Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary

Book Review

Arland J. Hultgren, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 834 pp.

Many New Testament scholars could be pressured to write a commentary on Paul’s epistle to Rome “because,” to paraphrase George Mallory, “it’s there.” For a noted scholar like Arland Hultgren, more than 50 years dedicated to interpreting, teaching, and ministry might find the primary Pauline text as more of a base-camp for a career that could not help but have Paul’s epistle ever in view, just over the horizon. For some scholars, writing a commentary on the text of Romans might be a task that is simply “there,” next in a logical progression of published work that views the epistle as a text to be “conquered.” Some attempt to write commentaries on Romans without the aid of oxygen, so to speak, in order to make theological sense out of Paul’s work without the aid of systematics. Others are committed, perhaps justifiably, to deconstructing Paul because, as prominent as Romans is — for them, it is simply “there,” waiting to be dismantled.

Hultgren indicates that, though the epistle itself presents a challenge that many scholars have taken upon themselves to master and have succeeded, he does not believe mastery indicates an end to the task. Hultgren writes his commentary from the perspective that Paul was writing with something beyond Rome, and his Epistle to the Romans, in mind. “The letter projects a theological vision for his [Paul’s] future work as he arrives in Rome… and goes on from there to Spain.” As he sees Paul writing with an eye toward the future, so Hultgren identifies both Romans, and his commentary, as more “forward thinking than retrospective” (x).

Quickly evidenced is Hultgren’s decision to organize content in a manner that favors the reader who intends to make the most of their time with the Epistle. The commentary gives ample attention to segments of the text, but does not overwhelm the readers who may be dedicating themselves to exegesis for the first time. Hultgren successfully organizes Romans into tightly packed segments full of information, appropriately brief enough to allow for a reader to be immersed in study without potentially drowning in waves of attending theological premises that often take too much attention away from the task at hand. This is accomplished in a significant, yet simple style, and one that should set an example for systematic theologians . Hultgren lays down the hermeneutical foundations for his exegesis after the fact, with eight appendices that give full attention to matters of theological significance that might otherwise distract the reader from simply sitting with the text.

Hultgren’s appendices are well-chosen. Those which are specifically of interest to readers engaged in the “New Perspective” conversations are the first, The “Righteousness of God” in Paul, and the third, which details Hultgren’s thinking on the “Pistis Christou” debate. He also dedicates a chapter to Romans 5:1. Other appendices tackle the well-worn issues of Paul and Homosexuality and “The identity of ‘I’ in Romans 7.” When I say “well-worn” it is meant to bolster the advantages of Hultgren’s after-the-fact approach. Readers who are already aware of the ink spilled over Paul and homosexuality or Paul and the subjective-objective debates will not be weighed down with an author’s need to commit space to defending an argument. Hultgren simply interprets, and a seasoned reader will readily identify where the author is coming from, or may be going to. Readers who want to know more can first get an unfettered idea of how Hultgren reads and teaches Paul. If questions exist afterwards, or if after reading the student wants to see how Hultgren arrives at his exegetical decision, the appendices offer a look at the issue with depth and attention given to the varied nuances of Pauline scholarship as related to some verses or pericopes.

Hultgren’s work would serve most any seminary student well, and should have a place made ready on the bookshelves of those individuals who are committed to thorough understandings of Romans. The author makes use of the entire spectrum of scholarly Pauline work, and it is difficult to find a perspective that is not at least referenced. As a stand- alone work, Hultgrens’ Romans is an ample overview of how Paul has come to be understood in a large segment of scholarly circles, though updated to consider more recent understandings. That being said, the commentary reads as being fully informed through Hultgren’s dedicated Lutheran lenses, and will probably be digested best with this particularity in mind (cf. 72,75).

The following are minor points of the commentary that I believe are representative of Hultgren’s overall understanding of Paul’s theology. I interpret many of his statements concerning the divine work through Jesus as being coated with a shell of future or final eschatological understandings (49-50). A few details assumed by Hultgren left me wanting to cross-reference, which space does not allow for this review. Discussing 1:15, he suggests that “there is no hint” that Paul “considers the church in Rome as in need of transformation” (67). This may be a way for Hultgren to support his view that Paul is more interested in moving beyond Rome than in ministering to a particular need of the Roman community. Hultgren infers that the apostle is not seeking to “transform the church into a Pauline church” (67). This may raise a question for some readers that might wonder why Romans takes on such pastoral overtones in so many parts of the text.

Hultgren provides a brief and well-constructed overview of the nuances of euangelion (the commentary uses Teknia font and Hultgren’s English translation). However, there is no mention of a more nuanced eschatology or soteriology that might be attributed to first-century Christian texts. The author states with certainty that “the primary way that [Paul] uses the language of salvation is to signify being saved from wrath on the day of final judgment” (73). The concern is not whether Paul believed that way, but where Paul’s thinking “as it stands” in Romans fits into the greater scheme of Hebraic, Greco-Roman, and messianic soteriology. At times, I longed for Hultgren to simply disagree with Paul. He points out once that 3:31 has “been particularly vexing to interpreters” but then appears to state that Paul should not be understood as “simply inconsistent.” On another note, Hultgren characterizes Paul as being “willing to accommodate himself to [the Roman community’s] distinct expression of faith.” For some scholars, the collected works that are attributed to Paul seem inconsistent. Yet Paul’s theology is not only inconsistent in places, even the authentic epistles can be hard to make sense of if one is looking for theological, if not simply pastoral, continuity in the Apostle’s thinking. The question remains as to whether Paul was accommodating. Of course, it is systematics that allows for sense to be made out of Paul, especially when dissecting Romans, and that, perhaps, is what Hultgren’s ultimate task is, beyond what is stated early on.

For traditionalists, Hultgren draws from his significant work on the pistis Christou debate and provides a solid, fully articulated commentary on 3:21-26 (150-166). Despite my decidedly skewed view toward the subjective genitive, Hultgren’s appendix (623-661) provides an analysis that does not allow any detail to escape and is a good resource if one is looking for a bibliography from which to start. In fact, throughout the commentary, Hultgren’s interpretative skills are displayed as being thorough, well informed by classical texts, and dedicated to guiding a reader through the process of coming to terms with the author’s perspective. He delves further into the importance of the pericope by detailing 3:25 in a separate appendix (662-675), which deals with the various understandings of hilastērion (“mercy seat”). Blood atonement is clearly the crux of Hultgren’s soteriology, and he gives significantly less time to 3:25 than to the pistis Christou issue. One of the most identifying measures of his treatment of hilastērion is his brief dismissal of the potential influence of 4 Maccabees upon Paul’s own thinking about the potential for the cross to be an articulation of suffering on behalf of righteousness (663).

One of my flaws is a tendency to go straight to a commentator’s grasp of Romans 12. Hultgren seems to have anticipated that there would be more interest in chapter 12 than he was inspired to give attention to, so he added an appendix that addresses the “Body of Christ” themes of verses 3-8. In the appendix, he mentions the existence of an ethic of mutual aid by early Christian communities, and suggests that Romans, as opposed, to, say I Corinthians 11:29 (695) is more concerned with the universal Church, or the collection of early Christian communities that are not only localized worship groups, but additionally, representatives of the church as a whole.

Hultgren quietly dismisses the prospect of Romans 12 being a unique pericope intended to deal with ethics apart from the rest of the text (435-36). He rightly states that much of the theological concern of chapters 1 – 11 includes ethical instruction, but does not see Romans 12 as adding much more than an introduction of, or transition to, a sort of wrap-up to the major part of the work. While Hultgren identifies the chapter as a piece of hortatory, it does not seem as though Paul has had much influence on his enthusiasm. Somewhat surprisingly, he introduces Chapter 12 with a comment on Paul’s ethics and their relationship to the Law. The introduction intends to inform the content of all four of the last chapters, so the nuances of the Jewish identity in opposition to gentile Christians as treated in the last parts of the letter is the subject. While this is a real concern of Paul’s, the introduction specifically deals only with Chapter 12, and that might confuse some laypersons. It left me wondering what new things Hultgren might have to say about Chapter 12. His comments did not add anything new.

The author appears to have little use for the “New Perspective” apart from acknowledging that important work has been done by others in bringing new understandings of Paul to the table of discourse. During his treatments of soteriology, my notes reveal no real identification of the correlation between Paul’s claims about Jesus and emperor cults or the exuberant and all-encompassing claims made by Caesar and the empire itself. The author makes mention of Torah observance as being much more than an identity marker, but at various places indicates that the “Law” was a vehicle which all of Judaism taught provided salvation from the wrath of the deity.

Overall, Hultgren’s work shows how thoroughly familiar he is with Romans, and that he is familiar with many of the concerns that interpreters have had for centuries. Also, he recognizes how new scholarship has added much to consider when reading and interpreting Pauline texts. Hultgren has considered the assumptions of recent scholarship. He does not appear, however, to have much use for them. Thoroughly Lutheran, Hultgren has provided Pauline scholarship with an important reference volume that will serve pastors well and provide a view of Paul that reinforces the traditions of Protestantism. I believe he would have it no other way.

Scot Miller

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