Thursday, September 28, 2006

More on "The Man of Romans 7"

(continued from here)

Eric Phillips pointed out the Antiochene tradition as one example of a patristic treatment of Romans 7 which he sees as broadly “mesh[ing] quite naturally with simul justus et peccator.” Now, he says this primarily in regard to a commentary he's studied of Theodore of Mopsuhestia, but also cites a homily of John Chrysotom. I cannot speak to his reading of Theodore, whom he doesn’t cite, but I can read the homily of John's as conveniently translated and linked.

But actually, as I read it the Chrysostom homily says quite clearly that "the Man of Romans 7" is the pre-Christian man, and that the Christian will indeed move from the “Man of Romans 7" to the “Man of Romans 8," just as perfectionist Wesleyanism maintained. In short, it is similar to the youthful view Augustine later repudiated and quite opposite to Augustine's mature view. Let me substantiate this analysis.

As John Chrysostom concludes his discussion of v. 14, For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin, he writes this about Paul’s discussion:

For after praising the Law, he hastens immediately to the earlier period, that he may show the state of our race, both then and at the time it received the Law, and make it plain how necessary the presence of grace was, a thing he labored on every occasion to prove. For when he says, "sold under sin," he means it not of those who were under the Law only, but of those who had lived before the Law also, and of men from the very first. Next he mentions the way in which they were sold and made over (emphasis added).

As becomes clear, the "Man of Romans 7" lives in "the earlier period" -- either under the law of Moses or else in the pre-Mosaic, patriarchal, period.

He then immediately cites v. 15: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. His discussion here is oriented primarily to clearing the Law of condemnation, showing how the flesh here criticized is not our physical nature as created by God, and arguing that the compulsion here must leave our free will intact, For if it was not willingly, but by compulsion, that we sinned, then the punishments that took place before would not be justifiable. Nowhere in this discussion does he modify the impression given above that he is taking those who were either “under the Law only,” i.e. Jews, or else “those who had lived before the Law also,” i.e. the Gentiles, patriarchs, and antedilluvians.

But in his discussion of 8:3, he moves through how Christ's crucifixion condemned sin in the flesh, and then in v. 4, makes it clear that all that went before was relevant only to the Jews and Gentiles, not Christians. A sinless life after baptism is quite possible:

And the making a stand against it, and the getting the better of it, came from Him. But it is for us to enjoy the victory. Then shall we never sin henceforth? We never shall unless we have become exceedingly relaxed and supine. . . .

So showing, that it is not only binding upon us to keep ourselves from evil deeds, but also to be adorned with good. For to give thee the crown is His; but it is thine to hold it fast when given. . . .

For in this passage he shows that the Font [of baptism] will not suffice to save us, unless, after coming from it, we display a life worthy of the Gift. And so he again advocates the Law in saying what he does. For when we have once become obedient to Christ, we must use all ways and plans so that its righteousness, which Christ fulfilled, may abide in us, and not come to naught.

To John Chrysostom, the "Man of Romans 7" is indeed humanity before the crucifixion. This fact and his lack of Augustine’s distinction between mortal and venial sin gives his treatment of the passage its perfectionistic force, what I called before “achievable asceticism.” This is particularly clear in his long peroration on v.6: For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace:

What he says then is not that it is impossible for a man that is wicked to become good, but that it is impossible for one who continues wicked to be subject to God. Yet for a man to be changed, and so become good, and subject to Him, is easy. For he does not say that man cannot be subject to God, but that wicked doing cannot be good. As if he had said, fornication cannot be chastity, nor vice virtue. . . . (emphasis added).

What was an enduring anthropological point in Romans 8:7, is now a simple logical tautology.

For that which thou hadst no power to do under the Law, now, he means, thou wilt be able to do, to go on uprightly, and with no intervening fall, if thou layest hold of the Spirit's aid. For it is not enough not to walk after the flesh, but we must also go after the Spirit, since turning away from what is evil will not secure our salvation, but we must also do what is good. And this will come about, if we give our souls up to the Spirit, and persuade our flesh to get acquainted with its proper position, for in this way we shall make it also spiritual; as also if we be listless we shall make our soul carnal [For more on how to be Spirit-filled and live the victorious life," complete with helpful graphs of the proper position of the flesh in relation to the cross and the Spirit, click on the links.] For since it was no natural necessity which put the gift into us, but the freedom of choice placed it in our hands, it rests with thee henceforward whether this shall be or the other. For He, on His part, has performed everything (emphasis added).

"God will do His part! You can do yours!"

For sin no longer warreth against the law of our mind, neither doth it lead us away captive as heretofore, for all that state has been ended and broken up, and the affections cower in fear and trembling at the grace of the Spirit. But if thou wilt quench the light, and cast out the holder of the reins, and chase the helmsman away, then charge the tossing thenceforth upon thyself. For since virtue hath been now made an easier thing (for which cause also we are under far stricter obligations of religious living), consider how men's condition lay when the Law prevailed, and how at present, since grace hath shone forth. The things which aforetime seemed not possible to any one, virginity, and contempt of death, and of other stronger sufferings, are now in full vigor through every part of the world, and it is not with us alone, but with the Scythians, and Thracians, and Indians, and Persians, and several other barbarous nations, that there are companies of virgins, and clans of martyrs, and congregations of monks, and these now grown even more numerous than the married, and strictness of fasting, and the utmost renunciation of property. Now these are things which, with one or two exceptions, persons who lived under the Law [like the Man of Romans 7] never conceived even in a dream. Since thou seest then the real state of things voiced with a shriller note than any trumpet, let not thyself grow soft and treacherous to so great a grace (emphasis added).

This is perfectionism and achievable asceticism, and among the fourth century Greeks, as among the nineteenth century Wesleyans, it comes from the reading of the “Man of Romans 7" as some previous state in Paul's life, from which his readers must move to become the “Man of Romans 8."

UPDATE: As Jeremy pointed out in the comments, my perfectionist/Wesleyan terminology was a bit "off." So I decided to just to link to the many web-sites that teach this and let them speak for themselves in favor of John Chrysostom's reading and against the older Augustine and Luther.