In Perspectives of Our Struggle with Sin, Stephen J. Chester argues for a “Retrospective View” of Romans 7. That is, Paul is reflecting on his experience as a Pharisaical Jew before he placed his faith in Christ.
Chester’s view is below (see other posts in this series):
Who is the “I”?
For Chester, the “I” in Romans 7:7-25 is indeed Paul: “Paul uses personal pronouns to speak of himself and his experiences” but we need to realize he is speaking “retrospectively, describing his preconversion existence as he now knows it to have been and not as he understood it then” (p76). That is, Paul considered himself as blameless (Phil 3) before coming to Christ, but now sees his prior life in Judaism through different eyes (Rom 7).
What does Rom 7:9 mean?
How can Paul be describing himself in Rom 7:9 when he was under the law from childhood (Phil 3:5)? For Chester, Paul is speaking of himself, but “in a way that makes his life typical” (p72). He describes his own experiences in a way that calls to mind Adam and Eve’s response to God’s command as well as Israel’s reception of the Law at Sinai.
How is the shift of aorist (7:7-13) to present tense (7:14-25) significant?
The entirety of Rom 7:7-25 as describing the past, and Rom 8:1 turns to the present (“there is therefore now…”). If so, what about the present tense verbs in Rom 7:14-25?
A change in Greek tense doesn’t necessarily mean a change in time. Since the context of Rom 7:7-25 describes Paul’s pre-Christ experience, the change of tenses, then, describes “a change in perspective” (p87) rather than chronology. Rom 7:7-13 describes that death came through the law, but Rom 7:14-25 explain how this is the case, and take on a more introspective tone.
What role does Rom 7:25 play in the argument?
This experience results in despair and a cry for liberation from the body of death (Rom 7:24), that is, the resurrection. Christ alone is the answer to this problem. Paul returns to describing the conflict in the latter part of Rom 7:25. This is not because it describes the Christian experience after all, but because Paul wanted “the summary to conclude the section” (p95), since the main point of his argument was the experience with the Law, not the solution (Christ).
How should the Christian apply this passage?
This view “denies that 7:14-25 provide an appropriate perspective of the struggle with sin and the Christian life” (p99). There is a battle for the believer, but it is not described here
Unsurprisingly, Grant Osborne questions Chester’s explanation of the shift of tense from 7:13 to 7:14, concluding that “there is no difference whatsoever between vv. 7-13 and vv. 14-25 in this approach, and no true reason for the change from aorist to present tenses.” (p106).
Seifrid challenges Chester’s proposals that Paul is giving a retrospective of his own experience, that sin’s deception was merely “unrecognized sin” (p109) in Paul’s life, and that Phil 3 gives Paul’s pre-Christ opinion of his own life. Seifrid holds that Phil 3 describes outward obedience but not necessarily inward.
I find that Chester’s view has less difficulties than Osborne’s. However, there are still some problems.
First, Chester takes the same view of Rom 7:9 as Osborne, and I have expressed my difficulty with it in the previous post.
Second, this view is particularly dense and convoluted: Rom 7 is Paul’s past, not how he would have seen it then, but how he sees it now, and the change in tenses is not chronological but perspectival. While not insurmountable, put together they are a hurdle to overcome.
Stay tuned for the next post, arguing that Paul wasn’t referring to believers or unbelievers, but speaking broadly of humanity under the law.
Many thanks to B&H for providing a copy of this book in exchange for review. Their generosity has not affected my opinions.