Friday, October 23, 2009

Romans 7 - Christian or Pre-Christian?

Today in my undergraduate class on Paul's letters, we talked about the "I" in Romans 7:13-25. Those of you who have done some study in Romans will know that throughout Christian history, there have been several opinions about what Paul meant. The two main options are 1) Paul is referring to his own experience as a Christian, and therefore the general Christian experience; or 2) Paul is referring to the experience of a pre-Christian Jew trying to obey the Law.

Here are some of the reasons that I gave in favor of option 2:

1) This passage is an answer to the question "Did that which was good [the Law], then, become death to me?" Paul is not interested here in discussing the current Christian struggle with sin. He is interested in explaining how the OT Law was used by sin to bring death to pre-Christians (this is related to "the law of sin and death").

2) Paul knows that Christians struggle with sin. But he discusses this in Romans 8:10-14 - and he has a very different take on the struggle there.

3) Every phrase that describes the "me" of Rom 7:13-25 is used to describe non-Christians or pre-Christian Jews elsewhere in Romans; further, each of those phrases contradicts what Paul says about Christians in Romans.

7:14 "I am fleshly, sold into bondage to sin." Compare to 7:5, "we were in the flesh;" 6:18 "we were freed from sin;" 6:20 "we were slaves to sin;" 8:9 "you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit."

7:16 "I agree with the Law, that the Law is good." (often used to assert that Paul is talking about Christians.) Compare to 2:17 "If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the Law...;" 7:4 "You died to the Law."

7:19 "I practice the very evil I do not want." Compare to 6:14 "Sin will have no mastery over you."

7:23 "a different law... making me a prisoner of the law of sin." Compare to 6:22 "but now, freed from sin and enslaved to God;" 8:2 "For in Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death."

Finally, I argued that Paul's theology in general does not support the interpretation that 7:13-25 refers to the Christian struggle with sin. Paul's normal approach to the Christian struggle is this: because of our union with Christ, we are saints; we have transferred from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from Adam to Christ, from Law to grace, from Law to Spirit. The way to deal with ongoing sin is to recognize that sin is inconsistent with our new identity in Christ, and to act in accordance with that new identity. We are dead to sin, so we should act dead to sin.

If option 1 is correct, Paul is presenting the Christian struggle in a way that he never presents it anywhere else in his letters: he is saying that we are still sinners by nature, we are still slaves to sin, we are still trying to keep the Law, and we are still under the law of sin and death.

This is the opposite of what Paul says in the next chapter: we are not in the flesh, we are in the Spirit, we are under no obligation to the flesh, and we can put the deeds of the body to death by the power of the Spirit.

That, my friends, is good news.

The picture: The Apostle Paul, in Entschuoldigung by Matthias Flacius Illyricus, 1549.


  1. Here's a post on this exact issue I would urge you to check out:

  2. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for posting the link to Chaz's discussion of the same topic. Yes, Chaz raises the biggest and best objections to the view I am presenting. Two quick responses to Chaz's post: 1) The view that Paul is not speaking about Christian experience in Rom 7 is not "new" - the commentaries will draw your attention to that interpretation by older interpreters; 2)Chaz says that the positive elements of Rom 7 must apply to Christians in Paul's thought, but all of those elements are elsewhere applied to non-Christian Jews in Paul's writing, esp. Rom 2-3.

  3. I see. I'm the one who asked the question he addressed, lol. Another pastor pointed me here, which seems to entertain both options more plausibly:

  4. Out of curiosity, what faith tradition are you affiliated with? Just trying to understand your views on holiness/sanctification?

  5. Also, there's an article by Stanley Stowers that talks specifically about this "speech-in-character" technique in Romans 7 (the technique is called "prosopopoiia"). The article is called "Apostrophe, Prosopopoiia, and Paul's Rhetorical Education," and it's in a 2003 collection of essays called "Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe," published by Brill. There is some controversy about this rhetorical technique and how extensively Paul uses it. But Stowers is pretty convincing that it does show up in Romans 7. Very interesting. I'm going to need to give this more thought.

  6. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for the ref to the chapter - I'll be sure to look at it, once I finish writing two articles that are due in November. I had not heard the term prosopopoiia, but "speech-in-character" seems to be how a number of Paul scholars view Rom 7.

    It's good to keep in mind that neither interpretation of this passage is a slam-dunk. You can find smart people on both sides of the issue, although view #2 seems to be predominant now among Paul scholars. I appreciate how Doug Moo explains the two views in his books on Romans. His explanation in his NIV Application Commentary, as well as in his Encountering Romans, are fair, balanced, and accessible.

    As to my tradition: the baptistic/evangelical tradition I was raised with (and still am most comfortable with) always interpreted Rom 7 as the current experience of the Christian. I moved to my current understanding of the passage based on interaction with Paul scholars, rather than based on any particular denominational approach.


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