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)



A Christian Answer to Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 5)

(Sorry it’s taken so long to post this.  I was trying to anticipate certain objections and the responses to them became so complex that I’ve decided not to include them in this post, but to put up a sixth post, shortly, exploring various objections and qualifications)

My emphasis earlier on the subjective dimension of coercion leads me to a distinctively Christian take on all this.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As Christians, we ought to have our desires so reshaped that we are motivated above all by love and become immune to fear–at least to any fear of man.  This is of course a point that we will never fully attain to, but it is our calling.  If this is true, then this suggests that Christians ought to be un-coerceable, and not merely in the sense that coercion fails to persuade them (e.g., I do not blaspheme when the gun is put to my head), but that, because this is necessarily the case, coercion never enters the picture.  If I am committed to love and obey my master as if I am obeying Christ, then the fact that my master could whip me if I disobeyed is simply not relevant to me–it does not have an effect on whether I obey him–in short, he does not coerce me.  If I am committed to pay taxes to my government even though I disagree with it because I love Christ and he commands me to love my enemies and pay my taxes, then the fact that I could be jailed for tax evasion is utterly irrelevant, and I am not coerced to pay my taxes–the hypothetical presence of coercion is, so long as I am following Christ, a contrafactual hypothetical. 

I am convinced that this is precisely what Romans 12-13 is up to: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome with good.  Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities….For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain….For because of this you also should pay taxes….Render therefore to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom is owed, fear to whom fear is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  Owe no one anything except to love one another.”  

(I opt for the reading on which “fear to whom fear is owed” does not mean that fear is owed to the authorities, but rather, in light of the earlier verses, we are to discern that it is not, and render it only to God.)

In other words, Paul is calling upon the Romans, who would have been paying their taxes out of fear (Roman tax-collectors were not nice guys), and calling upon them to voluntarily render payment to these authorities, recognizing that God had put them in their place.  As long as they are acting out of such a spirit of Christian love (which is, in context, what he means by “good works”), they will have no reason to fear the authorities–not, of course, because there is no chance the authorities will do anything bad to them (Paul is not so naive as that!)–but because “perfect love casts out fear.”  The “sword” of coercion only enters the picture when love leaves the picture, rebelliousness (what “doing evil” means in context) enters the picture, and so does fear.  Taxes therefore must be paid, but joyfully and willingly, as a debt of love, not out of fear.

So I suggest that Christians do nothing but condemn themselves when they rail against the coercive taxation of the government–as Christians, such coercion has no hold on us.  


The same principle clearly applies in the economic sphere as well, and is a common motif of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels.  Our faith in God should make us immune to worldly fears, which more often than not concern money.  Jesus addresses this head-on in one of the most powerful passages in Luke: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on.  Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?… And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk. 12:22-24, 29-34)  If we are freed from the fear of not having enough money, power, and prestige, we will be set free to give to the poor, and economic coercion will have no power over us.  We will not buy simply because we are afraid of not having everything that our peers expect us to have; we will not sell or work out of fear of not making enough money–rather, we will buy, sell, and work out of love for God and neighbor, free from fear and coercion.  

 As Christians, then, we are called to be un-coerceable.  Either we serve willingly, as unto the Lord, and coercion is irrelevant, or else, when faithfulness requires, we refuse fearlessly, and coercion is irrelevant.


This answer, however, is clearly somewhat idealistic, and open to at least three challenges.  I will explore these and offer certain qualifications in the following post.


Other Posts in this Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere

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.

Emil Brunner on Love and Justice

Toward the end of a long day of slogging through commentaries, I came across this gem from Emil Brunner’s Letter to the Romans, at 13:8:

“To owe no one anything–that is the principle of justice.  ‘To everyone his own.’ With that Paul concludes his remarks regarding the attitude of the Christian to the authorities.  Yet this ‘owing no one anything’ is not separate and independent, but is embedded in something still greater.  Whoever owes nothing to anyone parts from the other once he has done his duty.  Love is greater than justice; it does more than justice demands.  The demand of justice ends with the individual; love alone is all-embracing because it does not keep its eye on ‘something’ that one owes to the other but on the other himself and myself.  I owe myself to him and therefore I am never done with him…  

“The commandments [in the Law] always mean the one thing: Love.  That which in the Law is expressed in isolated demands proves to be united from the point of view of faith in Jesus Christ and the love revealed in him.  So long as we stand ‘under the Law’ we cannot perceive this hidden unity of all the commandments.  It is part of legalism that the will of God must appear to it as a multiplicity of commandments.  In actual fact it is one and indivisible; God wants nothing else except love because he himself is love.  God’s commandments, rightly understood, always declare one thing only: love your neighbor.  There are individual examples as to what this love will mean in individual cases–just as the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount expounded the commandments as commandments of love. As God in Jesus Christ gives and wills himself entirely to us so we, too, ought to give ourselves entirely to our neighbor, entirely embrace him with our love.  If we do that, then there is no further need of any law; then everything that the law demands has been done.”