Subject of Romans 7

The Problem with Romans 7
In Romans 7:14-25, Paul describes himself (or someone called ‘I’) as a person who loves God’s Law, but is a slave to sin. This poses a problem, because if Paul is referring to his Christian self, then how can he call himself a slave to sin while also affirming elsewhere that he has been set free? If Paul is using the ‘I’ as a rhetorical device to mean himself as a pre-Christian Jew, then how can he say that he ‘delights in the Law in the inner man’ (7:22), but in the next chapter insist that the true mind of the unconverted person is enmity towards God (8:6-7)? This passage has long been a subject of debate, because equally strong cases can be made for each of these views of Paul’s ‘I’. Can we continue to teach from this passage the it is the Christian who struggles with sin? Or should we see it exclusively as a reiteration of Paul’s often-made point that Judaism falls short without God’s grace?

Additional Problems
I have been tutoring Greek translation through Romans, and so this subject has necessarily come up. It has unsettled me a little over the years, because if Paul meant us to understand him as speaking from either the Christian or Jewish perspective, then he really was radically unclear, and surprisingly bad at avoiding terminology that he has employed for the opposite purpose even in adjacent chapters. As someone who believes in the inspiration of scripture, this is a less-than-ideal consequence of the argument.

One of my students last year suggested that Paul might intend both groups (or perhaps neither), but his explanation of how that might work didn’t leave a strong impression on me. And more typically of me, I forgot what he said and didn’t keep a copy of the paper in which he mentioned it. But this year, a solution along those lines clicked into place for me, and on the same day, I picked up an article by Mark Seifrid on the subject only to discover that he says much the same thing.

OK, get on with it now. Dang.
So if Paul isn’t talking about a converted person or and unconverted one, who is the ‘I’ that is meant? It seems to me that Paul is talking more generally of a person of unspecified spiritual status, considering what mankind is like without the help of the Spirit – or in Seifrid’s language, ‘the individual is described from the limited perspective of his or her intrinsic soteriological resources.’ In other words, people per se may have the desire to do good and to follow the Law (whether Torah or a more general moral code), but we lack the ability. It is the human condition to be unable to bring our whole being into line with our good intentions. As such the Law condemns us.

Seifrid bolsters the argument by pointing to certain confessions of sin that date to shortly before Paul’s day, which use a similar style and format to Paul’s. You have, for example, a psalmist confessing in prayer his unworthiness to open his mouth before God. This serves to draw attention to God’s grace in nevertheless allowing him to pray. In Paul’s case, he draws attention to his own intrinsic sinfulness in Ch7 in order to highlight God’s grace in removing his condemnation.

Chapter 8 gives extrinsic solutions to our intrinsic problems. Christ has taken any condemnation owing to us, and the Spirit will raise our mortal, sin-riddled bodies at the Resurrection. Notably, until then, there’s no expectation that the intrinsic sin problem has been definitively dealt with. So, given the solutions of Ch8, Ch7 can apply equally to the experience of the unconverted Jew and to the Christian believer, because both experience the trouble of sin-in-the-flesh that overcomes the will. The only differences between the two readers is that the Christian has Christ’s removal of condemnation, the Spirit’s reordering of his will, and the promise of an ultimate solution at the last.

So, this passage can continue to be employed from the pulpit as evidence of conflict within the Christian life – the struggle with sin – and yet it can also be used to draw attention to the crisis experienced by the man trying to do what God commands without God’s grace.  Considered intrinsically, that is the same person anyway. Paul is using himself as a model of self-judgment so that we all have our attention drawn to the need for God’s assistance if we’re ever to be found pleasing to him.

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Theological Education

Pastor Terry Jones

Terry Jones - not the Python

Another fiery minister has been in the headlines lately for organising a Qur’an burning day on September 11. Fortunately, after pressure from the President himself, Terry Jones has backed down. [Admittedly, it’s because of an alleged compromise over the Mosque site at Ground Zero in New York, and not the plea of the President, who with a name like Barack Hussain must be a Muslim.]

Terry Jones – who sadly is not the former Monty Python troupe member, and is thus deathly serious – got me thinking again about the state of Christian leadership and about the role of theological education.

Terry claims to have an honorary doctorate in theology, and may be formally trained as a teacher of the gospel. Who knows? Either way, the trouble is that Christian leaders often hit the headlines not because the gospel is offensive, but because they are offensive, and all too often display startling ignorance of their faith and their world. Christian Higher Education – when done well – is a wonderful antidote to parochial Christian thinking.

Learning vs Book-burning
Why is theological education important? Isn’t having God’s Word in the Bible enough?

Firstly, theological education is important, because, while the Spirit has been given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), that promise is to ‘you (plural)’. The Spirit leads us into truth via the Apostles and by means of the whole community, not mystically delivering truth to the individual teacher. We need to interpret the Bible with the help of the Christian community, and theological education places the future teacher in continuity with the Church community throughout history, and with the best Christian thinking and interpretation available. To suggest that one does not need the help of anyone else in understanding the Bible is as arrogant as saying that your understanding will be flawless, even though no one else in the past has been.

Secondly, and flowing from the idea that truth has been passed down via the Apostles, training is necessary because the Bible is historical Spiritual literature. It is written for us, but not to us. It was written to people whose circumstances and issues and patterns of thought belonged 2000 years ago and older (and even back then, to those who belonged to scripture’s native context, St Peter himself claimed that parts are hard to understand – 2Peter 3:16). Understanding the Bible requires one to understand the time and people to whom it was written, so that the message can be ‘translated’ into our age. You wouldn’t try to translate a document that was written in a language you haven’t learned. Why would you try to teach people about ages, cultures and issues that you don’t understand?

“I’m called to preach, not to study”
For some reason, study is seen as dispensable or even undesirable by many Evangelicals. This is unfortunate, seeing as good training has the effect of greatly enhancing one’s apprehension of the riches in scripture. The Bible itself levels serious warnings against its teachers, such as the warning that even powerful, seemingly sincere ministers will be rejected as false teachers (Matthew 7); or the insistence that teachers will be examined more strictly at the Judgment (James 3:1). Paul even blatantly says that Timothy (and the church elders that succeed him) should do all he can to ensure that he handles scripture well:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2Timothy 2:15)

Paul in 1Timothy 1:6-8 also criticises those who try to teach, but ‘don’t know what they are talking about’, and he says that the law is good, but only if it is used properly. So if you’re called to be a preacher, you’re called also to be a ‘workman’ who needs to handle the word with care, and not those who can be charged with ‘wandering away’ and ‘turning to meaningless talk’. Spare us the meaningless talk, friend. Get some training.

Many are called, but few are chosen
One of my colleagues was speaking about an unfortunate by-product of the 19th C missionary movement in England, which bequeathed to us the idea that a Christian missionary or minister must undergo a special ‘calling’ to ministry. While this surely must have been the experience of many ministers, it was pointed out that countless others with the desire to serve have been put off because the wait for a mystical calling never ended for them. They could not identify a clear, unmistakable call to be a minister.

While the vocation is serious, and while it should not be entered into whimsically, there is also no indication in scripture (particularly the pastoral letters about the commissioning of elder-teachers in which such an idea would be most needful) that an experience of divine calling to service is to be expected. An elder is someone of high moral example, with a ‘track record’ in the faith, and who is gifted with the ability to teach. It goes little further than that. If you feel strongly that you have the potential to be such a person, don’t wait for lights from heaven or writing in the sky.

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GWC in MuizenbergA word from our sponsors
I work for an Evangelical training institution in Cape Town, South Africa, called George Whitefield College. We train pastors and children’s workers in a Reformed, Evangelical ethos, offering a government-accredited BTh degree. We are ranked among the top Evangelical institutions in Africa, and we’re located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We are the official training college of the Church of England in South Africa, but we train students from a variety of denominations, and from all over the world. Applications for 2011 (particularly for those seeking bursaries) close soon.