Feast upon the Word Blog

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The Life of Holiness, Romans 6:15-23 (pages 314-34)

Posted by Robert C. on June 10, 2013

[Thanks to Alan G. for sending in the post below. Alan sent this to me exactly a week ago, but it’s taken me this long to climb out from under last week’s pile of email. Sorry.]

I think this material is less rich than some of the surrounding passages, so I am having a hard time coming up with useful comments. Paul initially is addressing the notion that if Christians are released from the law of Moses, are they then free to become libertines. Paul wants to combat that perception: “shall we sin, because we are not under the law?” (Romans 6:15). Jim says here that from an Old Testament context “a sinner is someone who has not succeeded in keeping the Mosaic law” (p. 315). I have a sense that Paul is primarily concerned with the backdrop of the law of Moses, but that his comments are also inclusive enough to apply to Roman law. So I would be interested to see how applicable these comments are to a broader range of law expanded beyond the law of Moses. Does Christian grace fulfill (as in move beyond) other legal frameworks also?

I commented a few weeks ago that New Testament uses of typological language hadn’t yet become formalized by the closing of the canon. We have a good example in 6:17. There refers to “that form (typos) of doctrine.” Jim is right here to note that this isn’t really a figural or typological reference but better translated as “form” or “example.” The early church fathers are going to narrow the use of such terms to typological contexts by converting the word into technical vocabulary, but that hadn’t yet happened by Paul’s time. So that “pattern of doctrine” is more a rule of thumb, as Jim notes rather than a rule or universal law that would tell you in all circumstances how to act or interpret. As Jim says, “In principle, it is impossible for a mere law, a set of rules, to show us how to live correctly. Instead, the gospel provides a pattern for behavior, a pattern of Christ’s life” (p. 320-21).

Jim notes a “major theme in Romans” (p. 321) comes next: the contrast between freedom and slavery. One can be a slave to evil or to God, but at least servitude to God leads to a paradoxical form of freedom from sin and a kind of legal rigidity. “Our servitude to God is not oppressive” (322). We moderns are susceptible to misconstruing this discussion of freedom because liberty is such a central concern of liberal modernity. We are likely to read our modern notions of freedom into the discussion. Our contemporary ideas include the notion of individualism that would have seemed extreme and harmful to Paul. Jim says, “Freedom is much prized by us. It has been said to be the ultimate value of modern culture. The freedom we prize, however seems much more to be freedom from authority than freedom to be good, which are two very different things” (p. 327). True freedom (as opposed to individualistic notions) requires that we recognize some outside authority to structure our freedom and provide the goals of that liberty: to define what goodness is. Freedom is not the end but the means to go achieving goodness.

My reference to Galatians goes beyond Jim’s purposes in his commentary on Romans, so forgive the outside reference. The letter to the Galatians is often viewed as the rough draft that later becomes the epistle to the Romans. Paul there in Galatians 5 discusses freedom and slavery, but to slightly different effect than in Romans. In the earlier letter Paul is responding to the Judaizers who insist that Gentile converts must live the law of Moses. Paul exhorts the Galatians that they have been called to liberty in the gospel, but that liberty doesn’t license licentiousness (5:13). This liberty is instead a call to love. All of the law is fulfilled if one loves his or her neighbor (5:14). “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (5:18). Love and the Spirit, but this is a form of being led also, a restriction on behavior, a form of compulsion. The ethic the Galatians converts are called to doesn’t include circumcision but the duty to love. They are freed from the law so they can be led by the Spirit. But that new love framework overseen by the Spirit leads them to another form of servitude. The duty of this new form of slavery is to serve each other: “let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (6:10). In both Galatians 5 and Romans 6 the believer must choose between slavery to sin or slavery to God, but in Galatians choosing the latter puts one under obligations to serve the community through acts of charity. In Romans the converts have left behind their slavery to uncleanness and sin to assume a life of holiness (Romans 6:19). Their previous lives were lived under lawlessness (anomia) but are now lived under grace (charis). The Romans’ conversion doesn’t leave them without law in that they can live licentiously. They are instead slaves to God which frees them from sin. Galatians 5 emphasizes freedom (a freedom with horizontal ties and duties to other humans) but Romans 6 emphasizes a fit and ordered world where God determines the ends of human existence (a vertical freedom with ties that bind us to the divine). Paul’s comments in Galatians could lead to social division (because of a potentially too expansive notion of liberty) based upon a manumission of previous bonds whereas his emphasis in Romans leads to order. In their previous state of sin the Romans were “free from righteousness” (6:20), but now having become “free from sin” (6:22) they have become servants of God to enjoy the fruits of holiness and everlasting life. The delicate balance between freedom and order is the main difference between the letter to the Galatians and the more mature reflection in the epistle to the Romans. The freedom of freedom is bounded, for without boundaries freedom reverts to another form of bondage.

7 Responses to “The Life of Holiness, Romans 6:15-23 (pages 314-34)”

  1. […] Romans 6:15-23 (pp. 314-334) [-Alan G.] 6/10: Romans 7:1-6; Romans 7:7-12 (pp. 335-358) [-Cheryl M.] 6/17: Romans 7:13-25 (pp. […]

  2. Alan, thanks for the discussion of Galatians. It adds an extra dimension to our reading of Romans.

  3. joespencer said

    This is a very helpful discussion, Alan. A few responses, and then I’ll add some of my own thoughts in a separate comment.

    I too found Jim’s discussion of “form (typos)” interesting and helpful here—which won’t surprise, given my interest in typology and the like. As I read your comments on that discussion, though, it made me think about the relevance of the late Wittgenstein to what Paul is saying here. Is the Wittgensteinian “rule-following paradox” a particularly helpful way of thinking about Paul’s insistence on a kind of typological (rather than a defined rule-based) way of living?

    Also like you, I found Jim’s claim that we should think of law more generally than just the Mosaic interesting. This is a point of some contention in the philosophical literature on Paul, so I see Jim’s point as taking sides in a kind of debate. If we’re willing to say that Paul’s thought here has something to teach us about law in general, then it seems we might mobilize Paul’s words for political and other purposes, and not just for a sorting out of our relationship to divine instruction, no?

  4. joespencer said

    Now a few direct responses to this week’s reading….

    On page 321, Jim provides a rather nice transformation of a common teaching in Mormon circles. We often say that we’re either progressing or regressing, either on the path to the celestial kingdom or on the path away from the celestial kingdom. Generally, I think we tell ourselves this for two reasons. First, and more consciously, we tell ourselves this in order to encourage ourselves to shift away from sin. That’s good. Second, though, and perhaps more unconsciously, we tell ourselves this in order to justify the fact that we’re really not doing much good: so long as we’re progressing rather than regressing, we don’t need to repent a whole lot. That’s not so good. But now notice how Jim transforms this formula: “As relational beings, we exist within some order and we must conform to it, whether it is the order of God or the order of Satan.” That’s nicely done. Rather than thinking about paths and progress/regress, Jim gives us to think about relationality and ordering of worlds. The question isn’t whether we’re progressing, however slightly, rather than regressing. The question is rather whether we’re inhabiting a world organized around Satan, or whether we’re inhabiting a world organized around God. And that’s a question that might be less comfortable for us to think about, if we do so honestly.

    On page 325, Jim marks Paul’s transition from “righteousness” to “holiness.” That, I think, presages very nicely where this whole discussion is headed. Romans 7 will be the focal point, I’m anticipating, of Jim’s analysis of the “life of holiness.” All the talk about righteousness that’s been developing (and will still be developing) is a kind of first step that leads quite directly to holiness. I’m most interested to see how that develops. This continues, in a way, on pages 329-330. There, Jim says: “Paul is making a parallel with the fruit of sin, death. In contrast, the fruit of righteousness, willing enslavement to God, is holiness. Just as the natural product of an evil life is death, the natural product of life in service to God is holiness or sanctification.” To set up this parallel is very helpful: death vs. (the life of) holiness. How might we think about that basic opposition?

    I have other thoughts, of course, but these are the two that have most struck me this week.

  5. cherylem said

    I just want to say (announce!) that I’m next for posting on Jim’s book. I spent a good deal of time in the hospital this week sitting and waiting (and everyone is okay, thank you!), and prepared my posting, only to discover I had prepared the wrong one – I did this one, which was discussed admirably by Alan, and which I had actually read. So I don’t know where my brain was . . . wait a couple of more days, and I will have my post up on the beginning of Romans 7.


    • joespencer said

      Glad to hear all is well, Cheryl. I’ve already written and schedule mine to post for next week, but everyone can feel free to ignore it until yours has appeared!

  6. Robert C. said

    Thanks for the notes, Alan, as I’m finally getting to them. Your thoughts about Galatians are esp. helpful.

    I too esp. liked how Jim addressed issues of freedom and bondage, and how “there could be no complete list of rules for behavior” (p. 320). Jim’s footnote reference to Aristotle on this latter point gets at the heart of my own interest in Aristotelian virtue ethics and practical reasoning as a kind of push back against our modern tendency to think in terms of scientific laws and ethical-religious rules, rather than developing a robust ability to think for ourselves, be attuned the spirit of a particular situation, and not rely on recipe-like formulas (something I am constantly battling in the classroom, requests for formulaic tools as a way to avoid thinking more deeply about the issues…).

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