Thursday, November 25, 2004
The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition
Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Interpretation. Richmond: Jul 2004.Vol.58, Iss. 3; pg. 229, 12 pgs Copyright Interpretation Jul 2004
Paul's letter to the Romans depicts Sin as one of the anti-God powers whose final defeat the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ guarantees. The framework of cosmic battle is essential for reading and interpreting this letter in the life of the church.
No form of Christian teaching has any future before it except such as can keep steadily in view the reality of the evil in the world, and go to meet the evil with a battle-song of triumph.
Here at Christ Church, we don't have sin." Stunning as it may be, this statement was made to a pastor of my acquaintance early in his current pastorate. What precisely the statement was intended to convey remains obscure, but it conjures up the range of ways in which contemporary Christians convey their discomfort with talk about sin (at least as sin pertains to themselves). A friend told me that she could not sing "Amazing Grace," as she had never been a "wretch" who required saving. Congregations seeking a more "positive" worship experience relegate prayers of confession to the dustbin with the explanation that people prefer not to think about sin.
The people who inhabit these anecdotes would surely find themselves ill at ease with Paul's letter to Christians at Rome. More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the language of sin flourishes here.2 The noun hamartia (sin) and words related to it (sinner, to sin, sinful) appear 81 times in the undisputed letters of Paul, and 60 of those instances are in Romans. In Romans 5-8 alone, the noun hamartia occurs 42 times. Often it acquires particular intensity because it serves as the subject of a verb: sin "came into the world" (5:12), sin "increased" (5:20), sin "exercised dominion" (5:21; cf. 6:12, 14), sin "produced" (7:8), sin "revived" (7:9), sin "dwells" (7:17, 20). Clearly sin has a leading role in the letter to the Romans.
Given this striking linguistic evidence, it may be surprising to notice a certain reluctance in the discussion of Paul's understanding of sin in some important scholarly works of recent years.3 A major concern of Stanley Stowers in A Rereading of Romans is to undermine the notion that Romans contains an understanding of universal sinfulness. Stowers contends that the point of 1:18-2:16 is first to demonstrate the decline and degeneration of Gentiles and then to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is God's solution to the problem of Gentile sin. Romans does affirm that the Gentile world stands under God's judgment, but no vigorous argument about sin is to be found here: "In the trivial sense, Paul believes that all humans sin, but that is far from saying that all are unrighteous, all fail to understand, all fail to seek God, all have turned away, and not a single person fears God (3:10ff.)."4 Troels Engberg-Pedersen sounds a similar note in his recent work, Paul and the Stoics. he argues that when Paul asserts in 3:9 that "all are under sin," he does not mean "necessarily'to sin' or 'to be a sinner in such a way that one constantly or at least regularly sins.'" Instead, being "under sin" may mean only "that one risks sinning, risks doing actual sins."5
To be sure, one purpose of these comments is to counter-and rightly so-claims made by earlier scholars who all too readily interpreted Paul's letter as a reasonable and reliable indictment of Jews and judaism.6 Nevertheless, the entirely appropriate desire not to bear false witness against the neighbor cannot excuse interpreters from taking seriously what is surely an important feature of Paul's letter. And a treatment of Romans that does not give a robust account of Paul's understanding of sin just will not work.
READING ROMANS: WIDESCREEN VERSUS "PAN AND SCAN"
Although any comparison between the careful scholarly treatments just mentioned and the highly selective anecdotes of the opening paragraph distorts both sides, there is one common thread that does connect them. In each case, the comments about sin consider sin strictly as a feature of human activity or human experience. The parishioner who claimed that there was no sin at Christ Church commented on the relative health of the congregation. Those who regard it as offensive to sing "Amazing Grace" or to offer a corporate prayer of confession do so because they think of sin as something a human being or group of human beings has done or not done. Stanley Stowers complains that the notion of universal sinfulness in Romans results in a portrait of the human condition that cannot distinguish between Moses and Hitler.7 What drives Stowers's complaint is the assumption that sin is a behavior, one that is hideously present in the activity of Adolf Hitler and infinitely less so in the activity of Moses.
This all seems quite self-evident. The difficulty arises when we notice that Paul does not confine his comments about sin to human behavior, to sin as misdeeds, omitted deeds, even to perverted thoughts and plans. Instead, in Romans in particular, sin is Sin-not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature, but an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God. Here, Sin is among those anti-God powers whose final defeat the resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates and guarantees.8 That larger picture of the cosmic battle is necessary to understand Paul's language in Romans, but that larger picture is missing in much recent discussion of Romans.9
An illustration from the world of film may be helpful. A major complaint of film afficionados is the way in which movies shown on television or VHS tape are subjected to "pan and scan" editing. "Pan and scan" editing crops the edges from film in order to compensate for the discrepancy between the wide screens in movie theatres and the boxy television screens in most homes. While satisfying to those who dislike the black bands of "letterbox" editions and who want their television screens full of picture, "pan and scan" editions can actually distort the film maker's work. For example, the number of actors who are visible may be substantially reduced, which in turn exaggerates the importance of the actors who do remain in view.10
Perhaps it is unavoidable that readers of biblical texts perform something equivalent to "pan and scan" editing as we interpret. Invariably, we "shrink the text," never quite able to attend to the whole of it. Yet our reading of Paul's letter to Rome may offer a most impressive example of this editing process, precisely because the letter itself involves so many twists and turns (to say nothing of the history of its interpretation). In a number of recent studies, what seems to have been left on the cutting room floor (underinterpreted or entirely neglected) in the interpretation of Romans concerns the larger apocalyptic dynamic of Paul's theology, particularly the cosmic character of his remarks about Sin. That apocalyptic framework is not only essential for understanding the letter as a whole, and the place of Sin in particular, but crucial for understanding the urgency of Romans in the contemporary context.
Here I will take with utter seriousness Paul's frequent use of Sin (hamartia) as the subject of a verb and describe Sin itself as a major character in the letter-a character who enslaves, who brings death, who ensnares even God's Torah, and whose demise is guaranteed by God's action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What may at first glance seem an exaggeration will, in my judgment, illumine the apocalyptic struggle that forms the widescreen version of Romans.
THE RÉSUMÉ OF SIN
Paul's remarks in Romans allow for the construction of a veritable résumé of Sin's achievements. Taking Sin's actions chronologically, the first claim made is that in Adam's transgression, Sin entered the world (5:12-21). Assuming that his Roman audience knows the biblical story, Paul does not retell it but simply touches on it as the beginning of Sin's activity.
Having established a base of operations," Sin became an enslaving power. Paul exposes this feature of Sin's résumé at two different points in the letter and at some length, surely in itself an indication of its importance. Paul explicitly identifies Sin as humanity's slaveholder in Romans 6, yet Sin's enslaving power first comes into view in 3:9 as the culmination of the relentless depiction of human activity in 1:18-2:29.
Although the noun hamartia is not attested until 3:9, Paul's depiction of Sin's activity properly opens with 1:18.12 Paul announces the subject in 1:18 with the solemn declaration that now God's wrath is revealed against "all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." The nature of this suppressed truth is nothing other than God's own work as creator, something humanity denied by its behavior (vv. 19-23). Through the refusal to honor or give thanks to God, and through idolatry-corrupt practices of worship!-humanity suppressed the truth.13 As is well-known, the repetition of the phrase "God gave them up" structures the remainder of ch. 1. Because human beings did not acknowledge God as God, God "gave them up" to impurity (v. 24), to degrading passions (v. 26), to a debased mind (v. 28). This handing over results in the relentless array of misconduct Paul itemizes in stark detail.14
Some scholars posit a tension between what Paul affirms in this passage about human refusal to acknowledge God and later sections of the letter that speak of Sin as a power. The beginning point of this grand depiction of Sin is certainly humanity's willful choice to deny God, even to create its own gods. Paul's depiction of humankind opens with an action taken by humanity itself rather than by another power. With the claim that God delivered up humanity to impurity, passion, and debased mind, however, there may be at least a hint of some larger conflict.15 An as-yet-unnamed someone or something challenges God for humanity. That is not to overlook the initial action: humanity's refusal of God's lordship meant that God conceded humanity for a time to the lordship of another.
The vigorous recital in 1:18-32 of the behaviors associated in Jewish literature with Gentiles virtually invites the audience to energetic assent.16 We can readily imagine Phoebe reading the letter to a gathering of believers at Rome, at least some of whom would nod their heads in smug agreement with the condemnation of "those" other people who do such dreadful things.17 At 2:1, Paul springs the trap on just such a reader, noting that the willingness to condemn others also constitutes a form of the denial of God. Romans 2:1-16 sharply rebukes the one who judges others, perhaps by way of anticipating ch. 14 with its more extended affirmation of the perils of judging others. all are responsible before God, who is the only true judge (14:10-12). In 2:17-29, Paul explicitly addresses Jews with the possibility that they instruct others while not themselves learning, that they rightly perceive circumcision as a value without understanding the requirement attached. Paul W. Meyer is surely correct to insist that this address not be understood as implying some flaw peculiar to Judaism but as revealing the difficulty inherent in sincere religious conviction.18 In other words, the end of Romans 2 addresses those who genuinely undertake to pursue God's will.
This section of the letter culminates in 3:9 with the conclusion that "all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of Sin." The NRSV supplies the noun "power" where none exists in the Greek text, yet "power" is surely to be inferred.19 Those behaviors paraded in 1:18-2:29 are not simply symptoms of an intellect set against God. Quite the opposite: 2:17-24 concerns those who would honor God. Instead, Paul's review of human behavior points to the reality of a power named Sin that holds human beings in its grasp. So firm is the control that even the great advantages conveyed upon Israel by God cannot immunize Israel against Sin's power (3:1-8).
In Romans 6, Sin's enslaving grasp comes into full and unmistakable view. The chapter opens as a rebuttal of the possible conclusion that God's grace permits antinomianism ("Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?" 6:1). Paul responds with an extended contrast that plays on the language of life and death. Those baptized into Christ's own death are simply dead to Sin-its power is shattered. All ambiguity falls aside in the second half of the chapter, where the image of Sin as the slave-owner is explicit. Sin was formerly the owner of these slaves (6:16-20). In that condition, they were enslaved to "impurity" and to "iniquity" (6:19). The only possible outcome of this slavery to Sin was death (6:20-22).
Not only did Sin enter and enslave but Sin's résumé includes the unleashing of its cosmic partner, Death. When Paul introduces the extravagant contrast between Adam and Christ in 5:12-21, he connects the entry of Sin with that of Death: "Death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned" (5:12). Death itself "exercised dominion" (5:14, 17). Death is the very "wage" of Sin (6:23). Not surprisingly, the language of Death is, like that of Sin noted earlier, more extensive in Romans than in Paul's other letters.20 Elsewhere Paul may anticipate his own physical mortality as the opportunity to be with Christ (Phil 1:21-23; 2 Cor 5:1-9), but here Death is a force introduced by Sin (see also 1 Cor 15:56).21
Perhaps the most disturbing element in the résumé of Sin is the claim made in ch. 7 that Sin is capable of exerting power even over the law. In his landmark study of Romans 7, "The Worm at the Core of the Apple," Paul W. Meyer redirected attention from preoccupation with the supposedly divided "I" (ego] to the workings of Sin; Sin continues to be the topic in 7:7-25, now focused as the question, "Is the law of God itself the equivalent of Sin?"22 Paul vehemently denies the equation, yet he simultaneously insists that Sin has used the law for its own purposes. A series of expressions conveys this point:
Sin "seizing an opportunity [base of operations] in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness" (v. 8).
Sin "seizing an opportunity [base of operations] in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me" (v. 11).
Sin brought death by "working death in me through what is good" (v. 13).
Because Sin is capable of using even the holy law of God, it can produce the crisis described in w. 14-20. In Meyer's view, then, the "law of sin" (7:23, 25; 8:2) is the law as it has been possessed by Sin.23 Sin has proven capable of producing a cleavage in God's own "holy, just, and good" law: "The transcendentally (kath' hyperbolen) demonic nature of sin is its power to pervert the highest and best in all human piety, typified by the best in Paul's world, his own commitment to God's holy commandment, in such a way as to produce death in place of the promised life."24
Brought together, these "achievements" of Sins résumé create the portrait of a cosmic terrorist. Sin not only entered the cosmos with Adam, it enslaved, it unleashed Death itself, it even managed to take the law of God captive to its power. This résumé of Sin's accomplishments requires something more than a generous God who forgives and forgets, and something entirely other than a Jesus who allows people to improve themselves by following the example of his good behavior. Sin cannot be avoided or passed over, it can only be either served or defeated.
The most important element in Paul's treatment of Sin in Romans, however, is the gospel itself. Before the first word about God's wrath has been uttered, Paul has already introduced the gospel as God's own saving power (1:16-17). When he returns to that point in 3:21-26 to clarify it, he explicitly identifies God's offering up of Jesus Christ in death as the apocalypse of God's gracious defeat of Sin. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, God has now handed over the Son Jesus Christ for Sin's defeat (1:24, 26, 28; 8:32). God's power revealed in the gospel, then, is far greater than God's mere ability to forgive the sins of those who assent to a set of propositions about Jesus Christ. It is God's own power to redeem all of creation (see 8:19-23) from the grasp of powers arrayed against God.25
Because of God's powerful and gracious victory, Paul can contrast the achievement of Adam with that of Christ (5:12-21). By presenting the implacable consequences of Adam's transgression, Paul sets up the comparison that follows in order to show that the consequences of Christ's obedience are even more astonishing than the consequences of Adam's transgression. To begin with, the consequences are diametrically opposed to one another, the entry of Death on the one hand and justification on the other. In addition, the two actions start from different positions, since Christ's act does not begin simply where Adam's ended; Christ's act begins with the entire human consequence of Adam's act. Most important, the grace that follows from Christ's act "abounded all the more" (5:20); it multiplied even more than had the fearsome implications of Sin. No longer is Sin the enslaving power, it is now grace that exercises dominion.
The question that presses immediately is what it means to say that God has rescued humanity from Sin, that there is genuine death to Sin, when the evidence of human conduct runs overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. Romans itself demonstrates that Paul understands that being a "slave of righteousness" and "free from Sin" does not carry with it immunity to transgression. Whether the admonitions of 12:1-15:13 address some particular problem in the Roman house-churches or whether they are what Paul would offer anywhere, they clearly display a frank realism about human behavior. (At the very least, Paul's dealings with the Corinthians should have undermined any exaggerated notions he had about Christian perfection.) On the one hand, to be freed from the power of Sin is not the same thing as being without flaw or incapable of transgression (sin in the lower-case). On the other hand, being free from the power of Sin means that the gospel actually does change human lives. In Romans, as elsewhere in Paul's letters, the gospel brings about transformation of the mind so that the human eye may see what God is doing and perceive God's will (12:1-2; see also 2 Cor 5:16-17). Paul addresses the Romans as people who are gifted by God with hope (5:1-5), joy (15:13), and peace (5:1; 14:17; 15:13). These are not simply private spiritual possessions; rather, they manifest themselves for the upbuilding of the common life, as comes to expression often in 12:1-15:13.
THE RÉSUMÉ OF SIN AND THE COSMIC STORY
To take seriously the résumé of Sin will require an enlargement of our view of Romans. Recent decades of Pauline scholarship have rightly called into question those interpretations that treat Romans as having to do largely with the relationship between God and the individual. The scholarly pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, emphasizing the concern in Romans for God's dealings with Israel and the Gentiles. Yet even that important correction does not suffice, since the "widescreen" version of Romans is not only about the relationship among ethnic groups, between God and humanity, or God and the individual. It concerns the much larger apocalyptic battle in which God wages war against anti-God powers, including the powers of Sin and Death.26
In addition to the depiction of Sin and Death as cosmic powers, the sheerest view that Romans affords us of this apocalyptic conflict comes in Romans 8. At the culmination of his celebration of the future glory of a creation liberated from futility and decay, Paul returns to the present to ask who might threaten "us," that large family of God's children (8:33): "Who will bring any charge against God's elect?" The scene here is one of conflict, and Paul delights in parading before his hearers the names of those Powers that might seek to harm God's chosen: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. No mere survivors, "we" are "more than conquerors" in the face of the litany of powers that follows, the first of which is Sin's cosmic partner, Death. The gospel of God's handing over of Jesus Christ to crucifixion, of the resurrection, and of the triumphant place at God's right hand has already secured victory over all these things (8:34). When Paul speaks of the "love of God in Christ Jesus," it is no sentimental valentine but a fierce love that rescues creation itself (8:39).
The closing lines of Romans epitomize this conflict. In 16:20, Paul completes a warning about deceitful people with the words, "The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet."27 As one of the names given in biblical and post-biblical literature to the one opposed to God, Satan is more than adequate as a shorthand reference to the anti-God powers, prominent among whom is Sin itself.28 Any lingering notion that the anti-God powers, including Sin, are to be defeated by human strength fails on these words. The Romans are admonished to be wise and to avoid evil (16:19), but it is God who crushes Satan beneath their feet.
Corroboration for this apocalyptic battle between God and the anti-God powers appears across the Pauline corpus. First Thessalonians, widely regarded as Paul's earliest letter, does not explicitly speak of the defeat of God's enemies, but the battle imagery of 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 is consistent with an expectation that the parousia is something more than the point in time at which Jesus returns to collect his faithful followers. It is a triumphant victory in contested territory. More explicit is Gal 1:4, with its description of Jesus Christ as "the one who gave himself on behalf of our sins that he might rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of God the father." The most explicit treatment comes in 1 Corinthians 15, with its anticipation of "the end, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (15:24-26). Here there is no ambiguity: God has enemies with real power, chief among them Death itself. In 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul insistently couples denial of the resurrection with denial of God's own power, Death takes the leading role among God's enemies. Yet Sin also makes an appearance here, once again linked with Death, in 15:56.
BUT SOMEONE WILL SAY. . . .
The most immediate objection to this understanding of Sin in Romans is that it takes literally something that is simply a metaphorical device. Commentary after commentary identifies as an anthropomorphism Paul's practice of making hamartia the subject of a verb (e.g., 5:12, 13, 20). On this line of reasoning, Paul is merely making his writing vivid by means of a standard literary device. At least two possible arguments in favor of this objection should be mentioned. In the first place, Paul occasionally refers to sin as merely something a person does that is wrong, as in the use of the verb "sin" in 2:12 and 3:23. Yet this argument is not persuasive, because it is exactly in these passages that Paul undertakes to demonstrate the workings of Sin's power. That he finds himself drawing on the language in a variety of ways (verb, noun, adjective) is not surprising. A second possible argument in favor of the notion that Paul is merely using a literary device notes that Paul also employs other terms, such as "grace" and "righteousness," in ways that are analogous to his use of Sin. In Rom 5:20, for example, Paul speaks of grace abounding, and in 6:15 he contrasts being "under law" with being "under grace." In context, however, grace may well be a power analogous (and opposed) to the power of Sin, precisely because here grace is a shorthand reference to God's saving power revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To speak of Sin as a power is not to claim to peer into Paul's mind and see there the existence of a literal character by the name of Sin. Yet both Paul's language about Sin itself and the cosmic apocalyptic thrust of his letter seem to require that the notion of Sin as a power that sets itself over against God be taken seriously. To dismiss it as only a literary device runs the risk of trivializing.
A second possible objection is that, whatever Paul may have believed, contemporary Christians cannot find themselves in this cosmic apocalyptic battleground. The shadow of Rudolf Bultmann's insistence that the New Testament be demythologized lingers, most strenuously represented in recent discussion of Paul by Troels Engberg-Pedersen. EngbergPedersen claims, with admirable directness, that "we" simply cannot take seriously the mythological element in Paul: "By far most of Paul's basic world-view, in other words, the basic apocalyptic and cosmological outlook that was his, does not constitute a real option for us now-in the way in which it was understood by Paul."29 It may well be that Paul's understanding of the gospel as God's invasion of a world enslaved to Sin and Death is not within our imaginative powers, although the vast appetite for the stories of J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien prompts me to suspect otherwise. At the very least, it would seem to be the obligation of Christians to entertain the possibility that Paul might be right and "we" might be wrong.
Even those who do wish to take the language seriously may be troubled by the imagery, however. Particularly Christians who daily see the consequences of a willingness-even eagerness-to engage in military action in God's name rightly resist any facile baptism of human conflict with language drawn from biblical texts. Yet the text will not let us off the hook. It stands as an invitation, not to identify our battles with God's own or to cloak our aggression in Paul's terminology, but as an invitation to see that the conflict imagery Paul employs has to do with God's actions on behalf of creation, not human actions distorted to replace God's own.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
As prominent as the vocabulary of Sin is in Romans, it is only one piece of a rich and dense argument. Brendan Byrne's essay in this issue gives some indication that research and publication on Romans these days is a booming enterprise. Lively interest in Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament, the ethnic conflicts that appear to stand behind the letter, ongoing interest in Paul's understanding of Judaism, argumentative style, the roles of the women named in Romans 16, the extensive discussion of the purpose of the letter-most of these are more congenial topics than that of Paul's treatment of Sin. It is easy to imagine someone asking whether preachers and teachers may not just leave this issue aside for something more attractive, especially since conversation about Sin renders most of us tiresome or judgmental, or perhaps both.
Fraught with danger as the topic may be, it is an essential feature of the widescreen Romans, the one in which God invades creation in the death of Jesus Christ, releases human beings from the grasp of Sin, and transforms those believers into God's own children who await their ultimate final redemption as slaves of righteousness. Apart from the larger theological context, these other issues are distorted by a "pan and scan" editing process that isolates their importance. Without an understanding of the enslaving grasp of Sin, ethnic tensions between Jew and Gentile are mere social relations, while for Paul they are a matter of the unity of humankind in doxological response to God's action for all humankind. Without an understanding of Sin's power to corrupt even the law, the question of law-observance for Gentiles becomes simply a matter of lowering the price of admission so as to attract as many converts as possible. Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament is merely a series of intriguing intellectual guessing games, unless it is understood that he puts Scripture and everything else available to him at work for the urgent task of conveying God's actions. Yet the widescreen edition of the gospel as viewed in Romans has to do with God's revealing invasion in Jesus Christ of a cosmos in the grip of Sin, of Death, subject to peril and sword and all the rest of the Powers of this age. Without viewing that widescreen edition, the rest of these issues may stimulate the intellectual appetite, but they offer little that is of nutritional value.
This apocalyptic context is, in other words, essential for understanding Paul. It is no less essential for understanding our own situation. A visit to the front pages of the daily newspaper should be sufficient to nudge us back to this uncomfortable topic. In 1995, well before the events of September 2001 and their aftermath, Andrew Delbanco published The Death of Satan, in which he traced what he termed the "unnaming" of evil, the gradual decline of talk about evil in American cultural life.30 Evil is either denied altogether or reified into "the blamable other-who can always be counted on to spare us the exigencies of examining ourselves."31
Paul's language is that of Sin rather than evil, of course. Paul's Romans urgently demands not simply that we recognize the Sin in the world out there, or even that we recognize the evil in ourselves-in our very best selves. Paul's Romans shows us that the battle against evil is not fought by reducing it to a laundry list of transgressions and trying really hard to avoid them. Nor is it fought by identifying evil in other people and restraining or eradicating them. Evil is God's own enemy. The gospel Paul proclaims is that God has not left us alone and powerless. In Jesus Christ, God has already broken Death and Sin and will finally crush Satan on our behalf. Confidence in that word is the beginning of peace and joy and the obedience of faith.
[Footnote] 1 The statement appears in the closing paragraph in Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor, trans. A. G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931) 176. The context makes clear that Aulén understands the triumph to be accomplished by God. 2 Nole, however, that the word group is proportionately more pervasive in the far briefer 1 John, which employs the word hamartia and its cognates a combination of 27 times. 3 The scholarly literature on Romans is vast, and this essay makes no claim to chronicle current debates. Among more recent commentaries, the bibliographies in the following will be particularly helpful for those who wish to join the discussion: B. Byrne, Romans, Sacra Pagina 6 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1996); J. D. G. Dunn, Romans, 2 vols., Word (Dallas: Word Books, 1988); J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993); D. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). 4 A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 184, emphasis added. The focus on Gentiles in the quotation is deliberate. Stowers largely follows a line of interpretation developed by Lloyd Gaston and John Gager, arguing that Israel continues to be related to God through the covenant and the law, while the Gentiles require salvation through the gospel. See the illuminating reviews by R. Hays, CRBR 9 (1996) 27-44; and J. Barclay, JBL 115 (1996) 365-68. 5 T. Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 207, emphasis in the original. See the important review by J. L. Martyn in JSNT 86 (2002) 61-102. 6 It is necessary to read those earlier commentators with care. In Stowers (Rereading, 143), C. E. B. Cranfield serves as an example because Cranfield writes that Paul implies "that all contemporary Jews are guilty of the evils" described in Romans 2. Yet Cranfield's very next sentence runs as follows: "It is anyway of course quite certain that there were many Jews in Paul's day who were not guilty of theft, adultery or temple-robbing (or sacrilege), in the ordinary sense of the words" (The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols., ICC [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975, 1979] 1:168). 7 Rereading Romans, 176. 8 On the anti-God powers and their role in Paul's thinking, see J. L. Martyn, Galatians, AB 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 370-73. 9 Prominent earlier advocates of an interpretation of Romans in the context of apocalyptic theology are E. Käseniann (Commentary on Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980]) and J. C. Beker (Paul the Apostle [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980]). 10 Excellent examples of the differences between widescreen or "letterbox" versions and "pan and scan" editing can be viewed at www.widescreen.org. 11 In Rom 7:8 and 11, Paul writes that Sin seized the law as an aphorme, which the NRSV translates as an "opportunity." A stronger translation is needed, given that the term refers to the starting point for an expedition (F. W. Danker et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000] 158). 12 Note, however, that the verb hamartanein occurs at 2:12. 13 For a suggestive interpretation of idolatry, particularly in relationship to the Holocaust and to the sexual abuse of children, see A. McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 14 One of the many unfortunate byproducts of the various denominational wars on homosexuality is that discussion of this powerful passage has been confined to questions of sexuality. That debate thereby obscures Paul's powerful depiction of a humankind that refuses to acknowledge God or its own status as creature. Such preoccupation with a single issue also precludes, conveniently so, all consideration of the manifold ways in which human denial of God comes to expression. 15 The verb paradidomi sometimes appears in contexts having to do with giving someone or something up to a foe, as in a military context. For examples, see the LXX Lev 26:25; 1 Esdr 8:74; Ezra 9:7, and note also the extrabiblical examples cited in Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 762. 16 See particularly Wis 13:1-9 and 14:22-31. A good discussion of the connections between this passage and earlier Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews appears in Fitzmyer, Romans, 269-90. 17 Romans 16:1 recommends Phoebe to the recipients of the letter, which surely means that she is the bearer of it, the one who will read it, and thereby its first interpreter. 18 P. W. Meyer, "Romans" in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, ed. J. L. Mays et al. (2nd ed.; New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 1045; now available also in The Word in This World: Essays in New Testament Exegesis and Theology, ed. J. T. Carroll, NTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) 165. 19 On this construction and its importance, especially in Galatians, see Martyn, Galatians, 370-72. 20 The noun thanatos appears in the undisputed Pauline letters 45 times, 22 of which are in Romans. 21 On the role of death, particularly in the larger context of Paul's apocalyptic theology, see M. C. deBoer, The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschalology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, JSNTS 22 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988); idem, "Paul, Theologian of God's Apocalypse,'1 Interpretation 56 (2002) 21-33. 22" [T]he central protagonist in the whole of 7:7-25-not just in vv. 7-12-the adversary of that 'I," is not the law at all but sin as a personified power" (P. W. Meyer, "The Worm at the Core of the Apple: Exegetical Reflections on Romans 7," in The Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, ed. R. T. Fortna and B. R. Gaventa [Nashville: Abingdon, 1990] 62-84, quotation p. 73; now available also in The Word in This World, 57-77). 23 Instead of imagining that Paul employs several different connotations for the word "law" in this single passage ("Torah" versus "norm" or "custom"), Meyer takes the expression "law of Sin" as a possessive referring to the law insofar as it is under Sin's control or in Sin's possession (Meyer, "The Worm," 76-80). See the further development of this point in J. L. Martyn, "Nomos Plus Genitive Noun in Paul: The History of God's Law," in Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe, ed. J. T. Fitzgerald, T. H. Olbricht, and L. M. White, NovTSup 110 (Leiden: Brill, 2003) 575-87. 24 lbid., 74. 25 On this much-disputed topic of God's righteousness, a helpful introduction is that of Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) 108-12. 26 My indebtedness here in particular to the work of Ernst Käsemann, J. Christiaan Beker, and J. Louis Martyn will be evident. 27 Because the word Satan does not appear elsewhere in Romans, and because the letter has made no earlier reference to a group of deceivers or dissenters, it is sometimes suggested that 16:17-20 is an interpolation into the letter. There is, however, no manuscript evidence in support of that suggestion (see Dunn, Romans, 901; Fitzmyer, Romans, 745). 28 See, for example, 1 Chron 21:1; Job 1-2, Zech 3:1-2; 1 Enoch 53:3; 54:6. Paul does use the word Satan elsewhere; see 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18. 29 Paul and the Stoics, 17. 30 The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995) 4. 31 Ibid., 234.
[Author Affiliation] BEVERLY ROBERTS GAVENTA Professor of New Testament Princeton Theological Seminary
Posted by lmurx at 3:35 PM
The Righteousness of the Law and the Righteousness of Faith in Romans
Stephen Westerholm. Interpretation. Richmond: Jul 2004.Vol.58, Iss. 3; pg. 253, 12 pgs Copyright Interpretation Jul 2004
"Righteousness" is normally what one ought to do, and the "righteous" are those who do it. Paul sees the law of Moses as explicating "righteousness" required of all human beings and "justification by faith" as the extraordinary path to "righteousness" offered by God to the unrighteous of all nations.
Most readers of the New Testament would, I imagine, have little trouble identifying the following text as Pauline: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:1). Not nearly so many, I suspect, would readily link Paul's name with a verse found earlier in the same epistle: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (2:13). Nor is the difficulty of associating the latter verse with Paul confined to casual readers of the Bible: Pauline scholars have commonly found much in Romans 2 "unPauline" and attributed parts or the whole of the chapter to an interpolator,1 to material borrowed but not assimilated by the apostle,2 or to Paul's assuming, for the sake of the argument, the perspective of his opponents.3 One way or another, Paul did not mean-he could not have meant-that "the doers of the law . . . will be justified."
Alas, the thesis of Rom 2:13 is not as isolated in the Pauline corpus as it seems to those who explain it away. The notion that doers of the law will be found righteous is presumably what Paul has in mind when he speaks elsewhere of the "righteousness that comes from the law" (Rom 10:5; Phil 3:9). To be sure, Paul contrasts the righteousness of the law with that of faith, and it is the path of faith that he advocates. The explanation lies near to hand, then, that the righteousness of the law is, for Paul, no more than the so-called "righteousness" pursued by others, as he himself had pursued it in the past. Such an understanding would fit well with the view that Paul attempts to refute opponents on their own grounds in Romans 2. Yet nowhere in the chapter does Paul hint that the premises of his argument are not his own. Indeed, Romans 2 is replete with biblical themes and echoes of biblical texts: would Paul have formulated in these terms a position with which he himself disagreed? And though elsewhere advocating the righteousness of faith rather than that of the law, when Paul articulates the operative principle of the latter, he quotes not opponents whom he can dismiss as misguided, but Moses himself-whose words are not readily dismissed (Rom 10:5; cf. Gal 3:12). In Paul's mind, a "righteousness" propounded by Moses in Scripture cannot be of the "so-called" variety.
No doubt some of the confusion that surrounds "justification by faith" in contemporary Pauline scholarship is related to the widespread failure to find a place in Paul's thought for the righteousness of the law with which he compares it. Before we turn to these topics, however, something must be said of "righteousness" language itself.
THE LANGUAGE OF "RIGHTEOUSNESS"
When the Matthean Jesus declares those "blessed" who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Matt 5:6), commentators are quick to point out that, in the Matthean text, "righteousness" (dikaiosyne) does not mean the divine gift of "justification,"4 but denotes right conduct on the part of human beings.5 The meaning assigned to "righteousness" in Matthew (in implicit or explicit contrast with Paul) is in fact the ordinary meaning of the term throughout the Scriptures: broadly speaking, "righteousness" is what one ought to do, and to "declare" people "righteous" (or "justify" them) is to find them to have done what they ought.
A few illustrations must suffice.6 According to LXX Ezek 18:5,7 the "righteous" person practices judgment and "righteousness"; what is entailed in the practice of "righteousness" is spelled out in a list of things to be done (vv. 6-9). The cases of a sinful child and a righteous grandchild of one who is righteous are then discussed, and it is insisted that the righteous will live because of the righteousness that they themselves have done, whereas the one who sins will die. According to LXX Ezek 33:13, 18, all the "righteousnesses" (dikaiosyne is here read in the plural) that the "righteous" have done will be forgotten if they turn from their "righteousness" and commit acts of lawlessness. That the "righteous" person is the one who does "righteousness" may seem tautological, but the author of 1 John thinks it a truth too easily overlooked: "Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right [literally, "does righteousness"] is righteous, just as he is righteous" (3:7).
The verb "declare righteous" or "justify" is commonly used in judicial contexts, where it means "find innocent of wrongdoing," "acquit." Several Septuagintal texts underline the importance of "justifying" ("declaring righteous") the "righteous" and the wrongfulness of "justifying" ("declaring righteous") the "ungodly" (Exod 23:7; Deut 25:1; Isa 5:23; cf. Sir 9:12). Note that the judgment by which either the righteous (rightly) or the wicked (wrongly) are declared to be righteous affects neither the righteousness of the former nor the wickedness of the latter: righteous and wicked they remain, though in the latter instance justice has been subverted (so Deut 16:19; cf. Prov 17:15, 26). It is thus not the case that "the 'righteous' one is that one in a legal action ... who wins his case or is acquitted."8 The righteous are those who ought to prevail in court-because they are righteous-whether or not this happens.
It is sometimes suggested that "righteousness" language, when understood in a "Hebrew" rather than a "Greek" way, is "covenantal."9 The truth in the claim lies in the clear obligation of those who enter a covenant to keep the commitments they make when they enter it. Still, "righteousness" itself pertains to all that one ought to do, whether or not one is party to a covenant.10 The contrast between the "righteous" and the "wicked," together with that between the "wise" and "fools," is perhaps the central motif of the book of Proverbs. Yet the framework of Proverbs is not covenantal. Since God "by wisdom" created heaven and earth (Prov 3:19), it behooves human beings everywhere to gain "wisdom" and to govern their lives accordingly (so showing themselves "wise" and "righteous") if they would prosper. According to Genesis 18, Sodom's destruction would have been avoided had its citizens included ten who were "righteous" (18:23-32): though no party to a covenant, they were expected to be "righteous." Conversely, those who do belong to the covenant people of God are not thought to be "righteous" for that reason. Israel was set apart from the nations as "holy" (Deut 7:6), but Deuteronomy flatly denies that its people were "righteous" (9:4-6). Nor is covenant membership the issue when Israelite judges decide the "rightness" of particular complaints. Egregious wrongs excluded wrongdoers from the community. But not all cases involved egregious wrong in which judges (or God) were to "declare the righteous to be in the right, rewarding them according to their righteousness" (LXX 1 Kgs [= 3 Kgdms] 8:32).
Throughout the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, then, "righteous" and "wicked" are found side by side, in Israel and among other nations. The two are distinguished by their deeds. And whether one is "righteous" or "wicked" matters supremely when God judges the world and all its people in righteousness (LXX Ps 9:9; 95:13; 97:9).
If the ordinary sense of "righteousness" in the Scriptures is "what one ought to do," it would be extremely odd if Paul did not betray a similar usage; so odd the apostle was not. Note, for example, the contrast Paul frequently draws between "righteousness" (and its cognates) and "sin" (and its synonyms)-that is, between what one ought to do and what one ought not. The claim that all are "under the power of sin" (Rom 3:9) is confirmed by the scriptural declaration that not a single person is "righteous." The declaration is immediately expanded upon by various representations of human turpitude (3:10-18). If one would scarcely die for a person who is "righteous," how much more astounding is it that Christ died for "sinners" (Rom 5:7-8)? "Righteousness," moreover, has nothing in common with "lawlessness" (2 Cor 6:14). Readers in Romans 6 are urged to devote themselves to the service of "righteousness" rather than to that of "sin" (or "impurity," "iniquity"; 6:18, 19). Paul is not aware of wrongdoing on his part. But since the Lord, not he, is the only competent judge of such matters, Paul acknowledges that he cannot be "found righteous" (or "justified"; NRSV "acquitted") on the basis merely of what he knows about himself (1 Cor 4:4).11
Righteousness, then, for Paul as for the rest of Scripture, frequently means "what one ought to do." How does Paul conceive human obligation? His most telling discussion is in Rom 1:18-32, where he elaborates on a charge of unrighteousness (adikia) brought against all humanity (1:18).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness [adikia, "unrighteousness"] of those who by their wickedness [adikia] suppress the truth.
In the argument that follows, those who would flaunt their imagined freedom from obligations that they choose not to embrace are tersely dismissed. We are born into a world not of our making, and incur thereby, and in the course of living, obligations that we may shirk or defy but are in no position to set aside. God, as God, is to be worshiped by God's creatures (1:19-21, 25). As the creator and benefactor of human beings, God is due their honor and thanks (1:21). Moreover, what is appropriate to human sexuality was determined when humans were created as sexual beings and is to be respected in human behavior (1:26-27). Human beings are further bound to respect the lives of their fellows, to devise no ill against them, to speak the truth about them, to keep faith in their commitments, to show compassion where compassion is called for-and so on (1:28-32). These basic obligations of "righteousness" are seen as inherent in the lot of all human beings-and all at some level know both what they ought to do and that God rightly condemns those who refuse to do it (1:32).
Two observations about Paul's argument are worth making here. First, Paul speaks (implicitly) of the requirement of "righteousness" and (explicitly) of the condemnation of "unrighteousness" without referring to the Mosaic law. The law was given to Israel, but the obligation to practice righteousness is universal.
Second, although divine expectations of righteous behavior on the part of all human beings and, accordingly, divine judgment of all are spelled out most fully in Romans, they are implicit in all Paul's letters wherever he considers human behavior sinful or anticipates divine judgment. The Thessalonians had responded to the gospel in order to be delivered from the outpouring of divine wrath that awaits sinful humanity (1:10; 5:3-10). In Corinth, too, Paul's efforts were directed toward "saving" all he could (1 Cor 9:22; 10:33) in view of the condemnation that awaits the "world" "outside" the church (1 Cor 1:18; 5:13; 11:32)-because its people fail to live as they ought (cf. 1 Cor 6:1, 9-10; 2 Cor 6:14). The Philippians, by believing the gospel, had themselves escaped the perdition that awaits a "crooked and perverse generation" (2:15; cf. 1:28).
None of this should surprise us: no religious Jew doubted that God expected people, all people, to do what is right (admittedly, Jews differed in their understanding of the extent and nature of those obligations) and would judge those who did not. Paul's notions of what we may call "ordinary righteousness" were quite at home in contemporary Jewish circles.
THE (ORDINARY) RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE LAW
According to Romans 2, God will one day "repay" all according to their "deeds": those-Jews and non-Jews alike-who have done what is "good" will be granted eternal life; those-Jews and non-Jews alike-who have done evil will face "anguish and distress" (2:5-11). Clearly the demand for what is "good" in these verses parallels the expectation of (ordinary) "righteousness" outlined above, just as the "evil" of 2:8-9 corresponds to the "unrighteousness" condemned in 1:18. To this point, the divine requirements made of all human beings continue to be discussed without mention of the Jewish law.
The law is introduced in 2:12. Those who possess it will be judged by it; those without the law will be judged without reference to its provisions. But what the law requires of its adherents, in this passage, is simply the "good" expected of all human beings, as spelled out in the immediately preceding verses. If 2:6-11 declares that those who do the good will be granted eternal life, 2:13 restates the same principle in its claim that "the doers of the law" will be "justified" (or "declared righteous").12 One might suppose that only Jews (who "hear" the law) could be its "doers"; but Paul, bent on showing that Jews and Gentiles are judged by the same criterion, insists that this is not the case. Gentiles too, he notes, do things that the law commands, and whenever they do so, they show that they too are aware of "what the law requires." It has been "written on their hearts" (2:14-15; cf. 1:32). Hence, Gentiles no less than Jews are required to be "doers of the law" if they are to be found "righteous" on the day of judgment (2:13).
Paul's point has often been missed because of the confusion provoked by his reference to Gentiles who do "what the law requires" (2:14). Did he (readers have often wondered) envisage the possibility of Gentiles being deemed "righteous" because their deeds are acceptable to God? The answer to that question is that such a question cannot be answered, at least on the basis of this verse: it is simply not discussed.13 Paul wants to show that Gentiles and Jews are subject to the same criterion of judgment (they must do what is "good"; 2:7, 10), even though Jews, but not Gentiles, possess the law. Assuming that what the law requires is the goodness expected of every human being, Paul insists that Gentiles, too, are aware of their obligations: witness the times they do what the law commands, as well as the activity of their own consciences and thoughts in approving or disapproving what they do.
In this passage, then, the law of Moses is not thought to provide Jews with a path to "righteousness" that is peculiar to themselves; it merely gives them unique guidance about the goodness required of all. Still, it is doubtless of benefit to have one's obligations enunciated clearly: possession of the law enables Jews to instruct Gentiles in their mutual responsibilities. But the ability to communicate a command docs not exempt the communicators from their own obligation to observe it.
You, then, that [as a Jew; see v. 17] teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? (2:21-22)
Circumcision is introduced into the discussion in vv. 25-29; the same point is being made. The only "circumcision" that matters in the end is the spiritual "circumcision" shown by those-whether or not they are physically circumcised-who actually do what the law commands. Paul posits the various possibilities: a circumcised Jew who keeps the law (his circumcision has value; v. 25a); a circumcised Jew who transgresses the law (his circumcision has no value; v. 25b); and an uncircumcised non-Jew who keeps it (his uncircumcision amounts to the circumcision that has value; w. 26-27). (The case of the uncircumcised non-Jew who does not keep the law is omitted since it is of no use to the argument.) In no case is it part of Paul's argument to affirm that there are individuals who fill each category.14 His point is that keeping the (moral requirements of the) law is what matters-for Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and (physically) uncircumcised, alike.
In Romans 2, then, Paul finds in the law a statement of the requirements of goodness incumbent on all human beings. The same understanding is implicit elsewhere in Romans. To support his claim that the law itself is "good," Paul notes in ch. 7 that what the law commands is "holy and just [dikaia] and good" (7:12). He means not that conduct otherwise neutral becomes "just" ("righteous") and "good" when (and because) the law commands it, but that behavior that is righteous and good is spelled out in the law. In 7:16, the law is again recognized as "good" because (as the context makes clear) what it commands is recognized as "the good I want." According to 4:15 and 5:13, sin exists in the world even apart from law (e.g., murder was wrong even before the law was given). However, when the law's demands were made (e.g., "You shall not murder"), deeds (such as murder) that were sinful in any case became also transgressions of the law.
Such an understanding of the Mosaic law is not peculiar to Paul. Beginning at least with Sir 24:23 (but see already Deut 4:6-8!), Jewish thought had identified the "wisdom" by which all human beings should live with the Mosaic Torah.15 Those familiar with GrecoRoman thought stressed Torah's agreement with "nature."16 In principle, those who presented the Mosaic law in these terms either had to focus exclusively on its moral demands or insist that its "ceremonial" commands, too, were binding on all humankind. Paul takes the former approach. Not only are the commands he cites exclusively moral (2:21-22); physical circumcision is discussed as though its presence, while potentially "of value," is quite a separate matter from the fulfillment of the law (2:25-27). The law of which all are expected to be "doers" (2:13) amounts to the moral demands of the Mosaic Torah.
But no human being, according to Rom 3:9-20, is "righteous" in this way. Summing up the whole argument, Paul writes, "'No human being [literally, "no flesh"] will be justified in [God's] sight' by deeds prescribed by the law" (3:20, echoing LXX Ps 142:2); that is, no one who does not do the good required of human beings can be declared righteous on the basis of a law that articulates the requirement.17 Far from contradicting Rom 2:13, the judgment of 3:20 presupposes its truth: the fundamental principle of the righteousness of the law is that the "doers of the law [and only the "doers," not mere "hearers"] will be justified." That no one meets the requirement is, in effect, an accident of human history. The requirement itself stands firm.
The same principle is expressed in Gal 3:12, here in a quotation from Lev 18:5: "Whoever does the works of the law [literally, "does them," i.e., the requirements spelled out in the law] will live by them." To be a "doer of the law" (Rom 2:13) is to be one who "does" what it requires (Gal 3:12). Such a person is promised life in Gal 3:12; he or she is deemed "righteous" and granted eternal life in Romans 2. Romans 10:5 provides the missing link between the verses: the basic principle of the law is repeated in the terms of Gal 3:12 (the same quotation from Lev 18:5 is given), but the principle itself is labeled the "righteousness that comes from the law," showing (as does Rom 2:13) that "doing" what the law commands is the path to being recognized as "righteous" in God's eyes.
In Galatians, the topic is addressed because Paul's Gentile converts had been told that they needed to be circumcised and to submit to the (distinctively Jewish) requirements of the Mosaic law if they wanted to belong to God's people. Paul responds, however, not by arguing against the importance of particular demands of the law, but by insisting that the law itself, inasmuch as it requires obedience to its demands, can hardly serve as a path to righteousness for "sinners" who have broken its requirements (cf. 2:15-17). Rather, it encounters them as a curse (3:10), confining them under the power of "sin" until God's redemption in Christ is revealed (3:21-26).
The "righteousness that comes from the law" is introduced in Romans 10 only after the point has repeatedly been made that human beings do not-they cannot-submit to God's law (3:10-18; 7:7-25; 8:7-8); that the law, though itself "good" (7:12, 14, 16), is too "weak" to secure obedience to its demands (8:3; cf. 7:14); that its practical effect is to bring "knowledge" of sin (3:20; 7:7), define sin as transgression (4:15; 5:13), and serve as the instrument of divine wrath (4:15). Yet Jews, Paul notes, continue to pursue its path to "righteousness"18 rather than submit to the path God has opened up through faith. Still, for all their efforts at achieving the "righteousness that is based on the law," Paul claims that they have not attained their goal-nor will they do so until they abandon the notion that humans can achieve righteousness through their "works" (9:31-32)."
In short, the Paul of Romans thinks that the righteousness of the law is of no use to sinners (and such are all human beings) and should not be pursued now that God has (for the benefit of sinners) revealed the "righteousness of faith." But the path itself he finds articulated in Scripture, and he equates its underlying principle with the divine demand for righteous behavior on the part of all human beings: a requirement presupposed in the gospel (Christ died "for our sins"! [1 Cor 15:3]) that he in no way calls in question.
Before we turn to what Paul says about the righteousness of faith, something should be said about his portrayal of the Jewish path to righteousness. Did Jews not see their place in the covenant, rather than their observance of the law, as securing their salvation? Has Paul not distorted Judaism by detaching the Mosaic law from its covenantal framework? And has he not overlooked the law's own provisions for atonement of transgressions?
This is not the place for a full-scale discussion.20 Nevertheless, the following points may be noted.
1. As mentioned above, entrance into the covenant was not thought to make Jews "righteous." "Righteousness," and enjoyment of life in God's favor, required submission to its commands (Deut 6:24-25). If Deuteronomy thinks those who are already God's people nonetheless face the choice of life or death depending on their willingness to obey God's commands (30:15-20; cf. 11:26-28), Second Temple Jewish sources repeatedly distinguish the "righteous" from the "wicked" among Jews themselves on the same basis, and it is the "righteous" who will enter life. This, as we have seen, was Paul's position too.
2. Paul could not have believed that the Mosaic provisions for atonement remained in effect once Christ had died for the sins of humankind. Presumably, he thought (as did the author of the letter to the Hebrews) that such rites were symbolic from the start, mere adumbrations of the sacrifice of Christ, which alone was effective in atoning for sins. Romans 3:24-26 suggests such an understanding; 1 Cor 5:7 might also be cited in support (cf. Col 2:16-17).
3. But there is more to be said. The Mosaic sacrifices for atonement were not thought to be effective unless accompanied by repentance on the part of the transgressor. But a Paul who thought that the mindset of the "flesh" is at enmity with God could hardly have thought unredeemed humanity capable of true repentance (Rom 8:5-8). Put differently: the law in Jewish thought served to distinguish the "wicked" (or "sinners") from the "righteous." The latter were not thought to be sinless, but (it was understood) they intended submission to God's law, and they repented of what wrongs they did. For Paul, however, the law served not to distinguish the incorrigibly "wicked" from the basically "righteous," but to show that all are "sinners," the "ungodly," God's "enemies" (Rom 3:23; 4:5; 5:6-8, etc.).21 For "sinners" who are not inclined to repent, neither Paul nor other Jews thought that the Mosaic law provided atonement (cf. Num 15:27-31).
4. Paul differs from much Jewish thinking of his day, then, not so much in his understanding of the law itself as in his assessment of human ability (and will) to obey it. Yet the evidence for Paul's "robust conscience" assembled by Krister Stendahl22 does not suggest a mind schooled to doubt humanity's capacity to please God. Here we must speak of a post-Damascus reevaluation. If the crucifixion of God's Son was required to redeem humankind, then the sinfulness of humankind must be both radical in itself and beyond the powers of existing measures to overcome.
THE (EXTRAORDINARY) RIGHTEOUSNESS OF FAITH
What Paul says about the righteousness of faith in Romans follows naturally from his understanding of the righteousness of the law. Here we can only note five of its aspects.
1. In the ordinary use of the terms, "righteousness" is what one ought to do and the "righteous" are those who do it. That Paul was not so obtuse as to have missed the point is apparent not only from his frequent usage of "righteousness" terminology in its ordinary sense, but also from his insistence on the extraordinary and paradoxical nature of the "righteousness" that God now offers the unrighteous. Those "justified [= declared righteous] by [God's] grace as a gift" in Rom 3:24 are precisely those who have "sinned" and "fall[en] short of the glory of God" in 3:23. Those declared righteous in 4:5 are the "ungodly"-the very term used in Septuagintal texts to designate those who, in contrast to the "righteous," should not be "justified." In Rom 5:9, those who have now been "declared righteous" are the "ungodly" of v. 6, the "sinners" of v. 8, the "enemies" of God of v. 10. The "many" who are "made righteous" by Christ's obedience in 5:19 are the same "many" who were "made sinners" by Adam's disobedience. They are the recipients of an "abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness" (5:17): Paul could scarcely signal more strongly the extraordinary nature of this righteousness!
Fittingly, then, Paul repeatedly speaks of the righteousness of faith as an emergency measure introduced by God to offset human unrighteousness and offer life to those otherwise condemned. The (ordinary) "righteousness" that is spelled out in the law is, for Paul, the more basic righteousness, from which the "righteousness" of faith paradoxically borrows its name. "Righteousness ... through faith" has "now" been "disclosed" (Rom 3:2122)-"now" that it is clear no "flesh" can be found righteous through obeying the law (3:20). "Faith" has "come" into the world with Christ for the benefit of those confined by the law to the rule of sin (Gal 3:21-26). That one may be "righteous" on the basis of faith is the message now being proclaimed in the gospel of which Paul is unashamed (Rom 1:1617). In that the gospel brings "salvation" (1:16), it represents the divine response to a crisis (portrayed in 1:18-3:20).
If we are properly to understand what Paul means by "justification by faith," we must grasp correctly the dilemma he sees it as solving: "righteousness," for Paul, is what sinners, as sinners, lack and need. Neither in Paul's thought nor in the understanding of contemporaneous Jews does "righteousness" mean the covenant membership that Jews enjoy but from which Gentiles have hitherto been excluded.
2. The Septuagint insists that it is wrong to declare the "ungodly" "righteous." Yet God does precisely what the Septuagintal texts forbid-and is righteous in so doing because the death of Christ is linked to the declaration. Romans 3:25-26 notes that God has not overlooked human sinfulness-that would violate his righteousness-but directed its bane not on the heads of the sinners themselves but on Jesus Christ, who exhausted it when he died as an atoning sacrifice. The same picture is evoked by the reference to Christ's "blood" in 5:9 (perhaps echoing 3:25). Other pictures are used elsewhere: Christ's representative act of obedience offsets Adam's representative act of disobedience (5:15-19); those "freed [literally "justified"] from sin" have died with Christ to sin (Romans 6); God exchanged the sin of humans with the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21). It is clear in each case that God is "righteous" in declaring "sinners" "righteous" because "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor 15:3). The demands of ordinary righteousness (as spelled out in the law), though not met in the ordinary way, are nonetheless presupposed by the Pauline gospel.
3. "Sinners" can only receive "righteousness" as a "free gift" (Rom 5:17; cf. 3:23-24). If the "ungodly" are to be "declared righteous," it must be "without" the "[righteous] works" on which such a declaration would normally be based (Rom 4:5). The "righteousness" of those whose sins are forgiven is one with which they have been credited "apart from [righteous] works" (4:6).23 The righteousness of faith operates apart from any consideration of the deeds of its recipients in part because they-sinners, the ungodly, those needing forgiveness-have no righteous deeds to offer. But it also represents an offer made by divine grace that (according to Paul's definition) itself excludes any role for human works (4:4-5; 11:6). And where human deeds play no role, human "boasting" has no place (3:27; 4:2).
4. In Abraham's case and in that of believers in the gospel, God's extraordinary "righteousness" is received "by faith." In both instances, faith is a response to the word (or promise) of God (cf. Rom 10:17). In both cases it involves trusting God to transform an otherwise hopeless situation. Where such faith is found, the God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" proves able to do what he has promised (4:17-25).
5. Those declared "righteous" in an extraordinary way are now to do what is "righteous" (in the ordinary sense; Romans 6). Paul is no less insistent than Matthew that his converts must actively serve "righteousness." Distinctively Pauline, however, is the conviction that such a life is possible as one is "led by the Spirit" (8:13-14; cf. v. 4), which has been given to all who belong to Christ (v. 9). The hostility toward God that is inherent in the "flesh" is no longer the mindset of those who "live according to the Spirit" (vv. 5-8).
Pauline scholars today understand Judaism far better than did their predecessors who, if they read Jewish sources at all, consulted them merely to corroborate what (they thought) Paul said about his past or his opponents. Modern scholars of Paul have also been made abundantly aware that what provoked Paul's discussion of justification by faith was the issue of whether Gentile believers needed to submit to (the "boundary-marking" aspects of) the Jewish law. And contemporary scholarship has rightly reminded us that the resolution ofthat issue had wide-ranging implications for the missionary outreach of the church and the day-to-day life of its adherents.
In the end, however, it remains the case that Paul's response to the first-century crisis focused not on the "ethnocentrism" (or the "narrow nationalism," or the "racism") of those who advocated adherence to particular statutes of the law, but on the inability of the law itself to secure from sinners the obedience it required. The message of "justification by faith" pertains in the first place not to how Gentiles may be included in the Jewish covenant but to how sinners-Jews and Gentiles alike-who are threatened by God's wrath may enjoy God's approval. That-apparently without reference to issues raised by the Jewish law-was the essence of Paul's missionary message to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. In propounding for the Galatians, Philippians, and Romans a "justification" that is "by faith" rather than by the "works of the law," Paul merely worked out the implications of a gospel that offered "salvation" to "sinners."
[Footnote] 1 J. C. O'Neill, Paul's Letter to the Romans (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975) 46-49. 2 E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 123-35. 3 J. A. Fitzmyer, "The Letter to the Romans," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. R. E. Brown, J. A. Fitzmyer, and R. E. Murphy (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 837. 4 So dikaiosyne is frequently rendered, especially in Pauline texts. The cognate verb in Greek, dikaioo, is commonly rendered "justify." 5 E.g., U. Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) 237. 6 I have treated the matter in greater detail in my Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 263-73. 7 Septuagintal texts are cited because they share with Paul the same Greek vocabulary. In the Hebrew parent text, the terms rendered in Greek by dikaios and its cognates are regularly saddîq and its related terms. 8 R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 1 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951) 1:272. 9 E.g., J. D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Ecrdmans, 1998) 341-42. 10 For a fuller treatment, see M. A. Seifrid, "Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism," in Justification and Variegated Nomism. Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. D. A. Carson, P. T. O'Brien, and M. A. Seifrid, WUNT 2/140 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) 415-42. 11 Note that, as commonly in the Septuagintal texts, the verb dikaioo¯ here means "declare righteous," "find innocent," "acquit." Whether or not Paul is "righteous" in the matter under discussion depends on whether or not he has himself done wrong. But when God assesses what Paul has done, he will declare (not make) Paul "righteous" (or guilty). 12 Note again that the verb means "find righteous," "declare to be righteous." In the parallel expression in the first part of the verse, the mere "hearers" of the law are not for that reason found "[to be] righteous in God's sight." Divine judgment here leads not to being made righteous but to being recognized as the "righteous" (or guilty) person one is on the basis of one's deeds. 13 Note that Paul goes on to invoke the conscience of the same Gentiles (the subject of 2:15 is the same as that of v. 14) who do "what the law requires" and to speak of their self-accusatory "or perhaps" self-excusatory thoughts: his formulation suggests that the incidence of excusatory thoughts is less likely or less frequent than that of accusatory ones. Clearly, Paul does not mean to designate these Gentiles "righteous." 14 Romans 2:27 is often thought to posit the existence of uncircumcised Gentiles who keep the law, and the question is then raised whether Paul is thinking of non-Christian or Christian Gentiles. But the conditional force of v. 26 is continued in v. 27 (the subject of v. 27, "those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law," parallels "those who are uncircumcised" but "keep the requirements of the law" in the conditional sentence of v. 26). Pressing the point that keeping the law, not physical circumcision, is what matters, Paul insists that an uncircumcised keeper of the law would be better off than a circumcised transgressor. All the relevant possibilities have thus been covered to illustrate the principle. But it is the principle, not the existence of people under each category, that Paul is bent on establishing. 15 K. Finsterbusch, Die Thora als Lebensweisung für Heidenchristen: Studien zur Bedeutung der Thora für die paulinischen Ethik, SUNT 20 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996) 31-38; E. J. Schnabel, law and Wisdom from Ben Sira to Paul: A Tradition Historical Enquiry into the Relation of Law, Wisdom, and Ethics, WUNT 2/16 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1985) 89, 162. 16 E.g., 4 Mace 5:25-26; Philo, Creation 3; Moses 2.52. 17 In the context of this argument, the "deeds prescribed by the law" that do not justify must be the moral requirements of the law that people do not meet: Paul's point is both clarified and confirmed by the Scripture that insists that "flesh" cannot be "righteous" in God's sight. Paul is not saying here that particular (non-moral) requirements of the law (the "boundary-markers" of circumcision and Jewish food and festival laws) are not necessary for justification. See my Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 300-21. 18 Though (according to Romans 2) the law spells out the goodness required of all human beings, it is natural to link the pursuit of "righteousness" through the "law" with the Jewish people, to whom the law was given; Paul does so here and in Philippians 3. 19 In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of his own former pursuit of the righteousness of the law only to note that he has now abandoned it for the righteousness of faith (3:4-10). As in Romans, the former righteousness pertains to human moral behavior: one is, or is not, "blameless" by its standards (v. 6). Paul's claim to have been "blameless" is relative (he wants to assure the Philippians that if he, whose fidelity to the law exceeded that of any of its proponents whom they are likely to meet, has nonetheless turned away from it, then they need not listen to such proponents) and is a reflection of his pre-Christian assessment (he could not now have thought persecuting the church [v. 6] a good thing, nor does he now place any stock in the "confidence in the flesh" shown by those who measure their righteousness by their law-observance [3:3-4]). 20 See my Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 380-83. 21 Cf. M. Winninge, Sinners and the Righteous: A Comparative Study of the Psalms of Solomon and Paul's Letters (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1995) 306-7. 12 Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) 78-96. 23 Again, note that the "works" that Paul excludes from a role when one is "declared righteous by faith" are the moral works by which one's "righteousness" is ordinarily assessed; they are not the "boundary-marking" works (circumcision, observance of food and festival laws) that distinguished Jews as members of the covenant. Paul is indeed concerned in Romans 4 to show that the latter are not required of believers. But he raises the issue of circumcision in 4:9-12 only after he has already shown that God declares the ungodly to be righteous "without works" (4:1-8). If the question can be raised whether "this blessedness" (that is enjoyed "apart from works") can be experienced by the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised, then Paul was not dealing with the issue of circumcision when he excluded "works."
[Author Affiliation] STEPHEN WESTERHOLM Associate Professor of New Testament McMaster University
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