This week, we’ve arrived at Romans 7, and I’d like to begin this article by briefly addressing a number of points that, in my opinion, tend to receive more attention than necessary.
Firstly, this is one of the chapters in Romans where Adventists spend a great deal of time attempting to convince other Christians (and each other) that Paul was not doing away with the Ten Commandments. As mentioned previously, I don’t typically get involved in these discussions because, in my experience, most Christians already have a high regard for the moral law, and it is only when arguing against the Sabbath that they take a position against the commandments.
I would advise the reader, the next time this debate comes up, instead of arguing things out, to ask the other person who their favorite preachers or theologians are, and to find in their sermons or writings support for the correct view of the law.
Another debate that takes place in some circles within Adventism discusses whether the man in Romans 7 represents the pre- or post-conversion Christian. The simple answer is that the passage describes the pre-conversion Christian, but that sometimes true, born-again Christians fall back into that pre-conversion struggle as well. The danger of saying the passage refers strictly to the pre-conversion experience is that people going through a similar struggle might come to doubt their own conversion as a result.
Furthermore, the whole rationale behind righteousness by faith is that anyone who repents and believes is accepted by God. The problem with arguing that the passage refers consistently to the post-conversion experience is that it implies that the Christian must remain in a perpetual state of defeat and failure while covered by the blood of Christ. The Bible supports neither of these extremes.
With those issues out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the themes Paul develops in Romans 7. The first part of the chapter uses the analogy of marriage to describe the relation of the believer to the law and to the flesh. This is one of the sections where Paul is specifically addressing Jewish believers (vs. 1), and it helps to try to understand the passage from the perspective of that audience.
The Jews understood salvation as being a covenant relationship under the stipulations of the Torah. We sometimes separate the Old Testament requirements for the sake of convenience into moral, ceremonial, civil, sanitary laws, etc. However, the Jews viewed all these laws as a package deal. They expected to have a part in the coming kingdom because they were circumcised and followed the Law of Moses. They viewed belief in Christ—the long awaited Messiah—as one more element to be added to all the other requirements they were already keeping.
In contrast, the apostle Paul wanted them to understand that the gospel was more of a complete annulment and replacement of the old system, rather than an addition to it. The old system relied on an external adherence to carnal rules and rituals, while the new system produced internal transformation which resulted in true victory over sin.
However, rather than focus directly on Paul’s teaching in this chapter, I want to make use of it as a case study to point out some of the difficulties we face when it comes to biblical interpretation.
There are times in Scripture when biblical authors enter into the world of their readers in order to make a point, even if they don’t necessarily agree with that perspective. For example, consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Jesus employs a mythical scenario that doesn’t accurately represent reality in order to bring His point across. I would propose that the first part of Romans 7 is a similar example, and thus does not represent Paul’s actual theology, but is an example of Paul accommodating the views of his audience in order to drive a point home.
However, this creates a problem for us, because how can we accurately discern which sections of Scripture can be taken as true theology, and which sections are only accommodations to the needs of the audience (especially when the author himself doesn’t clarify this)?
Even as I was preparing for this week’s lesson, I came across another online Sabbath School commentary that presented a fairly typical Adventist interpretation of Romans 7. In the comments, an individual accused the author of reading the passage through “Adventist” glasses. He argued that if we set aside our pre-conceived notions of what the chapter should say, and read to see what it actually does say, we would not arrive at the traditional Adventist interpretation. In this case, the commenter is correct. If we approached Romans 7 looking for the plain meaning of only this particular chapter, our interpretation would be different. That approach, however, is not a sound way to do theology.
To understand why, we need to spend a bit of time exploring the various theological methods used by Christians. The entire Christian community could be (more or less) divided into three main groups, in terms of how they approach Scripture: the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Liberal. The Catholic approach assumes that there exists a 3rd-party authoritative interpreter of Scripture.
In the Catholic Church proper, this interpreter is the church leadership itself. In other denominations, the interpreter might be the Holy Spirit (eg. Pentecostals), a prophet (eg. Mormons), the community of believers, etc. Whatever the actual interpreter is, however, this external (3rd-party) authority is essential to understanding Scripture correctly.
The Liberal approach begins with the assumption that Scripture is not divinely inspired, but is instead the product of dedicated people wrestling with their faith—people no different than us today. This approach argues that Scripture itself has only historical authority, and neither is there any authoritative 3rd-party interpreter. Because of this, Biblical interpretation is simply a matter of utilizing historical analysis to attempt to determine what the author was most likely trying to say in any given passage.
The Protestant approach began with the assumption that Scripture has supreme authority. Shortly after this approach was developed, however, it became evident that Scripture could be interpreted in multiple ways; thus, the reformers looked for some means of preventing Protestant theology from degenerating into complete chaos. What they came up with (essentially following in the footsteps of Catholicism) was the idea that Scripture must be interpreted within the parameters of early church tradition. This appeared to be a way to safeguard Biblical interpretation from unlimited innovation; however, in the long term, it proved unworkable. It is not hard to see why the idea didn’t work.
In the Catholic Church, the authorized interpreter is a contemporary group of living human beings. Tradition, on the other hand, was simply a body of content—just as Scripture itself was a body of content. Thus, it was essentially a case of Book A interpreting Book B, and Book B interpreting Book A—a purely circular and unavoidably arbitrary endeavor. It is primarily because of this fact that Protestantism is divided into thousands of denominations today.
In a further attempt to attain to the most correct understanding of Scripture, Protestantism borrowed a number of its tools from Liberal Christianity as well. Because this latter group did not view Scripture as divinely inspired, they approached its study in the same way they approached any other historical text. Following a scientific methodology, they attempted to eliminate bias by isolating each author and book from other biblical authors and from a historical understanding of the text, and tried to get to the most likely meaning of the text through a direct study of the passage itself. This approach, however, further complicated matters for Protestant theology because it neglected the fact that the Holy Spirit, not the biblical writers, was the true author of Scripture.
Therefore, if we reject the Catholic and Liberal approaches, and the Protestant approach to Scripture is broken, how are we then to interpret Scripture? The only solution is to do it canonically. Basically, if there is nothing else to interpret Scripture for us, the Scripture must, within itself, contain the means for its own interpretation. This implies several things:
- That we can hold no opinion regarding theology prior to coming to Scripture. Thus, tradition must be set aside.
- That there is such a thing as a Canon—a clear delineation of the data set we have to work with in developing theology.
- That we derive our theology using the entire data set, not just certain parts.
- That we follow the trajectory that the data provides when taken chronologically. Basically, since Scripture was given over a thousand-year period, each generation understood present revelation through the lens provided by previous revelation. Therefore, we also must allow earlier revelation to provide the context in which we interpret later revelation, since otherwise we are liable to superimpose our own context on Scripture.
- That we allow the Scripture to develop its Grand Story and then interpret the details in light of this Grand Story.
Now, let’s take a look at what the implications are of doing canonical theology when it comes to Romans 7. We mentioned earlier that interpreting the chapter in isolation would seem to indicate that Paul is agreeing with the Jewish community that salvation was previously obtained by following the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. If this is the case—if, in fact, the Old Testament community was saved through works of the law—then there has to be a major break between the Old Testament salvation process and the New. It is no wonder that so many Christians want nothing to do with things like the Sabbath, the health laws, etc., because to them it implies returning back to the old covenant system.
When we take our data from Scripture as a whole, however, we come to the conclusion that the point of the Mosaic covenant was never to save anyone, but was instead designed to be a lived-out lesson or dramatization illustrating the plan of salvation. Salvation was by grace through faith just as much before the cross as after the cross. The people of Israel as a nation, however, would be blessed inasmuch as they continued to participate in the rites and ceremonies that kept the knowledge of God alive for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Armed with this canonical understanding of the gospel and the covenants, we can then recognize that, in Romans 7, Paul is simply stepping into the perspective of the Jewish community without in fact agreeing with it. He is telling them that, even if their understanding of salvation was correct (which it wasn’t), Jesus had still introduced a new covenant that superseded the old one.
How can we know that this is what Paul actually meant, even though he never states this in the text itself? We know this because we derive our theology from the entire body of Scriptural data, not just from the one chapter. This provides us with a baseline from which we can tell when an individual author is speaking literally or figuratively, or is attempting to speak to a particular perspective.
When we neglect to do theology canonically, we are either forced into a Catholic or Liberal methodology, or our theology ends up purely arbitrary.