose another commentary for in-depth lesson preparation, but one could not choose a better study guide that Romans (Read/Mark/Learn).

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