"The Law" in Romans


#1

We’ve been reading Romans in class (more of an English class, and definitely not religious), analyzing its arguments. We came across something that’s really annoying, and that’s the meaning of “law”. It seems like Paul is alternating in meaning between the Mosaic law and the laws of absolute morality, but giving absolutely no indication of when he’s changing meanings. This is frustrating, because it means that at times it seems like Paul is contradicting himself. Someone looked back to the original Greek to see if there was any distinction there, but Paul consistently used the word νόμος, noumou, which appears to encompass both of those definitions.

We’re pretty sure based on context what Paul is talking about at any given instance, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not just contradicting himself, but does anyone have other evidence that shows what Paul is specifically talking about at each instance of the word “law”?


#2

Is there a passage in particular that was causing ya’ll heartache?

Usually, the issue in understanding Romans has to do with understanding the meaning of ‘works’, not of ‘law’…


#3

In general the first five chapters, but Romans Chapter 3 is particularly vexing, especially 3:19, where it says “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (We’re using the NRSV edition, by the way, in case that makes any difference)

That verse makes it sound like he’s referring to an absolute morality, where before in Rom 2:13-14, it sounds like he’s referring specifically to Mosaic law: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.”

The only problem is that there’s no indication of which one he specifically means.


#4

We’re pretty sure based on context what Paul is talking about at any given instance, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not just contradicting himself, but does anyone have other evidence that shows what Paul is specifically talking about at each instance of the word “law”?

Think of Paul in the context of his Jewish background. By “law”, Paul is generally referring to the Torah - the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In these books we find dozens upon dozens of laws, everything from the Ten Commandments to ritual purification laws.

Remember, Paul was a student of Gamaliel, learned in Torah, and raised as a Jew. He would have learned the Torah at a young age and throughout his adult life. For Jews, even today, the Torah is the law. Whenever you hear “law” in the New Testament, it typically refers to the Torah.


#5

Hmm… I wouldn’t have thought this is what you were talking about…

before in Rom 2:13-14, it sounds like he’s referring specifically to Mosaic law: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.”

Right: here, except for the last instance, the references to ‘law’ are to the Jewish Torah.

[This] verse makes it sound like he’s referring to an absolute morality: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

Hmm… no, that’s not how I would interpret this verse. Look at what precedes it: Paul is liberally quoting from Scripture in Rom 3:10-18. Scripture, then, is the particular ‘law’ that he’s referencing here, not the Torah or moral law. These verses assert truths about all humanity, and therefore, all are under this ‘law’ of Scripture (considered broadly). Therefore, “every mouth [is] silenced”, since every person is said by God to be unable to justify himself. In this way, then, all are held accountable to God, and not to themselves.

In a way, I see what you’re saying – in the verse you quoted, Paul uses ‘law’ to refer to Scripture at large, which applies to everyone. Nevertheless, the reference in Rom 3:19 does not speak to what Christians would assert as ‘moral law’, per se. However, in general, when Paul talks about “the law”, he’s talking about the Torah – the Mosaic law, as it were, under which the Jews are held accountable, but under which no one is justified, in contrast to Jesus’ new law of grace.

Does this help?


#6

Look at the neighborhood where you live. For example, I am in Minnesota. A “righteous Minnesotan” is “one of the Minnesotans”, meaning one living here as a Minnesotan lives, and not living as a non-Minnesotan might live.
A person robbing a convenience store is not living as a Minnesotan lives, but is living as a non-Minnesotan lives. This one is not a righteous (good) Minnesotan. And he is not justified in using the name “Minnesotan” in talking about himself (in the truest sense of the word), even though he was born her and lives here.

Paul is telling the Romans (Gentile converts) that they, like Abraham, have this Citizenship into being the People. God is “looking for those who will take him at his word”, as Jesus said to Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” - taking God at his word. That is what Abraham did, and what the Romans did. They did not depend on being genetically born into the people or changing stones to bread, but took Jesus at his word (in the Gospel announced to them). This is what “justification” is about in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He wanted the Catholics in Rome to understand themselves as the People of God, and not to be put down by the Jews as if they were not God’s People, nor to look at their old lifestyle as Gentile sinners and then think they were therefore worthless people in God’s eyes. He wanted them to take him (Paul) at his word as the Apostle to the Gentiles that they were “Chosen” in Christ. And that faith in Christ made them the special People. He was seeking to send an understanding through their ears to their souls. And the result would be a new self-image in their souls, which would be “animated” in their physical selves by the Holy Spirit.

I think Jews were telling Gentile Christians in Rome that they were not justified in thinking of themselves as the Chosen People because they were not circumcised, were not practicing the Jewish traditions, were not descended from Abraham, etc. But Paul was saying to them that they were justified in calling themselves the People of God because they took Jesus and his Apostles at their word and received baptism from them, just the same way Abraham took God at his word and left his homeland and considered himself justified in thinking he was a “special man of God, who would be the father of a great nation” - in other words, Paul wants us to accept the understanding that we are that People and not be intimidated by claims that we are no different than anyone else and we are not a Special People in the world. And they are not like they used to be before they knew Christ. They are neither Jew nor Gentile, but a strange new People, like Abraham was.

Now they are the People (just as a Minnesotan is a Minnesotan), Not only that, but in making them “the People”, God put his Spirit into them so they now knew how to live out their new “being the People”, being good. He didn’t just consider them his People, but gave them goodness to use, to be “really good and true doers of all God commanded” just like Abraham got up and travelled 800 miles to Hebron.


#7

Thanks a lot - that really does clear a lot of things up. We were pulling out our hair trying to figure out which instances of “law” referred to either the Mosaic law or moral law! I’ll present my findings to the class on Monday, then.

We’ve only really discussed the first five chapters so far - hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about everything else before Thanksgiving.

What did you think I was going to ask about?


#8

Wait until you get to chapter 8 my friend. Your mind will be blown as St.Paul takes the discussion of the law and completely turns it upside down. It is crucial though to understand the “old law” he speaks of, or else, you will be lost when he presents his refutations in chapter 8. Keep seeking the truth in the Scripture and when in doubt, call upon the Holy Ghost to upon your eyes.


#9

To answer your question, I would posit that St. Paul is referring to the “law” in both senses of the word “law” as you proposed; absolute morals and the Torah law. For absolute morality was contained within the Mosaic law. The Mosaic law was, in itself, righteous! This is a critical point that must be understood. However, God’s chosen people were unable to fulfill the righteous decree of the law, principally because they lacked grace to elevate them above their sinful nature. The solution to this problem lies in the paradox/mystery of the cross. I do not want to elaborate because I feel I might be getting off topic now but anyway pm me if you want to talk more!


#10

I was talking to my professor about it, and he said that he was pretty sure Paul was exclusively referring to Mosaic law, which he said made the whole book confusing to him. So I’m trying to go through exactly what he means every time he talks about the law in a way that makes sense even to secular college professors. :slight_smile:


#11

Re: people not under the Law doing what the Mosaic law said –

Huge chunks of Mosaic law don’t actually apply to you if you’re a Gentile unbeliever. The parts that do apply to Gentile unbelievers are the Noah covenant rules, and a few other things along that line… so it’s pretty much a case of universal moral law being the only part of Mosaic law that applies to Gentiles.


#12

The end of chapter 7 and parts of chapter 8. “The law of sin” and such… :wink:


#13

God’s chosen people were unable to fulfill the righteous decree of the law, principally because they lacked grace to elevate them above their sinful nature. The solution to this problem lies in the paradox/mystery of the cross.

True enough, but the Law would be difficult for anyone to keep, Jew or Gentile. There is a section in the Torah where Moses admonishes the Jewish people that they can fulfill the Law, that it is possible to do so. He also outlines the punishments and the rewards for keeping Torah. Nonetheless, the Bible proves time and time again how difficult it was.


#14

Well… we saw that, in chapter 3, Paul calls the Scripture citations he quotes “the law”, but strictly speaking, they’re not part of the Mosaic law. Moreover, the quotations talk about God’s judgment on all peoples, not just those under the Mosaic law.

, which he said made the whole book confusing to him.

Umm… how so? The (Mosaic) law was good; the law made people aware of what sin was (“oh… I’m not allowed to covet? I didn’t know that! Umm… lemme try some of that coveting thing!”); the law didn’t justify people; grace through faith in Christ is what justifies people. I’m not seeing where the confusion is… :shrug: :wink:


#15

He said he was confused by 3:19 - “Now we know that what the law says is addressed to those under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world stand accountable to God…” Because why should Gentiles - not under the law - be held accountable. He thought it would make more sense if law here referred to a moral law, since everyone would definitely be under it.

But I think I’m starting to understand what y’all are talking about here.


#16

Right – but as we mentioned here, the ‘law’ in this context refers to the Scriptures, in which God talks about things that apply to all people, not just the Jews. This isn’t a reference to a universal moral law, but the ‘law’ that is the Word of God, which Paul has just quoted at length:

“As it is written:” in the Scriptures]

"There is no one just, not one, see Ecclesiastes 7:20]

there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God. See Psalm 53:3]

All have gone astray; all alike are worthless;
there is not one who does good,
[there is not] even one. See Psalm 14:3; Psalm 53:4]

Their throats are open graves;
they deceive with their tongues; See Psalm 5:10]
the venom of asps is on their lips; See Psalm 140:4]

their mouths are full of bitter cursing. See Psalm 10:7]

Their feet are quick to shed blood; See Proverbs 1:16; Isaiah 59:7]
ruin and misery are in their ways,

and the way of peace they know not. See Isaiah 59:8]

There is no fear of God before their eyes." See Psalms 36:2]

Now we know that what the law says that is, what Scripture says] is addressed to those under the law i.e., under Scripture, since God speaks here to all people], so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world stand accountable to God.

Can you see it now, laid out like this? Paul isn’t talking – he’s letting the Scriptures (i.e., God) talk. God is talking to all men in these Scriptures Paul quotes; so, nobody can say, “oh, that doesn’t apply to me” – in other words, “every mouth is silenced and the whole world accountable”… :wink:


#17

Maybe Rom 13:8-10 can shed some light on Paul’s use of the term “law”:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.


#18

Rom 3:19 seems to echo Rom 2 in that it’s saying that all sin, and all are held accountable for it, even if they’ve never heard the law. The reason for this is that, as the catechism teaches, the law, the natural law, **is already written in the hearts of all men. Those who’ve heard the publicly revealed law may well be held to a higher level of accountability but, “**All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom 2:12-13


#19

But those verses in Rom 3 only testify to the fact that all men break the law. So verses 22-23 makes sense:
"There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
All are under the moral law.


#20

Hmm… no, they illustrate the point that “Jews and Greeks alike … are all under the domination of sin” (Rom 3:9).

So verses 22-23 makes sense:
"There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
All are under the moral law.

You can nuance “all have sinned” as “all have broken the law”, but to do that, you’d have to create a distinction that separates the two groups: Jews have broken the law (of Moses) and Gentiles have broken the law (found in Scripture). The point of Romans 3:9ff, I’d assert, isn’t that there’s a distinction between Jew and Greek, but rather, that there’s no distinction: each have sinned (without, in this passage, detailing how they’ve done so); each have fallen short of God’s expectation.


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