Sunday, September 03, 2006

I'm Not Myself (Rom 7:14-25)

(Previous post here.)

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I delight in the law of God, but I see in my members another law at war, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:15-23; condensed)

Who am "I"? The passage could be depicting:

(a) a pagan's uncontrollable urge to do what he/she knows to be wrong (the Greco-Roman conflict between rational resolve and overwhelming passion)
(b) Paul's experience under the law as a Pharisee
(c) Paul's experience under the law as a Christian

(a) is the correct answer. As before, Paul isn't speaking autobiographically, whether as a Pharisee or Christian, though his rhetoric does imply the former -- (b) that a pre-Christian Jew's plight under the law is hopeless and wretched (contradicting Philip 3:4b-6). Paul is drawing on the common moral dilemma found in Greco-Roman literature and speaking, for the moment, as a pagan. Thomas Tobin, in Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts (pp 232-235) notes the abundant allusions, especially Medea who was compelled to kill her children as revenge against Jason (compare with Rom 7:15-23 above):
"I am conquered by evils. And I understand the deeds I am about to do are evil. But anger is greater than my resolves -- anger, the cause for mortals of the greatest evils." (Euripides, Medea 1077b-1080)

"But some strange power draws me against my will, and desire persuades me one way, and my mind another. I see the better and approve, but I follow the worse." (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7:19-21)
Paul has assumed the role of a Medea-like character in order to portray Jewish behavior under the law as conforming to the dilemma often found in the Hellenized world. In effect, he refers to himself ("I") on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication ("those who know the law", Rom 7:1), but he's really invoking an argument foreign to Jews who easily counted on the grace of God no matter how often they sinned.

If Paul is addressing the Jewish faction in Rome throughout Rom 7 ("those who know the law", v 1), as I believe, then why does he invoke such irrelevant rhetoric? The reason is that he needs to sever the link between the law and sin, and complete his whitewash of a bad theology advanced earlier in Gal 3:19-24. He's halfway there: he used Adam/Eve and the serpent to disassociate God from sin. But with "Medea" he's able to go a step further and disassociate the law from sin. Rather than sin (~the serpent) using the law (vv 7-13), sin now invades human flesh directly, tormenting people and making them unable to do what they know to be right (vv 14-25). This puts both God and the law completely on the side of good, and heaps the entire blame for immorality on a hopeless and wretched humanity. That's why Paul isn't himself in Rom 7:14-25.

In the next and final post, I'll wrap up in epilogue.


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