Monday, February 06, 2012

"weak[ness]" in Rom. 8.3

I'm working my way through Romans 8, and perhaps it occasions no surprise to find that this passage is kicking my butt. For example, my reaction to v. 3: "Focus, Paul. Focus." Complete sentences are not only useful for effective communication but also for theological clarity. But Paul seems to have had other ideas.

But I could use your help (especially you Pauline and Romans specialists out there). Romans 8.3 begins with the incomplete phrase, "For the impossibility of the Torah in that which it was weak through the flesh . . . " [Τὸ γὰρ ἀδύνατον τοῦ νόμου ἐν ᾧ ἠσθένει διὰ τῆς σαρκός; to gar adynaton tou nomou en hō ēsthenei dia tēs sarkos]. Clearly I'm making certain interpretive decisions already (e.g., nomos = Torah). But I'm struggling to determine the subject of the imperfect verb ēsthenei The obvious option, grammatically, is nomos, and every translation and commentator I've consulted takes this option.

But here's the problem. Everywhere in Romans, when Paul uses the language of "weakness," the what that he describes as weak is a person. And with the exception of 4.19, where Abraham did not grow weak [μὴ ἀσθενήσας; mē asthenēsas] in his faith, Paul is always referring to his readers (sometimes including himself [5.6; 8.26], sometimes differentiating some of his readers from others [14.1; 15.1]). A wider search reveals a similar pattern; nowhere in forty-four uses of ἀσθενέω, ἀσθενής, ἀσθένεια, or ἀσθένημα does Paul describe Torah (or nomos on any other interpretation) as "weak." While it's certainly possible that, this one time here at Rom. 8.3, Paul describes the nomos as "weakened by the flesh, I am surprised at the lack of discussion of this unusual usage.

Robert Jewett illustrates the problem, but I don't think he provides any real help in solving it. He rightly notes that the verb ēsthenei is "an expression ordinarily referring to someone becoming ill" (Romans, 483). He also, again rightly, notes that Paul's usage here, if it refers to the nomos, would be "unique to the NT." But then he says, inexplicably I think, that this unique phrase "recapitulates the argument of the preceding chapter about human arrogance and the quest for honor, which corrupt the law and destroy its capacity to achieve the good." The problem here, however, is that Paul never in Romans 7 described the nomos as weak or corrupted or powerless; the image in Rom. 7.7–25 was of Paul's persona—the role from within which he speaks ("speech-in-character")—as helpless and impotent to stop sin from acting within/among his members. Paul's persona, and not nomos, was weak in Romans 7. So how 8.3 "recapitulates" the argument of Romans 7, as Jewett suggests, is unclear to me.

So I'd like to ask the following questions:

  • Are there contextual reasons that make us confident that Paul must be describing the nomos here as weakened (notice that I'm not asking whether nomos = Torah, though that might be a factor that affects the question I am asking)?
  • Are there other ways to understand the relative clause en hō ēsthenei, so that we interpret ἀσθενεῖν in 8.3 in such a way that fits with every other use of this word in the Pauline corpus?
  • Are there discussions in the secondary literature that note and address this complex of issues?
  • If Paul is saying that the nomos was weakened through the flesh, what does he mean?
Any thoughts?


Nick said...

Dr. Rodriguez,
This particular article intrigued me because I am leading a Sunday School class that is trudging through the book of Romans. We are roughly half way through chapter 9. We spent about 3-4 weeks working our way through chapter 8. We sat on verse 3 for a long time discussing this very issue. I make no claims that I can satisfy your questions, but that we wrestled with your last question with "energized" discussion. We landed on the previous verse that names 2 different nomos - one of the pneumatos and one of hamartia kai thanatos. Could it be that the latter is weakened because it is absent pneumatos?...this was our question.

Mounce said it this way: "The problem, however, did not lie in any inherent weakness in the law itself. Its demands were thwarted by the debilitating influence of our fallen nature."

Again, I am not pretending to actually address the questions that you are asking, I am merely intrigued and wanted to offer my two-cents. I am interpreting this v.3 in the context of v.2 and v.11...that I believe Paul's intent is to highlight the work of the Spirit (pneumatos). At least that is how I taught it.

Rafael said...


Thanks for these thoughts. Romans is well worth the wrestle. For what it's worth, I'm surprised by how much my understanding of Romans has changed just since the last time I taught it at Johnson.

I'm not so sure, however, that Paul refers to two different νόμοι (nomoi, "laws) in v. 2. Given my interpretation of 7.23, 25 (which I haven't put online, but perhaps I should do so), I read 8.2 as referring to two different ways of referring to the one νόμος, the Torah of God. The one, characterized by the Spirit (which was almost completely absent from Romans 7), leads to life; the other, characterized by the flesh, leads to sin and death. This, of course, is exactly what Torah itself promised (see Deut. 30!).

Notice, then, how Mounce's comment (which you quoted) actually denies that Paul attributes any weakness to Torah, but it doesn't explain, then, what Paul is saying in 8.3. I'm not sure how helpful this is. Either Paul is attributing weakness to Torah (which Mounce denies), or he doesn't (which Mounce does not explain).

Whatever the precise meaning of 8.3a, I think you're exactly right that Paul is highlighting the role and function of the Spirit, which achieves what Torah had intended to achieve for Israel (again, Deut. 30). The Spirit, which is the difference between Romans 7 and Romans 8, explains the dramatically different tone between these two chapters.

Nick said...

Dr. Rodriguez,
I must admit that this is now bothering me that I cannot find a satisfactory solution. I had to read your second paragaraph to my comment multiple time until I saw what you were seeing. It led me to dive into the resources that are immediately available to me and I still bump up to the same results...not two laws, two ways to refer to one law. It was there, I wasn't seeing it.

However, Harrison and Hagner say something that, because of your article, caught my attention in referring to v. 2..."The problem is not caused by something intrinsic to the law but is rather the result of the flesh and sin. The law makes demands, and it condemns when those demands are not met, but it cannot overcome sin." (EBC)

The reason this catches me is because it seems that they take a similar position that every commentator has taken in that the law is not weak, but the sinful nature of man is. Then, the last statement "but it cannot overcome sin" is thrown in. If it cannot overcome sin, doesn't that mean that it is weak?

I feel like I am now working in circles with this passage, but I also appreciate the post because I would not have paid attention to this detail otherwise. It is, however, leading me to more questions than answers. What a great letter!

Nick Pannone

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