Perhaps Romans 7 is not about believers or unbelievers after all; what if Paul is trying to say something entirely different? In Perspectives of Our Struggle with Sin, Mark Seifrid argues that Paul’s focus is on the human being confronted with the Law.
View the other posts in this series.
Who is the “I”?
For Seifrid, the “I” is not giving an autobiography of Paul’s own past or present, rather “the story that Paul tells is not merely his story, not simply the story of Israel, nor is it only Adam’s story, but it is Adam’s history as it is recapitulated in each and every person confronted with the law of God” (p115). So this is not about the Christian struggle, because “[Paul] describes a battle already lost, long ago in Adam” (p164).
What does Rom 7:9 mean?
“In [Paul’s] encounter with the commandment, he describes sin as being revivified. It comes to life again in him, just as it once lived in Adam” (p151, emphasis italicized in original). So Seifrid sees it as Paul reenacting Adam’s sin upon encountering the commandment/Law of God.
How is the shift of tense (aorist in 7:7-13, present in 7:14-25) significant?
Like Chester argued, “the shift in tense…is one of perspective, not of time”. In Rom 7:7-13 the “I” “remains completely passive”, while in Rom 7:14-25, the “I” “becomes an actor, yet one ‘sold under sin’” (p153).
What role does Rom 7:25 play in the argument?
It is the destination to which the Law points: “our redemption lies outside us in Christ Jesus…in this location, and only here, ‘sin’ is overpowered by an even greater power, the power of God” (p162).
How should the Christian apply this passage?
The Christian is “called to walk in the very narrow path marked by the intersection of the new creation with the present fallen world. Victory is found not in “turning inward but being-turned-outward” (p165).
As one may expect, the other two perspectives find significant points of agreement and disagreement with Seifrid. I will focus on disagreement.
Chester “discern[s] a definite sequence in Paul’s description of the human condition with [Seifrid] does not” (p169). That is, where Seifrid considers this passage to be speaking broadly of anyone under the law (including Christians), Chester sees it as describing Paul’s past.
Fittingly, Osborne criticizes Seifrid for the opposite problem of applying all of Romans 7 to the unbeliever!
Seifrid’s essay was both elegantly written and a little confusing. I find this to be the case with everything I’ve read from him! Perhaps it is because his reading is a very “theological” one; it feels like he uses his own distinctive insider-jargon.
Overall, I think Seifrid’s view abstracts the passage a little too much, turning Torah into a generic “law” given purely to make one conscious of sin. This seems a little too simplistic. First, it turns the Law into something it doesn’t appear to be in the OT. Second, Seifrid concludes that Rom 7 addresses both believers and unbelievers. But if “Law” here is the Torah rather than generic “law”, then this would not describe believers, as they are not under the Law/Torah.
I think Seifrid focuses too much on Adam and not enough on Israel. Adam is indeed in the passage, but since it is about Torah – and Israel, not Adam, was given the Torah – it is odd that he downplays Israel’s presence in this passage.
However, I think Seifrid is heading in the right direction and find less problems with it compared to the other two.
Though I’ve finished Perspectives of Our Struggle with Sin, stay tuned for two more posts!
Many thanks to B&H for providing a copy of this book in exchange for review. Their generosity has not affected my opinions.