The Argument of Romans 5-8

Wow, this has been a fruitful month of writing. This is the beginning of a sketch for a paper -- feedback will be appreciated. Otherwise, enjoy!

Following and building upon the work of Stanley Stowers, I see Romans 5-8 as a component of the full diatribe structure of Paul's address to the Romans. Having demonstrated in Romans 1-4 that the justice of God does not depend on God's judgment according to deeds, or therefore upon Torah, but instead upon the trust that stands prior to action, Paul now leads the audience through the relationship between sin and the law. Much of Paul's argument depends on reversing the logical inversion by which Torah as a system of deeds has come to stand prior to the relationship between God and God's people. This has an analogue in the various conceptions of the ordo salutis settled upon in the wake of the post-Reformation period of Protestant orthodoxy. Whether Lutheran, Calvinist or Arminian, these procedural views of salvation inevitably assign repentance, and therefore human right behavior, a crucial role early in the process. However theologically justified in terms of divine, rather than human, action, this has the function of making right behavior a distinguishing mark throughout the process.

In Romans 5-8, Paul is attempting to extract Torah from this false role, without destroying it. He does so by means of three leading questions: “Then what shall we say? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1), “What then? Should we sin, because we are not under a rule, but are under grace?” (6:15a), and “Then what shall we say? Torah is sin?” (7:7a). These obvious negatives punctuate the path from the free action of God in Christ as the second Adam to the eschatological fulfillment of that action. In this way, the audience is weaned from Torah onto Christ, and then from Christ into the Spirit. In the process, Paul demonstrates Torah as an effective means with respect to sin, one that God follows with grace, but not a means intended for justification. A good tool, a useful tool, but neither a necessary tool nor a sufficient tool for life in relationship with God and neighbor.

Part of the problem here is that, in Hellenistic terms, it means something important to say that Torah is the nomos of the Judean ethnos. The Judeans are a people, and as such, Torah is their way of life. If one wishes to become Judean, it may self-evidently appear that one should do Torah. Moreover, one becomes Judean by becoming rightly-aligned to the Judean God. And so, by transference: Torah is the means of becoming rightly-aligned to the Judean God. As a cultural syllogism, this works – but only from outside. Internally, the logic is all wrong. Torah is not the means of becoming rightly-aligned to the Judean God – it's not wrong, but that is not its function. Torah is a consequence of the Judean people being rightly-aligned to their God. It is the set of obligations attendant upon the Mosaic covenant. It is, as Torah means, instruction; guidance. It is, indeed, the way of life of Israel – as a people already rightly-aligned to their God. In the Pharisaic world of Hellenistic Judaism, it is the mode of the piety of the people of God, a piety constantly being adapted to new situations.

What does not therefore follow is that Torah is the way of life for every people rightly-aligned to this God. And certainly not that it is a means, let alone the exclusive means, of becoming so rightly aligned! And yet it is a demonstration, as piety tends to be, of the fact that one is so rightly-aligned. From that point it becomes easy to slip subtly into the inversion of law and covenant. Naturally, the apostle to the gentiles has encountered problems with this inversion – hence the Jerusalem agreement with the “pillar” apostles, and the fallout from that meeting. For Paul, Christ becomes a new interface to the same faithful God. And so in Romans 5-8 Paul builds on the Abraham material to draw a parallel arc from Adam to Christ, from the power of sin through the power of trust into adoption as fellow children of God. Christ becomes the achievement of this covenant of life, and the Spirit becomes the nomos of these ethnoi who are now rightly-aligned to God in Christ. And from there, Paul proceeds in chapters 9-11 and 12-15 to integrate these two ways of life aligned to the same God. To build up the reconciliation between these peoples as people of God together.

So, a proposal for the structure of the section from Romans 5-8:

I. Christ and Adam; sin and grace: 4:23-5:21
II. Baptism into Christ: 6:1-14
III. Servants of God's justice: 6:15-7:6
IV. Excursus: Torah and sin: 7:7-25
V. Life in the Spirit: 8:1-39


  1. "Having demonstrated in Romans 1-4 that the justice of God does not depend on God's judgment according to deeds, or therefore upon Torah..."

    This doesn't fly with Romans 2.6-7. I think Paul makes a distinction between deeds and doing Torah, but sometimes he uses just "deeds" when referring to "deeds of Torah."

    However, I heartily agree with your analysis of Judeanism.

  2. Thanks, Adam. I'll agree with you that deeds are not necessarily, but certainly can be, deeds of Torah.

    But I think it does fly with 2:6-7, precisely because Paul is speaking there of the judgment of God -- even the just judgment of God -- but not the justice of God that will be established in 3:21-26. I lean heavily on that distinction, but you're welcome to try and demolish it. ;)

  3. I accept the possibility of your distinction, as long as one recognizes God's justice is what God makes just. I guess my problem, and I keep going back and forth on this, is that the suggestion that the trust is or must be prior to deeds. In my understanding, deeds are just fine, and are indeed correlated with trust. What I hear Paul saying is that trust prior to deeds is a possibility, in the case of non-Judeans. However, I'm struggling with the idea that Paul thinks deeds (good ones or deeds of Torah) are secondary in the reception of God's justice. In another way, Paul is not concerned with determining the priority between trust or deeds. Rather, Paul is giving the example that trust prior to deeds of Torah is a possible path towards God's justice, a path that God crosses.

  4. Well-put; I see the problem and I agree that it's a problem. I'm not sure that I have it, but I don't think I've argued clearly enough against it. (Part of the problem with being raised Lutheran, thinking against justification by works!) Here's a try.

    The bit in Romans 2 about judgment according to deeds is an article of faith. Deeds are good or bad. Torah does not make deeds (or indeed people) good. Lack of it does not make them bad. (We must say the same about being or not being Christian.) But I'm going to disagree with you on one point here: I don't hear Paul talking about trust prior to deeds. I hear him talking about many different ways of life, forms of instruction which are not Torah, but which produce norms of good and bad actions in ways that show that Torah is not the only means to good actions before God's judgment. (This, in my opinion, is the function of 1:18-32: eliciting such a judgment according to way-of-life differences from the audience, in order to demonstrate that God's judgment is not on that basis.)

    A few months ago, I attempted to make a case for the impartial judgment according to deeds being a temporal concern, not an eschatological one. The limited point I'm after here is that ways of life do not in themselves bless or curse the people who live them. God does not bless or curse ways of life. And yet we attest that Torah is a reason, in Judean eschatology, for the nations to come to the mount of the Lord, because of its superiority as instruction. Torah is very good at what it does. It is a means by which the people may choose life, that they may live.

    I said I don't hear Paul talking about trust prior to deeds, and that's because I hear him explicitly defining trust apart from deeds, choris nomou. Trust is not conditioned on possession of a given way of life. In covenant language, as Paul uses it in Romans 4, trust is prior to nomos, in that trust in God begets a change in one's way of life. That change is not defined in terms of Torah, though Torah is not wrong. Torah is simply one way of life built on trust in God -- and to make the comparison more clear, Paul speaks not of Moses' trust and Moses' law, but Abraham's trust and Moses' law.

  5. This is the background into which Paul introduces the Spirit as the normative rule for life in Christ. These people are not all under Torah, though some rightly are, but they are all under the Spirit. (He goes about it harder in Galatians because none of the Celts should be under Torah.)

    So there's a tricky relationship between justice and judgment. A rule or code for life that helps you discern good and bad actions does not make you right with God. Your nomos has no causal or valuative priority over your pistis. Your pistis is the quality of your relationship with God. Now, pagans also have pistis, toward other deities. Pistis conditions nomos. A pagan rule of life may also produce deeds that can be judged good or bad. But it will produce them with respect to its own god or gods, which is to say that it aligns both with standards of good and bad, and with pistis. Not everything that such a rule declares good will be acceptable in someone of another pistis; not everything it declares bad will be likewise unacceptable.

    God does not condemn pagans for being pagans, though he acts in such a way as to claim them for his own. To make them right with respect to the Judean God -- to rightly-align them, as I put it in the post, or to therefore justify them. And so Christ is the substance and character of both their new pistis and the creation of their just relationship. As you said, "God's justice is what God makes just." And so justice is a function of the alignment of trust. And the justice that comes from trust in this God causes a fundamental realignment of nomos. Torah is not wrong precisely because it is already so aligned. A gentile convert is not wrong to take up the full Judean way of life, any more than a Baptist would be wrong to take up the fullness of Roman Catholicism as a way of life. But those who assert that the gentile convert who has now been made just with respect to God in Christ must become fully Torah-observant are as wrong as one who asserts that the Baptists must "return" to Rome. Neither is necessary as a consequence of right relationship with God. Neither assertion is therefore faithful to the God who justifies apart from nomos, and whose justification is not predicated upon the judgment according to deeds -- which continues!

    How's that?


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