Arland J. Hultgren is Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary and the forthcoming Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary. Hultgren shares here his respect and admiration for Romans and what it was like to write a commentary on a biblical book of such importance.
Few books of the Bible have had more impact on the life of the church and the individual Christian than Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Probably the Gospels have had more. But after the Gospels, Romans is supreme.
The importance of Romans through the ages is due to its message of the love and grace of God for the world and the demand of God upon the believer. It speaks to every person. In the theological tradition, Romans has inspired major figures and movements to carry out reforms. Included here are some of the most important theologians of all time, such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Karl Barth. All of them attribute their initial insights to Paul’s most famous letter.
I have taught Romans for over thirty years at Luther Seminary. In the meantime I wrote books and articles on various topics, including my book The Parables of Jesus, published by Eerdmans in 2000. But for a long time I have had a nagging feeling that since I have taught Romans so many times, and since I am moved emotionally and theologically more by that book than any other document in all of Christian literature, and since I regard it as one of the most important books in the Bible, I should try my hand at writing a commentary on it.
Early on I thought that my many years of teaching Romans would make it easy to pull my notes together to write a commentary. But I was wrong — by a long shot! Paul’s Romans challenged me again and again, as always. Writing the commentary was a long process. I first set pen to paper on this project over a decade ago. Over those years, my love for the book, and my admiration of it, has grown immensely.
Many commentaries on Romans exist, but too often they do not provide the combination of scholarly care and theological engagement that Romans deserves. My commentary can be considered a “critical” commentary — based on the Greek text. However, it is also explicitly theological, written with persons in mind who cannot use Greek but are interested in the nuances that a commentary based on the Greek text can yield. I wrote the book primarily for readers who enjoy and demand a high level of scholarship but want to be able to understand the book as nonspecialists.
In my commentary, I understand Paul as projecting a theological perspective that transcends the circumstances of writing his letter to Rome. My view is that in this letter, Paul offers a theological perspective and makes indispensable claims that have shaped Christian thought ever since. The result is that Romans, as a letter to a specific community on a particular occasion, is to a remarkable degree also timeless in its impact. It speaks to the church and Christian individuals as a voice out of the past that provides good news and guidance yet today.