Monday, September 03, 2007

A Note on Romans 7: Law and Sin

A passage frequently used to describe the struggle with sin in the life of the Christian is Rom. 7.7-25. On many readings the ‘I’ and ‘wretched man’ of Romans 7 is identified with Paul’s autobiographical portrait of himself and this portrait is then applied to Christians in their struggle with sin. Yet it is not entirely clear who the person being referred to is and other proposals include Adam, Israel, pre-conversion Paul, post-conversion Paul, or the average Christian. Let me suggest a way forward:

· Romans 7 must be understood in its context. Paul anticipates a possible objection to his gospel, namely, if the law is not a means of salvation, no longer the definitive guide to righteous living, and not the badge that marks out the people of God (the argument of Rom. 3.21–6.23), then what was the purpose of the giving of the law in the first place? In Romans 7, Paul sets out to answer this objection where he defends the giving of the law in redemptive-history. Paul argues that the law is good and holy, it can reveal our sin but it cannot release us from our sin. Even worse, the law leads to sin which brings death. Moreover, Christians are no longer under law because they have died to the law in the death of Christ. When Paul writes, ‘but now we are released from the law’ (Rom. 7.6) he will expound this point further in Rom. 8.1-17 concerning the righteous requirements of the law that are fulfilled by those who walk according to the Spirit.
· The passage cannot refer to the pre-Christian Paul since we find no evidence that Paul was tormented by the gravity of his sin and anguished over his inability to find a gracious God. The pre-Christian Paul knew that atonement was available through the sacrificial system in the temple and, at any rate, in the letter to the Philippians he apparently regarded himself as ‘blameless’ not guilt stricken (Phil. 3.6). It was the preaching of the Puritans that supposed that one should preach law in order to show sinners how wretched they were and so to drive them to Christ in want of grace. Paul was not Puritan in this regard.
· Paul is not talking about post-conversion Christians in this section since the statement ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22). Paul is not talking about Adam since Paul finished talking about Adam in Rom. 5.12-21 and it is hard to think of Adam as being under the Mosaic law.
· The ‘I’ language of Rom. 7.7-25 is very similar to some of the Psalms where the Psalmist oscillates between the ‘I/me’ and ‘Israel’ (e.g. Pss. 129, 130, 131). Likewise, Rom. 7.7-25 may be an example of prosōpopiia or a speech-in-character that was a well-known rhetorical advice in Paul’s day.[1] Thus, Paul is speaking in the first person as ‘Israel’ and in passionate and powerful language he highlights the plight of the Jews under the law, the struggle with sin that they faced because of the law, and their inability to find salvation in the law. However, this struggle is only apparent retrospectively from the vantage point of faith in Christ. For Paul’s Roman audience, most of whom consisted of Gentiles who once had some level of attachment to the synagogue and some degree of adherences to the Mosaic legislation, this imagery was a persuasive justification for having a religious framework that focused on Christ rather than on the Torah. They could now, with the benefit of hindsight, identify with the experience that Paul narrates and thereby more readily understand Paul’s polemic against the law and agree that Paul was not antinomian or promoting godless behaviour because he spoke of a righteousness based on life in the Spirit, rather than a righteousness based on life under the law. In sum, I opt for a pre-Christian reading of Rom. 7.7-25.

[1] David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Cambridge: James Clark & Co., 1987), 168.

9 comments:

Geoff Hudson said...

How can sin produce in someone every kind of covetous desire? (Rom.7.8). In Jewish terms, it would be a spirit that had such power. This was the spirit of deceit as in the DSS.

Doug Chaplin said...

Great summary argument, Mike. I think the argument for Adam is stronger than you do, not least since Paul parallels the command to Adam and the Law for Israel, but think "Israel" a somewhat stronger contender

Geoff Hudson said...

Thus the writer's wretchedness was felt, not because he was asking 'Who will rescue me fom this body of death?', but because he wanted the answer to the question: Who will rescue me from this spirit of deceit? 7.24 - a spirit that entered his body at birth - the DSS again.

Timothy Goering said...

"Paul is not talking about Adam since Paul finished talking about Adam in Rom. 5.12-21 and it is hard to think of Adam as being under the Mosaic law."
I would not go as far to say that Adam does not occur here at all. I actually read the passage (influenced by Dunn) as a semi-allegorical reading of Gen 2 and 3!
Two points need to be noted from the outset:1) the implied Adam here would not be the historic Adam, but the mythological Adam (=everyman). 2) covetousness (epithymia) is the root of all sin for Paul, as can be seen in others at the time (cf. Philo, Apoc.Mos. 19.3; Jas 1.15).

Thus would follow: the command to not eat of tree of life (Gen 2.17) seems to match "You shall not covet" (Rom 7.7). The serpent would be "sin" (Rom 7.8). The "I" would be an existential self-identification with Adam. There seems also to be an echo in vers 11: "sin...deceived my and through it [the command] killed me" (Rom 7.11) "The serpent deceived me and I ate" (Gen 3.13).

All in all, it does not seem to be that far fetched that narratives of Adam reverberate in this passage. Paul might have dripped into the narrative and psychologized the Adam situation to draw out the parallel to the general condition of humankind. The category pre-Christian or post-Christian seems to me to obscure the text slightly.

Nice post. Looking forward to reading more.

Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Michael. Great post, but I need to take you to task on a couple things.

Romans 7 must be understood in its context. Paul anticipates a possible objection to his gospel, namely, if the law is not a means of salvation, no longer the definitive guide to righteous living, and not the badge that marks out the people of God (the argument of Rom. 3.21–6.23), then what was the purpose of the giving of the law in the first place? In Romans 7, Paul sets out to answer this objection where he defends the giving of the law in redemptive-history.

It's worth noting that Paul took a crack at this question earlier in Gal 3:19-26, and with a different result. There he argued that God gave the law to consign people (the Israelites) to sin so that they might subsquently be saved on the basis of faith. The law is an active agent confining people to sin so that they can be redeemed on another basis. In Rom 7 the law is passive in its relationship to sin.

The passage cannot refer to the pre-Christian Paul since we find no evidence that Paul was tormented by the gravity of his sin and anguished over his inability to find a gracious God. The pre-Christian Paul knew that atonement was available through the sacrificial system in the temple and, at any rate, in the letter to the Philippians he apparently regarded himself as ‘blameless’ not guilt stricken (Phil. 3.6). It was the preaching of the Puritans that supposed that one should preach law in order to show sinners how wretched they were and so to drive them to Christ in want of grace. Paul was not Puritan in this regard.

Agreed.

Paul is not talking about post-conversion Christians in this section since the statement ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22).

Agreed.

Paul is not talking about Adam since Paul finished talking about Adam in Rom. 5.12-21 and it is hard to think of Adam as being under the Mosaic law.

Paul is most certainly talking about Adam, for Rom 5-8 is a unified argument. That Adam wasn't under the Torah is no obstacle here. Paul's point is that Israel's sin under the Torah replicates Adam's disobedience under the Edenic commandment. Just look at all the parallels:

(a) Adam, "alive" and newly created, is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9 ~ Rom 7:9) and (b) "commanded" by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17 ~ Rom 7:8-12), whereafter (c) the serpent "seizes opportunity" to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5 ~ Rom 7:8) and (d) Eve complains that she was "deceived" (Gen. 3:13 ~ Rom 7:11)). God then (e) kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23 ~ Rom 7:11). Rom 7:7-13 is completely saturated with the Genesis story.

I read this as a rather clear argument to the Jewish faction in Rome: In using the rhetorical "I", Paul has assumed the role of Adam in order to argue that Jewish behavior under the law replicates Adam/Eve's failure under the primal commandment in Eden. In effect, he refers to himself ("I") on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication ("those who know the law", Rom 7:1), but he's really referring to Adam/Eve. His argument is exegetical, saying in effect that the Jewish plight under the law traces back to the horror of the fall.

The ‘I’ language of Rom. 7.7-25 is very similar to some of the Psalms where the Psalmist oscillates between the ‘I/me’ and ‘Israel’ (e.g. Pss. 129, 130, 131). Likewise, Rom. 7.7-25 may be an example of prosōpopiia or a speech-in-character that was a well-known rhetorical advice in Paul’s day.[1] Thus, Paul is speaking in the first person as ‘Israel’ and in passionate and powerful language he highlights the plight of the Jews under the law, the struggle with sin that they faced because of the law, and their inability to find salvation in the law. However, this struggle is only apparent retrospectively from the vantage point of faith in Christ. For Paul’s Roman audience, most of whom consisted of Gentiles who once had some level of attachment to the synagogue and some degree of adherences to the Mosaic legislation, this imagery was a persuasive justification for having a religious framework that focused on Christ rather than on the Torah.

I agree that Paul is using a speech-in-character, but that character is clearly Adam -- or at least it is clear to me. I also agree that the struggle with the law becomes apparent only retrospectively (that Rom 7 reflects a pre-Christian's plight under the law from hindsight), but that Paul's Roman audience consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. Rom 7 is addressed to the Jews, and its purpose is twofold: to assure them that God always acted for the good in giving the law (against Gal 3:19-26), but notwithstanding this, God's intent has been foiled by the power of sin, which can bend the Torah to its purpose as easily as it once did the primal commandment in Eden.

Geoff Hudson said...

Romans 7 was once written in simple Jewish prophetic terms. It was converted by Pauline editors into the ridiculous complicated mess it now is..

Thus originally in Romans 7.8, it was the spirit of deceit that produced IN ME (that is in my body note) every kind of covetous desire. And probably, as there is a limit to the number of covetous desires one can have, the wording was more likely: produced in me every kind of deceitful desire. The editor subliminally lets slip 'deceived me' in 7.11.

We have some further editor's nonsense in 7.8b - For apart from the law, sin is dead. I suggest this should be rendered: For apart from THE BODY, THE SPIRIT OF DECEIT IS POWERLESS. With no body to indwell, the spirit of deceit can have no effect on a person's spirit.

I would render 7.9: Once MY SPIRIT was apart from the MY BODY; but when MY BODY came, THE SPIRIT OF DECEIT sprang INTO IT and I BECAME IMPURE. The word 'spring' describes how a an impure spirit could suddenly have an effect on someone, like a wild animal pouncing. Also the rendering agrees with the idea of pre-existent spirits for which God provides bodies to indwell. Jews understood that they were impure because they were indwelt from birth by the spirit of deceit - one of the two spirits of the DSS. Thus 7.9 had nothing to do with the romantic nonsenses of 'being alive', 'the law', 'the commandment', or 'died'.

7.11, I would render: For THE SPIRIT OF DECEIT, seizing the opportunity afforded by the THE BODY, MADE me IMPURE. Like 'sprang', 'seizing' is language for an impure spirit. Agian 7.11. had nothing to do with 'sin', 'the commandment' or 'death'.

Gordon Kennedy said...

Mike, thanks for this post.
You wrote:
The ‘I’ language of Rom. 7.7-25 is very similar to some of the Psalms where the Psalmist oscillates between the ‘I/me’ and ‘Israel’ (e.g. Pss. 129, 130, 131). Likewise, Rom. 7.7-25 may be an example of prosōpopiia or a speech-in-character that was a well-known rhetorical advice in Paul’s day.[1] Thus, Paul is speaking in the first person as ‘Israel’ and in passionate and powerful language he highlights the plight of the Jews under the law, the struggle with sin that they faced because of the law, and their inability to find salvation in the law.

On the Psalms, Pss 130 and 131 end with an individual psalmist calling to the congregation 'Israel' to join the psalmist in hoping in the LORD. Ps 129 might suggest the kind of rhetorical device you are suggesting here v. 1 They have greatly oppressed me from my youth - let Israel say -.
This use is paralleled in Ps 124:1. However, I think it is more likely that this phrase 'let Israel say' is, or was, an invitation to the gathered people who identify themselves as Israel to join in the theme of the psalm.
More importantly I think one of the implications of editorial work on the psalms is to set the psalms free from their original setting in worship/cultic festivals for use by worshipping individuals who cannot gather in the Jerusalem Temple. There is a resignification of the 'I/me' and the sitz-im-leben to permit a non cultic use of the texts.
Thus the psalm texts become an immediate word from God for use by the present worshipper in offering them to God.
It could be that in Rom 7 Paul is writing in such a way that he enables his readers, both Jewish and Gentile Christians to appropriate this text to give voice to their present fight against sin in the light of the victory over sin won for them by the Lord Jesus on the cross and applied to them by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. And so identifying the 'I' and 'wretched man' as Adam, Israel, pre-Christian, post-Christian is beside the point, which is that you, O Christian will face this fight against sin and you will know the victory of God through Jesus Christ our Lord (24) and also the dual nature of v. 25 - I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Nijay K. Gupta said...

Have you read Das's new book on SOLVING THE ROMANS DEBATE - he has a section on Romans 7. If my memory serves me correctly, he argues that the "I" is a Gentiles godfearer/proselyte. Worth checking out, though I am not absolutely convinced.

Geoff Hudson said...

In 7.24, the writer felt wretched (as an example of how all should have felt) because like all Jews, he understood that he had the two spirits at work within him - the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit. (See The DSS, Martinez) He felt like the 'double-minded' man, that is the double-spirited man of James 1:8 which surely gives a strong clue as to the real writer of original Romans.

The duality of spirits was originally in 7.20-23 which I would render thus:

7.20.Now if I [do what I do not want to do] {DISOBEY MY SPIRIT OF TRUTH}, it is [no longer I who do it, but it is sin] {THE SPIRIT OF DECEIT} [living] in me that [does it] {I OBEY}.

7.21. So I find this [law] {SPIRIT OF DECEIT} at work: When I want to [do good] {OBEY THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH}, [evil] {THE SPIRIT OF DECEIT} is right there with me.

7.22. For in my [inner being] {SPIRIT OF TRUTH} I delight in God’s [law] {SPIRIT};

7.23. but I see another [law] {SPIRIT} at work in the members of my body, waging war against [the law of my mind] {MY SPIRIT OF TRUTH}, making me a prisoner of the [law] {SPIRIT} of [sin] {DECEIT} at work within my members.

In his spirit of truth, the writer delighted in God's Spirit. To my mind, that writer was none other than James.

What else could he have felt 'at work in the members of my body', if not spirits? The editors have given us the nonsense of 'laws' which have no intrinsic powers.