Thursday, January 21, 2010

Romans 7 - Unlearning and Learning

(I paid $2 for this cup of Palestinian coffee in Jerusalem.)

At 60 years old I am still learning. Part of learning is unlearning. For example, I have always interpreted Romans chapter 7 as a description of a Christian's inner struggle between knowing what is right to do and doing, instead, what is wrong to do. Now Ben Witherington is telling me I have been wrong. Witherington claims:
  • In Romans 7-8 Paul is describing "the anatomy of a conversion." (The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism, 36) 
  • "In Romans 7:14-25 we find a person under conviction of sin, but still in its bondage, and crying out for conversion." (Ib.)
  • Romans 7:5-6 and Romans 8:1-2 make it perfectly clear "that Christians have been set free from the bondage of sin and death." (Ib.)
  • Romans 7 is about "sin and its power over fallen human beings." (33)
  • Re. Romans 7, "we need to take seriously that Paul here is describing a crisis experience that leads to a crying out for help. [Romans 7:24 - "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"] He is not speaking of the day-to-day mind-set of the fallen person, whether devout or not, and whether Gentile or Jew. What we have then in Romans 7:14-15 and continuing into the next argument in Romans 8 is a narrative of a conversion and its theological and spiritual implications seen after the fact and from a Christian perspective." (Ib., 31)
But isn't Paul, in using 'I' language, referring to himself? No, says Witherington. He asks, in his chapter "Squinting At the Pauline "I" Chart," "who is the "I" then who is speaking here?" He concludes, "In my view the I is Adam in vv. 7-13, and all those who are currently "in Adam" in vv. 14-25." How does Witherington arrive at this? To get the whole picture you need to read this entire chapter. But briefly, one key is to understand that Paul is using a rhetorical technique called "prosopopoia," which "involves the assumption of a role." Sometimes the role-playing speech would be inserted "without mentioning the speaker at all." (Ib., 22) Witherington adds, "Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul's discourse delivered in its original setting, as was Paul's intent. it is not surprising then, having only Paul's written wors left to us, that many have not picked up on the signals that impersonation is happening in Romans 7:7-13 and also for that matter in 7:14-25." (Ib., 22)

What can I say about this? Some thoughts:
  • I respect Witherington as a scholar. Therefore, I listen to him.
  • His take on Romans 7-8 does not surprise me. Because, currently, this is the sort of thing that is now happening almost weekly in my Jesus-studies and Jesus-preaching.
  • I do have moments where I wonder if I've known anything at all about the Jesus-life. But because I am certain that much of real learning requires unlearning, this doesn't freak me out.
  • I have no wish to hold on to the perspective on Romans 7 or any biblical thing that I have somehow in the past acquired. I just want the truth of the text, to hear it as it was heard originally. If this means I have not had parts of it right, so be it. And so should it be, I think, for all who treasure the Christian Scriptures.