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.  

A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m prone to forget just why it is that N.T. Wright stands head-and-shoulders above all of his colleagues and rivals in the field of New Testament Studies, until I read an article of his again, after wading through a dozen scholars drivelling an intolerably boring concoction of scholarly minutia and sudden non-sequiturs, mixed (more often than not) with a large dose of heresy.  You turn the next page of the essay collection and out Wright bursts, big, boisterous, booming, and jolly, like a Santa Claus, come to think of it, with a huge sack of goodies on his back, nuggets of insight filled with common sense, clarity, and lo and behold! orthodoxy, delivered with an air of easy jollity and peerless prose.  I found myself typing up whole paragraph-long quotations, out of pure joy at their lucidity and good sense.  They are not, by any ordinary standards, particularly eloquent, nor are they necessarily groundbreaking (although they are helpful for my Romans 13 research).  But they are excellent.  So, here’s a few, from “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” (the tenth essay in the ten-times-more-tedious-than-it-sounds-from-the-title Paul and Politics, ed. by Richard Horsley):


“The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, appears to show that the cult of Caesar, so far from being one new religion among many in the Roman world, had already by the time of Paul’s missionary activity become not only the dominant cult in a large part of the empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, but was actually the means (as opposed to overt large-scale military presence) whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway.  The emperor’s far-off presence was made ubiquitous by the standard means of statues and coins (the latter being the principal mass medium of the ancient world), reflecting his image throughout his domains; he was the great benefactor through whom the great blessings of justice and peace, and a host of lesser ones besides, were showered outwards upon the grateful populace, who in turn worshipped him, honored him, and paid him taxes.  In all this, the book asks pertinently, were the emperor’s subjects doing something religious, or something political?” (161)

“His missionary work must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering thier lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth.  This could not but be construed as deeply counterimperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.” (161-2)

“It is, of course, much easier to highlight Paul’s confrontation with some aspect of his world when the aspect in question is one that is currently so very deeply out of fashion.  To say that Paul opposed imperialism is about as politically dangerous as suggesting that he was in favor of sunlight, fresh air, and orange juice.” (164)

“Paul, in other words, was not opposed to Caesar’s empire primarily because it was an empire, with all the unpleasant things we have learned to associate with that word, but because it was Caesar’s, and because Caesar was claiming divine status and honors which belonged only to the one God.” (164)

“[Calling Jesus “Lord”] was a challenge to the lordship of Caesar, which, though ‘political’ from our point of view as well as in the first century, was also prodoundly ‘religious.’  Caesar demanded worship as well as ‘secular’ obedience: not just taxes, but sacrifices.  Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world.  He was therefore to be hailed as Lord and trusted as Savior.  This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord.” (168)



Romans 13:1-7 an Interpolation?

In 1965, James Kallas published a rambunctious and controversial article in New Testament Studies entitled “Romans 13:1-7: An Interpolation.”  In so doing, he did a great service to future commentators on Romans, who, upon reaching chapter 13, found themselves tossing about for something intelligent to say–now they could fill up several pages rehearsing the arguments for and against the interpolation thesis, which, along with the obligatory discussion of the Cullmann hypothesis, almost relieved them entirely of the necessity for any original thought.  However, few of the myriad succeeding discussions of the interpolation thesis has adequately addressed the foundation of Kallas’s wild theory.  The article itself can only be described as a shrill rant, as Kallas works himself into a frothy passion in a frantic attempt to convince himself (more than anyone else) that something he fears and detests could not possibly be true.  It would be easy (and not too unfair) to dismiss the central argument of his article as little more than “I love Paul, and I hate what this passage says, so Paul can’t possibly have written it.”  To which Robert Jewett acidly retorts,“Distaste for a passage has no bearing on its authenticity.”

And yet, despite the fundamental vapidity of Kallas’s argument, he is able to gain a great deal of traction and give it the illusion of cogency because the abysmal performance of commentators up to his time enabled him to make two startling claims almost uncontested.  First, “this little section of seven verses has always been recognized by theologians as a self-contained envelope completely independent of its context.”   Second, that in Romans 13 Paul urges “ardent and active support” of the civil order instead of mere humble submission because he “assumes that the state is in essence good.”

Let us take these in reverse.  As Kallas tries to sketch the contradictions between what Paul says in Romans 13 and what he says elsewhere, he is generally fairly clear and compelling in sketching the latter, but when it comes to describing the former, he contents himself with a few cursory remarks and no exegesis, providing a completely distorted straw man of the chapter’s argument.  Nowhere is this more clear than with the “ardent and active support” claim.  Here is the paragraph:  

“In the light of this [eschatological] world view one could well imagine Paul urging his followers to submit to the abuses of this passing corrupted order, but it is impossible to conceive of Paul urging ardent and active support of that order.  The viewpoint of Paul is to be found in Rom. 12:14f., where he urges the Christian to submit to undeserved abuse….Even conceding that Paul could not and would not encourage rebellion, why go to the other extreme and insist that he demanded ardent active support of the state?  Is there no middle ground between active support and hostile rebellion?  Surely there is, in the fact of humble submission.  This is the pattern which Paul follows….Paul did not demand the active support of the state which is enjoined upon the Christian by the unknown author of Rom. 13:1-7.  Paul did not write that, for it assumes that the state is in essence good.  Paul instead pleaded for passive submission to evil which comes from any source, the state herein included, and that is what he calls for in Rom. 12:14f.”

But of course it seems quite clear to me that the stance described in Rom. 12:14f.–”humble submission”–is identical with the stance described in Rom. 13:1-7.  Nonetheless, Kallas is able to be so careless with his exegesis because the vast majority of commentators up till his time did represent the stance of Romans 13 as a one of “ardent and active support” of the state.  Since the 1960s, many commentators have moved (though haltingly and with lingering inconsistencies) to a more nuanced view of what Paul is in fact asking for in Romans 13, thus bringing it considerably more into line with the rest of his teaching that Kallas rehearses (though on most readings, it still sits somewhat uncomfortably).


What about the other point?  Is it true that “this little section of seven verses has always been recognized by theologians as a self-contained envelope completely independent of its context”?  That would seem bizarre indeed–who writes a letter and inserts a 175-word paragraph with no relation to what comes before and after?  Well, I know a few ADD people who might, but it’s hard to imagine why Paul would.  And yet, Kallas is more or less correct in asserting that commentators before his time unanimously treated this as a completely independent section, a point he makes much of at the outset of his article.  Remarkably, since Kallas’s article, despite the obligatory rebuttals in every commentary, this basic stance has changed little.  The standard approach has continued to assume a basic independence of the passage, and only qualified this independence to the extent necessary to deny the interpolation argument.  Sometimes scholars will seem to glimpse the light–“wait…maybe this passage actually ought to be read in context” and then, frightened by the possible insights this might generate, they retreat to the safety of the “self-contained envelope.”  Robert Stein provides a great example of this in a 1989 article: “Numerous attempts have been made to show that it is not simply an intrusion into the context, but that it has significant ties to what precedes and follows….[A survey of these follows.  Then, without rebutting any of them, he says:] Even if there are ties with the immediately surrounding materials, it must nevertheless be admitted that the ties are at best loose.”  He then quotes Kasemann to make himself feel comfortable with this blithe assertion, and moves on.  In fact, nearly everyone likes to quote Kasemann, particularly his little “alien body” remark: “Our section is an independent block.  In view of its singular scope it can be pointedly called an alien body in Paul’s exhortation.”  Yet this assertion does not sit well with Kasemann’s own insistence, at the outset of commenting on chapter 12, that Paul’s “train of thought is by no means as unsystematic as many suppose today.  Viewed a a whole, the Epistle to the Romans reveals a closely knit argumentation which is hidden only to those who do not exert enough effort over it.”  Exactly–those who do not exert enough effort over it.  Such as for instance S. Hutchinson, who in 1971 wrote that 13:1-7’s independence from its context posed no problem in view of the loose connections of 12:9-21, a “grab-bag of disconnected unsorted teachings which do not reflect any effort at continuous argument”–thus “a close logical connection between chapters 12 and 13 is hardly to be expected.”  Pace Hutchinson, commentators have in fact discerned a number of literary and thematic ties that knit this section firmly together.  

Few, however, have given much effort to discerning such ties with 13:1-7, for reasons that continue to mystify me.  In my post last week, I mentioned the very weak recognition given to the opheil- connection in 13:7 and 13:8, and this is of course only one of many semantic threads tying together the section.  I have recently learned that a Dutch scholar named de Kruijf presented a paper back in the ‘80s arguing for “a network of inclusions” from 12:16 and 13:8, which I am desperate to get ahold of, since that is the first reference I have encountered in the scholarly literature recognizing the 12:16-13:8 chiasm.  In “Romans 13:1-7: A Test Case for New Testament Interpretation,” J.I.H. McDonald acknowledges efforts such as de Kruijf’s, calling them “impressive attempts…to demonstrate how completely Rom. 13:1-7 relates to its context in Romans.”  This is more recognition than most scholars give.  However, McDonald goes on to say, “Such efforts tend to ignore one important feature (and here I am more in sympathy wth the critics): the inner logic of the passage is completely self-contained.  Though linked with its context in Romans the passage is in some respects an isolated unity.  The primary base of authentic interpretation is to be located in the inner logic of the passage rather than in its literary context.  Although the latter is not without significance, since it may well contain indications as to why this passage was introduced by the author at this point, the rhetorical unit is Rom 13.1-7 itself.”  

Now, there is perhaps something to this.  McDonald would appear to be right that 13:1-7 is bound together by a coherent inner logic, obviating the need to explain it in terms of outside context.  (Even this, I would suggest, ought perhaps to be contested at one or two points, such as the opheil– link, but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.)  But is it true, as a general principle of interpretation, that “the primary base of authentic interpretation is to be located in the inner logic of the passage rather than in its literary context”?  Kasemann says something similar: “In the first instance it has to be expounded in terms of itself, and only subsequently, in the light of 12:1f.”  This is very good and scientific of them–science loves to try and deal with isolated phenomena on their own terms, and only later (if at all) try to integrate them with the bigger picture.  But this not very good literary criticism (in fact, it is not even very good science, as my friend Brad Belschner argues in the upcoming issue of Fermentations).  If we were studying a novel, and we found that several of the chapters could function as meaningful units on their own, like a bunch of independent short stories (which for many chapters in many novels would be the case), does this mean that we ought first to try to expound the meaning of the chapter as an individual unit, and only then evaluate what additional light might be shed by its context?  If we did so, we would almost certainly be led astray, for the argument of each chapter taken on its own would often contradict the argument of the work as a whole.  The rejoinder might be made that Paul is writing a letter, not a work of literature–and don’t we often write random asides in letters that have little relation to the rest of the letter?  Perhaps some of us do, but did Paul?  And in particular, did Paul in Romans?  Most of these commentators who happily grant the independence of Romans 13 elsewhere see it as their task to uncover the detailed logical and linguistic links tying together Paul’s exposition in a seamless argument.  As Kasemann says, “Viewed a a whole, the Epistle to the Romans reveals a closely knit argumentation which is hidden only to those who do not exert enough effort over it.”

McDonald betrays his assumptions when he says that the passage’s inner logic “obviates the need” to explain it in terms of the context, as if the goal is to explain it on its own terms, and we resort to the surrounding context only if necessary.  But this is like saying that the structural integrity of the human heart obviates the need to explain its function in terms of its relation to the whole human body.  We may of course choose to temporarily bracket out certain contextual considerations in order to focus rigorously on certain details, just as we might temporarily focus in on a couple words in a verse to analyze their meaning in isolation, without respect to the context.  But when we do this, any insights drawn from this narrow inquiry are provisional, and must be conditioned by the larger context, rather than vice versa.  To do otherwise is to willfully blinker ourselves, to prematurely close down the exegetical task, and this will inevitably lead, as it has in the case of Romans 13, to an impoverished interpretation.

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.