Arland Hultgren on Romans (Review)

Arland Hultgren on Romans (Review) June 28, 2011

Arland Hultgren has recently published a new commentary on Romans (Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary; Eerdmans, 2011). Hultgren is a New Testament scholar at Luther Seminary, well-known for his commentary on the parables of Jesus. Now, he fills 800 pages with a Lutheran analysis of Paul’s most influential letter. It is not in a series, but a stand-alone work.

It has Hultgren’s own translation. The commentary proper has a basic format – broken down into passages, he first gives a “general comment” (an overview) and then “detailed comment” (verse-by-verse, focused discussion). Each passage has its own selective bibliography, which is helpful. The format is not outstanding, but it is nice to be able to read the general comment to get a feel for where he is going and for easy reference for later.

The book also contains a number of extended discussions in a series of appendix entries on subjects like: the “righteousness of God,” homosexuality and Romans 1:18-32, pistis christou, Romans 3:25, and the “I” of Romans 7. While I did appreciate the depth of these discussions, I wondered why they appeared “tagged” on at the end, rather than appearing as an “excursus” in the commentary. However, the one on righteousness is nice to have by itself since it is an issue that is relevant to more than one verse.

OK, what does Hultgren actually say in the commentary?

First of all, the introduction. It is pretty standard. Like Longenecker’s recent argument in his Introducing Romans, Hultgren considers the Jewish synagogue communities in Rome at the time to have had “close connections” with “those of Jerusalem and Palestine” (7).  Thus, the “Hellenistic Jewish Christians…had been shaped largely by the Jerusalem community, who held the latter in high regard, and who, to some degree at least, continued contacts with the church in Jerusalem” (10). So, this community in Rome “still preserved its Jewish roots” (10).

In terms of the perennial challenge of the “purpose of Romans,” Hultgren offers, in the end, an interesting theory. While he accepts multiple reasons for Romans, he offers one major purpose: “He made a first installment of his theological views so that, in case of a crisis in Jerusalem, he would not have to defend himself when he arrived in Rome, for his message would have been shown to be in keeping with common Christian tradition shared by both him and the Roman Christians” (15). What Hultgren is saying is that he wanted to establish a strong relationship with Rome before going to Jerusalem, so that if he is rejected in Jerusalem, the Romans would still support his Spanish mission. Hultgren finds enough appeals to common ground in Romans (alongside the more distinctively “Pauline” teaching) that suggests this rhetorical purpose. I think Hultgren is on to something.

As for the commentary itself, I will highlight a variety of issues and views.

Rom 1:1 – Paul as doulos – I am inclined to think of Paul as “slave” of Christ, but Hultgren prefers reading it in terms of Hellenistic Judaism – a term venerated in the OT where he is an honorable “servant.” While his preference has some merit, I found it unnecessarily dichotomous to argue that “the term was not derived primarily from the social word, but from the Jeiwsh self-designation of the people of God” (p. 40-41).

1:5 – “obedience of faith”  – appositional (p. 50)

1:16-17 – In this important part of Romans, Hultgren previews his way of interpreting the righteousness language of Paul. He likes to refer to the Gospel message as a “performative utterance” (p. 73). The righteousness of God is his “saving activity.” He prefers the subjective genitive, though he thinks it does not always have to be one genitive type -though subjective in 1:17. In the appended, lengthy discussion of this issue, he adds this: “Theological priority must be given not to the human plight before God but to God, a God who seeks to restore a relationship with rebellious humanity. The gospel reveals “the righteousness of God” that has been manifested, even exercised, by God in Christ. That righteousness had been manifested in the prior saving acts of God, as the OT gives witness, but now it has been manifested even more fully in Christ. Furthermore, it has been manifested not only for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of the entire world” (p. 613).

1:18-32 – Hultgren does not find Paul condemning homosexuality universally. The word “natural,” Hultgren argues, does not equate to “timeless.”  – I am not in agreement with the way Hultgren interprets this passage. Again, he has a lengthy appendix section on this.

2:14 – non-Christian Gentiles: “Paul takes for granted that even though Gentiles do not know the actual commandments, they are capable of a high moral standard that coincides with the teachings set forth by the moral commandments…Paul undercuts any notions of Jewish moral superiority” (p. 118).

3:20 – reiterates points about the “righteousness of God” – “God’s saving activity, setting the relationship right between humanity and himself” (p. 154)

5:1 – centrality of freedom in Romans: “At the center of Paul’s theological reflection was the conviction that God has set humanity free from sin and death through his redemptive work in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that persons are restored to a right relationship with God through faith in that which God has done in Christ” (p, 204)

7:14 – the “I” of Romans is Paul! Apparently Hultgren sides with Dunn here: “The history of Christian experience illustrates that those who know themselves to be justified and at peace with God continue to consider themselves in ordinary, empirical life as being in bondage to sin and in need of forgiveness and freedom” (p. 287).

11:26 – “All Israel” is ethnic Israel: “the expression “all Israel” has to be taken for what it is, and that is that it refers to the people of Israel, the Jewish people, who have not accepted the gospel” (p. 420)

Chapters 14-15: Paul is not addressing a “live” issue in Rome, but explaining his theology and how Christians should be one in spirit and mission.


The fact that there are so many commentaries on Romans makes it hard for me to place Hultgren’s in terms of what need it fills. It is nice to have “yet one more” good commentary, but I was not wowed by it. I do find salutary his view of Romans as a “eschatological act,” something powerful and world-changing. I appreciate his willingness to go against the grain on a number of issues, but I still disagree with the reasoning on just about every one! I guess, if you are a “Romans” nerd, this would be interesting to you – Hultgren has a way of surprising you!

One thing to watch out for: the endorsements on the back of the book are not for this Romans commentary, but “praise for Arland Hultgren’s Parables of Jesus commentary.” It says so at the top of the backcover page, but it is easy to miss because the actual blurbs are generic.


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