Sunday, June 13, 2004

Romans in stereo

I. Aurality & Argument

Romans is more argumentative than Paul’s other epistles. There are a couple of factors that contribute to its argumentative character. When Paul is addressing a church he founded, he can fall back, as it were, on his apostolic authority. He doesn’t have to make a case for what he is saying. He can just say it. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s other epistles are devoid of argumentation. For one thing, he has an argumentative turn of mind. But the emphasis is less pronounced.
Secondly, Romans is colored by the polemical character of Galatians. Romans is written in a calmer tone. He is no longer addressing a crisis in one of his own churches. But that experience, and a natural overlap of subject-matter, does lend a more argumentative character to Romans, for polemical literature is essentially argumentative.
It is the argumentative cast of Romans that accounts, in large part, for the magnet pull it has on theologians. Systematic theology is not only interested in an overall conceptual scheme, but in how to generate such a scheme. By what process of inference do we derive a theological construct? And in Romans, more so than in Paul’s other epistles, we can see theology in the making.
At the same time, Paul’s process of reasoning is sometimes hard to follow. The transitions appear abrupt and the inferences invalid. How did he get from A to C when B seems to be missing? Commentators who deny inspiration simply attribute these anacolutha to the fallible haste of the writer.
But I would submit that, to some extent, the train of thought trades on a tissue of verbal association. That’s how it develops and hangs together. As such the logical connections are looser and less straightforward than in a formal syllogism. Paul will plant a verbal motif, drop it for a time, and then come back to it. So the reasoning is more fugal than unilinear.
This does not, by any means, make it illogical. Rather, it means that Paul has a multi-track mind. What the reader may take to be breaks in the syntax and argument represent the entrance of another voice in a tightly coiled or contrapuntal argument that builds like a spiral staircase.
It may be objected that such a method substitutes a pun for a proof. That, however, is a false antithesis. It is not the use of wordplay, as such, that drives the argument. But key words flag key concepts. So they serve as a mnemonic device for author and audience alike. In OT literature the acrostic form is a mnemonic device (cf. Pss 9-10; 25; 33-34; 24; 37-38; 111-112; 119; 145; Prov 31:10-31; Lamentations; Nahum 1).
This method is suited to oral communication. The Bible was composed for the ear rather than the eye. The audience for Scripture is quite literally an audience. As a consequence,
i) Hearing is the dominant religious sense in Scripture (e.g., Exod 19:9; Ps 44:1; Prov 2:2; 4:20; Rev 2:2,7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).
ii) This hardens into a prophetic formula (e.g., Isa 1:2,10; 10:30; Jer 2:4; Ezk 18:25; 34:7,9; Joel 1:2; Amos 3:1; Mic 1:2).
iii) Even in the case of visionary revelation, such visions are often accompanied by auditions (e.g., Ezk 1:24,28; 43:6; Dan 8:13ff.). The Apocalypse presents a systematic case in kind.
iv) To read meant to read aloud (e.g., Exod 24:7; Deut 17:19; 31:11,28,30; 32:44; Josh 8:34-35;1 Ch 17:20; 34:30; Ezra 8:1-8; 13:1-3; Jer 36:13-15,20-21; Lk 4:16; Acts 13:27; 15:21,31; Rev 1:3; 22:18).
v) This is not limited to public reading, but extends to private reading as well (Acts 8:28,30). The custom of silent reading is a fairly modern development. Julius Caesar is the first recorded case, and even by the time of Augustine, the fact that Ambrose was a silent reader is still a source of wonder to Augustine.
(Incidentally, this has a bearing on Bible criticism. In the nature of the case, literary criticism has a diagramatic or visual orientation. However, such analysis fails to take into account the aural character of Scripture and interplay between the spoken and written word. Much more work needs to be done in the field of psycholinguistics before Bible criticism can proceed with any measure of confidence.)
vi) The aural aspect is very much in play in the Pauline corpus (Gal 4:21; Eph 1:13; 3:4; 4:9; Col 1:23; 4:16; 1 Th 5:7; 1 Ti 4:13; 2 Ti 1:13; 2:2).
vii) And this dynamic is fully operative in Romans in particular (Rom 10:14,18; 11:8; 15:21).
Public epistolary literature is addressed, first of all, to an audience, in the literal sense of the term. Although there were people who could read, literacy was spotty—as was the private ownership of books. This is what accounts for the emphasis on public reading (e.g. Col 4:16; 1 Tim 4:13; Rev 1:3).
How does a listener remember what he’s heard? How does he process the spoken word? And how does a skillful speaker prompt his listener? The technique involves repetition with variation. The introduction and reiteration of leading words and catchphrases preserves the train-of-thought. Key words carry the burden of the argument. They advance the argument and recall its prior stages.
One often runs across claims about the prodigious powers of ancient memory. But what this claim generally overlooks is that it entailed the commitment to memory of a written exemplar. Yes, men can memorize the Illiad or Qur'an or opus of Shakespeare, yet not by merely hearing them, but by reading them.
Moreover, the paradigm cases usually involve literature that employs built-in mnemonic devices (e.g., rhythm, rhyme, parallelism, acrostics). Ps 119 is a case in point.
Such a pleonastic style demands some mental readjustment on the part of the modern scholar. In our culture, a scholar is a silent reader rather than a listener. So we need to be sensitive to the interplay of aurality and textuality.
This is not only true for the listener, but the writer as well. Paul is dictating his letters (cf. Rom 16:22). How does he, in a long complicated letter like Roman, keep track of his own argument? It is, again, through verbal cues. So the argument in Romans is, in large measure, spun on a web of verbal associations.
Despite the mountainous literature on Romans, this aspect, although fundamental to the structure of argument, has never received systematic exploration. Let’s examine some examples and study how this perspective impacts our interpretation. These can be classified by category:
II. Classification

1. Paradox: In 1:20, God’s invisible attributes (aoratoß) are exemplified in the visible attributes (kaqoraw) of the natural world.
2. Irony: In 1:28, because the unbelievers didn’t deem it worthwhile (domimazw) to know God, God gave them over to a worthless (adokimaß) mind.
3. Contrast: In 1:25, Paul sets the truth of God (alhqeia) over against the falsehood of men (yeudaß). In 3:4, Paul once again sets the truth of God (alhqhß) over against the falsehood of men (yeudw). And in 3:7, Paul once more sets the truth of God (alhqeia) over against the falsehood of men (yeusma).

In 3:2-3, Paul sets the trustworthiness of God over against the untrustworthiness of the Jew: "they were entrusted (pisteuw) with the divine oracles…if some distrusted (apisteuw), will their distrust (apistia ) nullify the trustworthiness (pistiß) of God?
In Rom 5:12-21 we encounter a reiterated comparison and contrast between the one and the many/all.
In 11:30-31 we have an interplay between disobedience and mercy: "just as you were once disobedient (apeiqew) but received mercy (eleew) on account of their disobedience (apeiqeia), they are now disobedient (apeiqew), so that by the mercy (eleew) shown you they may also receive mercy (eleew)."
4. Antithetical Parallelism: In 4:19-20, Abraham’s unwavering faith is expressed both in negative and positive terms. Rather than weakening in faith (mh asqenew th
pistei), he grew mighty in faith (enduw th pistei).
5. Motif: In 4:11-12,16-18, Paul sounds the paternal theme: "the aim was to make him the father of all believers (11)…the father of the circumcised (12)…who follow the example of…our father Abraham (12)…who is the father of us all (16)…a father of many nations (17)…to become a father (18) of many nations."

In 8:3-5, Paul sounds the carnal motif: "weakened by the flesh (3)…in the likeness of sinful flesh (3)…to condemn sin in the flesh (3)…not according to the flesh (4)… according to the flesh (5)…on the things of the flesh" (5).
Paul develops the "antinomian" theme in various verses: "as many as sinned without the law (anomwß) will perish without the law (anomwß)" (2:12); "but now the justice of God has been show without the law ( cwriß nomou)…for a man is justified… without works of the law (cwris ergwn nomou)" (3;21,28); "where there is no law ouk estin nomoß), there is no transgression" (4:15); "Before the law (acri nomou), sin was in the world, but sin is not reckoned where there is no law (mh ontoß nomou)" (5:13); "without the law (cwriß nomou), sin is dead" (7:18); "Christ is the end of the law (teloß nomou)," (10:4).
(I am using "antinomian" with reference to justification, not sanctification. There’s also a sense in which the law supplies the standard of justification; however, that condition is satisfied by Christ alone on behalf of and instead of the elect.)
6. Metaphor: In 8:17, Paul builds on the filial metaphor by inferring inheritance from sonship: if a son (tekna), then an heir (klhronomoß), hence a joint-heir (sugclhronomoß).

III. Sample Cases
Let’s now see how these general considerations apply to a few problem passages.
1. The conclusion in 3:31 ("Do we overthrow the law by faith? No, we uphold the law!") has always struck commentators as abrupt and counterintuitive. If, however, we take wide angle shot, we will see Paul that has prepared for this conclusion in his development of the "antinomian" motif (2:12; 3:21,28). V31 doesn’t follow from v30, but it does follow from a longer leitmotif. What we have to keep in mind is that Paul’s process of reasoning moves by skips as well as steps. He introduces an idea, drops it for a while, and then circles back to build on it.
2. The second clause of 5:12 seems to disaffirm the first clause. For the first clause attributes death to the sin of one man whereas the second clause attributes the universality of death to the universality of sin—or so it seems. The solution here is to be found in the contrastive motif. Paul says that "all" have sinned because he is setting up a wordplay between the "one" (Adam/Christ) and the "many/all." He introduces the universal quantifier at this point to prep the listener for his dual contrast between the one-to-many/all involving Adam and the one-to-many/all involving Christ. VV18-19 resume and unpack the thought of v12.
3. The bearing of vv13-14 on the vv12,15ff. is inevident. They seem to interrupt the flow of the argument. But the reason that Paul introduces this parenthetical is to reiterate the "antinomian" motif. And its relevance at this point in the argument is to underscore the fact that Christ rather than the law is the instrumentality of justification (v15ff.).
Paul is drawing parallels. But speech is linear. So the sequence jumps from one to the other. This makes the presentation a bit jerky, but that is due to the exigencies of the medium. And this can make the argument hard to follow. However, the method of verbal association features a built-in redundancy that helps the listener to fill in ideas which he might have missed on the first round. If he didn’t hear it or register it the very first time it was mentioned, he can play catch up the next time it is reiterated.
4. 10:4 is also difficult, taken in isolation. But this, again, must be construed in relation to the "antinomian" theme that Paul has already laid down. Christ is the "end" of the law in the sense that, in Christ, the subject is justified apart from law-keeping.

IV. Rom 7:7-25
Let’s wrap up our study with a notorious crux. In approaching 7:7-25, one thing we need to remember is that Paul wrote to be understood. So the true interpretation ought to be accessible to the original audience. Put another way, the true interpretation should have been fairly obvious to the members of the 1C church of Rome—really a loose association of house-churches —so that if we’re stumped, it must be because we have failed to project ourselves into their situation. What was their point of reference? What is there in the perspective we naturally bring to the chapter that differs from and blinds us to the viewpoint of the first reader? The true interpretation shouldn’t be hard to grasp once we reposition ourselves to see it aright.
I would also suggest that we approach this passage via 2:14-15. There are two different schools of thought regarding the identification of the subject. At least until recently, the majority view has treated them as pagan Gentiles. In favor of this interpretation it is held that the general context is dealing with judgment—whereas if Christian Gentiles were in view it would deal with salvation. Moreover, the appeal to conscience and an unwritten law is thought to operate within a natural law framework. The phrase about a "law to themselves" is also taken as having a natural law setting.
As over against this is the Augustinian interpretation, championed of late by Barth and Cranfield (ICC [T&T Clark, 1982], 2:155-63.) This appeals to a number of considerations:
i) The Church of Roman had a sizable Gentile constituency—probably representing the majority of the membership. So Paul is in large part addressing that audience.
ii) Paul refers to Gentile Christians in 11:13 and 15:9. Although that doesn’t mean that he must have the same subject in view here, it does mean that "Gentile" (eqnh) doesn’t carry a heathen connotation in Romans.
iii) Paul speaks of a Christian conscience (9:1; 13:5), so this term doesn’t evoke a natural law framework.
iv) What the syntactical positioning of "nature" (fusiß) could mean is not that Gentiles naturally fail to keep the law, but that they naturally lack the law (cf. v27; Gal 2:15; Eph 2:3).
iv) The legal reference seems to be an allusion to Jer 31:33 (31:38, LXX) and Isa 51:7. This lies in the background of similar statements by Paul (1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:2-3,6,14) where the Christian referent is unmistakable.

In objection to this it is pointed that Paul doesn’t say that the law is inscribed on their hearts, but the work of the law. However, Paul elsewhere uses "the works of the law" with reference to the Mosaic Law (3:20,28; Gal 2:16; 3:2,5,10). It isn’t clear that the difference in number (between singular and plural) is significant .
v) It is hard to square Paul’s running indictment of pagan immorality (1:18-3:20) with a sudden excursus on virtuous pagans in 2:14-15,26-27.
vi) Paul is not so much dealing with judgment as he is with the standard of judgment. And in this respect the Jew enjoys no advantage over the Gentile in view.
vii) In context, to be a law to oneself could have reference to the internalization of the law (=the "law of the Spirit"; cf. Jer 31; Rom 7:6; 8:2; 2 Cor 3).
viii) The Gentiles also supply the paradigm-case of justification by faith. Since they are without the law, they cannot be justified by the law. So this trades on the antinomian motif noted above.
(ix) This interpretation of 2:14-15 would also complement vv26-27. On the one hand, the parallel between the naturally lawless state in v14 and the naturally uncircumcised state in v27 (ek fusewß akrobustia) implies that the same subjects are in view in both verses; on the other hand, the parallel between law-keeping in v26 and 8:4 implies the Christian identity of the subjects in v26.

On balance, then, it appears to me that the Augustinian interpretation enjoys the edge. Taken by itself, the majority view may be more plausible, but the Augustinian interpretation enjoys greater explanatory power in relation to the overall flow of argument.
But how does this bear on 7:7-25? This chapter confronts us with a number of programmatic questions. Who is the subject of the chapter? Are we to treat it as autobiographical and typical? Is this Paul’s personal confession? How do we account for the shift in tense from v13 to v14? Does this represent a shift from a pre- to a post-conversion perspective? Is the subject in 13-25 viewed as regenerate or unregenerate?
The usual view takes the passage as autobiographical, although not strictly so inasmuch as Paul is using his own experience as a paradigm-case of Christian experience in general. Or more precisely, it would represent the experience of a Jewish convert to Christianity.
One impediment to this interpretation is the confession of vv8-9. In what sense was Paul ever without the law? That confession doesn’t reflect a Jewish viewpoint.
My suggestion is that Paul is assuming the role of a Gentile convert. And I would offer the following reasons:
i) In this passage Paul resorts to certain dramatic devices. For example, he personifies sin. That being so, he might also feel free, for purposes of illustration, to play the part a Gentile convert.
ii) This picks up on the "antinomian" motif I noted above (e.g. 2:12).
iii) It also picks up on the Augustinian interpretation of 2:14-15 (par. 26-27). Unlike a Jew or Jewish convert, a Gentile convert was not born under the law. But by virtue of his newfound faith he becomes conversant with the law and its demands. And this sets up a hitherto unknown friction between the ideal standard and his substandard conduct.
iv) Paul introduces himself as an Apostle of the Gentiles (1:5; cf. 15:16).
v) His letter is targeted, at least in part, to a Gentile audience (11:13).
vi) Audience adaptation is a Pauline policy (1 Cor 9:19-23).
viii) Such a strategy would be more obvious to the original audience than to a modern audience. A Gentile convert could readily relate to this perspective. However, most modern commentators are not pagan converts to Christianity, and so this viewpoint doesn’t occur to them.

There is, however, a difficulty with this interpretation. The subject in v14 admits to being a slave of sin. Yet this seems to be diametrically opposed to 6:20 and the general condition of the Christian in chapters 6 and 8 as over against the plight of the unbeliever.
And that is a very plausible objection to the post-conversion reading of 7:14ff. But when we take a closer look it begins to lose its force. To begin with, 6:15-23 casts the contrast between believer and unbeliever in terms of absolute antithesis. Now this may involve a measure of hyperbole or idealization, but that is how Paul has chosen to frame the relation.
Yet the keynote in 7:14ff. is not antithesis but tension. The subject is in an almost schizophrenic struggle with sin. Again, there may be a hyperbolic element to this representation, but the point is that you cannot map the divided soul of the subject in 7:14ff. onto the unbelieving subject in 6:15ff. In 6:15ff. the division is external; in 7:14ff., internal. In 6:15ff., the lines are drawn between two subjects; in 7:14ff. they are drawn within the same subject. So we can’t identify the subject of Rom 7 with the unbelieving subject of Rom 6.
We also need to remember that the imagery of slavery and redemption is figurative, and Paul is flexible in his use of metaphors. We should also ask where he derives these categories? From the laws governing slavery and manumission in the OT (Exod 21:2-6; Deut 15:12-18). And in this connection we need to draw a distinction. The Israelites were redeemed out of bondage in the Exodus. But it was still possible for an Israelite to become enslaved. In case of impoverishment, indentured service was a means of restitution if the debtor could not otherwise afford to repay his obligation. But he could also be redeemed by a kinsman.
In addition, the law made provision for a year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8ff.; 27:16-25; Num 36:4). This had an agricultural (v11ff.; cf. Exod 23:10-11; Deut 15:1-11) as well as a servile aspect (vv39-55). And I would suggest that this lies back of the servile personification of the bondage and liberation of natural order in Rom 8:19ff. The "firstfruits of the Spirit" (v23) allude to the day of first fruits (Num 28:26; cf. Exod 23:16,19; 34:22; Lev 23:9-22)—which was, in turn—enmeshed in the Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee.
In 7:25 the subject had lamented his mortal body—where "mortality" is bound up with spiritual warfare. Notice, though, that in 8:23, Paul does not index deliverance from that state to the moment of conversion, but rather, to the redemption of the body at the Parousia. In Pauline imagery, therefore, the Christian is redeemed twice-over: he is, indeed, redeemed by Christ on the cross, but his final redemption awaits the Jubilee of the general resurrection—which is, itself, grounded in the redemption and Resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:20-23).
This study is intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. One could explore the potential for a more systematic analysis of Romans in light of the principle of verbal association. One could also explore its applicability to the remainder of the Pauline corpus.


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  4. Does the perplexed Christian of Romans 7, pieces of his walk scattered all over the room like a Revell model of a P51 Mustang, look around and fix his eyes on the box (7:25), extricate the instructions, and by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh and walk in the Spirit? Am I fumbling at this metaphor? Missed some steps, didn't I?