Who is the “I” of Romans 7? Many answers have been given to address the reference of Paul usage of the 1 person singular in Romans. Is it Paul himself? Is it someone Paul is impersonating? Does it refer to any person, does it only refer to a Jew? Is it an unbeliever or is a believer? There are a litany of options offered to describe who the person Paul is referring to and what is significant about this person.
The reason for the litany of interpretations is perhaps because Romans 7 is where various theological interpretations get applied to the individual at a personal level. Throughout Romans, Paul speak in collective and generic terms about humanity. Primarily, Paul speaks about Jews and Gentiles/Greeks. Paul does not usually talk about persons qua individuals. Asides from Romans 7, the closest we get is in Romans 2. However, even there, Paul’s purpose is principally to establish the universal nature of God’s judgment against sin that does not exempt a Jew who holds to the Torah; Paul’s sweep remains universal and is not focused on the experiences of individual persons except insofar as it substantiates his broader, anthropological point. So, it seems that Romans 7 functions as the place where we get to see how Paul’s doctrines of Christ, justification, salvation, and sin are are applicable to an individual person, whoever that person it. The pervasive, underlying assumption of Paul purpose in Romans 1-8 is to explicate upon the doctrines of sin, justification, and salvation. So, when we come upon Romans 7, we are inclined to see Paul’s discussion about sin and personal inability as a demonstration of these doctrines, particularly of sin, and as such, the “I” functions paradigmatically for a whole class of people, whether it be all persons, unbelievers, unbeliever Jews, believing Jews, all believers, etc. Particularly within the Protestant streams of tradition, the “I” of Romans 7 is seen to function as a paradigm of human inability.
What if, however, we have been sharply inclined to misread Romans 7 due to a faulty understanding of Paul’s discursive purpose? What if Paul’s primary purpose is not to provide a description of the human reality of sin but rather the powerlessness of Torah?
We are inclined to read Paul’s mention of sin and righteousness as being central because interpreter’s are often concerned about address ethical problems. After all, Paul does use the words ἁμαρτία and ἁμαρτάνω 55 times, which accounts for 68% of the usage of those words in Romans through Philemon.1 A similar 60% percentage is given for Paul’s usage of δικαιόω, δικαιοσύνη, and δικαίωμα, with 53 of the 89 uses occurring in Romans. Compared to his other letters, it seems that sin and righteousness is highly pertinent to Paul’s discussion. It seems warranted, then, to think that Paul’s discussion of sin and righteousness provides the central purpose that brings cohesion to Paul’s discourse. So, when we comes to Romans 7, it is only natural to assume that Paul is providing some paradigm of sin in the example of a person, to which Romans 8 (and Romans 3-6 beforehand) provides an explication of justification and righteousness.
However, the high percentage of the usage of such morally laden language in Paul should cause us to ask a question? If Paul’s understanding of righteousness and sin is crucial to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, why then do we not see a more equal usage of moral languages throughout Paul’s letters?
The glaring answer for many would be that there is something in the circumstances of Paul’s writing Romans that merits such a focus on righteousness and sin. What exactly is it about the circumstance that merits this? When we try to understand Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence, scholars predicate some hot button issue or behavior of the congregations that Paul is focused upon. However, this will not so easily do for Romans as Paul is a relative stranger to the church in Roman; he is not as familiar with them as the churches he helped plant elsewhere. It is unlikely that Paul would have had an in-depth understanding of the situation in Rome like he would have with Galatia or Corinth.
We certainly don’t need to assume that Paul was writing to the Roman Christians entirely blind. However, it is likely that whatever Paul knew about his audience, it would be the type of information that is less unique to the Roman Christians. Aside from Romans 16, we have no clear indication that Paul has an in-depth knowledge of the people and circumstances. Rather, it is more so a working assumption that what Paul writes is relevant to the situation in Rome because that is what he does in his other letters.
A different account circumstances of Paul’s epistle that can account for the moral language while not attributing any specific concern about righteousness and sin that is unique to Rome that Paul knows about. Paul is addressing a wave of zealous Judaism observable throughout the Diaspora, in which various pieces of literature in Second Temple Judaism was regularly used, most notably Wisdom of Solomon and Maccabean literature. In other words, what Paul is writing in Romans is not necessarily addressing a concern unique to the Christians in Rome, but a more pervasive social reality that Paul can safely assume is present in Rome.
In this case, Paul’s moral language can be readily explained as Paul’s attempt to engage with and deconstruct the visions of righteousness and sin discussed in this other literature, with the Wisdom of Solomon as the most obvious culprit. Many scholars have observed the influence of the Wisdom of Solomon on Romans. However, a close comparison of Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon would find more interesting differences than similarities, as most of the similarities could be readily attributable to Paul and the author(s) of the Wisdom of Solomon being Jewish. It seems best to argue that Paul is presenting a different vision of righteousness and sin than the Wisdom of Solomon.
What is the central point of difference between their two visions? That there is a particular group of people who observe Torah that are immune to the power of sin and death and do not come under God’s judgment. For the Wisdom of Solomon, the Torah was the means by which one obtained wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 6.3-11, 17-20). As such, the dividing line between the righteous and the wicked, a common division in Wisdom, and their future is drawn by the Torah. On the other hand, Paul rejects their being any significant distinction between Jew and Gentile based upon the Torah when it comes to God. Rather, the dividing line in God’s judgment is based upon one’s deeds (Romans 2.6-16), with the only assurance of being on the “righteous” side of the judgment is to be redeemed and saved through Christ.
While it is common to emphasize an antithesis of faith and works in Romans,2 it seems the contrast that is more pervasive in Romans (and also Galatians) is more specific in being between the person of Christ and the Torah. From Romans 2.17-8.39, Paul switches back and forth from Torah to Christ as the center of his discourse.3
Therefore, if there is a point that Romans 7 is to be made coherent around, it would more likely be Paul’s understanding of the Torah that takes a greater primacy through Romans 1-8, rather than a generic discussion of the nature of sin. If that is the case, then the identification of the “I” in Romans 7 is not highly pertinent. The “I” of Romans 7 can be seen as an example that many Jews could be familiar with of a person who struggles to obey Torah, deconstructing the power the the Torah was seen as having in the Wisdom of Solomon and the Maccabean literature, including most notably 4 Maccabees. One example of a person seeking to obey Torah but incapable of doing so would be enough to demonstrate that the works of Torah are not sufficient to bring people to the “right” side of God’s judgment. Rather, such a failed observer of Torah is “wretched human” who is under the power of death in the body. The Wisdom of Solomon would describe such a person as under the power of the devil rather than one of the souls of the righteous who do not really die (Wisdom of Solomon 2.21-3.4), deconstructing the power of Torah to make that the Wisdom of Solomon and other Second Temple Jewish literature sought to uphold. In this gap of the weakness of the Torah, one’s confidence in avoiding condemnation comes from Jesus Christ through the poured out Holy Spirit.
If this interpretation is correct, then that means the “I” of Romans 7 is not intended to functioned as a paradigm of human sinfulness, either of all of humanity or a specific portion of humanity. Paul is not intending to describe how sin works in all people. Rather, Paul simply provides the one case that would be recognizable to many that would invalidate the vision of vindication and judgment centered around Torah that was being espoused by some influential Second Temple Judaism texts. The rhetorical purpose of the “I” is to show the insufficiency of the Torah by poking the hole through any assurance one could have of vindication through Torah.
The advantage of this interpretation is that it does not seem to set what Paul writes in Romans 2.13 against Romans 7. If Romans 7 is intended as paradigmatic of all humanity or all Jews under Torah and how sin makes them unable to obey Torah, then Romans 2.13 would almost necessarily have to be taken as a rhetorical hypothetical that no one actually fulfills (a common interpretation of Romans 2). Otherwise, one would have to ascribe some contradiction to Paul. If, however, Romans 7 is a much narrower argument via a singular demonstration to undercut a Torah-centric vision of divine vindication, then Romans 2.13 can be taken as is without taking recourse to hypotheticals or contradictions to explain it. In short, we can imagine Paul to be saying something along the lines of: “Those Jews who obey the Torah will be justified in God’s eyes, but you can have no assurance that you will successfully come to be a person who is capable of obeying Torah by trying to follow a program of works derived from the Torah. A Jew must be freed in Christ and through the Spirit to have such an assurance.”
If all that I have written above is the case, then there is a stark theological problem that has been created: we have woefully misread Romans 7 and as a consequence, have perpetuated a notion of the morally divided self. The “I” of Romans 7 is not correctly described as a person who is experiencing a division between what we might refer to as our head and heart. Firstly, Paul doesn’t construe this division as a “divided self” between good and evil, between angels and demons as commonly portrayed in media and literature, but rather as a person being conquered by a power. The self of the “I” is not “divided” but rather conquered. For Paul, believers are not divided between a fleshy self and a spiritual self, but an individual person who is being tugged between the powers of sin and death in the flesh and the power of God in the Spirit. However, even if the “I” of Romans 7 is actually a “divided self,” the “I” does not function as a paradigm. Paul’s purpose is not to suggest that every person or every believer feels a deep division between the good that God wants them to do and the sin that causes them to go elsewhere. That some people may feel such a split between what Freud later calls the id and superego )perhaps reflecting the moral conventions of his society rather than a pervasive human experience) does not mean that Paul considers this as constitutive of all people’s life, either with morality/ethics in general or in how they seek to be faithful to God. The most general thing Paul will say about Torah and human inability is that people who are engaged in the thinking of the flesh can not submit to God’s Torah in Romans 8.7, but this does not provide an overarching pattern of human experience of sin and the attempts to obey God; it is simply a statement about their hostility to God.
In short, Romans 7 is not a paradigm of human inability to obey God or of a deeply entrenched division felt in all people. Rather, Romans 7 is an example that demonstrates that the there is no real assurance of divine vindication by attempts to obey Torah to become a righteous person. The Torah does not have the formative power to assure people of a future divine vindication that the Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees made it out to have. Rather, for Paul, that assurance is found only in Jesus Christ, in whose death and resurrection believers participate in by faith and through the Holy Spirit.
- I am excluding the pastorals from the statistics as they exhibit a different pattern of discourse that would effect word selection.
- This is most likely a misreading of Paul. It seems to be the case that Paul contrasts faith and works because it is these things that characterize Jesus Christ (πίστις Χριστοῦ) and the Torah (ἔργον νόμου), respectively. Faith and works are not contrasted in terms of some generic capacity for human cognition and action, but rather how they are construed to be instrumental in Christ’s vindication in the resurrection according to the Gospel narrative and the vindication of the faithful through the Torah according to a narrative in Diaspora Judaism. In other words, the meaning of πίστις Χριστοῦ and ἔργον νόμου can not be understood simply simply through a combination of grammar and semantics, but a consideration of how various narratives of how divine vindication occurs/occurred is crucial for getting the specific reference of those phrases correct.
- Romans 2.17-3.20 address Torah. Then, Paul switches in 3.21-6.23 to the discussion of Christ and faith (it seems to me that the example of Abraham in Romans 4 functions to show that that pattern vindication exhibited through the πίστις Χριστοῦ was actually a pattern in Israel’s story going all the way back to Abraham’s πίστις), before going back to the discussion of the Torah in Romans 7. Finally, in Romans 8, Paul discourse climaxes upon the love of Christ alongside the Spirit.