At the conclusion of Paul’s argument of 1.18-3.20 that Israel is just as culpable to the moral descent that the Gentiles mentioned in Romans 1.18-32 experience, there is a rather concise, explanatory phrase phrase at the end of Romans 3.20:
No flesh will be justified from the works of Torah before him, because the recognition of sin comes through Torah.
This explanatory phrase is rather interesting because I think this phrase is actually the overarching, epistemic explanation for why the Torah is ineffectual for justification before God and gaves the framework to understand everything Paul says about Israel and those zealous for Torah in Romans. Even though it is a phrase that is only five words in the Greek, I would suggest that it his a highly significant, rhetorical position in Paul’s discourse.
This is suggest by the way Romans 3.21 reads in comparison to 3.20. First, the conclusion of 3.20 is immediately followed by a emphatic Νυνὶ, much rarer and more verbally power compared to νῦν. This emphatic shift ot the present time takes the whole of Israel’s history under Torah as summed up in the catena of quotations in 3.10-18 (which are not intended to demonstrate a historically universal depravity but the reality of Israel’s sin throughout the Scriptures) to be brought forward to the present circumstances with Jesus Christ. As such, the last five words of 3.20 frame of contrast with what is then said immediately in 3.20. Both verses mention Torah, with 3.21 pointing towards something that occurs outside of the purview of the Torah. Secondly, both 3.20 and 3.21 provide epistemic statements, as the recognition of sin is contrasted with disclosure of God’s righteousness. This suggest that in Paul’s mind, there is a fundamentally different epistemic state between that lived under Torah and that lived under the revelation of Jesus Christ in 3.21-26.
Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God suggests there is prospective, foundationalist epistemology of a counter-missionary Teacher that Paul represents and rebuts in 1.18-3.20, where people gradually accumulate knowledge that leads them to conversion and salvation. By contrast, Paul expresses an apocalyptic epistemology that is retrospective, where upon coming to faith in Christ one looks at past experience and knowledge is a new light. As such, Campbell’s explanation suggests there is a discontinuity between one’s status prior to Christ and afterwards.
On this surface of it, this was seem like a plausible account of the contrast between 3.20 and 3.21. Thus, I find it disappointing that I could not find Campbell giving attention to the contrast of 3.20 and 3.21, although I may have missed it. The rhetoric features of 3.20-21 provide strong evidence for contrasting, epistemic realities. However, I would put forward the contrast Paul offers is not in terms of epistemic rationality, that is the way people reason and thinking towards appropriate belief and knowledge, but in terms of moral epistemology and epistemic content. Furthermore, I would suggest Paul’s argument presumes a continuity between Torah and Christ, even as the content of Torah and the revelation of Christ are distinctly different such that one can not prospectively move from Torah to Christ. The key to drawing this out is to pay close attention to what Paul specifically says about the epistemic function of the Torah in 3.20 and 3.21.
First, in 3.20, Paul says the Torah provides a recognition (ἐπίγνωσις) of sin. Most translations render this as “knowledge: and thereby do not readily distinguish ἐπίγνωσις from the similarly translated γνῶσις. While interchangable, ἐπίγνωσις is a more specialized form of knowledge. Whereas γνῶσις functions as sort of a catch-all regarding knowledge, whereas ἐπίγνωσις is specific type of know-what knowledge that focuses on a person’s status to recognize some property or quality about someone or something. Thus, ἐπίγνωσις is about identifying things in the world and understanding what those things are. To have an ἐπίγνωσις regarding sin is to recognize that some type of behavior is to be understood as sin. We see this idea get expressed in Romans 7.7-12, where the Torah provides the personified character a knowledge about coveting: they come to recognize coveting, even as this knowledge also leads to their socio-moral descent into further coveting to the point of sin leading to a death (metaphorically or spiritually, depending on whether one understand’s Paul usage of the language of death as a symbolic or metaphysical state, or something in between).
Secondly, in Romans 3.21 Paul says that the Torah and Prophets are a testimony to the righteousness of God. μαρτυρέω is used to describe an act of confirmation or attestation about some course of events or matter of affairs. To offer a testimony is to implicitly assume a prospective epistemology in which the testimony provides somes foundation or reason for some judgment about who or what is being testified about. As such, to suggest the Torah and Prophets testify to God’s righteousness is to suggest that there is a forward-looking, epistemic status that the Torah can place. However, this need not be understood as the acceptance of a broad propsective epistemology is while all future knowledge is conditioned upon past knowledge. This would be absurd in reality, as there are various epistemic states in real-like where people experience and learn something that was absent or dissonant with what they previously knew, such as surprises, epiphanies, etc.
In other words, the prospective nature of testimony does not equate to a broad-based prospective epistemology for describing how people come to faith in Christ through the Torah. There may be other epistemic conditions for knowing of God’s righteousness and coming to faith in Christ that are not prospective in nature. Nevertheless, the natural understanding of the act of testimony is prospective in nature.
So, how do we integrate the instrumental, prospective nature of Torah in providing some sort form of knowledge about God’s righteousness with the epistemic content of the Torah providing a recognition of sin? When we talk about binary categories, there is often an implied epistmic relation between opposed categories: the absence of specific properties that define one category is a necessary condition for membership in the opposite categoriy. For instance, in the contrast between pure happiness and pure sadness, we might say the state of pure joy entails the absence of any sadness. In a similar manner, the righteousness of God may be considered to be *partly* recognizable by the absence of the sin that Torah provides a recognition of.
Yet, at the same time, categories that are consider opposed are not usually reductively identifiable by the absence of specific properties. There are certain properties of happiness that can not be understood by the category of sadness. Joy is not simply not being sad. For instance, a person struggling with anhedonia may not be sad, although depression usually coocurs with anhedonia, but the last of sadness does not mean they are happy. They may be content in those moments, but contentment is not the same thing as happiness. When applying this logic to God’s righteousness, one can not simply understand and know God’s righteousness in virtue of its absence of sin: there is a positive quality to God’s righteousness that necessitates that it is disclosed for it to be known.
If this was of understand the epistemic relationship between binary categories is an adequate explanation for the apostle Paul’s undersatnding righteousness and sin, then we are left with a particular conclusion about the problem of the Torah as it relates to God’s righteousness. One can not prospectively come to understand God’s righteousness through the Torah, even if one can prospectively recognize it through the Torah when it is revealed because recognizing and knowing sin is not the same thing as recognizing and knowing righteousness. Paul says the following in Romans 10.2-3:
For I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not for the purpose of recognition (κατʼ ἐπίγνωσιν). For being ignorant of God’s righteousness (even seeking to establish their own), they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the conclusion of the Torah for a righteousness to all who believe.
We see the word ἐπίγνωσις pop up again here, this time in relation to God. These figures who have a great zeal do not recognize God, even though they, implicitly, have a knowledge of Torah. We can thus infer that Paul understands their to be two distinct acts of recognition for righteousness and sin, and the recognition of sin does not inevitably lead to the recognition of God’s righteousness. The Torah does not by itself constitute a recognition of God and His righteousness.
Thus, there is a complex epistemic, relationship between Torah and Christ that can not be reducible to a simple form of epistemic rationality. On the one hand, Torah can be instrumental in recognizing the righteousness of God in that God’s righteousness does not contain any sin that the Torah testifies to. On the other hand, the Torah does not itself describe the positive quality and characteristics of God’s righteousness as disclosed in Jesus Christ.
To give an analogy of this complex, epistemic relationship from my personal life that some who read my blog might be familiar with: I am single and unmarried, even though at age 36 I deeply want to have fallen in love, married, and to have a family by now. However, unfortunately, my experiences with attempts at romantic relatiosnhips have largely been defined by a combination of more or less neutral dating experiences with a few emotional flutters of joy here and there with many very negative and tramatic experiences intermixed in between. If I were to ever be able to date, marry, and have a happy family, my past experiences would simultaneously be instrumental for helping me to develop a relationship and yet, at the same time, it makes it near impossible for me to date. On the one hand, if I were to ever find someone I was attracted to that want to spend their life with me, I would be able to say that if our relationship doesn’t have any of the problems of my past relationships, I could consider it a relationship for potential. On the other hand, how can I know what a happy relationship and marriage would look like for me so as to pursue it, as I have very little positive experiences from actual relationships to draw from to idenify and recognize it. I might have a flutter, a beating of the heart, a deep passion and desire for someone, but how can I know the relationship will lead to a happy marriage? I can’t, unless I actually experience a relationship that goes beyond the flutters unless I actually experience a relationship that reliably and consistently provides me joy (while I also do the same for her). I have to have an epiphany, a suprise, a novel experience before I can know what a happy relationship for me looks like.
I would suggest it is similar for Paul with the relationship between Torah and the righteousness of God. Through the absence of the sin described in Torah, one might begin to consider that Jesus is one from God, but it isn’t until one accept and reocgnizes the resurrection that one can recognize Jesus as the Son of God is revelation of God’s righteousness. The testimony of the Torah suggests, but it is God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead through the Holy Spirit that confirms.
And, to continue the usage of the analogy, if I were to ever get into a happy relationship and get married, from that vantage point, I might then be able to look back on my past experiences and see how they were instrumental in bringing me to this relationship that I find joy in. After experience that sort of relationship, I can look retrospectively on the knowledge of my traumatic experiences and see them in a different light. Similarily, after coming to Christ, as one gorws and matures, one can look back retrospectively on the Torah and understand it from the light of God’s revelation in Christ.
The distinction between (1) the intial epistemic state where there is a combination of prospective testimony of the Torah and God’s revelation and (2) the later epsitemic state where there is a retrospective evaluation of the Torah is that the latter state emerges diachronically, through time, like Abraham who in faith eventually recieved the promises, by which we might hypothetically look back at God’s promises and reflect from that vantage point, rather than the retrospective state emerging at the moment of revelation.
Could it then be possible to combine the emphasis on salvation-history and Israel’s Scripture with the dramatic, revelatory nature of “apocalyptic” in this way?