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.

About Jared Brown

I am a PhD student studying New Testament under the supervision of Doulas Moo. My research interests are Romans, Pauline Soteriology, and Classical Rhetoric.
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1 Response to Review: Robert Matthew Calhoun. Paul’s Definitions of the Gospel in Romans 1

  1. Robert Matthew Calhoun says:

    I’m pleased that you liked my book. It was many years, and tears, in the making. But it is a fine sensation to have one’s work appreciated, so, thank you for the review. Best of luck with your studies, and I look forward to meeting you in person at some point in the future. RMC

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