The apostle Peter said that there were certain things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand (2 Pet 3:16). Not only is there plenty of material for false teachers to twist to suit their own destructive agendas, but there are more than enough passages to cause even the most seasoned biblical interpreter, with the best intentions in the world, to scratch his head in confusion. Among the range of Pauline hard passages, Romans 7 rises as something of a colossus. Of course, there will always be people who wonder what all the fuss is about, but I doubt they have listened carefully enough to the alternative viewpoints.
You know that a passage of the Bible is hard to understand when interpreters resort to implausible theories to explain the text. Here are two that have been inflicted on Romans 7. A number of scholars, following Bultmann, have suggested that Rom 7:25b is an interpolation, added later on, and so not originally authored by Paul. The reason for this conjecture is that, after the joyous shout of verse 25a, verse 25b— so then I myself with my mind serve the law of God, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin —appears to situate the terrible struggle with indwelling sin as co-existent with deliverance in Christ. But how can this possibly be? these interpreters protest, and so they expunge the verse. The problem with this theory of interpolation is that it is pure conjecture: there is no evidence in the manuscript tradition, none at all, that Romans 7 ever existed without 7:25b.
There is another implausible theory that is much more popular today—the idea that Paul uses a form of address called speech-in-character . Speech-in-character was a Greco-Roman rhetorical device that involved an author introducing the voice of another character into his narrative. The voice was discernable because the character had already appeared earlier in the narrative, or else was instantly recognisable as a well-known literary figure (such as Achilles). If Romans 7 is read this way, then I means not I Paul , but I the fictive character . The implication, of course, is that if the I is another character then Paul, even though he uses the first person I , is not writing about his present experience of fleshliness.
Why is this theory implausible? For starters, no one can agree on who this fictive character is to whom Paul gives a voice. This is rather unfortunate, since the effectiveness of speech-in-character—the ancient Greco-Roman manuals of style emphasised this—depended on the character’s voice being immediately recognisable by the audience. Even more problematic is that Paul adopts none of the procedural criteria (laid down, once again, by the Greco-Roman manuals of style) by which an author would signal his adoption of speech-in-character. So why have so many scholars adopted this theory? Because in an instant it removes any difficulty of having to reconcile what I says about his experience of death under the law with the apostle Paul’s own experience. The great difficulty for interpreters of Romans 7 is reconciling what Paul says with either his past experience as a Pharisee, or his present experience as a Christian. That difficulty disappears with the speech-in-character theory.
I have recently arrived at Moore, where I have joined the New Testament department, having spent the last few years in Cambridge, England, doing a PhD on the identity of the I in Romans 7. Few, if any, passages in Paul’s letters are more debated, so I entered something of a minefield! However, I embarked on the project persuaded of four things.
First, I was convinced that the strong counter-arguments often marshalled against the main views strongly suggest that these views are inadequate explanations of Paul’s teaching. Secondly, I was persuaded that Stanley Stowers theory that Paul adopts a form of speech-in-character is highly speculative. Thirdly, I was persuaded that the most important context for understanding Rom 7 is the rest of Romans. And, fourthly, I was convinced that Rom 7 is of great importance for our understanding of a Christian’s experience in the world.
And so I set about reading and re-reading Romans 7 within the context of the letter. The conclusion I came to is that Paul does not write about pre-Christian experience, nor about Christian experience (of the Spirit). He writes about a Christian’s experience of an ongoing, Adamic (i.e. human) condition of fleshliness. What we (Christians!) are unable to accomplish ourselves (Rom 7) God accomplishes for us through Christ and in us by the Spirit (Rom 8). And so the fleshliness that Paul speaks of is a human condition, but one that the Christian doesn t escape until the resurrection of the body. Isn t the Christian now free from sin (Rom 6)? Yes, but that freedom is a freedom found in Christ, by the Spirit. The Christian believer, considered according to his or her innate, intrinsic capacities, is powerless to accomplish God’s holy law. God’s grace in Christ does not make us able in a way that we weren t before, but enables us to walk in newness of life.
Read this way, Rom 7-8 gives us grounds for both a sober realism—we remain enduringly weak and corrupt in ourselves—and a joyful hope—God has accomplished through Christ that which is completely beyond our natural reach. In fact, He is able to accomplish immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine. This is the hope of the Gospel. I venture to suggest that other readings of Rom 7 tend towards either deep pessimism or naïve optimism. Neither is consistent with Paul’s Gospel or the Christian hope.
Will joined the faculty of Moore College in July 2014 having completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Cambridge, studying the identity of I in Romans 7. Will lectures in New Testament.
*This blog post was originally published as an article in the October issue of Moore Connection, the College’s Alumni newsletter publication.