Romans 7: Look Who’s Talking Now?

The Voices of Romans 7

As twenty-first-century American Christians, we are heavily influenced by the lens of the individual. We understand faith to be personal; we understand salvation to be personal. We confess Jesus as a personal Lord and savior, and tend to think it’s possible that I could go to heaven while the person sitting next to me might very well not. We even build jokes around personal accomplishment or personal faith as a way into heaven. Jokes about Saint Peter questioning Christians at the pearly gates in order to determine admittance for one individual at a time are not difficult to find.

This individual, introspective way of thinking about our faith leads to individualistic, introspective ways of reading our scriptural texts. One key location for this introspective reading is Romans 7:14-25, a well-known passage in which Paul writes of someone who is conflicted by what he knows is good and what he knows is evil. The speaker sets up his essential problem in 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (NRSV).

The power of the introspective interpretation becomes transparent when considering contemporary Christian music. Shaun Groves, for instance, wrote the song “Twilight” (2003) to capture the internal struggle to do God’s will despite human nature to act in the “worst” ways, rooted in Romans 7:14-25. Lyrics that reveal introspection include “So my soul is shared by two / The worst of me, the best of You / Saint and sinner mingle in my veins.” In a 2007 artist teaching workshop through the Gospel Music Association, I listened to Groves discuss this song. He revealed how closely his introspective interpretation of the passage was linked to his understanding that the voice in Romans 7 was Paul’s: “I don’t have to be smarter than the apostle Paul,” Groves said. “It’s getting fixed. Jesus is gonna take care of it.”

While the introspective interpretation of scripture aligns so well with our American culture and thus helps Christians today to connect in meaningful ways with biblical texts, it’s worth considering Paul’s context of writing. Paul was writing in a Greek context. We would call Paul a Hellenistic Jew in that Paul was a Jew living during the Hellenistic period, that is, during a historical period in which Greek thought had a strong foothold. One way that Greek culture was impacted was in terms of rhetoric, or the strategies that people used to make persuasive communications. Paul used various rhetorical devices in his letters that came out of training he would have received in Greek rhetoric (as a member of the sect of Judaism known as Pharisees, Paul surely had a thorough education). One such device was called speech-in-character. This device allows a writer to take on the persona and speech of someone else. It’s often a way to build dialogue into the text so that an author, such as Paul, can develop his ideas further. Sometimes it looks like Paul setting up an opponent to argue against, but it can at least be understood as an imaginary conversation.

Beyond rhetoric, it’s important to remember that Paul understood himself to have a mission to spread the gospel to the gentiles. Paul makes the effort to claim a title as apostle to the gentiles at Romans 1:15 and 11:13. When we read Paul’s letters, we need to bear this target audience in mind. It means that Paul is going to take up certain topics from certain angles, endeavoring to have a powerful impact on a particular audience: gentiles. As apostle to the gentiles, Paul is also more concerned about the collective, the group, than the individual (including an individual’s sins or an individual’s salvation). Connecting the non-Jewish audience to the Hellenistic context, we are reminded that it would be an important strategy for Paul to rely on Greek values in order to sway his audience firmly to the gospel of the one true God.

One Greek value was self-mastery. Self-mastery was so important to Greek culture that to lack self-mastery was considered to be tragic. Think Medea, Euripides’ tragic character driven to kill her children. Complicating this value was the Jewish stereotype that non-Jewish groups, including the idol-worshipping gentiles, were without morals. This attitude comes through clearly in Romans 1:18-32. It would be logical, then, for Paul, as a Jew, to attribute lack of self-mastery to a gentile audience while also being aware that self-mastery was a goal of gentiles in a Hellenistic culture.

Reading Romans 7:14-25 alongside this background, we might consider that Paul is speaking on behalf of a gentile, using speech-in-character to show that he can empathize with the gentile who desires to recognize the will of God but also must contend with a background and culture of idolatry. Remember that, if Paul is thinking in terms of collectives, of groups, it would be difficult for him to completely segregate an individual from the group. Paul does not want the gentile to become a Jew—he wants the gentile to remain a gentile so that all nations recognize God as the one true God.

Any interpretation that gets our stamp of approval, of course, may or may not represent Paul’s intentions in his letter. Paul meant what he meant to the audience he was targeting, and our discussions won’t change that historical situation. Since Paul’s letters have taken on lives of their own, though, which Paul may or may not have anticipated, we do need to look for ways in which those letters can still speak to us today. I only suggest that, when we do this, we think of how far removed we actually are from Paul’s own writing context, and try not to allow our modern concerns and ways of thinking completely overshadow Paul’s ways of thinking.

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