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(14) Preparatory Knowledge for Reading Romans 7
“It appears clear from a close reading of Romans 5 that neither Augustine, nor Luther, nor Calvin understood the trajectory of Paul’s argument properly” (Ben Witherington III, The Problem of Evangelical Theology). I couldn’t agree more. There is a major problem in Evangelical theology. We might think it is the doctrine of the two-faced God, but it is deeper than that. It has to do with the way Evangelical theology understands the human being. If Girard is correct that desire does not arise from within us but externally, that is, we imitate one another’s desires non-consciously, this means that western concepts of the human being as an autonomous individual or a free moral agent are tanked! If, as modern science has been able to demonstrate we are all connected (or to use Girard’s term, we are interdividual), then the gospel is not about the redemption of each of us independently of one another but about all of us together. This is the burden of Paul’s message.
As long as we continue to define the human in Platonic or Augustinian terms we will find ourselves mired in endless debates that are dualistic: free-will vs. predestination, soul vs. body, time vs. eternity, divine vs. human, etc. All of the great debates in western theology, many of which simply leave us cold today, are argued from false premises. We are much better off questioning those premises and seeking to understand Paul on his own terms.
Romans 7, for most of western Christian history has been read as an autobiographical text about Paul’s post conversion struggle. It isn’t. It is the human story prior to our being liberated in Jesus. It is a retelling of the old Adamic story. There is a shift in “voice” between Romans 7:6 and 7:7. This was an ancient rhetorical technique known as prosopopoia. Witherington describes
“This rhetorical technique [which] involves the assumption of a role, and sometimes the role would be marked off from its surrounding discourse by a change in tone or inflection or accent or form of delivery…signaling a change in voice. Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul’s discourse delivered in its original oral setting, as was Paul’s intent.”
Thus it is that when we read Paul’s letters where he is “role playing” we don’t pick up on the signals and read everything as though it was all Paul! A contemporary novelist writing in the first person does the same thing. This is also why Paul sent someone to read his letters out loud, they would know where to make the change of voice or inflection! The same phenomenon occurs in Romans 1:18-32 which is Paul role playing the false teacher he is combating throughout Romans. Douglas Campbell has used this to good effect in his book The Deliverance of God. Romans 1:18-32 is the false gospel being combated, not Paul’s view. Try that one on for size! Paul also role plays the false teacher in Romans 2-4 and 9-11.
For a long time, Christian exegetes read everything in I Corinthians as having come from Paul. Now we know that at certain places Paul is quoting from the letter the Corinthians wrote to him. We also do this when we want to accurately reproduce something someone wrote before we respond to them. These ancient ways of communicating are not lost to us. We have the manuals of the ancient rhetoricians to guide us and help us understand just how it is that when Paul’s letters were read in the house churches, the lector (reader) would orally change the tone of voice. For too long Paul has been viewed as double minded, saying first this, then that. When he is read this way his letters are really mumbo-jumbo and we can spend centuries arguing back and forth and throwing “well, what about this verse?” questions at one another. But when we realize that Paul is using a device where he role plays then we can distinguish his own thoughts, beliefs and voice from those opponents he is arguing against. Some may say, well I have the Holy Spirit, and I don’t need all this modern scholarship. Great. Let the Holy Spirit help you figure out where Paul’s voice begins and ends. You may just find that the Holy Spirit is of little help here (for that is not the work of the Spirit, if it had been we wouldn’t have misread Paul for almost 2,000 years). No, we need modern scholarship to help us place the New Testament documents including the letters of Paul, back into their cultural milieu. Then we can allow the Holy Spirit to guide us as we hear the authentic gospel of Paul.
We do not need to be anti-intellectual. Nor do we need to be unspiritual. By using both our reason and the Spirit together we may just find ourselves hearing the Bible in its rich fullness, fresh and new, over and over again. We may just find ourselves reveling in the revelation of truly awesome good news! This is the radical turn that is happening in Christianity today. Come join the parade!