Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Review Article: Romans: The Divine Marriage  (Tom Holland)


Romans: The Divine Marriage. A Biblical Theological Commentary
Tom Holland, Pickwick Publications, 2011, 558 pp, £35.95 

Tom Holland’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans is not just another commentary. He has a thesis to establish and he goes about his task with powerful argument, incisive exegesis and clear theology. I do not agree with all he says, as this review will make clear, but I am thankful for his contribution to the discussion of some vital themes in Romans. I will not attempt in this article to summarise, still less to review, all aspects of Holland’s book, but will select a small number of topics which are prominent in the commentary and which have significant implications for understanding and applying Paul’s letter.

Background and Context for Understanding Paul

Holland is concerned that New Testament scholarship still takes too little account of the Old Testament background to Paul’s thinking. Though he acknowledges that attitudes are beginning to change for the better in this area, he believes that too much credence is still given on exegetical questions to classical Greek sources. Moreover, although recent scholarship has seen some shift away from reliance upon Greek sources, that shift has tended to be in favour of a more detailed exploration of extra-biblical Jewish literature roughly contemporary with the New Testament. Too often, complains Holland, scholars now use such extra-canonical Jewish documents to interpret Paul, in the same way as Greek classical literature used to be employed, without giving proper consideration to, firstly, the different viewpoints represented amongst such literature and, secondly, the questions as to how far such literature was, in fact, known amongst the early Christian community and how influential it was.

These are excellent points. Exegetical commentaries on books of the New Testament are increasingly weighed down by detailed references to and discussion of extra-canonical documents from the intertestamental and New Testament periods, without sufficient consideration of the pertinent questions that Holland raises about the relevance of such literature to an understanding of the New Testament. Holland is surely right to argue that the far more obvious source of influence on the inspired writers were the writings of those previously inspired by the same Spirit of God, the books of the Old Testament.

As with his previous volume, Contours of Christian Theology, [1]  therefore, Holland argues strongly for a clear Old Testament background to Paul and, in this commentary, seeks to uncover that background in the letter to the Romans. Holland sees that background emerging throughout the themes that Paul explores in his letter, with particular emphasis upon the idea of the new exodus, prominent in Holland’s earlier book and also in the writings of N. T. Wright and others.

The Passover Context in Romans 

Somewhat more unusual is Holland’s sustained argument that the Passover should be understood to play an important background role in Romans. He expands his views on this topic in two excursuses, “The Influence of the Prophet Ezekiel on Paul’s Theology” (84-96) and “Passover Themes in Paul’s Theology” (91-96). In Ezekiel’s vision, the sin offerings made by the Davidic prince who is to come and rule a redeemed Israel were made at the Passover, not on the Day of Atonement (Ezek 45:21-25). Holland argues that John the Baptist’s reference to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) and the fact that Jesus died at Passover time reinforces the connection, evident in Ezekiel, between the redemptive Passover and the atoning sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, a connection which some scholars, says Holland, have been reluctant to make (though he cites James Dunn and J. K. Howard as exceptions, 90).

Holland argues that the Passover theme is particularly clear in Rom 3:21ff. In verse 25, Paul speaks of God’s “passing over” (paresis) previous sins. Additionally, the themes of justification (a term used of Israel returning from exile in Babylon, in Isa 50:8; 53:11) and the display of the righteousness of God (see Gen 15:13-14; Isa 55:1-13), as well as the language of redemption, evident in this passage point, argues Holland, to a clear exodus context and therefore to a Passover connection. The theme in Romans of salvation as the reversal of what Adam brought upon humanity points to the eschatological Passover in which all who have faith in Jesus share. Holland goes to other Pauline epistles also to demonstrate that connections between atonement, exodus and Passover themes are not uncommon in Paul – he refers to 1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 1:3; Col 1:12-14; Eph 5:25.

The connection in Paul’s thinking between Passover and the sacrifice which Christ offered in his own body on behalf of his people is difficult to negate in the light of passages such as 1 Cor 5:7 and 2 Cor 5:21. It is, moreover, attractive to see the sacrificial elements in salvation in Christ as Paul expounds it in Romans in terms of the Passover. This is particularly the case in 3:25, where, as Holland states, a public display of the sacrificial victim is in view, something which is difficult to reconcile with the view of some scholars that hilasterion there refers simply to the mercy seat, which, as Holland points out, was located in anything but a public space. Some of Holland’s Passover connections, however, seem a little tenuous – that con-cerning the reversal of the Adamic fall, for example – or a little too remote or general – why connect justification particularly to Passover, for example, given the occurrence of the term at least equally prominently in other contexts in the Old Testament? Nevertheless, a Passover background to 3:25, in particular, does seem to help make sense of the language that Paul uses there, especially in the light of similar connections, referred to above, in his Corinthian correspondence.

Justification and the Righteousness of God

Romans 3:21 contains the much-discussed phrase, “righteousness of God”. No commentator on Romans can avoid significant discussion of this phrase in Romans and its connection with the cognate word in Greek, “justification”. As is conventional now, Holland understands God’s righteousness in Paul in terms of God’s saving activity in redemption and not only in terms of his moral perfection (though not less than that either). While he agrees with New Perspective arguments that situate the New Testament debate about justification within the context of Jew-Gentile relationships in the church, he rightly does not believe that that is all that there is to say about justification. The debate originated in the New Testament in that context but has far broader consequences for our understanding of salvation. Thus Holland affirms the Reformation position that justification involves acquittal from sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. However, he argues that, although the Reformers took massive steps in the understanding of justification, they failed to see the entire picture.

Holland thus embarks on a significant re-examination and re-casting of the Reformed and the New Perspective understandings of justification, particularly in his excursus, “Justification in the Theology of Paul” (107-30). He concludes that the term has three areas of meaning: firstly, that equivalent to the Reformers’ understanding of “acquittal and imputation” (129); secondly, the theme of bringing salvation to his people corporately, not simply declaring them to be in covenant with him but “bringing his collective, corporate community into a new relationship with him” (129); thirdly, justification can be understood as “God making covenant” (129), particularly in passages which have Gen 15 and Ps 106 as background.

It seems that, on Holland’s exegesis, Rom 3:21-25 can be seen as an example of the first understanding of justification, above, where Christ’s sacrifice obtains for all who have faith in him a once-for-all acquittal from guilt for their sin and redemption from the bondage in which they had previously lived. That meaning can, argues Holland, also be seen in Rom 4:6-8, where Paul cites the example of David’s justification and quotes from Ps 32. However, Holland argues that Paul’s use of Abraham in the same chapter, a few verses earlier, must be understood differently. Resting strongly on the Old Testament contexts cited by Paul in the two cases, Holland says that in the earlier part of Rom 4, Paul is using justification in the third way described above, to speak of the making of a covenant, as that is the context of Gen 15 which Paul quotes in those verses. Paul is not, in these particular verses, dealing with acquittal from sin at all. This latter argument has some attraction and Holland presents his case forcefully with effective use of the Old Testament background. However, I believe his argument founders on the immediate argument and context in which Paul makes use of these Old Testament examples. Paul is still, at this point in his letter, addressing the fundamental question of sin and how someone may be right before God. The examples of Abraham and of David at the start of chapter four are very closely linked and there would seem to be little, if any, indication in those verses that Paul believes himself to be tackling two separable issues – covenant-making and the forgiveness of sin. Without denying that covenantal issues lie behind Paul’s discussion and that the salvation issues which he is discussing need to be understood in the context of covenant, the repetition of words and phrases and the linking words in those verses seem to indicate that the central issue in Paul’s mind at that point is sin and how it is to be dealt with, not the initial making of covenant.

Baptism into Christ

Holland’s emphasis upon the corporate nature of salvation in Paul’s understanding (without in any way wanting to downplay the necessity of individual appropriation of that salvation) leads him to understand Rom 6, in particular, in terms of a corporate “baptism” of the whole people of God into Christ, the “major, redemptive event which happened long before the work of regeneration in the individual took place” (170). Holland argues that, there being no mention of water in the letter, it is unlikely that Paul has water baptism in mind here. Moreover, the opening verses of Rom 6 follow the corporate discussion of the second half of Rom 5 and, on Holland’s view, are followed by the corporate terminology of the phrase “the body of sin” in 6:6 (discussed below). Hence a corporate understanding of the baptism is required. It is not individual water baptism, nor is it individual conversion or any kind of individual Spirit baptism. By analogy with the “baptism into Moses” which the people of Israel experienced corporately at their redemption from Egypt, the baptism of Rom 6 is to be identified with the death of Jesus, when he experienced his “exodus” (Luke 9:31) on behalf of, and in union with, his people. This, in Holland’s view, explains the corporate nature of the language of these verses and their exposition of, it seems, something which happened to all God’s people at the same time, in Christ.

Again, this major theme in Holland’s exposition is attractively presented and strongly argued from Old and New Testaments. My difficulty with it is simply whether the verses in question are most naturally read in that way. There would seem to be little need for the express mention of water for readers to associate baptism with the initiatory act by which they professed faith in Christ publicly and were joined to the visible church. Although a corporate understanding of the start of Rom 6 is possible in the light of the second half of chapter 5, Holland’s argument in that regard rests on an unusual understanding of the phrase “body of sin” in 6:6. Moreover, Paul’s concern by the start of chapter 6 has undergone a clear development, with the pointed rhetorical questions which now focus on the living of the Christian life rather than the issue of dealing with sin which occupied the previous chapters. Without, I hope, giving way to the overly-individualistic viewpoint which continues to dominate western thinking, it does seem natural to understand a discussion about how we live in more individual than purely corporate terms. Nevertheless, although I am not persuaded by it, Holland’s argument is stimulating, has some considerable attractions from a theological viewpoint and deserves careful thought.

“Body of Sin” and Corporate Understandings

Readers of Holland’s work would expect to find in his commentary considerable emphasis upon the corporate nature of salvation. As already seen, Holland rightly reacts against the overly-individualistic understanding of salvation which developed in twentieth-century western evangelicalism and continues to be strong today. Although there are welcome signs that the significance of the church in the Christian’s experience is being increasingly recognised and a more healthy, biblical, corporate Christianity is being rediscovered in some parts, significant numbers within evangelicalism continue to appear to regard their faith as almost entirely individualistic in its nature. This should be of very serious concern.

Thus, as we have seen with respect to baptism and chapter 6, Holland seeks to reassert a more biblical, corporate emphasis. However, I believe that he takes this idea too far and is in danger of over-compensating for past mistakes of western evangelicalism on this issue. A suggestion in this direction has been made already, above, in relation to the concept of baptism into Christ in chapter 6. I believe that the same phenomenon can be seen in Holland’s understanding of the terms “old man” and “body of sin” in 6:6, both of which, Holland argues, need to be taken in a corporate sense. On the former term, he argues from its use in Col 3:9-12 and the term “new man” in Eph 2:15. The last-mentioned reference is clearly, as Holland says, to the church corporately considered, as the context, “making the two one”, makes clear. The same cannot, in my view, be said of the Colossians passage, where Paul is (as in Rom 6) turning his attention to the behaviour of Christians. An individual understanding of the phrase seems to be a far more natural reading here. The parallel passage in Eph 5:20-24 likewise seems to emphasise the necessity of an individual response to being in Christ, in terms of individual behaviour. Thus the understanding of the term “old man” in Rom 6:6 would seem to rest on our understanding of the context – individual or corporate – and cannot be used to determine whether that context is itself corporate or not.

Taking the term “body of sin” in the same verse as corporate, argues Holland, suits the corporate nature of the opening of the chapter. However, as one of the reasons which Holland gave, above, for considering that opening in a corporate manner was that “body of sin” in 6:6 is corporate, this mode of reasoning seems circular. He then argues that the term mirrors the phrase “body of Christ”, used of the church. Could the phrase “body of sin” then refer to those not in covenant with Christ but who are in covenant with sin? Holland develops an argument which seeks to relate the phrase to the Old Testament characterisation of idolatry as a covenantal relationship with foreign gods. Thus the “body of sin” indicates all those who are in Adam and not in Christ, who serve idols and are thus in covenant with sin.

This argument seems to require a great deal of a short phrase which occurs only once in Paul. Whereas the term “body of Christ” is a familiar one to readers of Paul and clearly indicates the church, the term “body of sin” is not familiar, neither is it immediately comparable to the better-known phrase. As Holland himself points out, if Paul wanted to coin a parallel but opposite term to “body of Christ”, one might have expected something like “body of Adam”. Holland argues that that would not have been an appropriate term, on the grounds that Adam’s mediatorial work on behalf of humanity had ended and “the community he has represented is no longer his body but Sin’s. Satan has control, and the significance of Adam as representative head has ended” (187). I confess to finding this limb of the argument difficult to follow, particularly in the light of Adam’s evidently continuing corporate significance for humanity demonstrated in chapter 5, and am not persuaded of Holland’s understanding of Paul’s phrase “body of sin”.

Divine Marriage and Marriage to Sin 

Holland’s idea that the world of unbelief is in covenant relationship to sin forms the basis for one of the central themes of his commentary: humanity after the Fall was effectively in a marriage covenant with Satan and it was to destroy that covenant and bring his people into a new marriage covenant with himself – the “divine marriage” of the commentary’s subtitle – that Jesus Christ came into the world, died and rose again. From the way in which the New Testament treats the unbelieving world in parallel with that of believers – Christians are children of God and citizens of the kingdom of light, unbelievers are children of the devil and belong to the kingdom of darkness (John 8:44; Col 1:14; Eph 2:1-3) – Holland argues for a more general parallel between the two groups of people, such that the covenant that believers enjoy with God should be paralleled by a covenant between fallen humanity and Satan. Holland asserts, “when Paul speaks of Sin (sing.) in Rom 5-8, he is speaking of Satan” (179) and maintains this understanding throughout the relevant exposition, though, so far as I could ascertain, without arguing for that identification in any more detail.

From this, Holland argues (180) that fallen humanity is the “bride of Satan”, just as the church is the bride of Christ. The state of affairs for the fallen community seems hopeless – whereas death would normally release a marriage partner from the marriage bond, death for the unbeliever brings only judgment and, in any case, Satan cannot die. It is through this lens that Holland understands the marriage analogy in Rom 7:2-4. It is only through the death of our representative, Christ, that we can be freed from the marriage covenant with Satan and brought into the new life-giving marriage covenant with the Saviour. It is only thus that the covenant with Satan can legally be annulled, argues Holland, because “[f]or God to accept them without the covenant-annulling death of Christ would implicate God in adultery!” (181). Thus, argues Holland, the death of Christ achieves more than atonement and propitiation – it also ends the relationship with sin and breaks the power of the covenantal relationship that previously existed.

As with his exegesis of “body of sin”, discussed above, Holland here seems to attempt far too much on far too little data. Fallen humanity is certainly corporately represented in Adam; it is also true that the Old Testament sometimes represents idolatry in covenantal terms and unfaithfulness to the Lord as adultery. It seems a long way from this, however, to argue that Paul is working with an understanding, presumably shared with his readers, that mankind is not only lost in the guilt of sin and in bondage to its power, but also in a marriage covenant with sin, and therefore with Satan himself, a covenant which can only legally be broken by the death of Christ. None of these ideas is necessary, on my understanding, for a satisfactory reading of Paul’s argument. Paul is clearly addressing the issue of the power of sin in chapters 6 and 7 and clearly wants his readers to understand the enormous transformation in their status due to Christ’s work – not simply that their sins have been forgiven but that the power of sin in their lives has been broken. However, I cannot see that the concept of a marriage covenant is needed in order to understand the power that sin holds over the unbelievers, nor can I see that some concept from the law of marriage or adultery needs to be introduced in order to explain the need for Christ’s death to destroy the putative marriage with Satan, an idea which appears to have echoes of a “ransom” theory of salvation. These ideas are neither on the surface of Paul’s exposition in Romans nor are they required to understand his argument and would in my view have been best left out of this commentary.

Corporate Privilege or Individual Salvation?

Linked to Holland’s corporate understanding of much of Paul’s letter is his view of Rom 9. He argues that the divine election of which Paul speaks in that chapter is corporate, not individual, and that it concerns an election to privilege and service, not election to salvation. (Holland also makes clear in his commentary that he does believe that the Bible teaches individual election to salvation; the point here is that he does not believe that that is what is at issue in Rom 9.) He sets Romans in the context of potential divisiveness in the Roman church between Jewish and Gentile believers. He sees chapters 9-11 as a major effort on Paul’s part to address this danger, by showing Gentile believers the privileges which Israel enjoyed under the Old Covenant, but also by showing Israel that they cannot simply rest on their privileges under that covenant, as it is for God in his sovereign mercy to decide whom he raises to the privilege of service.

The question whether Rom 9 deals with individuals or peoples has been often discussed. In his excursus, “Election to Privilege and Service” (310-20), Holland gives eleven reasons for his view. There is not space to deal with them all fully here. I want to focus on what appears to be one of Holland’s main exegetical arguments for directing the thrust of chapter 9 away from issues of salvation and damnation to those of status and privilege. He notes, by the way, that in chapter 10 Paul does indeed address issues of salvation.

This argument concerns God’s use of Cyrus and focusses on the potter illustration that Paul uses in verses 20 to 23 of chapter 9. Holland examines the Isaianic source of the quotation that Paul appears to use in verse 20 and the appearance in that quotation of the word, “why?”. The source is normally identified, says Holland, as Isa 29:16, but that verse does not contain the interrogative. Thus, argues Holland, it is necessary to bring in the other “potter” reference in Isaiah, in 45:9, where the Greek word for “why?” is present, although in the context the word seems to mean “what?” rather than “why?” (the relevant Greek word being able to be used in either sense). On this basis, Holland argues that the import of the later passage must be taken into account, where, he says, God is making plain to Israel that he is perfectly entitled, should he so wish, to use the pagan king Cyrus in his plans to bless Israel. Thus, argues Holland, Paul in chapter 9 must be understood to be using the potter illustration to speak of God’s raising peoples to the honour of serving him, not of salvation.

As with some of the arguments examined earlier in this article, this line of argument appears to ask too much of its supporting verses. To expect a reader to understand Paul as bringing in a reference to a whole new passage simply on the basis of a single, two-letter (in Greek) word which happens to be missing from the more obvious source of the quotation, and thereby to bring in the whole issue of God’s use of Cyrus, absent from the other passage in question, seems to ask a great deal. Moreover, the word, though the same word, does not seem to bear the same meaning as that for which Paul uses it in Rom 9. The Cyrus argument is thus not convincing.

I have not dealt with other arguments that Holland brings in his excursus to attempt to demonstrate his understanding of Paul’s purpose in chapter 9 of Romans, which need to be considered on their own merits. However, it should be noted that a few of those arguments appear to be driven by a desire to demonstrate that verse 22 cannot be understood as teaching election to eternal damnation. Holland asserts that such an election is not taught anywhere else in Scripture. In his comment on that verse, Holland, surely rightly, understands it as speaking of God’s wrath and judgment on sin. Yet he says that such judgment is the consequence of, and on the basis of, disobedience. God is willing to the last to be merciful and to see them come to repentance, but if they will not then the only consequence can be judgment. Leaving aside the questions whether such an exegesis does full justice to the phrase “prepared for destruction” and to its parallel phrase “prepared for glory” in the next verse, it is clear that, at least in these verses, Paul has in mind something more than simply status, honour and privilege – he is discussing eternal salvation. Moreover, all that Holland says about verse 22, as just summarised, would be echoed by many Reformed commentators who also assert that Paul is here dealing with questions of election. If God elects to damnation, the Reformed have generally been eager to assert that such damnation is also on the basis of sin and of just judgment. Paul’s language here is appropriately restrained as he approaches such awful mysteries.


Tom Holland’s commentary is to be welcomed especially, I suggest, for its detailed exploration of the Old Testament background to Paul’s letter to the Romans, for its efforts to combat an overly individualistic understanding of the salvation that Paul expounds in that letter and for the attempt to take that which is worthwhile in the New Perspectives and marry it with the great truths restored at the Reformation to expand our understanding of justification in Paul’s thought. I have taken issue in this article with some other key points of Holland’s commentary on Romans, particularly on the significance of the example of Abraham in chapter 4, the understanding of baptism into Christ in chapter 6, the phrase “body of sin” in verse 6 of that chapter and the thrust of chapter 9. Nevertheless, this should not obscure the value of Holland’s work to anyone wanting to grapple with Paul’s great letter. Holland writes fluently and expresses his arguments clearly and winsomely (though occasionally he has been let down on typographical points by his editor). His exposition of Paul’s arguments will repay careful consideration and will lead to a deepened and enlarged understanding of the immense, eternal issues which Paul addresses in his letter to the Romans.


Robert Strivens
Principal, London Theological Seminary