Life of Holiness, Romans 7:13-25 (pages 359-375)
Posted by joespencer on June 17, 2013
I’ll confess I was a little surprised at how much more exegetical than theological this week’s reading turned out to be—perhaps particularly because I’ve recently read Jim’s remarkable essay “Breathing,” which deals with Romans 7-8 (but especially 8) in a profoundly philosophical way. (It can be found in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture, for those interested in taking a look.) There’s much to learn from Jim’s more exegetical notes, of course, so let me see what I can develop from his discussion.
A first point, then, is one Jim notes several times: the importance of the first person in Romans 7. This is something that has caused a fair bit of speculation in the history of interpretation: Is Paul telling us about his own tormented psyche? Is he speaking on behalf of all humanity? Is he describing the experience of the sinful or of the redeemed? One interpretation, toward which Jim gestured in last week’s reading (see p. 349), is that the “I” of Romans 7 is Adam, describing life after expulsion from the Garden.
Jim’s initial approach to this question comes on pages 363-364: “Using the first person here is particularly poignant, for it suggests that experience that each of us has: no matter how much we live obedient and spiritual lives, we find ourselves in a world that is ruled by Satan, and we cannot avoid being sometimes affected by that rule. Even the best person in this world has the experience of carnality, of finding something in himself or herself that remains radically outside God’s rule and so opposed to it.” Jim then clarifies this a few pages later: “Again, Paul is not describing his personal condition as much as he is describing the condition of the sinner and using himself as a hypothetical example. We presume that he has had this experience, as all of us have, though we presume that he is not so much a victim of this problem as he writes this letter as he perhaps was in the past. Certainly he hopes for a future when this problem is no longer his at all. However, given the frailty of human beings, we also assume he is not yet beyond this difficulty” (p. 373).
These discussions are helpful, I think. To the extent that Paul captures his own experience, and to the extent that that experience is the experience of every converted Christian, he provides in himself a model for sorting out our experience of being caught between the promise of the future and the reality of the present. To be a Christian is to know that the present order of things is collapsing while nonetheless remaining within the present order of things (look at Jim’s note on apocalyptic tone on p. 367). On that score, Jim draws a crucial distinction, referring to Paul’s “cry of anguish (rather than despair)” (p. 373). The Christian’s cry issues from the tension between promise and present, not from the loss or abandonment of (real) hope. That’s crucial, and I suspect that Jim will have a great deal more to say about it in his discussions of Romans 8.
The Christian is therefore an unavoidably split subject, but Jim is careful to warn against a certain interpretation of that split: “Paul is not portraying the individual, the ‘I,’ as inextricably split into two parts, an evil body warring against a good spirit” (p. 366). This clarification is necessary in light of a shift in metaphor: “Though [Paul] has previously used metaphors of military force … and, as we have frequently seen, of a slave lord—in other words, metaphors that take sin to be something external—here the image is of something inside us. Despite what sin often feels like, it is something entangled in me, a force at my very core. Sin is my sin, not something foisted on me by an external agent” (p. 366). The point here is that because Paul uses metaphors of the internal as well as of the external, we should avoid the temptation to take the split subject as a business of the battle between the internal and inherently good “soul” and the external and inherently evil “flesh.” As Jim has made clear, I think, the split in the subject is a split between the promise of the future announced in Christ and the present still ruled over by Satan. The split is a question of time, and not of the makeup of the human person.
Ironically, of course, philosophical and psychological approaches to the experience Paul outlines (or at least to something very like it) have been offered throughout the history of the West, and they’re less than satisfactory, on Jim’s account. (It’s worth noting, in this regard, that Jim is not only a professor of philosophy, but one who dedicated much of his early work to critiques of contemporary psychology and psychiatric practice. He knows whereof he speaks.) What’s wrong with most psychological approaches to the split subject, according to Jim? “Much of contemporary psychology may be an attempt to resolve the problem Paul is describing here, the problem of compulsion, but it is often an attempt to do so with works rather than faith” (p. 368). And where does philosophy go wrong? “Paul recognizes the same problem that the philosophers recognize and describes it in the same language, but his answer to that problem will be radically different. Indeed, he will argue that the answers of the philosophers—education, reason, self-control—are ultimately ineffective” (p. 368-369). Again the problem is that works replace faith.
I think Jim is exactly right here that the problem is a focus on works rather than on faith, but I wonder if there’s a complication he doesn’t note sufficiently. Isn’t the problem also in part that philosophers and psychologists confuse two sorts of splits in the subject? Don’t they see the split in the subject as a function of a certain kind of problematic automation of desire in sinful directions, where Paul seems to see the split in the subject as a function of a promise that remains to be fulfilled? Don’t philosophers and psychologists turn to works rather than to faith because they confront the problem of despair rather than of hope? But perhaps Jim’s point might be taken to be something like this instead: Perhaps philosophers and psychologists transform hope into despair by prescribing works where faith is nascent. That might be. It’s something I want to think about more. At any rate, there’s much more to think about in this tangle of faith, hope, works, and despair.
And we have Jim to thank for organizing the basic terms of the discussion. I think what he’ll have to say about Romans 8—focused profoundly on both faith and hope—will be helpful as well.
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