Set Free for Service: Kasemann on Rom. 13

In his 1969 article “Principles on the Interpretation of Romans 13,” Ernst Kasemann offers what may be the best discussion of Romans 13 I have yet come across (and I’ve come across several dozen).  What is most remarkable about the article is that he succeeds in doing this despite resolutely refusing to take into account the context–the end of chapter 12 and 13:8-10–no, Romans 13:1-7 must be interpreted, he doggedly persists, as an independent unit.  Oddly, though, the resulting interpretation he offers is one that fits like a glove into this context, and which absolutely demands to be read in continuity with these flanking passages.  In other words, his conclusion would make much more sense and be much stronger as the result of an exegesis of 12:9-13:10, not merely 13:1-7.   

I shan’t try to summarize the whole article here, but I’ll try to cover a couple key bases and then share some of the particularly fine quotes toward the ends.  Kasemann surveys the basic existing interpretive options for Romans 13 (those existing as of 1969, at least; several more have arisen since) and says that the basic problem with all of them is that they want to reverse the priority of Paul’s command and the grounding he gives that command; they want to shift the emphasis from the concrete ethical directives to the abstract metaphysical principles that they feel must underlie these directives.  The history of the interpretation, he says, “suffers from its conception of the real problem as lying not in the content of the exhortation as such but in the basis on which it is made.”  Although of course the latter is important, he says, “I believe it to be an error to make this the pivot of the whole thing….the tenor of the passage is not didactic as if the parenesis were a conclusion from a thesis.  The stresses must not be incorrectly interchanged; otherwise we shall almost inevitably find ourselves on a path which does not correspond to the emphasis of the passage.”

Kasemann then surveys Paul’s seemingly “conservative,” even “reactionary” teaching on social issues elsewhere in the New Testament to develop the case that in all these places, what is key for Paul is how he wants the Christian to act toward the social order they find themselves in, not so much the theoretical grounding for the existence of that social order, on which Paul is often quite ad hoc.  And how is it that Paul wants the Christian to act?  In a freedom that makes itself the servant of all.  Over and over he rebuts what seem to be reasonable deductions of a doctrine of Christian freedom, because he wants to understand that the Christian has been liberated not to do whatever he wishes, but for service: the Corinthian view “takes account of freedom exclusively as freedom from burdensome compulsion.  The apostle, on the other hand, is concerned here, as always, with the freedom which knows itself to be called to serve.”  And that means a service that is inescapably embedded in the existing social order:

“According to Paul, it is none other than the Spirit who imposes himself on the everyday life of the world as being the locus of our service of God; while emancipation, even when it appeals to the Spirit, prefers to retreat from this everyday life and the possibilities of service that are given with it, and is thus a perversion of Christian freedom….The traditional arguments are, to put it in a nutshell, Paul’s emergency aids to call the Christian to take his stand before the true God, the Lord of the earth, and thus to call him to the possibility of a genuine service in everyday life.  Anyone who prefers to live in isolation from the world and its powers is in practice taking away from the world its character as God’s creation and is thereby disqualified from serious service.  For Christian service must take place on earth and in earth’s everyday life; otherwise it becomes a fantasy….To acknowledge the given nature of this everyday life, which may possibly wear the colours of dictatorship or slavery–it is just this that is charismatic activity, the possibility of Christian freedom.”   

Subjection is not called for so much on the basis of what the powers are but where they are–namely, in the order where the Christian finds himself called to serve:

“Finally, it is not the given realities in themselves which move the apostle to argue that ‘We must be subject’ but the necessity to authenticate Christian existence and the Christian’s status in the eyes of the Lord, who stakes his claim to the world by facing it continually, in the person of his servants, with the eschatological token of his lordship, the quality of tapeinophrosune [lowly-mindedness].” 

Kasemann’s reading finds its crux at verse 5, where he reads, as I do, the “not only fear, but also conscience” more as a “not really fear, but instead conscience”:

“That he [the Christian] does so [fulfils his political duties] without question is seen as proof that he has in fact no reason to fear the bearers of political power.  Verse 5 does not therefore bring a double motivation to bear–obedience both out of fear and for conscience’ sake–but an alternative: others may have grounds to fear the powers that be, the Christian obeys them as one who knows himself to be confronted in their claim with the divine summons and who in his obedience is rendering service to God.  There can then, here or elswehare, be no question of interpreting Christian obedience in action as slavish passive obedience.  Christian obedience is never blind; and indeed, open-eyed obedience, directed by suneidysis, must even be critical.  For him, God does not dissolve into his own immanence to the extent of being identified with it; rather, he remains Lord of the world and as such calls the Christian into the freedom of sonship.  An obedience that does not breathe this freedom of sonship does not deserve the designation ‘Christian’.” 

After a fantastic discussion of whether revolution is ever justified, Kasemann concludes, “In this exercise [understanding Rom. 13] everything will depend on preserving the paradoxical connection of necessity and freedom at the point of their deepest unity–that free man’s service which is the good estate of Christian existence in the world.”


3 thoughts on “Set Free for Service: Kasemann on Rom. 13

  1. Hi Brad,I've enjoyed reading your blog. I addressed this exact issue and a particular quote from Kasemann regarding it in a couple of posts on my blog a while back. I argued that he was pulling 13:1-7 out of a context that, I think, stretches as far back as 12:1 and well into chapter 14. I stand by my interpretation of 13:1-7 that I posted, but it sounds like I may have judged Kasemann too harshly off of just one quote. I like what you say here: "Kasemann then surveys Paul’s seemingly 'conservative,' even 'reactionary' teaching on social issues elsewhere in the New Testament to develop the case that in all these places, what is key for Paul is how he wants the Christian to act toward the social order they find themselves in…" I think this subservience/witness to the world is the key to Paul's 'conservative' morality, rather than morality for its own sake. If you're interested, the posts are here:http://alexlsilva.blogspot.com/2009/11/259-kasemann-and-romans-13-part-one.htmland here:http://alexlsilva.blogspot.com/2009/11/263-kasemann-and-romans-13-part-two.htmlRead if you're interested. Since I don't have access to the Kasemann article you cite, do you know happen to know where he makes this same argument in book form?

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Alex,Thanks so much for the links. As far as Kasemann himself, I am rather puzzled by that story you cite, because it seems quite at odds with everything I've seen him write on the topic. Although he is stubborn (and to my mind, stubbornly wrong) in isolating Romans 13:1-7 from its context, he tries to take the text with full seriousness, and never indulges in the silly rants against it or claims that it is an interpolation that you find among a few modern commentators. But I was intrigued to find that your take on the passage was so similar to the broad lines of the argument that I'm making in my project, particularly because I have so rarely found anything like it in the commentators. (I don't know how much of this blog you've read, but I'm working on a book on the interpretation of Romans 13.) Have you done any more work on this than what's reflected in that post? And for that matter, is that post the product of prolonged study or just the fruits of your own meditation on the passage? I'd love to exchange insights and sources with you. Feel free to email me: w.b.littlejohn@gmail.com

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey, just realized I forgot to answer about the book. The "article" I was talking about is actually, I think, a lecture that was translated and published along with several others by Kasemann in New Testament Questions of Today, which isn't too hard to get ahold of. There is also a valuable, though not nearly so interesting and provocative, discussion of the passage in his Commentary on Romans.

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