Some follow-up links and videos from today's discussion
There is no text more commented on in the entire Bible than Romans, and within the text of Romans, there is no text more commented on than Romans 7. One would think with all the ink spilt on this text that we could get it right. Yet there are almost as many views of this text as there are major commentaries and dissertations on it. Oddly enough, one of the most fundamental problems in Evangelical exegesis of Romans is the failure to read Romans cumulatively, rather than sound-byting it. This failure manifest itself when Romans 7 is read as if it has little or not connection with Romans 5. But the story told in Romans 5:12-20 is the very short story that underlies and undergirds Romans 7…” link
Ben Witherington, in a recent conference paper, makes a compelling argument for reading Romans 7:7-25 in the light of rhetorical conventions. He concludes that the “I” is Adam in 7:7-13, and those-who-are-in-Adam in 7:14-25 – which substantially affects the way we see the struggle with sin in the Christian life. Unlike James Dunn and John Piper, and like Douglas Moo and Robert Jewett, Witherington does not believe Paul intends to represent Christian experience in 7:14-25. At one level, there is nothing earth-shattering about that; scholars are continually weighing in with their opinions. But his argument, based on rhetorical analysis, engages very persuasively with some of the key objections to that view, and if you’re in the Dunn-Piper camp, you may find yourself challenged by some of his reasons. Here’s an excerpt:
“‘Impersonation’, or prosopopoiia, is a rhetorical technique which falls under the heading of figures of speech and is often used to illustrate or make vivid a piece of deliberative rhetoric. This rhetorical technique involves the assumption of a role, and sometimes the role would be marked off from its surrounding discourse by a change in tone or inflection or accent or form of delivery, or an introductory formula signaling a change in voice. Sometimes the speech would simply be inserted “without mentioning the speaker at all”. Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul’s discourse delivered in its original oral setting, as was Paul’s intent. It is not surprising then that many have not picked up the signals that impersonation is happening in Rom. 7.7-13 and also for that matter in 7.14-25.
“Quintilian says impersonation “is sometimes introduced even with controversial themes, which are drawn from history and involve the appearance of definite historical characters as pleaders” (3.8.52). In this case Adam is the historical figure being impersonated in Rom. 7.7-13, and the theme is most certainly controversial and drawn from history. Indeed, Paul has introduced this theme already in Rom. 5.12-21, and one must bear in mind that this discourse would have been heard seriatim, which means they would have heard about Adam only a few minutes before hearing the material in Rom. 7.
“The most important requirement for a speech in character in the form of impersonation is that the speech be fitting, suiting the situation and character of the one speaking. “For a speech that is out of keeping with the man who delivers it is just as faulty as a speech which fails to suit the subject to which it should conform.” (3.8.51). The ability to pull off a convincing impersonation is considered by Quintilian to reflect the highest skill in rhetoric, for it is often the most difficult thing to do (3.8.49). That Paul attempts it, tells us something about Paul as a rhetorician. This rhetorical technique also involves personification, sometimes of abstract qualities (like fame or virtue, or in Paul’s case sin or grace– 9.2.36). Quintilian also informs us that impersonation may take the form of a dialogue or speech, but it can also take the form of a first person narrative (9.2.37) …
“What are the markers or indicators in the text of Rom. 7.7-13 that the most probable way to read this text, the way Paul desired for it to be heard, is in the light of the story of Adam, with Adam speaking of his own experience? Firstly, from the beginning of the passage in vs. 7 there is reference to one specific commandment– ‘thou shalt not covet/desire’. This is the tenth commandment in an abbreviated form (cf. Ex. 20.17; Deut. 5.21). Some early Jewish exegesis of Gen. 3 suggested that the sin committed by Adam and Eve was a violation of the tenth commandment. They coveted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
“Secondly, one must ask oneself, who in Biblical history was only under one commandment, and one about coveting? The answer is Adam. Vs. 8 refers to a commandment (singular). This can hardly be a reference to the Mosaic Law in general, which Paul regularly speaks of as a collective entity. Thirdly, vs. 9 says ‘I was living once without/apart from the Law’. The only person said in the Bible to be living before or without any law was Adam.
“Fourthly, as numerous commentators have regularly noticed, Sin is personified in this text, especially in vs. 11, as if it were like the snake in the garden. Paul says ‘Sin took opportunity through the commandment to deceive me’. This matches up well with the story about the snake using the commandment to deceive Eve and Adam in the garden. Notice too how the very same verb is used to speak of this deception in 2 Cor. 11.3 and also 1 Tim. 2.14. We know of course that physical death was said to be part of the punishment for this sin, but there was also the matter of spiritual death, due to alienation from God, and it is perhaps the latter that Paul has in view in this text.
“Fifthly, notice how in vs. 7 Paul says “I did not know sin except through the commandment.” This condition would only properly be the case with Adam, especially if ‘know’ in this text means having personal experience of sin (cf. vs. 5). As we know from various earlier texts in Romans, Paul believes that all after Adam have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The discussion in Rom. 5.12-21 seems to be presupposed here. It is however possible to take egnon to mean ‘recognize’— I did not recognize sin for what it was except through the existence of the commandment. If this is the point, then it comports with what Paul has already said about the Law turning sin into trespass, sin being revealed as a violation of God’s will for humankind. But on the whole it seems more likely that Paul is describing Adam’s awakening consciousness of the possibility of sin when the first commandment was given. All in all, the most satisfactory explanation of these verses is if we see Paul the Christian re-reading the story of Adam here, in the light of his Christian views about law and the Law…
“Paul then is providing a narrative in Rom. 7.7-25 of the story of Adam from the past in vss. 7-13, and the story of all those in Adam in the present in vss. 14-25. In a sense what is happening here is an expansion on what Paul has already argued in Rom. 5.12-21. There is continuity in the “I” in Romans 7 by virtue of the close link between Adam and all those in Adam. The story of Adam is also the prototype of the story of Christ, and it is only when the person is delivered from the body of death, it is only when a person transfers from the story of Adam into the story of Christ, that one can leave Adam and his story behind, no longer being in bondage to sin, and being empowered to resist temptation, walk in newness of life, as will be described in Rom. 8. Christ starts the race of humanity over again, setting it right and in a new direction, delivering it from the bondage of sin, death, and the Law. It is not a surprise that Christ only enters the picture at the very end of the argument in Rom. 7, in preparation for Rom. 8, using the rhetorical technique of overlapping the end of one argument with the beginning of another…
“At the end of Romans 7, Paul is following a well known rhetorical technique called chain-link, or interlocking construction, which has now been described in detail, with full illustration of its use in the NT by Bruce Longenecker. The basic way this technique works is that one briefly introduces the theme of the next argument or part of one’s rhetorical argument, just before one concludes the argument one is presently laying out. Thus in this case Rom. 7.25a is the introduction to Rom. 8.1 and following where Paul will once more speak in his own voice in the first person. Quintilian is quite specific about the need to use such a technique in a complex argument of many parts. He says that this sort of close-knit ABAB structure is effective when one must speak with pathos, force, energy, pugnacity (Inst. Or. 9.4.129-30). He adds, “We may compare its motion to that of men, who link hands to stead their steps, and lend each other their mutual support” (9.4.129). Failure to recognize this rhetorical device where one introduces the next argument before concluding the previous one, has led to all sorts of misreadings of Rom. 7.14-25.” link
At first glance it might appear that a discussion of the meaning of a particular chapter or section of Scripture is primarily a matter of examining the text in question, determining the flow of thought and then expounding upon what is found in the text. Once this is completed, it is then possible to state clearly and concisely what the passage in question "means." This hermeneutical approach finds its foundation in the conviction that "meaning" in a passage or text is a characteristic which inheres in the text and which may be discovered by a straightforward exegesis of the text. And yet we are aware that the art of hermeneutics is much more than a matter of saying, "This is what is said, and this is what it means." The interpretation of any piece of literature goes beyond merely stating equivalent meanings for the words found in a passage, for the art of literary interpretation is the meeting of at least three subjects: the text itself, the interpreter and the interpreter's audience. The weight of this understanding of literary interpretation expresses itself in the need for the interpreter's audience to realize that a given commentary on a text is a revelation of the meeting of the text and the interpreter. To state it differently, one may say that an interpretive commentary is a commentary not only upon a text but also upon the commentator. In my own studies of the writings of Paul, nowhere have I seen this tendency more firmly demonstrated than in commentaries upon and interpretations of Romans 7. This chapter, particularly verses 14-25, has played a great role in the history of the interpretation of the person of Paul. The apparent autobiographical nature of this passage has fired the minds of Christian scholars throughout the history of the church and has led to some rather strong claims as to the psychology of the apostle's thought. At the same time, these verses have been read with a great sense of comfort and relief by countless Christians who, in the midst of their struggle against the power of sin within them, see in Paul's words his own experience as a Christian in the world. My interest in this passage is not merely in the history of its interpretation or in its effect upon people who have taken it to heart. For several years after I came to faith in Christ I saw Romans 7:14-25 as my own experience as a Christian foretold almost two thousand years ago. The community in which my faith was nurtured made quite certain that I understood that I was "of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin," that "nothing good dwells within me," that I could not do "what is right" and that I was indeed a "wretched man." Needless to say, such a mindset made my prospects of living a "victorious" Christian life rather dim. It was only once I became aware of the "wretched" mindset which fueled this view of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 that I began to question what I had been so firmly taught about myself as a Christian. Just as Paul described the law of God and the law within his members as being at war with one another, I was seeing statements in Romans 6 and 8 which appeared to be waging war with statements in chapter 7, making me a captive to the law of confusion which was dwelling within my own members and making my prospects of understanding Paul quite wretched indeed. I am now convinced that the confusion which I have experienced in my understanding of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 is due in great part to the tendencies of many peoples' interpretations of the chapter to reflect not only the contents of the text but also the contents of the interpreters, so to speak. Underlying the interpretation of Paul's words which says that he must be describing his Christian experience is the deeply held belief of many Christians, especially (in my experience) those who consider themselves to be evangelical, that the Christian life is primarily an ongoing struggle against sin, that sin is the main factor in a Christian's life. Of course, evangelicals would immediately retort that Christ is the primary factor in the Christian life, not sin; however, the literature of a great number of respected evangelical authors reflects an unspoken attitude that, at the very heart, sin is the strongest force within human beings. Buzzwords such as "sin nature," "die to self," "let go and let God," "Spirit control" and others, terms which I soaked up in my early years as a Christian, reflect this mindset which quietly but firmly insists that the most basic impetus of the heart, even the Christian heart, is rebellion against God. Therefore, Romans 7 is seen as a classic case of the Christian "everyman" enmeshed in the never-ending (at least in this life) war against sin, a war in which the best that the beleaguered Christian can hope is "to serve the law of God with the mind, but with the flesh the law of sin." My belief is that such a mindset concerning Paul's meaning in Romans 7 does a grave injustice not only to the apostle but also to those who as Christians wish to live a positive, joyful life of faith. Because the writings of Paul have had and continue to have such an immense impact upon the church's beliefs about the practical living of the Christian life, an understanding of Paul's intention in Romans 7 which harmonizes with the rest of Paul's writings is a matter not only of intellectual interest but also of practical consequence. How we live is inseparable from how we view ourselves as Christians. For this reason, a proper understanding of Romans 7 can only aid us in determining how we should and must view ourselves, in order that our lives may bring glory to the God who gave his Son for us, the God who commissioned Paul to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The structure of my thesis consists of two primary parts and a conclusion. The first part will deal with the history of the interpretation of Romans 7 by significant figures throughout the church's history. Once we have seen how the interpretive tradition has influenced the church's view of this passage, I will conduct an examination of Romans 7 within the context of the rest of Romans and Paul's other writings. By this I will seek to demonstrate both what the apostle is saying and what he is not saying concerning Christian "being" and identity. At the completion of this examination, I will conclude with some reflections upon the implications of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 for the church.....
.....Now that I have completely rewritten the hermeneutical framework with which I was baptized into Romans 7:14-25, I wish to tie up some loose ends concerning the traditional view, its effect upon Christian living (specifically, my own), and how this alternative approach repairs some of the outgrowths of the traditional view. Firstly, I am aware that in spite of all my words it is still possible for a Christian to "experience" much that appears to be very similar to what Paul says in 7:14-25. However, it is at this very point that we must be careful to interpret Scripture within its context, not from the perspective of our own experience. Whereas the traditional view sees continuing sin in believers as confirmation that this passage describes Christian experience, such an approach completely ignores statements in chapter 6 ("Our old self was crucified with Christ" (v. 3); "the one who has died is freed from sin" (v. 7); "you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (v. 18)) and chapter 8 ("The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (v. 2); "you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit" (v. 9); "we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh" (v. 12)), as well as missing the context of Paul's discussion of the functions and limitations of the law in the preceding verses. Indeed, I am convinced that one of the primary reasons why the traditional view became traditional is because Romans 7:14-25 has been so often read out of its context. The irony is that while chapters 6 and 8 do describe Christian experience, whereas 7:14-25 does not, it is 7:14-25 that has been handed down as the normative Christian experience, and chapters 6 and 8 have been relegated to the level of "positional" truth (i.e., something true in God's cosmic account book but definitely not true down here on earth). The tragedy is that the wonderfully liberating news of chapters 6 and 8 has been overshadowed by the bleak picture of helplessness that has come out of the misunderstanding of 7:14-25, and the church is definitely poorer for it. Secondly, this poverty has led to the development of well-meant but misinformed attempts to overcome the morose picture of Christian struggle that we have inherited. More than one college speaker told me and my Christian friends that since sin was the essence of our being ("nothing good dwells in me"), the only way to overcome sin was to "die to self" so that sin would no longer have a foothold in our lives. Of course, how we were supposed to live as non-selves was never explained; we were simply told to let Jesus live "his victorious life" through our (truly!) self-less lives. This sounded good until we noticed that it was quite impossible to go from day to day without being "selves." Also, the news that the selves whom we were sure we were were sinful to the core did very little for instilling confidence in Christ within us; the more common experience was an extremely negative self-image. Another twist to the "die to self" approach has been the more positive "let go and let God" emphasis, which is in line with the truth that we cannot please God apart from the grace of God in our lives. However, while "letting go" and "letting God" worked perfectly in the matter of a person's coming to faith in Christ, it soon became clear that in our trying to live by "letting go" and "letting God" do whatever he was supposed to do, he didn't seem to do much. Responsibilities and challenges tended to remain unmet until someone got tired of doing nothing and went out and did what we were told to let God do. In addition to this frustration, we found that the Scriptures seemed not to be saying, "Let go and let God," but rather, "Trust God and get going," which implied that we ourselves were to do the doing, which again flew in the face of the "die to self" mentality. A rather more ominous outgrowth of this approach, which viewed Christian selfhood as being essentially sinful, was an emphasis upon what was called "Spirit control," which in its description sounded much like "possession" along the lines of the Synoptic Gospels' stories of demonic possession. Because we were sinful to the core, it was necessary for the Holy Spirit to "control" us, to take us over, to prevent us from doing what was in our heart. If we wanted to serve God in some way, that was seen as evidence that the Spirit was "controlling" us to serve God, for no Christian would want to or could desire to serve God on her or his own. The Holy Spirit's ministry in our lives was to oppose and to defeat our own desires. Needless to say, this idea did little to encourage our trust in the Spirit of God, much less our willingness to obey, which according to the concept of "control," would not have been us obeying anyway. What is most unfortunate about this relatively recent term is that it has crept quite glaringly into the New International Version of the Bible in Romans 8:8-9, where the Pauline terms "in the flesh" and "in the Spirit" have become "controlled by the flesh" and "controlled by the Spirit." While I agree that humanity apart from God is indeed "controlled by the flesh," the negative concept of "Spirit control," the overriding of the normal desires of a child of God, completely misses what Paul would have meant if he had used the term "controlled by the Spirit." I believe that Paul would mean that to be under the control of the Spirit is to be set free from the reign of sin so that one may freely serve God; however, the recent concept of "Spirit control" holds that because the Christian is still just as sinful as before, it is therefore necessary to "control" that sinfulness. There is no free serving of God in this view; Christians must be "controlled" to do that. All of these recent ideas may be traced to a fundamental mistake about what Paul is talking about in Romans 7:14-25. If we, Christians, are fundamentally sinful even after having "passed from death to life" (John 5:24), then bring on the Spirit control while we die to these sinful selves that are who we still are. If, however, we, Christians, have "died to sin" (Romans 6:2), have been "freed from sin" (6:7) and are now "in (not 'controlled by') the Spirit" (8:9), then the possibilities of living lives that glorify God are as high and wide and broad and deep as the God who has called us. As people who are "spiritual," not "fleshly," we need not fall helplessly before the onslaught of sin (which was our life before Christ) but may with full confidence place our trust in Christ, through whom we have been freed from sin. Whereas before we had no choice but to go on doing the evil that we hated and not the good that we wished, now there is a choice. If we should go on living as if we did not know Christ, as if we had not been freed from sin, then this does not mean that we are expressing our deepest nature, because our deepest nature is now that of Christ, not sin. Rather, we would be living as people who were "nearsighted and blind, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins" (2 Peter 3:9). And this observation brings us back to where we started, for the second epistle of Peter warned us at the beginning that some things in Paul's letters are difficult to understand! Nevertheless, one thing is certain: because of Christ, we may, as people freed from sin, "not let sin exercise dominion in our mortal bodies, to make us obey its passions" (Romans 6:12); instead, we may "present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and our members to God as instruments of righteousness" (6:13). This is both the hope of joyful service to God and the guarantee thereof. link