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Book review: Romans: A letter that makes sense of life by Andrew Ollerton

23 June 2023

Breezing through an epistle may give some readers pause, says Mike Starkey

ST AUGUSTINE browsing in fourth-century Algeria; Luther studying in 16th-century Germany; Wesley listening in 18th-century London — many transformative moments in church history have been sparked by an encounter with St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Andrew Ollerton is author of the Bible Society’s Bible Course. Now comes his popular-level exposition of Romans, a companion book to the new online Romans Course from the same stable.

Ollerton expounds Romans in the manner of most commentaries: an opening chapter discusses the audience, cultural backgrounds, and themes. He then leads the reader on a breezy and accessible walk through the epistle. Stormzy, the Webb Space Telescope, and Nando’s put in appearances.

Broadly, the approach taken is Reformed and Evangelical, with no attempt to downplay Paul’s emphasis on the universality and gravity of sin. Ollerton here misses a trick. A big trend in current “smart” thinking is fierce optimism about the human condition. Popular writers such as Rutger Bregman and Steven Pinker chart global improvements in life expectancy, poverty, medicines, and literacy. Ollerton’s audience is bound to include people aware of these thinkers; it would have felt Zeitgeisty to acknowledge them and explore how belief in human sinfulness fits, or doesn’t fit, with today’s progress narrative.

On Paul’s apparent citing of homosexual sex as emblematic of sin in Romans 1, Ollerton says that the issues are beyond the scope of his book. But he adds that the historic teaching of the Church is that gay sex contradicts the divine pattern, and his footnotes point to resources along this line. It is hard not to imagine young adults in a Romans study group dropping their digestives in their tea and exclaiming, “Whoa! Hang on a minute. . .”

Ollerton offers a lively and engaging exploration of Romans, through a lens of traditional Reformed theology. Group leaders hosting the Romans Course might want to brace themselves for the tricky questions of contemporary application which Ollerton sidesteps.

The Revd Mike Starkey is a freelance writer, and former Head of Church Growth for Manchester diocese.


Romans: A letter that makes sense of life
Andrew Ollerton
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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