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Romans 7, Hermeneutics, and “Redemptive-Historical” Biblical Theology

November 25, 2019

From my recent podcast listening, one episode at the Reformed Forum discussed a “Redemptive-Historical” view of Romans 7 as similar to the content in Galatians 2-4.  Apparently the idea comes from Herman Ridderbos’ writings in the 1960s; whereas the early church thought Romans 7 was describing the apostle Paul before conversion, and Augustine and the Reformers understand Romans 7 as the life of a believer struggling with sin (the view I hold to as well), this other approach takes to spiritualizing Romans 7 as actually about the experiences of Israel—from the time of Sinai and later.  An emphasis here is Romans 7:14, “the law is spiritual,” and that Romans 7 can be connected in its ideas and content with what Paul is saying in the letter to the Galatians.

The podcast gave an introduction to the idea, and the speaker noted that he was still studying and considering the idea.  At this point I would like to read a commentary on Romans, such as the one from Robert Haldane that I’ve had on my “reading to-do” list for a few years.  For now, though, just a few of my observations, for what it’s worth.

In Romans, Paul is talking about the moral law, which is a completely different context from Galatians.  That Romans is referencing the moral law is evident from Romans 7:7, a clear reference to the 10th commandment.  (The late S. Lewis Johnson also noted this – in a sermon from a decidedly dispensational view of the law —  that in Romans 7 Paul is talking about the moral law, as he recalled conversations in his student days at Dallas Seminary with a fellow student who had come to Dallas Seminary, that student having had a Reformed view of the law.)  In Galatians, Paul is clearly talking about the Mosaic law with is ceremonies and the “holiness code” specific to the people of Israel under Moses.  Here I also recall the importance of distinguishing the different meanings and contexts of “law” in our Bibles; see this previous post about seven different New Testament meanings and uses.

So, given the proper context of Romans (moral law), and Galatians (the ceremonial, Mosaic law), this spiritualized view of the text (“Redemptive Historical” rather than the literal—as in normal, plain language meaning) does not fit or make sense.  The apostle Paul in Romans 7 is not contrasting the condition of Israel before they had the law given at Sinai to what they had after Sinai.  In terms of the law that Israel had before Sinai, the Decalogue in its summary form was already understood by them; Exodus 16 comes before Exodus 20, and as Richard Barcellos well noted (in Getting the Garden Right) the descriptions in Exodus 16 about God being greatly vexed at the people in their failure to observe the procedures for collecting of the manna, do not make sense if the one day in seven Sabbath was a completely unknown concept before this point in time.  Yet in Romans 7 Paul is talking about the sin of coveting (the 10th commandment), and the section that includes verse 14, “the law is spiritual,” begins with verse 7, the law telling him “do not covet”– which grounds verse 14 (the law is spiritual) to the context of the moral law—and not the same meaning of law used in Galatians chapters 2 through 4.

Again, biblical interpretation comes back to hermeneutics, and in this case (as so many others), the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic (of normal, plain language use) provides the correct understanding of Romans 7, as over against a spiritualized, and novel approach.  That this particular interpretation, coming out of “biblical theology, redemptive-historical theology,” is a relatively new understanding from the 20th century, not a view held by the historic Christian church over the many previous centuries, is a further reason for caution regarding it.

  1. Gerry
    November 25, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Hi Lynda:

    Thank you for this post.

    I agree with your view of what is the correct view of the interpretation of Romans 7.
    In my view this is critical to one’s soundness in the Word.

    Tied to it is the mechanism by which the Spirit usually uses the Law to bring one to true faith.

    What Paul was saying by the words “when the Law came”, according to my understanding, was: “when it came with power: in the hands of Gods Spirit, to show me that sin is “exceedingly sinful”, and that my imagined possession of “life eternal”, because of my keeping the Law outwardly, was crushed by The Spirit showing me “what covetousness is”,
    and that my real motive in religious zeal was to gain money, power and worldly recognition.”

    Thus, Paul is telling us that what happened on the Damascus road is what is described in Ps. 90:7-11, as the transaction that is described in this passage was applied to Paul’s heart on that Road and in the days thereafter:

    “7 For we have been consumed by Your anger, And by Your wrath we are terrified.
    8 You have set our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.
    9 For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; We finish our years like a sigh.
    10 The days of our lives are seventy years; And if by reason of strength they are eighty years, Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
    11 Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.“

    I must also say that this agrees with the teaching of the Puritans, at least the best of them, and I recall John Bunyan remarking: “I care not much for that profession that begins not with heaviness”.

    In my own case, this is exactly what happened.

    Yes, I knew I was a sinner, but I had been told that because I had come forward, in all sincerity I would add, and made a profession of faith in Christ, I thought I was saved.

    But “when the Law came, I died” to any imagined false teaching as to my true estate. “My secret sins were shown to me in the light of Gods countenance, and I felt His Wrath at MY SIN.

    And for the first time “I knew the terror of the Lord”, and for the first time sought Christ and His forgiveness in real earnest.

    Just as “Christian” in Pilgrims Progress I read the Book for myself for the first time in earnest and ran from the world and family and “friends”, and put my fingers in my ears exclaiming “life,life, eternal life”.

    And thus I “fled from the wrath to come”.

    And I kept that Book in front of me and proceeded to the “wicket gate”, where though the devil shot his arrows at me I knocked and knocked until I was granted entrance.

    In my view it is this great lie about the Law, the Decalogue and how the Spirit uses it, to this day, that is at the heart of much false profession today.

    Thank you, therefore, for bringing it forward for consideration at this time.

    In Him

    • November 25, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks Gerry, and good to hear from you, weren’t sure if you were still around.

      Thanks for sharing, good points regarding Romans 7 and your experience with it.


      • Gerry
        November 25, 2019 at 7:06 pm

        Hi Lynda

        Thanks for the encouragement and good to hear from you too.

        Been very busy last two years building a new house and moving from lower Alabama to upper Michigan.

        Very thankful for the house and move but way too much worldliness.

        We’re it not for Mantons sermons on Ps 119 it might have gotten the best of me, but my prayer has been, and still is:

        “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness”.

        I just love Manton. So deep, so profound, so clear, so practical.

        If you know of a godly women who wants to share a “cabin in the north woods” with a godly man, I have been asking for a godly wife who can help me minister the doctrines of Grace in a premillennial context via the Internet.

        Hope this finds you well,

        In Him,

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