Review: Robert Matthew Calhoun. Paul’s Definitions of the Gospel in Romans 1

Robert Matthew Calhoun. Paul’s Definitions of the Gospel in Romans 1. WUNT II/316 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). € 69,00.


Robert Matthew Calhoun’s monograph, Paul’s Definitions of the Gospel in Romans 1, is a revision of his dissertation at the University of Chicago, which he wrote under the supervision of Margaret Mitchell. Calhoun uses rhetorical criticism to help our understanding of how Paul defines the gospel. His thesis is four-fold. First, Calhoun focuses on Romans 1:2-4 and 1:16-17 as the two coordinated definitions of the gospel: Paul states the gospel’s content in 2-4 and its function in 16-17. Second, Paul’s two-fold definition of the gospel also evidences the necessary brevity for definition by employing the rhetorical figures of ellipses, synecdoche, and commonalities. Third, Paul “deliberately invests vv 16-17 with exploitable ambiguities in both the terminology and syntax” (p. 4). Fourth, Paul unfolds his argument by “exegeting the terms” of his essential (2-4) and functional (16-17) definitions, recombining their elements and maximizing the lexical meanings of their component terms along with their cognates toward a demonstration of how the gospel is God’s power at work in the cosmos (p. 4).

In chapter 2, Calhoun examines the theories of definition and how orators used them in their speeches. He surveys the different functions of definition in philosophy and rhetoric and how it is used in the genres of rhetoric: forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. Calhoun argues that in the Phaedrus Plato founds the basic structure of definitions in that they are to state both what sort a thing is and its function (Phaedr. 237c-d). A definition aims at being brief, unfolding the term being defined [definiendum], and gaining the acceptance of one’s audience. His study concludes that definitions should be brief, which is achieved through a number of techniques. Hence, the author’s role is to “compress” and the reader’s is to “decompress” (p. 5). Finally, Calhoun asserts that Dio Chyrsostom’s method of “exegeting the terms” in Orations 14 and 76 proves vital for the way in which Paul is defining the gospel in Romans (p. 36).

In chapter 3, Calhoun surveys how brevity was perceived as a value and as a rhetorical figure within the ancient rhetorical tradition. He also examines some of the techniques for achieving brevity by focusing on ellipsis or omission, synecdoche, and commonality. According to Calhoun, this background proves most beneficial for analyzing Romans 1:2-4, 16-17 as definitions because it provides the necessary groundwork for analyzing the fundamental narrative of the gospel that Paul compresses within his definitions.

In chapter 4, Calhoun examines Romans 1:2-4 as Paul’s definition of the essence of the gospel. Paul’s basic definition of the gospel here is that which God proclaimed beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures concerning his Son. The remaining elements of the passage are Paul’s extension of the definition in which he enfolds the story of Christ. Over against the predominant view that Paul is using a traditional formula, Calhoun argues that Paul’s employment of synecdoche is better accounted for by what he coins as a “mythological extended formula.” This is one of Calhoun’s main contributions. The formula is expanded epithet which has the ability to describe more than a simple epithet because of its increased length that consists of a relative clause or an attributive participial phrase (p. 107). This phenomenon is able to capture the entire myth of a divinity. In order to support this claim, Calhoun surveys a number of Greek hymns and prayers, and the Septuagint (primarily the prophetic texts) in order to demonstrate that this form was mediated to Paul and other early Christians (109). Calhoun also examines a number places in Paul’s letters where Paul seems to be using “mythological expanded epithets.” His examination suggests that Paul can use these epithets to praise God or Christ and to provide proofs for his arguments. Finally, by employing these epithets, Paul is able to capture the whole of Jesus’ story and nature in his first definition of the gospel.

In chapter 5, Calhoun examines 1:16-17. In his thesis statement, Paul’s definition of the gospel states the gospel’s function: “it is the power of God for salvation.” Paul’s definition of the gospel as God’s power establishes a connection with 1:4 (“in power”). In 1:17, Paul provides an abbreviated proof that explains how the gospel can do what it does and an abbreviated quote from Scripture that supports his claim. Calhoun has an excellent discussion of the righteousness of God, which he defines as God’s justice. Furthermore, he argues that the difficult phrase “from faith to faith” is an instance of ellipsis, and, following the example of some patristic readers, he argues that the surrounding context of the phrase clarifies the phrase’s ambiguity. His analysis of Paul’s quote of Habakkuk 2:4 leads him to see a “neat symmetry” with the first definition since Paul begins that definition with the topic of Scripture.

In Chapter 6, Calhoun examines the ways in which Paul unfolds and builds on his definitions by analyzing Romans 3:1-8, 21-31; 9:1-10:21. Calhoun perceives Paul’s method as being similar to Dio Chrysostom who proceeds by “exegeting the terms.”

I greatly benefited from reading this monograph and found it to be compelling. Calhoun’s monograph is well written and evidences many benefits of using rhetorical criticism. This monograph is intended primarily for scholars. However, for the student of the New Testament, Calhoun’s analysis of the rhetorical tradition is not burdensome. He provides his own translations of a number of lengthy Greek and Latin quotes, which are clear and helpful. Moreover, his discussions of the righteousness of God and the faith of Jesus are helpful and show his ability as an exegete. His work not only demonstrates the coherency between 1:2-4 and 1:16-17, but also within the letter as a whole. Calhoun’s work further demonstrates the benefit that rhetorical criticism provides for analyzing dense and seemingly obscure passages in Paul’s letters, and would serve as a good source for anyone who wishes to use rhetorical criticism for interpreting scripture. Although his criticisms of the view that 1:3b-4 is a pre-Pauline formula are strong, time will tell if his “mythological expanded epithet” will win out.

I would also like to thank Mohr Siebeck for providing a free review copy.

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Congratulations to Austin Surls!

lake michiganCongratulations to Austin Surls for successfully defending his dissertation, “Finding the Meaning of the Divine Name in the Book of Exodus: From Etymology to Literary Onomastics.” In his dissertation, Austin argues that YHWH progressively revealed the meaning of his name at three critical points in the book of Exodus (3:13–15; 6:2–8; and 33:12–23, 34:6–7), the last of which provides the full meaning of the divine name. The earlier texts are preparatory for the fuller revelation in Exodus 33–34. From this text—rather than a purely etymological analysis of the word “YHWH”—can the character of God be discerned.

Austin defended on April 10, 2015, under the supervision of Dr. Daniel I. Block (First Reader). His examination committee consisted of Drs. Michael W. Graves (Second Reader), Richard S. Hess (External Reader), and Douglas J. Moo (Chair).

Austin has a B.A. in Biblical Languages from The Master’s College (2006), as well as a M.Div from Northwest Baptist Seminary (2009) and a M.A. in the Bible and the Ancient Near East from Hebrew University. Austin, his wife Heather, and his son David now live in Ammon, Jordan, where they are learning Arabic before Austin joins the faculty of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in 2017.

Congratulations Austin! We’re thrilled for you!

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The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr, “Synchronic and Diachronic Harmony: Saint Irenaeus on Divine Simplicity”

Recently I was posting updates about the colloquium that The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies that was held on March 19–20. While space for the colloquium was limited, we had a public lecture delivered by The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr, “Synchronic and Diachronic Harmony: Saint Irenaeus on Divine Simplicity.” If you were unable to attend the lecture, fear not! The video has just been published and I post it here for your viewing enjoyment.

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Review: Imitating God in Christ, by Jason Hood

Hood, Jason B. Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013.

For many of the same reasons as our relative neglect of Imitating God in Christthe category of virtue and the general hesitancy to attribute human agency in the life of Christian sanctification, Protestant evangelicals have not often treated the notion of “imitation of Christ” with much depth.[1] In many evangelical treatments of soteriology, imitatio Christi does not even make an appearance. Yet, as Jason Hood recognizes in Imitating God in Christ, imitation is an “inescapable” aspect of life (13). We regularly engage in imitation from childhood onward, and at least some of the times, we see this as a good thing. Continue reading

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Review: Culture Making, by Andy Crouch

Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 282 pages.

Amazon | IVPAudioStudy Guide

Culture-Making_book IVP’s decision to re-release Andy Crouch’s Culture Making as a paperback edition makes it a great, affordable recommendation for a Christian layperson or a required textbook for the Christian college student. The book indeed spans the gap from church to academy. It would make a good text for introductory classes on Christianity and culture, on vocation, on Christian worldview or an introduction to the gospel, or even classes in sociology/anthropology from a Christian perspective (for example, Wheaton College’s HNGR program). I plan on using it as a required text for a class in the theology and vocation of education. Continue reading

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Congratulations to James Gordon!

James GordonCongratulations to James Gordon for successfully defending his dissertation on December 12th. His dissertation, “The Holy One in Our Midst: A Dogmatic Defense of the Extra Calvinisticum” provides a cumulative case argument for the extra Calvinisticum. After examining the objections to the extra in Isaak Dorner, Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack, and Darren Sumner, James uses the tools of analytic theology to defuse five objections to the extra: the Nestorian Objection, the Worship Objection, the Incomplete Incarnation Objection, the Humiliation Objection, and the Speculation Objection. He then provides philosophical and theological arguments in favor of the extra, as well as a biblical-theological argument focused on the Temple of God. Finally, James argues for the proper dogmatic use of the extra and why one ought to embrace it.

James was guided in his work by his advisor, Kevin Vanhoozer. His second reader was Daniel Treier and his external reader was Oliver Crisp.

James earned his MA in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He currently teaches philosophy at Trinity International University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College.

Congratulations James!

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Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition by Mark Sheridan

Language for God coverSheridan, Mark. Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 254 pp. IVP Academic | Amazon

In this book, Mark Sheridan examines how early Christians came to terms with the portrayal of God in Scripture with human characteristics (anthropomorphism) and emotions (anthropopathism). Chapter one, “God is Not Like Humans,” sets the stage for the rest of the book. Here, Sheridan points out two Scriptural texts that were significant for how early Christians dealt with anthropomorphisms: Numbers 23:19 and Deuteronomy 1:31. As Origen quotes them (and this Sheridan admits differs from modern translations working from the Hebrew text) these verses read “God is not as man to be deceived nor as the son of man to be threatened” (Num. 23:19) and “As a man he takes on the manners of his son” (Deut. 1:31). Taken together, these verses were seen as pointing to the distinction between theologia (God in himself) and oikonomia (God as he relates to us) (27). A related verse, Deuteronomy 8:5, reads (again, as Origen quotes it) “For the Lord your God has taught you as a man teaches his son” (29). This, Origen says, reveals the manner in which God speaks to us in Scripture, condescending (synkatabasis) or accommodating (tropophoreo) to us like adults do to children (30–32). Most of the chapter is a demonstration of these exegetical principles in the works of Origen. Near the end, Sheridan demonstrates the same principle at work in the writings of the John Chrysostom, adding another principle that guided early Christian exegesis: what is befitting of God (theoprepōs) (41). Thus, anthropomorphic or anthropopathic elements in Scripture that are not befitting of God should not be taken literally because they are part of the oikonomia and represent a form of divine condescension or accommodation to human language. Continue reading

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