Could someone be so presumptuous to suggest that the masterpiece of Romans has been misunderstood? J. R. Daniel Kirk is precisely that presumptuous in his debut book, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. He argues that for too long, scholars have been asking the wrong questions and thus arriving at ill formed conclusions about Paul’s master epistle. Chiefly, Kirk considers the way in which Romans is read as a theological abstraction thoroughly problematic. Instead of reading Romans looking for definitions and doctrines, the standard approach to Romans in a post-reformation context, Kirk is concerned to describe “God’s identity” which is inseparable from his covenant obligations to Israel.
It is refreshing that Kirk’s rereading is not based on ideological criticism, so popular nowadays, but rather on a close reading of the text. Analyzing Romans through the lens of a theme found in every major section of the text he identifies what he sees as the “hermeneutical key” to the book – the resurrection of Jesus. So, his thesis reads, “In Romans, the resurrection of Jesus becomes Paul’s key for demonstrating that the promises contained in the Scriptures have been fulfilled in the Christ event.” Thus, “Resurrection is the most pervasive theme of the letter and it functions throughout as a hermeneutical key for reinterpreting the Scriptures and stories of Israel” (8).
Reading resurrection as the key to Romans addresses three major concerns of the letter. First, Kirk contends that it is because of the resurrection that Paul can read scripture the way he does. It has long been recognized that Paul’s use of the OT is especially pervasive in Romans and, in Kirk’s view; it is the resurrection that provides the lens through which Paul is reading the OT. Second, it is because of the resurrection that Paul can contend Gentiles are now included among the people of God. Third, Kirk wants to read Romans as concerned with theodicy. How can God be faithful to his covenant if the majority of Israel does not believe? Kirk suggests, “Resurrection simultaneously provides the means for vindicating humanity and for vindicating God” (11). It is in resurrection that God can vindicate the righteous and thereby vindicate himself as just. Kirk’s argument about resurrection, then, provides the key to Paul’s hermeneutic, Gentile mission, and theodicy.
Kirk is exactly right to find resurrection as a thread running throughout Romans (Rom 1.4, 16-17; 4.16-23; 5.9-10, 15-21; 6.1-23; 7.1-6; 8.1-39; 10.1-13; 11.13-15; 13.8-14; 14.1-12; and 15.12). Before analyzing each text, however, he provides a very succinct second chapter (pgs 14-32) on resurrection in Second Temple Judaism. He focuses on Daniel and 2 Maccabees and compares 2 Baruch, 1 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, Apocryphon of Ezekiel, and even Josephus. Following George W.E. Nickelsburg’s Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism, Kirk analyzes the literature by asking what function resurrection serves in the various stories of God’s interaction with humanity. He sees resurrection serving four purposes:  justice for the oppressed,  “motivation for righteous behavior”;  “restoration of creation”; and  “the restoration of Israel” (15).
Next, he turns to analyzing the texts in Romans were resurrection shows up. In chapter three Kirk shows that resurrection frames the letter in two structurally significant passages (Rom 1.1-7; 15.12). As he looks as how Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection, Kirk most helpfully points out, “The resurrection of Jesus, and of Jesus alone, exacerbates the theodicy problem that resurrection is intended to solve: is the God of Israel not capable of delivering his people and rewarding them for their faithfulness?” This, then, is why Paul turns to the scriptures of Israel to explain how it is that God is still just in raising the Messiah alone. This sets the stage for Paul’s overwhelmingly Christological readings of the OT. In Kirk’s mind, Paul is from the outset (Hab 2.4 in Rom 1.17) setting the course of “resurrection hermeneutics,” which “will lie at the heart of defending God’s fidelity to the promises contained in Scripture and will do so by demonstrating that the people of God consists of both Jew and Gentile living out the obedience of faith” (55).
Chapter four of Unlocking Romans turns to Romans 4. Here, Kirk sees Paul rereading the Abraham narrative through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection. Rather than the readings of Abraham as Torah obedient, Paul reads him as a “type for God’s faithful people” (64) based on his belief in the God who raises the dead. So the “kind of faith” that “has tied both Jews and Gentiles to Abraham’s paternity” is “resurrection faith” (66). Therefore, the people of God are defined, not by Torah, but “by participating in the progeny raised up through God’s resurrection power” (83).
Chapter five, focused on Romans 5.9-10, argues that Paul “rework[s] every major function” that resurrection performed in Second Temple Judaism (85). Justification is not a future declaration that occurs based on Torah obedience, but a present reality vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus and those who participate in him. I think Kirk is correct, but his argument would have been much stronger if he had expanded his comparative analysis beyond 4 Ezra and included other Second Temple texts.
Chapter six provides an overview of Romans 5.12-8.11 by addressing the role of the Law. Kirk returns to the law in chapter eight (focused on Romans 10.6-13). In chapter six he argues that even though Paul cites scripture much less in 5.12-8.11, he is still very much focused on rereading Israel’s story through his resurrection hermeneutic. This is a very important, yet often overlooked, observation. Interestingly, sin/death is portrayed as a reigning power (Rom 5.13-14) to which the law has become aligned. This is a stark contrast to other Second Temple theologies. For example, in Psalms of Solomon 14.1-2 obedience to the law aligns one with God. To explain the role of the law, Kirk uses the metaphor of a vicegerent unwillingly put into the service of king Sin’s desires (81). The “I” of Rom 7.7-25 is “Adam” the man of the age of sin (cf. Rom 5.13ff.). Following E. P. Sanders Kirk finds Paul’s understanding of the law is not based on anything inherently problematic in the law itself, but rather retrospectively shaped by the resurrection of Jesus.
Before returning to the role of the law, Kirk follows Paul for an extended look at eschatological hope embodied in one of the most beautiful passages in all Scripture (Rom 8.12-39). Scholars have found echoes of numerous OT stories and themes in Romans 8, including Adam and creation, Abraham, the exodus, Davidic kingship, return from exile, and eschatological consummation. Kirk shows how Paul has all these themes in view (to varying degrees) but that each of them is reshaped by the resurrection of Jesus. So, “Whatever eschatological vision Paul may have had to work with in his Jewish toolbox, his own rendering of the story is profoundly resurrection-christological” (137).
Chapter 8 focuses on Romans 10.6-13 and returns to the question of the Law’s role. In fact, it seems to me that Kirk is allowing this later passage to shape how he reads Rom 5.12-8.11. In Kirk’s view, Romans 10 makes resurrection the quintessential “act of God” which must therefore define the faith of Israel as God’s people. This is relevant to Torah, because the resurrection displaces Torah’s role in most other Second Temple Jewish theologies. Paul’s use of Deut 30.12-13 in Rom 10.6-9 is particularly interesting because of the way Paul revises the text in an acceptable way to Jewish ears to support a radically different perspective than other Second Temple interpreters (167-168). Again, Kirk finds Paul reading scripture through the lens of the resurrection.
Chapter 9 is provocatively titled, “Resurrection and the Future of Israel” and focuses on Rom 11.15. Though there are numerous exegetical and theological questions in Rom 11, Kirk observes “the main contours [of the argument] are clear enough”:  “the current situation of Israelite disbelief and Gentile acceptance of the gospel is part of God’s mysterious plan of blessing the Gentiles by means of ethnic Israel” and  “the current disbelief of ethnic Israel is not permanent” (181). Israel’s hope as God’s chosen people is reshaped by Paul’s resurrection hermeneutic. Kirk is adamant that this Israel-as-resurrected interpretation, however, is not an argument for an eschatological ingathering of ethnic Israel (190). Thus Kirk provides an interesting argument for the salvation of Israel without foraying into a wild system as to how that might happen.
Chapter 10 turns to the how resurrection informs Paul’s ethical exhortations in Rom 13.8-14; 14.1-9. One of the great strengths of Kirk’s thesis is that resurrection, unlike justification, runs through every major section of Romans. Since the resurrection has become the cornerstone of God’s justice, ethical thought must also undergo a rereading via resurrection hermeneutics. There could have been much more here in regard to how Paul allows resurrection to reshape his ethics, but most of the chapter was spent arguing that Paul is in fact referring to resurrection despite other interpretations.
Kirk’s last chapter provides a summary conclusion that focuses on some contemporary applications of Paul’s resurrection hermeneutic. Not surprisingly, this chapter focuses on how Paul reads scripture, engages in a Gentile mission, and responds to the theological problem of evil (theodicy). It is a very clearly written chapter that ought to be required reading for undergraduates. It shows how resurrection shapes Paul’s thought in Romans and its implications today. Kirk opposes reading Romans looking only for soteriology, disdains how ethnic and even theological divisions have separated the church, and contends for an “already/not yet” apocalyptic eschatology to shape a humble response to the problem of evil. This chapter takes a decidedly more preachy tone, but it serves well an attempt to give some application to the argument.
Unlocking Romans is a revision of Kirk’s doctoral dissertation “Resurrection in Romans: Reinterpreting Romans the Stories of Israel in Light of the Christ Event,” which was overseen by the master of NT use of the OT, Richard B. Hays. In many ways Kirk follows Hays’ impressive work on Paul’s use of the OT (Echoes of Scripture and Conversion of the Imagination) while still offering his own contribution by focusing on resurrection. I do wonder what the intended audience was for this book. Citations of German and French articles and commentaries makes me think the audience is primarily academic, but then why not include more material from the dissertation? Most undergraduate students would probably find Kirk’s book difficult reading, so I am at a bit of a loss as to who I would recommend this book to other than those keenly interested in Pauline theology. I think it deserves recommendation but non-specialists will probably have a difficult time.
I am always impressed when an argument unfolds that helps a reader see something in the text that was always there. I finished this book and thought, “Well of course it’s about resurrection!” But then, I began to reflect on how often Romans is preached and taught without recognition of resurrection’s significance in Paul’s thought. I am thankful for J. R. Daniel Kirk for showing us what was always there but we had lost the eyes to see through centuries of looking for soteriology.
The phrase “resurrection hermeneutic” is quite helpful and I thought Kirk could have exploited it more than he did. Perhaps, it could be modified into “Christological resurrection hermeneutic” but then it becomes quite a mouthful. Regardless, the concept is very helpful for understanding Paul. I wonder how this might be applied to Paul’s other letters and to see if the shoe fits? Overall, I found Kirk’s book to be a fascinating reading of Paul that is correct in identifying resurrection as crucial to Paul’s thought and argument in Romans.
Despite, the many strengths of this book I still have numerous questions and some disagreements. Throughout his book, Kirk disparages Francis Watson’s reading of Paul’s hermeneutic (pg 45 footnote 58; pg 47 footnote 66; pg 48; pg 99 footnote 6; pg 209 footnote 3). Watson suggests that Paul’s is not imposing his readings on the OT, but rather finding two dissonant voices in the OT and siding with one against the other (Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith). Kirk is thoroughly dissatisfied with Watson’s reading because he sees Paul only able to read the OT the way he does after the resurrection. I think both Watson and Kirk are correct. Paul’s hermeneutic was radically reshaped by the resurrection. But, as Watson argues, Paul would have to justify that hermeneutic by reading the OT. He would not have been comfortable imposing his theology on the text nor would he have been convincing to those whom he wrote if he had done so. I think Kirk points this direction when he cites Richard Hays describing “the circularity of Paul’s hermeneutic” (pg 174 footnote 43). Paul reread the OT in light of the resurrection, but he did not consider that rereading an imposition.
I have other unanswered questions. If the law is displaced by resurrection and placed alongside the age of sin and death, what is its enduring value for Christians? Why does Paul appeal to it so strongly? Is it just the vestigial remains of his once very Jewish faith that has been transformed in the wake of resurrection? I know that Kirk does not want to read Paul as something other than a Jew, but how would his rereading have sounded to other Jewish ears? How could he justify his reading from the text itself if in fact it was so radically reshaped by the resurrection? As a whole, I think Paul’s understanding of the law required much more attention. As a prime example, Romans 7.7-25 received only a page of comment (124). So, “resurrection hermeneutics” still has some explaining to do when it comes to the law.
I repeatedly found myself saying, “Yes, resurrection, but where is the Holy Spirit?” I think this relates to Paul’s view of the law as well. What role does the Holy Spirit play in displacing the Torah? How does the resurrection reshape Paul’s theology of the Spirit? It’s not that Kirk ignored the Holy Spirit, I just think it merits more consideration especially in Romans 8. How does the Holy Spirit figure in “resurrection hermeneutics”?
These questions were prodded by a penetrating study of Romans. Unlocking Romans is a fine example of closely reading Paul’s master epistle and show us something that we should have seen all along.