Romans 13 and the Law of Love

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the subject, one of the keys to the reading of Romans 13 that I’ve been working on is to read verse 8 as if it reflects back on vs. 1-7.  This seems a rather natural thing to do, especially in view of the clear verbal connection between v. 7 and v. 8, but in the dozens of commentaries I’ve consulted, I have searched almost entirely in vain for a commentator who made any use of 13:8 to help interpret Paul’s message in 13:1-7. 

Until I came to Calvin (or rather, returned to Calvin–the first time I looked at his commentary on the passage, a year and a half ago, I didn’t even notice this juicy tidbit).  Calvin does not follow the practice of most commentators in isolating 13:1-7 as an independent section, but handles chapter 13 as a whole, and doesn’t see any major break between 7 and 8.  This means that when he comes to “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another,” he reads it, as I do, as saying, “Recognize that all your various duties are in fact nothing more or less than specifications of the call to show love to all.  In other words, these responsibilities I have just been telling you about–obeying the magistrate–are to be understood as part of what it means to exercise Christian charity.”  Wow.  This is what I would call a big deal.  But Calvin, alas, is not doing quite what I’m trying to do.  Let’s look at exactly what he says:

“I think Paul wished to refer the precept concerning the power of the magistrates to the law of love, that none might consider it weak, as if he had said, ‘When I request your obedience to magistrates, I require only what all Christians ought to perform, according to the law of love.’  For if you are desirous for virtuous men to prosper, (and not to desire this would be contrary to the feelings of humanity,) you ought to study, and zealously to labour to give validity to the laws and statutes, that he people may be obedient to the guardians and protectors of the laws, by whose blessing and favour the tranquillity of all is secured.  Charity, therfore, is violated by the introducers of anarchy, which is immediately followed by the confusion and disturbance of all establishments.  For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law–Paul’s plan is to reduce all the commands of the law to love, that we may be assured of our obedience to the commands being conducted in a proper manner when love is maintained; and we should be prepared to undergo any burden, by which the law of charity may be preserved entire and unbroken.  The precepts already given concerning obeyed to magistrates, in which no small part of love consists, are thus strongly confirmed by Paul.” 

Now this is quite interesting.  Calvin does explicitly assert that the commands in 13:1-7 are to be understood as extensions of the law of love, but not of love shown to the magistrate, but to all our neighbors in society.  The magistrate is so good for society, argues Calvin, that if we are to love our neighbors, we must obey and reverence the magistrate, as a way of loving our neighbor.  This would seem to run directly counter to my reading, in which the point, following off of the discussion in ch. 12 of loving enemies, feeding them, and overcoming them with good, is to say, “Even though the magistrates may seem like your enemies, serve and obey them anyway, because this is all part of how you show Christlike love to them, and overcome their evil with your good.”   

Of course, the two readings are not antithetical, but there is a remarkable difference of emphasis.  A similar tendency emerges in the commentary of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s, who, following Chrysostom, argued that there was a connection between the “Do not repay evil for evil” in 12:17 and the commands not to rebel against the magistrate in 13:1-7. Again, their connection was not mine–“Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, and that includes the magistrate: whatever trouble the Roman authorities give you, don’t repay it with rebellion”–but was, on the contrary, to say, “Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, and all the more so, don’t repay evil for good, like the good that the magistrate does you.”   

These readings, while they do not seem to be as probable in context, would seem to be supported by 13:4: “He is a servant of God for your good.”  My instinct is that the two readings are not so mutually exclusive as may seem, but that there might be a bit of both going on.  But that is for another day.  For now, I merely want to draw attention to how interesting it is that the instincts of the Calvin, Vermigli, and Chrysostom, given their own experience of the magistrates, was to assume the magistrate as a friend, whereas the instinct of many of us today is to assume him as an enemy.  

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