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Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (1:18-3:20)

Romans 1:18-3:20

According to my outline (see the Introduction), I divide this first section of the probatio (Rom 1:18-8:39) as follows:

  • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment (v. 18), according to the Law (of God):
    —1:19-32: Judgment against human wickedness/injustice as represented by (pagan) idolatry and immorality
    —2:1-16: Jews are judged (along with Gentiles) according to evil/wicked deeds that are against the Law
    —2:17-29: Jewish identity (circumcision) is meaningless if the Law is violated
    —3:1-8: God’s judgment against Jew and Gentile alike is just
    —3:9-20: Declaration (with proof from Scripture) that all human beings (Jews and Gentiles) are “under sin”

My discussion here will generally be limited to the verses and passages which are relevant to Paul’s view of the Law; these will be discussed below under six headings, beginning with 1:18 and followed by the five sections that make up 1:9-3:20. Certain verses will be dealt with in more detail in separate daily notes.

Romans 1:18

This announcement of judgment is formulated parallel to the statement in v. 17, as can be seen by comparison:

Verse 17:

dikaiosu/nh ga\r qeou= e)n au)tw=| a)pokalu/ptetai
“for the justice/righteousness of God is uncovered in it [i.e. the Gospel]…”

e)k pi/stew$ ei)$ pi/stin
“…out of trust (and) into trust”

Verse 18:

a)pokalu/ptetai ga\r o)rgh\ qeou= a)p’ ou)ranou=
“for the passion/anger of God is uncovered from heaven…”

e)pi\ pa=san a)se/beian kai\ a)diki/an
“…upon all lack of (proper) fear [i.e. impiety] and injustice/unrighteousness”

The two key (parallel) terms in v. 18b are a)sebei/a and a)diki/a—these define the origin and nature of human wickedness, as represented by (pagan) idolatry and immorality, and as described by Paul in vv. 19-32.

Romans 1:19-32

The term a)sebei/a indicates the lack (a)-) of proper fear or reverence (vb. se/bomai), i.e. toward God, and is sometimes translated as “impiety”. This is described vividly by Paul in vv. 19-23, a kind of early Christian explanation for the religious phenomenon of (pagan) polytheism and image-worship. The second term in v. 18 is a)diki/a, which likewise indicates the lack of justice (di/kh); but the negative partice (a)-) can also indicate that which is opposite, that which is unjust, i.e., injustice. The word di/kh is closely related to dikaio- wordgroup (“just-/right[eous]-“) used so frequently by Paul in Romans. This injustice/unrighteousness is similarly described (in considerable detail) by Paul in vv. 24-32, with an explanation of how it leads to immorality in human beings, according to three sections:

  1. Immorality directly connected to the worship of (human/creaturely) images, vv. 24-25
  2. Immorality as represented by unnatural passion and (homo)sexual intercourse, vv. 26-27
  3. Immorality summarized as general depravity and wickedness (list of vices), vv. 28-31

Verse 18b adds an interesting qualifying detail to the impiety and injustice, that it is “…of men, the (one)s holding down the truth in injustice”. This “holding down” of the truth characterizes the idolatry and immorality of vv. 19-32, but especially of vv. 28-32 and the concluding verse 32.

Romans 2:1-16

In this section, Paul shifts from the idolatrous and immoral (pagan) world, to the one who would offer religious and moral judgment against such people (v. 1)—”O man, every one th(at) [i.e. whoever] is judging…”. Commentators are generally agreed that the rhetorical figure Paul addresses here is Jewish (confirmed by vv. 12-16), one who, traditionally, and naturally, would tend to regard the (pagan/heathen) Gentiles as “sinners”—idolatry and immorality being associated as stock characteristics of the Gentile world. As Paul makes clear, this was often a superficial and hypocritical viewpoint, and that many Jews behaved as badly and wickedly as Gentiles (at times, even worse). Condemnation of self-righteous religiosity was a common feature in Judaism going back to the Old Testament Prophets, and was prominent in Jesus’ teaching (cf. in the Sermon on the Mount, and the series of “Woes” in Matt 23). Paul’s declaration in vv. 3-5 very much echoes the tone and language of John the Baptist (Lk 3:7ff par). Judgment is the theme and keynote of this passage, in particular, the (impending) end-time judgment (kri/ma) of God on humankind (cf. Rom 1:18, etc). An important word occurs in verse 5: dikaiokrisi/a (“just judgment”, i.e. a just or correct judicial sentence), an extremely rare compound term—cf. reference to God as a “just judge” (dikaiokri/th$) in 2 Macc 12:41. The term, however, blends together two major themes of Romans: God’s judgment, and his justice/righteousness. Both the justice and (end-time) judgment of God on human beings are based on their deeds (or “works” [e&rga]), vv. 6-11, which God will judge fairly and impartially (v. 11). It is important to keep in mind the ancient religious world-view that underlies this thinking—for more on this, and Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup, see the article on Justification.

In verses 12-16, Paul introduces the “the Law” (o( no/mo$) as the basis for judgment. This is the first major passage dealing with the Law in Romans, and will be treated in a separate note.

Romans 2:17-29

In verses 17-24, Paul cites certain representative examples of ways that Jews transgress the Law. These are somewhat problematic, for they are instances of rather blatant violations—stealing, adultery, “robbing temples”—and there certainly are many devout, pious Jews who would not do such things. There are two possibilities: (1) Paul is using gross crimes to represent what is contrary to proper spiritual/ethical conduct, or (2) they serve as an extreme and dramatic representation of transgression and wickedness in general (much as what is described in 1:18-32). The verb i(erosule/w means to strip bare or plunder a sacred place (i.e. a temple), but can also be used in the general sense of religious transgression or sacrilege. Theft, adultery and idolatry (or religious misconduct) are often closely connected in Old Testament and Jewish thought—of many examples, see Hos 4:1-3; Jer 7:8ff; Mal 3:5ff; Testament of Levi 14:5; Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues §163. Such wicked deeds, as committed by Israelites and Jews, are especially significant, since one purpose of the covenant to which they were called was to be a “light” to the nations, and so to instruct people in the truth and knowledge of God (vv. 19-20, cf. Isa 42:6-7; 49:6). By transgressing the Law, they cause God’s name to be slandered (blasfhmei=tai) among the Gentiles, as Paul states in v. 24, by citation of Isa 52:5 (LXX). The violation of the covenant is expressed specifically in terms of circumcision (vv. 25-29), the main aspect of the Old Testament/Jewish Law which Paul dealt with in Galatians. Because of the importance of these verses, as a fundamental declaration of Christian identity, they will be discussed in a separate note.

Romans 3:1-8

Paul begins this section where the last left off, with the theme of circumcision as an essential symbol of religious identity. He asks a fundamental question, which serves to connect together, by way of comparison, Jews and Gentiles:

“What then (is) the (thing) about the Yehudean {Jew} (that) is over (and above)? or what (is) the profit [i.e. benefit] of circumcision?”

His answer seems to confirm the traditional Jewish view in this regard: “much according to every turn [i.e. in every way]!” However, in actuality, he is simply reiterating the message of the prior sections, emphasizing the failure of Israel to live up to the special agreement (covenant) God established with them (esp. with regard to the Law). Note Paul’s clever use of wordplay:

  • The (gathered) words/sayings [logi/a] of God (i.e. the Torah and the Scriptures as a whole) were entrusted [e)pistqeu/qhsan] to them (v. 2)
  • A certain portion of Israel did not trust [h)pi/sthsan] (v. 3a)
  • Yet their lack of trust (or mistrust) [a)pisti/a] does not bring down (i.e. render useless) the trust(worthiness) [pi/sti$] of God (v. 3b)

Underlying this, and a number of other passages in Romans, is a reality with which Paul seems to have struggled greatly—that a good number of his fellow Jews have refused to trust in Christ, sometimes even responding to his missionary work with open hostility. How is one to make sense of this? Here, Paul limits the discussion to the basic failure of at least some Jews to believe, and uses it to launch into an argument regarding the justice (and judgment) of God, vv. 4-8. This is important, for it lays the groundwork for an even more fundamental argument: that all human beings (Jews and Gentiles alike) are “under sin” (3:9ff). We have here wordplay that juxtaposes human lack of justice (or just-ness), a)diki/a, with the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. Paul’s teaching regarding the freedom of believers from the Law, along with his unique view on the purpose of the Law (cf. the studies on Galatians, and here in Romans), could easily be misunderstood as tolerating, or even advocating, “lawless” and immoral behavior; verses 5-8 speak out against such a mistaken idea, and serve to reinforce the doctrine of divine justice.

Romans 3:9-20

In verse 9, Paul offers a clever parallel with verse 1; note the two questions side by side:

Verse 1

Question:
“What then [ti/ ou@n] (is) the (thing) about the Jew (that) is over (and above)…?”

Answer:
“Much in every [kata\ pa/nta] way”

Verse 9

Question:
“What then [ti/ ou@n]? Do we hold ourselves before [i.e. are we ahead] (of Gentiles)…?”

Answer:
“Not at all [pa/ntw$]”

The remainder of verse 9, along with verse 10a, presents a powerful double declaration that is absolutely fundamental to Paul’s entire line of argument in these chapters:

V. 9b: “Jews and Greeks all are under sin [u(f’ a(marti/an]”
V. 10a: “There is no just (person), not even one

The first statement comes from Paul’s teaching and preaching of the Gospel (“we dealt with the question [i.e. presented the charge] before”); the second comes from Scripture (“as it is written”), summarizing the chain of citations in vv. 10-18, beginning with Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3. He has moved from examples of wicked behavior (Gentiles in chap. 1, Jews in chap. 2) to a sweeping indictment that all human beings, however ‘good’ they may appear, presumably, are “under sin” (u(f’ a(marti/an). This expression implies being under the power of someone or something, i.e. in bondage or slavery. It was used in Gal 3:22, parallel, and largely synonymous, with several other expressions in Galatians:

  • “under (the) Law” [u(po\ no/mon], Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18
  • “under (the) curse” [u(po\ kata/ran], Gal 3:10
  • “under a ‘childhood (slave)-guide'” [u(po\ paidagwgo/n], Gal 3:25 (cf. also 4:2)
  • “under the ‘elements’ of the world” [u(po\ ta\ stoixei=a tou= ko/smou], Gal 4:3

It will not be possible here to examine the various Scripture references Paul strings together in vv. 10-18. Suffice it to say that, in typical Pauline (and early Christian) fashion, a number of passages are taken somewhat out of their original context; however, they still possess an interpretive logic of their own, when bonded together (by keyword and motif), and the result is a powerful (and creative) expression of truth.

The final two verses (vv. 19-20), which speak directly of Paul’s view regarding the function and purpose of the Law, will be examined in a separate note.

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