What is it about?

This article is a detailed defence of a new reading of Romans 2:17–29 in the New Testament. I think Romans 2:17–29 isn’t directly about salvation, but about teaching. I don’t deny that salvation is a very important topic in Romans, including in the immediately preceding passage (Romans 2:1–16). I also affirm that issues relating to salvation form a vital backdrop to the argument of Romans 2:17–29. However, I argue that the foreground issue in this particular passage (Romans 2:17–29) is not salvation itself, but something related yet distinct: teaching, and particularly Jewish teaching of the law.

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Why is it important?

Most commentators don’t spend much time in this passage. They tend to concentrate much more attention on the previous passage (Romans 2:1–16). This means commentators tend to be far too quick to make assumptions about what Romans 2:17–29 is “all about” (i.e. the topic), and so–I argue–end up misconstruing what Paul is actually trying to say in the passage (i.e. the argument). English translations of the passage tend to reflect these assumptions and so perpetuate the misconstruals. I offer an alternative reading of the passage, which is based on detailed engagement with the precise details of the Greek text of this passage. I try to avoid falling into the trap of simply importing all the ideas from the previous passage (i.e. Romans 2:1–16), and instead try to look in detail at the specific concerns of this passage (i.e. Romans 2:17–29). While my reading of Romans 2:17–29 doesn’t take the usual view about the topic and purpose of this particular passage (i.e. that Paul is trying to undermine Jewish advantage in salvation), I think it actually does a better job of supporting classic reformed understandings of the wider context (especially 3:1–8). That’s because my reading of Rom 2:17–29 doesn’t end up with the strange dissonances that result from traditional readings, and so doesn’t require the usual special pleading and exegetical backflips to make sense of the flow of the argument into the following passage (3:1–8). Thus, I argue that my new reading of 2:17–19 fits more smoothly into Paul’s discussion of sin and justification in chapter 3. And that means it supports classic reformed understandings of the nature of sin and justification. At the same time, my reading highlights a theme in Romans that is quite prominent for Paul’s argument but is often neglected or (unintentionally) downplayed in reformed readings of Romans: the theme of preaching and ministry.


One of the reasons I believe that we need a new reading of Romans 2:17–29 is that it is an incredibly neglected passage. Preachers tend to ignore it or skip over it. So do scholars. Thus Longenecker, in his recent commentary, writes: “there is probably no more ignored passage in the NT than Rom 2:17–29” (p. 291). Most interpreters tend to spend a great deal of time in Romans 2:1–16, then rush through Romans 2:17–29 quite quickly, almost as an afterthought. So do many preaching programs. Typically, they assume that the second half of Romans 2 is just a re-hash of the first half of Romans 2, containing some kind of slightly impenetrable argument that all Jews are sinners. However, this assumption creates all sorts of strange issues and dissonances. Most traditional interpreters tend to ignore these issues or leave them behind in their rush to get on into chapter 3. On the other hand, several recent, less traditional, interpreters have used these issues and dissonances as evidence to prove that traditional (e.g. reformed, Lutheran, etc.) views of the whole purpose and argument of Romans 1–3 are just plain wrong. That’s why I thought a good long hard look at the second half of Romans 2 was in order. And this is what I’ve done in this article. I argue that my reading makes much more sense of the precise details of the text in Romans 2:17–29. Please note that many of these precise details are obscured by modern translations, which tend to smooth the English over to fit in with their assumptions. So if you really want to see the details of the text clearly and follow my argument, you need to look at the Greek text rather than rely on modern English translations. If you can’t read Greek, you can try an older translation like the King James Version, which tends to be more literal and follow the text more word-for-word than modern versions like the ESV etc. I believe if you read Romans 2:17–29 the way I do instead of the way many modern interpreters do, you’ll end up with a reading of Romans 3 that’s closer to classical reformed understandings of sin and justification, without the dissonances. And you’ll also see how the topics of teaching and ministry are important in Romans, and deeply connected to the issues of the gospel, salvation, justification, etc.

Lionel Windsor
Moore Theological College

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The Named Jew and the Name of God, Novum Testamentum, March 2021, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/15685365-12341689.
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