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

November 25, 2019 3 comments

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.