Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Retrospective Multivalence in Romans 2

The Paul of Romans 2 appears to defend salvation by works against a Jewish conversation partner who emphasizes God's grace. Francis Watson puts it this way:
“Here, in disconcerting contrast to the standard account of Paul’s relation to Judaism, it is the Jewish interlocutor who is committed to salvation by grace alone, and Paul who (as we shall see) teaches salvation by obedience to the law” - Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 202.
In verse 7, Paul declares that God will give "eternal life to those who by persistence in good works seek glory, honour and immortality." In 2:14-15a he says that "when Gentiles who do not have the law by nature, do the law, they who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show the work of the law written in their hearts." And toward the end of the chapter he argues that the uncircumcision of the uncircumcised person who keeps the law (circumcision excepted) will be reckoned as circumcision, and that the one who is uncircumcised by nature but who fulfills the law will judge his circumcised law-breaking interlocutor (2:26-27).

Of the many explanations of these puzzling statements, I will mention two:
  • (1) The Gentiles are Christians who do the law through the Spirit (cf. Cranfield, Schreiner, Fitzmyer, Watson, Jewett). On this view, the reference to the law written on their hearts recalls the new covenant passage in Jer 31:33. Paul alludes more clearly to a related passage (Deut 30:6) in 2:28-29, which may make an allusion to Jer 31:33 in 2:15, and hence to Christian gentiles, more likely. As Paul will explain more fully later on, it is by the Spirit that Christian gentiles who are not under law fulfill the law; they will still be judged according to their works (2 Cor 5:10), but these works are Spirit-enabled.
  • (2) Paul is talking about a hypothetical situation (e.g., Moo, Westerholm, Talbert, Keck). In each case we should add the unstated caveat "if it were possible": It is true that God would reward with eternal life those who do good and keep the law, but--as he will explain later on (in 3:20)--no one can keep the law on their own apart from the Spirit, and Paul does not mention the Spirit in this context. Stephen Westerholm adds that Paul *never* says that Christians do the law (the language of 2:14) in any other context. Paul would not describe Christians who are not under law in this way. Keck explains that talking about Christian gentiles would be a distraction from Paul's main argument, which is to show that since God is impartial there is no advantage in having the law if one doesn't keep it.
In class on Monday I argued for #2, but I am almost persuaded by option #1, and I am toying with the idea of affirming both. Instead of trying to nail down what Paul really meant even when he didn't come out and say it, I suggest it is better to approach Romans as ideal first readers whose initial expectations and conclusions are modified and reshaped as the letter progresses. Examined from this perspective, there are a few clear examples of "retrospective multivalence", which may help us puzzle out the identity of the law-keepers in Romans 2:
  •  In Romans 1:18 Paul says that God's wrath is revealed against the impiety and wickedness of people who suppress the truth in their wickedness. As Paul's Christian and Jewish audience listened on, I imagine them nodding their heads in agreement at Paul's denunciation of pagan Gentile idolaters. The abrupt switch to diatribe style in 2:1-5 might have come as a bit of a shock (even if they realized Paul wasn't attacking them directly). Perhaps they would have returned to 1:28-32 and recognized aspects of themselves in the picture (greed, malice, envy, etc.).
  • Most scholars now seem to agree that "the man who judges" in 2:1, 3 is the same as the man who calls himself a Jew in 2:17. Keck, surprisingly, argues that the diatribe partner is still a Gentile. Jewett and Barrett regard the "judge" as people in general, and I think they are right. To be sure, Paul is preparing for the rest of the chapter when he switches to address an imaginary Jew directly, but before the Jewish dialogue partner is introduced Paul's audience would not have had to make that connection, and there is no reason why they should have. Retrospectively, of course, the direct attack on the Jewish dialogue partner assumes and draws on 2:1-16.
  • In Rom 2:29, when Paul says "a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and whose circumcision is of the heart, in the Spirit and not in the letter," most scholars agree that Paul describes a Christian. Since it is most unusual for Paul to refer to a Gentile as a Ioudaios (more surprising even than "Israel"), I conclude the "inward Jew" is a believer in Jesus who remains ethnically Jewish. But even the Christianness of the "inner Jew" only becomes clear later in the Epistle when Paul discusses the work of the Spirit.
Returning to the Gentile law-keeper in Romans 2, it is clear to me (with option #2) that Paul's main argument in the chapter is about the implications of God's impartiality, not the conversion of Gentiles (against Watson). Christians are not primarily in view, and Paul would not describe them in quite these terms if they were. Romans 3:20 shows that, for Paul, no one can keep the law on their own. But read retrospectively, Paul's audience might hear the new covenant echoes and might conclude legitimately that the caveat has been decisively modified in Christ: It is Christians who fulfill the law through the Spirit even if they don't "do" the law.


Anonymous said...

I was reading Keck for my Christ and Culture class. It seems so clear with the change to 2nd person.


d. miller said...

What do you mean by "it"?

Michael F. Bird said...

I have a whole chapter on this in "Saving Righteousness of God" and I favour the Christian interpretation of Romans 2.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike. Unfortunately, our library doesn't carry your book (I've requested it in), and googlebooks doesn't offer a preview, so I'll have to wait for the details of your argument.

Anonymous said...

It equaling a change in address toward Jewish and or Jewish Christians who have the Law.