Love and Law in Romans 13

(I promise I’ll finish my coercion series just as soon as I have a chance…probably tomorrow…in the meantime, though, this is extremely relevant to what I’ll be saying in Parts 4 and 5)


When I first started doing my work on Romans 13, I was struck quite early on, looking at the Greek, from a curious verbal connection at verses 7 and 8: opheilas and opheilete.  “Render to all tas opheilas–what is owed them…Opheilete–owe–nothing except to love one another.”  Well this was curious, it seemed to me, not least because we were accustomed to reading the passage as if it ended at verse 7.  And yet, if there was intended to be a dramatic section break, then why such a seemingly close bond between these verses.  For it did not seem to be mere word-play to me…the juxtaposition is far too striking for Paul to have intended us to breeze on by it.  In verse 7, we are told that we are supposed to be attentive to what we owe people, and then in the next verse, we are told that we’re not supposed to owe anything to people, except to love them, that is.  That was a bit of a puzzle.  But perhaps, it occurred to me, it was actually the answer to a puzzle.  After all, verse 7 is singularly enigmatic.  “Render to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”  “But Paul,” we want to respond in exasperation, “don’t you see that’s the very question–how do we know what is properly owed to whom?”  If this is the question we are asking, then verse 8 provides an answer–”You don’t owe anything to anyone, except love, which is to say everything.”  

A little more work, the discovery of a chiasm and a few other exegetical breakthroughs, and it all seemed clear–Paul was turning the whole thing on its head. We generally approach political duties as if they were just that–duties, onerous obligations, things we have to do because we have no choice.  Paul was saying, “No, don’t view it that way.  This is not some law that constrains you by necessity–you are not bound to the state by debt.  No, the only debt you owe them is the debt of love which Christ has called you in freedom to discharge.  Serve, pay, obey, out of love, not the constraint of law.”  Intriguingly, Luther actually seemed to latch onto this theme in his 1515 lectures (though he seems to lose much of this insight in his later work):

“The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than by despising it.  The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone.  It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet.  The ‘soul’ is the same as the ‘spirit’ of man, but inasmuch as it lives and works, and serves the visible world and earthly things, it must be subject ‘to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake’ (1 Pet. 2:13).  By this subjection it obeys God and desires the same as God.  By this subjection it overcomes the temporal world even now….” 

“There is a servitude which is very precious.  Of this the Apostle speaks in Gal. 5:13: ‘By love serve one another.’  This liberty the Apostle has in mind also when he says that though he was free, yet he made himself a servant of all, in order that he might gain the more….This servitude is the greatest freedom, which demands nothing, takes nothing, but gives and distributes.  Therefore the most glorious, indeed the only freedom that is truly found alone among Christians.  This the Apostle states also in this chapter, where he writes, ‘Owe no man any thing, but to love one another’ (13:8). This is spiritual servitude in a good sense.  All things serve man (Christians)…They themselves, however, are servants of none, for they are in need of no one, as already said.”

But Luther seems to be the only interpreter I have found who has drawn this kind of connection (unless perhaps it is Brunner, in the quote I posted yesterday…but Brunner remains at the level of principles, and does not engage the text in any detail).  Shockingly, a majority of interpreters did not seem to even notice the verbal connection.  They finished exegeting Romans 13:7 on its own terms, ended the section, started another section fresh, exegeted it on its own terms, and moved on, oblivious.  Of the interpreters who did notice the verbal connection, almost all of them seemed to view it as merely stylistic.  None seemed to think that Paul actually intended anything by it, and none seemed to think that it should call into question the traditional section division, whereby we drive a sharp wedge between 13:1-7 and what follows.  I’ve started wondering, “Am I blind or are they all blind?”  Very few interpreters seemed to lay any serious weight on 13:8a, much less imagine that it should perhaps condition our reading of 13:1-7.


Yesterday, I had the good fortune to come across a commentary that defied this trend, but again, it failed to develop the potential revolutionary significance of the verse.  Robert Jewett’s magisterial commentary on Romans, every time it drew attention to the verse, pulled back from developing any interesting insights.  First, at the outset of his discussion of Romans 13, he said, “While the suggestion has been made that the pericope extends to 13:8a, there is practically universal agreement among commentators that it ends with v. 7.”  Oh good gracious!  Not the “practically universal agreement” argument.  When you read a couple dozen of these commentaries back-to-back (as I have had to do), you start to find out how much of what passes in this business for exegesis is just a matter of vain repetition.  One commentator makes an assumption, and so every commentator afterward makes the same assumption, and footnotes the first commentator.  You go back to the first commentator and find that he never produced an argument, he just assumed.  So it is here.  The “practically universal agreement,” from what I have seen, stems not from any careful argument about why the passage should end in 13:7 rather than 13:8, but rather from every single commentator simply assuming without argument that it did, which he could safely assume because so did every other commentator.  

We find an intriguing footnote here:

“Bernhard Bonsack develops this suggestion in ‘Rohmaterialien zu Rom. 13, 1-8a….’ in order to contend that in view of the sole commitment to love, obligations to the state are nonbinding.  This is supported by reconceiving the imperative in 13:1 as an indicative and rearranging 13:6-7 to read ‘For they are ministers of God.  Keeping this in mind, render to all what is obligated….;  While this reading is appealing on contemporary ethical grounds, it requires too many strained exegetical choices, and the only scholar to accept it is Riekkinen.” 

Huh.  Well, I don’t know about those suggestions regarding 13:1 and 13:6-7, and I’m not sure why they’d be necessary, but that sounds a heck of a lot like my reading.  I’d dearly like to read Bonsack and Riekkinen; unfortunately, they both wrote in German.   Jewett dismissively refers to “strained exegetical choices” here, but I’m not sure what these are.  If anything is a strained exegetical choice, it seems to me that it would be the choice to assume that when Paul talks about owing people stuff in verse 7 and then talks about not owing people stuff in verse 8, he intends no connection.  

Later on, when Jewett comes to verse 8, he takes note of the verbal connection, but immediately downplays it: “Although the opening maxim is linked with the foregoing verse by the term ‘obligation’ in 13:8, and with the earlier admonition to genuine love in 12:9, this pericope is quite independent in structure and rationale.”  He has learned this trick from all his forebears–as long as you take note of countervailing evidence at the beginning of your sentence, you can go on to simply assert its insignificance in the second half of the sentence, without providing any proof.  Isn’t it proof enough that you noticed the countervailing evidence, and yet can still make your assertion?  Surely you wouldn’t continue to make the assertion without good reason, so we don’t need to ask you what that reason is.  Jewett goes on to note that verses 7 and 8 stand in relation to one another as “antilogical gnomai”–that is to say maxims that appear to contradict one another.  This looks quite promising, as we expect that, Jewett having noted this, he will then suggest why they do not contradict each other.   What he goes on to say looks quite promising, and similar to Emil Brunner’s remarks about love encompassing and transforming justice (see previous post): “He wants Christians to be slaves of no human, if they can avoid it, indebted only to mutual love. Their former social obligations are to be replaced by a single new obligation to mee the needs of fellow members in the Church.”

So 13:8a is being used as a way of re-reading 13:1-7?  No, I’m afraid not.  Rather, the two designate different realms.  Vis-a-vis the authorities, we are in debt, under obligation; 13:8 marks a transition so that within the Church, on the contrary, we are free to serve one another in love.  He justifies this reading by his insistence that “one another” always refers to an inter-ecclesial context.  This would be convincing, except that in 12:16 (with which 13:8 is chiastically linked, “one another” is used in a context that intentionally blurs the lines between conduct toward outsider and insider.  In 12:14 and 12:17-21, Paul seems clearly to be talking about how Christians should relate to outsiders.  12:15 and 16 would seem to be more directed toward conduct within the community.  But as several commentators have recognized, the point of this juxtaposition seems to be that Paul is calling for Christians to treat enemies outside with exactly the same kind of love as they treat Christians within the fellowship.  So why shouldn’t “one another” in 13:8 also suggest a wider scope?  This is my question, and one that no commentator seems interested in answering.  


One thought on “Love and Law in Romans 13

  1. Alexander Garden

    The whole magistrate thing comes into play here because we are not to recompense evil for evil but to give place for vengeance. Verse 8 might also be referring back to one's persecutors.I see the argument running from 12:9 through the end of thirteen, and of course connected to what came before and what comes after.

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