In Which I Am Confused By The Apostle Paul
Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is a strange one. Listen in:
Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.
In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
The point is clear enough. We who have been baptised into Christ’s death have died to the law. Whereas previously we were stimulated by our perversity into doing as many things wrong possible, now we are living in the Spirit and bearing fruit for God. But I have two questions. First, what is the law that Paul is eliciting here? Is it the Torah, the instruction given by God to Moses and the people of Israel at Sinai, or is it the law written on the hearts of Gentiles? Second, why does Paul use the analogy of marriage for life when under both Jewish and Roman law divorce is permitted?
John A. . Robinson in his 1979 commentary Wrestling With Romans suggests that Paul is being a bit slippery with the way he uses the term νόμος (nomos). Ats the chapter begins it appears to be law in general, whether Roman of Jewish, but by the middle of the chapter it seems to be just the Torah. He also suggests that the marriage analogy is not a good one. It is not clear who the Christian (here a woman) is married to in her unredeemed state – the law, sin, or the flesh? Also, one moment it is the husband qua law/sin/flesh that dies, and then it suggests that the Christian (i.e. the wife) has died to sin. The analogy breaks down when written down and analyzed, although Paul gets away with it in oral rhetoric.
Paul also has a peculiar understanding of the law, in that he sees it as something that incites us to sin. It is also not at all clear who is talking here. In the next few verses Paul starts using “I” language. Is Paul speaking for himself? Is Paul putting himself in the position of a Jew under the law or a Gentile under the law, or both?
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.
Comparative analysis with Greco-Roman rhetoric suggests that Paul is “speaking in character”. That said, who is the character, and how much of it is autobiographical? There is absolutely no consensus on this. One view is that Paul may be describing his own situation prior to his calling by Jesus, seen from his perspective as a Christian no longer required to be Torah observant (so says Robert Jewett in his Hermenaia Commentary). Another very influential view is that of Martin Luther, that Paul was describing his present state – that after his “conversion” he was still nevertheless a sinner, so that the law still condemned him. Still others see Paul as putting on the perspective of a Gentile Christian, or a Jewish Christian. One theory that occurred to me that others had also come up with was that Paul was taking on the voice of the primordial human being, Adam. Adam was “once alive apart from the law” but “when the commandment came” – that is, the commandment not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and Evil – “sin revived and I died”. The commandment and all laws are good and holy but since Adam we have a proclivity to try and break these rules, even if they are demonstrably for our benefit.
The interpretation of the passage is rather muddled. One really wishes Paul had had a good editor. That said, people have presumed coherence in this passage and throughout Romans, and so, in my opinion, have imposed interpretations on these difficult passages (sometimes warping the translations, especially in some evangelical versions that are more like paraphrases than true translations). Over the next few days I will try to establish what I think Paul was trying to say. My basic assumption is that Paul was trying to describe a profound spiritual experience and that words simply do it justice. One can identify a number of spiritual insights, however, and see if they somehow relate to each other in some systematic way.