Friday, February 10, 2012

more on "weakness" in Romans 8

In a previous post, I commented on the strange use of "weakness" in Rom. 8.3, where Paul seems to say that Torah itself was rendered weak. This doesn't sound so strange in the Christian's ear, perhaps. But Paul no where else uses the stem ἀσθεν- [asthen-; "weak"] in relation to Torah. In fact, what is "weak" is always Paul and/or some or all of his readers, the flesh, etc. But the translators and commentators I was reading seemed to accept, in their translations, that Paul says Torah [ὁ νόμος; ho nomos] was weakened, even if their comments on the passage denied that Torah was actually weakened in any real sense.

I don't think N. T. Wright solves the problem, but he at least acknowledges it. Wright asks, "What was impossible for the law? That it should give life. It offered it, but could not deliver" ("Romans," NIB 577). He then says,
It could not do so because it was "weak because of the flesh." Despite many commentators and preachers who have been eager to see Paul say negative things about the law, he declares, summing up the argument of chap. 7, that there was nothing wrong with it in itself. The problem lay elsewhere: in the "flesh"—not the physicality of human nature, which was God-given and will be reaffirmed in the resurrection (8:11), but in the present rebellious and corruptible state of humankind, within which sin had made its dwelling (7:18, 20, 23, 25). (Wright, "Romans," 577)

I think this is the right track. The flesh, rather than Torah itself, was the cause of weakness. But of course, this creates some tension with the actual grammar of the passage itself. Paul does indeed say that Torah's weakness came "through/by the flesh" [διὰ τῆς σαρκός; dia tēs sarkos], but nevertheless it looks like Torah itself "was weakened." And this idea, as Jewett noted, is unique among the Pauline corpus and even the NT itself. And I still cannot escape the suspicious that, v. 3 notwithstanding, the rest of Romans 7.7–8.11 does not portray a weakened Torah.

I'm still not sure we've understood this verse rightly. Any suggestions?


Ralph K. Hawkins said...

Rafael, I really like your musings on this subject. In both my OT classes and in the church, I find that many of my students and parishoners both have been conditioned to think that both Jesus and Paul were hostile to the Torah, and that the whole concept of Torah is in antithesis to the Gospel. A nuanced reading, such as the one you have shared here, shows that this is not true.

Ralph K. Hawkins said...

A further thought: Paul describes the Law as "weak" due to the flesh, as you've pointed out, and he also stresses its inability to save (e.g., Gal 3:11). In fact, he argues that it was not designed to save, but to serve as a pedagogue (Gal 3:19-4:7). There are two passages in the NT, however, that describe certain persons as "blameless" under the Law. In Luke 1:6, Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." And, in Phil 3:6, in reviewing his achievements prior to encountering the Messiah, Paul claims that "as to righteousness under the Law [I was] blameless." How would you reconcile these passages with Paul's teaching on the Law in the passages I mentioned above, as well as the one's you've mentioned in Romans? I have worked out a hypothetical interpretation of these passages, but I'd appreciate hearing your view.

Rafael said...

Unfortunately, Ralph, my answer is, I don't know. But my initial response to your question is that the "blameless" persons under Torah in both Luke and Philippians were people under Torah. Paul, however, doesn't seem to think everyone falls under its aegis. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul separates "those under Torah" from others, so I think we might start by noting that Paul thinks Torah doesn't apply to everyone.

My reading of Romans, so far, has emphasized his gentile audience. In fact, I'm persuaded by Stowers, Das, Thorsteinsson, and others that Paul writes Romans for gentile believers in Jesus in Rome and not for Jewish believers (even if there were some Jewish believers among the Roman house churches). So when Paul says, for example, "Torah results in the knowledge of sin" (3.20), I think he's saying how Torah affects his gentile readers and not a universal consequence of Torah. After all, Torah clearly promised life to Israel if she kept its terms (Deut. 30, which Paul cites later in Romans). So when he says "all flesh is not justified by Torah," he's speaking to gentiles.

One last thought. I'm not saying that Paul offers Torah as the basis of Israel's relationship with God and the gospel as the means of the gentiles' reconciliation with Israel's Creator God. Perhaps Paul would have said that, for Israel, Torah only resulted in knowledge of sin. But he doesn't say this in Romans. In Romans, he's speaking to gentiles, and given the attraction that Torah had for at least some gentiles (God-fearers, proselytes, those who advocated and pursued self-mastery, etc.), Paul has to demonstrate that the gospel, not the Law, leads to freedom, life, adoption as children, etc.

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