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Monday, February 3, 2014

Natural Law...OR...New Covenant in Rom. 2:14-15 - What "Law" is written on the heart?

This is somewhat of a Part 2 to my previous post, "Imputed Righteousness in the New Covenant?"

For this post I want to share a fascinating find regarding a fascinating text of Scripture that is often glossed over when reading Romans 2. Embedded within the context of Paul's claim that "the doers of the law will be justified" (2:13) is a curious statement that the Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires" (2:14) and so reveal that "the law is written on their hearts" (2:15). This text can play a key role in Protestant-Catholic discussions because the way it uses the term "law," which is a crucial term to understand when reading Paul. It is my contention, as well as that of a growing number of Protestant scholars, that the term "law" (Greek: nomos) specifically refers to the Mosaic Law, and not to some more generic eternal law of God. Recognizing the serious negative implications of this for Sola Fide, some Protestants are fond of turning to Romans 2:14-15, thinking that this text provides an escape. In this post I will show that this text doesn't help this Protestant objection at all, and in fact opens an avenue to prove the Catholic position. 

The Protestant claim is essentially this: The "law" which the Gentiles lack is obviously the Mosaic Law, and yet Paul says this "law" is written on the heart of the Gentiles. The only way this makes sense is if the "law" in question is simply the moral law which all men are under and which only happened to be written down in the Mosaic Law. These Protestants say this explains why all men have a conscience and are without excuse before God, because even though they do know better, they end up sinning anyway. If this Protestant argument is valid, then this could mean that when Paul says we are justified by faith "apart from the Law" he is basically saying we are justified "apart from the moral law," which these Protestants would then say boils down to justification apart from any works under any conditions, leaving faith alone as that which justifies.

This Protestant claim fails for two reasons. First, while it's agreed that the "Law" mentioned here is the Mosaic Law, it's also true that Paul focuses strictly on the Mosaic Law in his discussions throughout and he never transitions into critiquing a more generic law. So even if it is said Romans 2:14-15 refers to a generic law (something akin to Natural Law) written on the hearts of the Gentiles, this doesn't automatically mean we are free to project this onto other texts, especially in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3. In fact, when Paul mentions "works of the Law," he certainly includes in this circumcision, dietary laws, and holidays, along with moral commands of the Torah. So it's wrong to reduce Paul's "works of the Law" comments to merely the moral law when he plainly includes "ceremonial" works along with moral commands. (Many Protestants erroneously believe that "works of the Law" can only refer to one of two things, the moral commandments or the ceremonial commandments, rather than both, which is what I believe Paul refers to.) But I think there's an even stronger case to be made.

Second, while there are some in Catholic Church history who have interpreted Romans 2:14-15 to refer to Natural Law, and while this remains a fairly popular reading by many today, there is a more elegant and satisfying interpretation of this text that takes things to a whole new level. At one point in his journey of faith, St Augustine did believe in the Natural Law reading of this verse, but as he came to a deeper appreciation for Paul later on, he made an amazing insight on this passage.

In one of the most important writings of the Early Church, On the Spirit and the Letter, St Augustine address this verse in Sections 43-47 of his treatise. To keep this post brief, I'll only quote the most pertinent passages all contained in Section 46:
If therefore the apostle, when he mentioned [in Rom 2:14-15] that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law, and have the work of the law written in their hearts, intended those to be understood who believed in Christ,—who do not come to the faith like the Jews, through a precedent law,—there is no good reason why we should endeavor to distinguish them from those to whom the Lord by the prophet promises the new covenant, telling them that He will write His laws in their hearts [Jer 31:31-34; cf Eze 36:23-29] . . . There is therefore a good agreement of this passage of the apostle with the words of the prophet so that belonging to the new testament means having the law of God not written on tables, but on the heart,—that is, embracing the righteousness of the law with innermost affection, where faith works by love [Gal 5:6]. Because it is by faith that God justifies the Gentiles . . . and believing Gentiles might be made children of Abraham, “in Abraham’s seed, which is Christ,” [Gal 3:16], by following the faith of him who, without receiving the law written on tables, and not yet possessing even circumcision, “believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.” [Gen 15:6]. Now what the apostle attributed to Gentiles of this character, it must be some such thing as what he says to the Corinthians: “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” [2 Cor 3:3]. For thus do they become of the house of Israel, when their uncircumcision is accounted circumcision, by the fact that they do not exhibit the righteousness of the law by the excision of the flesh, but keep it by the charity of the heart. . . . they are partakers of the new testament, since God puts His laws into their mind, and writes them in their hearts with his own finger, the Holy Ghost, by whom is shed abroad in them the love [Rom 5:5] which is the” fulfilling of the law.” [Rom 13:8-13; cf Gal 5:14]
So Augustine's interpretation was that the Gentiles of Romans 2:14-15 were none other than Christian Believers, coming directly from paganism rather than from the advantage of the Mosaic Law as the Jews did. He proves this by using the principle of "Scripture interprets Scripture," which looks at the other texts that speak of "writing the law on their hearts" to see if they can shed more light on the matter.

His first text is the text I looked at in my last post, Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf Eze 36:23-39), where God says He is making a New Covenant in which having "the law written on the heart" is a distinguishing feature. This is further confirmed from the New Testament where Paul says very plainly that Christians have the "law written on their heart" in 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 8:10. Not to be overlooked is the detail that this involves not only receiving the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but receiving this "new heart" also signifies receiving the infusion of Agape Love (i.e. supernatural love, sometimes called "Charity"). And St Augustine interprets Paul as saying it is by this reception of the Holy Spirit and Charity that a Christian "fulfills the law." This fits right along with the claim of Paul in Romans 2:29 when Paul speaks of circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit as well as speaking of the 'uncircumcised' who keep the law (Rom 2:27-28).

And to add to this, it is this framework which Augustine says we are to interpret Abraham "believing in God and he counted it as righteousness" of Genesis 15:6 fame. So Abraham was the epitome of Romans 2:14-15, or at least pointed towards its fulfillment in the fullness of time at Pentecost.

This takes us immediately to the "controversial" text of Romans 2:12, where Paul says the "doers of the Law will be justified," Paul is thus clearly speaking of Christians enabled to do the law in the fulfilled sense just mentioned (i.e. through the infusion of Love and the Holy Spirit). No need for the typical Protestant excuse that Paul was speaking hypothetically here or in some sense didn't really mean to imply Christians could do this.

I recall now that Dr Bryan Cross has written about this in a fantastic post, where he points out that the Protestant mentality of 'keeping the law' is that of completing a check-list of good works, wherein you must complete all works without fail to be righteous, but Paul's Catholic understanding of 'keeping the law' is more about a state of being, fulfilling the law at all moments in virtue of the fact you live and act with and by the supernatural presence of the indwelling of the Trinity and grace.


This New Covenant interpretation of Romans 2:14-15 has several advantages over the Natural Law interpretation, including making the message and context more coherent, connecting nicely with the New Covenant prophecies and Biblical references to the Holy Spirit writing upon the heart, and ultimately giving Paul a lot more depth. Going by the Natural Law reading, it gives the impression that unbelievers are capable of fulfilling the law and doing all these good works, which really is a very dubious conclusion to come to. It would be ridiculous for Paul to go on and on about us needing forgiveness and living by the Spirit and then turn around and give unbelievers a sort of easy pass with lower expectations.


Finally, I want to briefly discuss the part of 2:14-15 where it says the Gentiles do this "by nature," since this could suggest Natural Law. In Section 48, Augustine says this isn't an issue at all:
Nor ought it to disturb us that the apostle described them as doing that which is contained in the law “by nature,” - not by the Spirit of God, not by faith, not by grace. For it is the Spirit of grace that does it, in order to restore in us the image of God, in which we were naturally created. [Gen 1:27] Sin, indeed, is contrary to nature, and it is grace that heals it, . . . In consequence of this sinfulness, the law of God is erased out of their hearts; and therefore, when, the sin being healed, it is written there, the prescriptions of the law are done “by nature,” - not that by nature grace is denied, but rather by grace nature is repaired
In short, this "by nature" refers to man's natural condition, when Adam and Eve had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and infused Love. Sin caused this to be removed, which is why Catholics say through original sin Adam lost for all of us the supernatural gifts, notably sanctifying grace - without destroying humanity itself. Again, this reading is far superior to the Natural Law interpretation, for that interpretation would suggest it is within the unbeliever's "natural" abilities to keep the Law, which as I noted is a dubious subject.

So with these two posts, I feel I have laid down another firm foundation by which the Catholic Church is once again vindicated while the Protestant understanding of Justification loses even more credibility, particularly by not having a decent explanation for these texts.

20 comments:

Devin Rose said...

Fascinating Nick...very cool.

Anonymous said...

Nick,
Protestants would take this as your private interpretation of Scripture. Show the Protestant the official interpretation of the passages you quote then we will have something to discuss.

Nick said...

Anonymous,

That's a lame excuse. Please interact with the arguments I presented, otherwise we're just wasting each other's time.

Whenever I hear that excuse brought up in the comment box, I instantly assume the person realizes they cannot handle my Biblical evidence and so they must desperately scramble to get off the hook on some contrived technicality.

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Michael Taylor said...

Nick,

Per your request, here's may take on your latest. This may take a few posts as I cut and paste what I can fit:

Nick: For this post I want to share a fascinating find regarding a fascinating text of Scripture that is often glossed over when reading Romans 2. Embedded within the context of Paul's claim that "the doers of the law will be justified" (2:13) is a curious statement that the Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires" (2:14) and so reveal that "the law is written on their hearts" (2:15). This text can play a key role in Protestant-Catholic discussions because the way it uses the term "law," which is a crucial term to understand when reading Paul. It is my contention, as well as that of a growing number of Protestant scholars, that the term "law" (Greek: nomos) specifically refers to the Mosaic Law, and not to some more generic eternal law of God.

Mike: A couple of questions. First, it seems to me that this passage has traditionally been used to justify the concept of “Natural Law,” which is absolutely integral to Roman Catholic moral theology. So in proposing an alternative interpretation, I wonder if you can in fact do so. While I don’t think the extraordinary Magisterium has weighed in with an official interpretation of this passage, I think a good case could be made for the idea that the ordinary magisterium has defined this passage as referring to the natural law, rather than the Mosaic Law. In other words, Nick, I think you’re bucking the entire Roman Catholic tradition here.

My second question is this: Which Protestant scholars do you have in mind when you say, “a growing number of Protestant scholars”?

Nick: Recognizing the serious negative implications of this for Sola Fide, some Protestants are fond of turning to Romans 2:14-15, thinking that this text provides an escape. In this post I will show that this text doesn't help this Protestant objection at all, and in fact opens an avenue to prove the Catholic position.

Mike: I’m not sure I’m following you here. How exactly would Romans 2:14-15 constitute a threat to sola fide? I ask, because if you follow Paul’s argument to its conclusion, you will find that there in fact is nobody who keeps even the natural law. In other words, in Romans 2, Paul is laying the groundwork for indicting the Gentile who, while lacking special revelation (a divinely codified law revealed in scripture), they nevertheless have the precepts of the moral law wired into them, and therefore have enough light to know right from wrong. They can therefore sin against the law in their heart, and as Paul goes on to say, they indeed have done just that. All (Jews with Mosaic law and Gentiles without it) are under the power of sin, because all (Jews and Gentiles) have sinned.

Put another way, if a Jew were to keep the law perfectly, there would be no reason for him to go to hell. He would be able to have immortality, as Romans 2:7 plainly states. And the same is true for the Gentile who, while not having all the specifics of the Mosaic Law, nevertheless knows God’s righteous demands. So if a Gentile were to obey those demands (evident from the dictates of conscience), he or she would likewise qualify for immortality.

Of course, except for Jesus, there is no such person. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, hence all stand in need of salvation. This is the “given” default condition that sola fide presupposes.


Michael Taylor said...

Nick: The Protestant claim is essentially this: The "law" which the Gentiles lack is obviously the Mosaic Law, and yet Paul says this "law" is written on the heart of the Gentiles. The only way this makes sense is if the "law" in question is simply the moral law which all men are under and which only happened to be written down in the Mosaic Law.

Mike: I don’t think the law was written down by happenstance; rather Moses was commanded to write it down. But, yes, the law to which Paul is referring is the Mosaic law. That said, I don’t think Paul is thinking of every, single law within the Mosaic law; rather I think he is using it as a blanket term for God’s moral prescriptions which are found in the Mosaic Law. In this case we have a synecdoche, in which the whole is standing for the part.

Nick: These Protestants say this explains why all men have a conscience and are without excuse before God, because even though they do know better, they end up sinning anyway. If this Protestant argument is valid, then this could mean that when Paul says we are justified by faith "apart from the Law" he is basically saying we are justified "apart from the moral law," which these Protestants would then say boils down to justification apart from any works under any conditions, leaving faith alone as that which justifies.

Mike: What we are saying is that because no one keeps the moral law (whether written in scripture, in our hearts or both), no one can stand righteous before God on the basis of his own law-keeping. Paul does seem to say that if one were to keep the law perfectly, then one could inherit immortality. But since no one does, then everyone is in fact dead in their trespasses and sins. To fail to keep one part of the law is to be guilty of breaking it all.

Nick: This Protestant claim fails for two reasons. First, while it's agreed that the "Law" mentioned here is the Mosaic Law, it's also true that Paul focuses strictly on the Mosaic Law in his discussions throughout and he never transitions into critiquing a more generic law. So even if it is said Romans 2:14-15 refers to a generic law (something akin to Natural Law) written on the hearts of the Gentiles, this doesn't automatically mean we are free to project this onto other texts, especially in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3. In fact, when Paul mentions "works of the Law," he certainly includes in this circumcision, dietary laws, and holidays, along with moral commands of the Torah. So it's wrong to reduce Paul's "works of the Law" comments to merely the moral law when he plainly includes "ceremonial" works along with moral commands.

Mike: Here your argument assumes that Paul always uses “works of the law” in the same way in every passage. But that has to be argued, not assumed. How do you know Paul is using the concept of “law” in only one way?

Nick: (Many Protestants erroneously believe that "works of the Law" can only refer to one of two things, the moral commandments or the ceremonial commandments, rather than both, which is what I believe Paul refers to.) But I think there's an even stronger case to be made.

Mike: Nick. Here you go broad-brushing again “many Protestants”. I’m not sure who you have in mind, but no scholar that I know, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Heterodox, would ever say the “law” can only be one or the other. As is your custom, you’re giving us another false dilemma here. In fact we believe that the term “law” (nomos) can have a rather broad range of meaning. It can encompass the whole and parts of the whole. It can even be used synonymously with a “principle” or “precept” or “norm,” without having any reference to a specific, codified, law.

Michael Taylor said...

Nick: Second, while there are some in Catholic Church history who have interpreted Romans 2:14-15 to refer to Natural Law, and while this remains a fairly popular reading by many today, there is a more elegant and satisfying interpretation of this text that takes things to a whole new level. At one point in his journey of faith, St Augustine did believe in the Natural Law reading of this verse, but as he came to a deeper appreciation for Paul later on, he made an amazing insight on this passage.

Mike: I’m glad you acknowledge this point. That said, I think you may nevertheless be understating the degree to which your church has gone on record for understanding this as a reference to natural law.

Nick: In one of the most important writings of the Early Church, On the Spirit and the Letter, St Augustine address this verse in Sections 43-47 of his treatise. To keep this post brief, I'll only quote the most pertinent passages all contained in Section

46:
If therefore the apostle, when he mentioned [in Rom 2:14-15] that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law, and have the work of the law written in their hearts, intended those to be understood who believed in Christ,—who do not come to the faith like the Jews, through a precedent law,—there is no good reason why we should endeavor to distinguish them from those to whom the Lord by the prophet promises the new covenant, telling them that He will write His laws in their hearts [Jer 31:31-34; cf Eze 36:23-29] . . . There is therefore a good agreement of this passage of the apostle with the words of the prophet so that belonging to the new testament means having the law of God not written on tables, but on the heart,—that is, embracing the righteousness of the law with innermost affection, where faith works by love [Gal 5:6]. Because it is by faith that God justifies the Gentiles . . . and believing Gentiles might be made children of Abraham, “in Abraham’s seed, which is Christ,” [Gal 3:16], by following the faith of him who, without receiving the law written on tables, and not yet possessing even circumcision, “believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.” [Gen 15:6]. Now what the apostle attributed to Gentiles of this character, it must be some such thing as what he says to the Corinthians: “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” [2 Cor 3:3]. For thus do they become of the house of Israel, when their uncircumcision is accounted circumcision, by the fact that they do not exhibit the righteousness of the law by the excision of the flesh, but keep it by the charity of the heart. . . . they are partakers of the new testament, since God puts His laws into their mind, and writes them in their hearts with his own finger, the Holy Ghost, by whom is shed abroad in them the love [Rom 5:5] which is the” fulfilling of the law.” [Rom 13:8-13; cf Gal 5:14]


Nick: So Augustine's interpretation was that the Gentiles of Romans 2:14-15 were none other than Christian Believers, coming directly from paganism rather than from the advantage of the Mosaic Law as the Jews did. He proves this by using the principle of "Scripture interprets Scripture," which looks at the other texts that speak of "writing the law on their hearts" to see if they can shed more light on the matter.

Mike: Perhaps I’m missing something (in the ellipses, maybe?), but I don’t see where you’re getting the idea that these are only Gentile believers as opposed to Gentiles in general? Yes, I see the idea that God writes on the heart. But I don’t see that his writing on the heart is confined to believers alone. In other words, yes, there are many Gentile believers who come to faith directly from paganism. But is Augustine (and more importantly, Paul) saying that God only writes his precepts upon the laws of believers? I don’t see that anywhere in this part of Augustine, nor anywhere in Paul.

Michael Taylor said...

Nick: His first text is the text I looked at in my last post, Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf Eze 36:23-39), where God says He is making a New Covenant in which having "the law written on the heart" is a distinguishing feature. This is further confirmed from the New Testament where Paul says very plainly that Christians have the "law written on their heart" in 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 8:10. Not to be overlooked is the detail that this involves not only receiving the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but receiving this "new heart" also signifies receiving the infusion of Agape Love (i.e. supernatural love, sometimes called "Charity"). And St Augustine interprets Paul as saying it is by this reception of the Holy Spirit and Charity that a Christian "fulfills the law." This fits right along with the claim of Paul in Romans 2:29 when Paul speaks of circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit as well as speaking of the 'uncircumcised' who keep the law (Rom 2:27-28).

And to add to this, it is this framework which Augustine says we are to interpret Abraham "believing in God and he counted it as righteousness" of Genesis 15:6 fame. So Abraham was the epitome of Romans 2:14-15, or at least pointed towards its fulfillment in the fullness of time at Pentecost.

This takes us immediately to the "controversial" text of Romans 2:12, where Paul says the "doers of the Law will be justified," Paul is thus clearly speaking of Christians enabled to do the law in the fulfilled sense just mentioned (i.e. through the infusion of Love and the Holy Spirit). No need for the typical Protestant excuse that Paul was speaking hypothetically here or in some sense didn't really mean to imply Christians could do this.

Mike: Ah, now I finally see where you’re going with this. I would agree that this text is controversial and there are many in the Protestant camp who would agree with you that Paul has believers in mind and that they can be empowered to obey the law. But these same Protestants would not necessarily see that as having any bearing on sola fide because Paul isn’t here talking about justification in its forensic/declarative sense, but rather in its vindication/proof sense. In other words, what is the proof that one is living the Christian life? He/she does the law and doesn’t just talk about doing it. “Justified,” then, means “shown to be,” or so they would argue, just as James uses the same term in James 2.

Michael Taylor said...

Nick: I recall now that Dr Bryan Cross has written about this in a fantastic post, where he points out that the Protestant mentality of 'keeping the law' is that of completing a check-list of good works, wherein you must complete all works without fail to be righteous, but Paul's Catholic understanding of 'keeping the law' is more about a state of being, fulfilling the law at all moments in virtue of the fact you live and act with and by the supernatural presence of the indwelling of the Trinity and grace.

Mike: I haven’t read Cross’s post, so I can’t comment on it. But what you are positing here seems to be, justification by grace-infused works. I suppose that’s better than pure Pelagianism. But it still amounts to works-righteousness and couldn’t be further from what Paul has in mind.

As I mentioned before, I favor the “hypothetical” interpretation because it makes sense of the entire argument, but I’m not dogmatic about it. It seems to me that the entire point he’s trying to make is that both Jews (with the law) and Gentiles (without it) end up in the same place in the end, (under sin). That doesn’t mean the Jew doesn’t have certain advantages. But it does mean that, notwithstanding these advantages, the Jew ends up equally guilty under the law and equally in need of salvation. There is no saving righteousness by means of keeping the law. Paul categorically rules that out. So the only sense of “justified” that makes sense of both the passage and everything else Paul says is the contrast between the one who does the law and the one who merely hears it. That is the person who is ultimately vindicated. The caveat, however, is that there is no such person. That’s the burden of the rest of his argument, especially in Romans 3. But hey, like I said, I’m not dogmatic on this point. Maybe he does have believers in mind after all.

Michael Taylor said...

Nick: This New Covenant interpretation of Romans 2:14-15 has several advantages over the Natural Law interpretation, including making the message and context more coherent, connecting nicely with the New Covenant prophecies and Biblical references to the Holy Spirit writing upon the heart, and ultimately giving Paul a lot more depth. Going by the Natural Law reading, it gives the impression that unbelievers are capable of fulfilling the law and doing all these good works, which really is a very dubious conclusion to come to. It would be ridiculous for Paul to go on and on about us needing forgiveness and living by the Spirit and then turn around and give unbelievers a sort of easy pass with lower expectations.

Mike: But here you’re assuming that Paul really believes it is possible for fallen, unregenerate human beings to keep God’s law, which he categorically denies in many passages. I have here especially in mind Romans 8:7. Your interpretation suffers from having to import a concept of infused grace that is nowhere to be found in the immediate text, the surrounding context, the entire Pauline corpus, and all of scripture, for that matter.

Nick: Finally, I want to briefly discuss the part of 2:14-15 where it says the Gentiles do this "by nature," since this could suggest Natural Law. In Section 48, Augustine says this isn't an issue at all:

Nor ought it to disturb us that the apostle described them as doing that which is contained in the law “by nature,” - not by the Spirit of God, not by faith, not by grace. For it is the Spirit of grace that does it, in order to restore in us the image of God, in which we were naturally created. [Gen 1:27] Sin, indeed, is contrary to nature, and it is grace that heals it, . . . In consequence of this sinfulness, the law of God is erased out of their hearts; and therefore, when, the sin being healed, it is written there, the prescriptions of the law are done “by nature,” - not that by nature grace is denied, but rather by grace nature is repaired

Nick: In short, this "by nature" refers to man's natural condition, when Adam and Eve had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and infused Love. Sin caused this to be removed, which is why Catholics say through original sin Adam lost for all of us the supernatural gifts, notably sanctifying grace - without destroying humanity itself. Again, this reading is far superior to the Natural Law interpretation, for that interpretation would suggest it is within the unbeliever's "natural" abilities to keep the Law, which as I noted is a dubious subject.

Mike: Here I would agree with you that Adamic humanity cannot, “by nature,” keep the law. But I don’t think Paul is actually saying this, which is why I take this as counter-factual and for the sake of argument. In other words, if man were able to keep the law, then he would qualify for immortality. But since he can’t, he is dead in his sins.




Nick: So with these two posts, I feel I have laid down another firm foundation by which the Catholic Church is once again vindicated while the Protestant understanding of Justification loses even more credibility, particularly by not having a decent explanation for these texts.

Mike: Nick, I’m skeptical in the extreme that this post of yours represents Rome’s take on Romans 2:14-16. Having said that, I think your take on it does fit in with Rome’s understanding of justification as “infused grace.”

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,

Nick's interpretation is undoubtedly the correct one. The idea that it refers solely to keeping the natural law apart from Christ cannot be so because it is Pelagian. I should hope you don't consider it uncatholic since it is the primary interpretation of St. Thomas.

But the expression, by nature, causes some difficulty. For it seems to favor the Pelagians, who taught that man could observe all the precepts of the Law by his own natural powers. Hence, by nature should mean nature reformed by grace. For he is speaking of Gentiles converted to the faith, who began to obey the moral precepts of the Law by the help of Christ’s grace. (Commentary on Romans 216)

He also gives the natural law interpretation as a possibility, specifying that if it meant that, it "does not rule out the need of grace to move the affections." But undeniably the first interpretation makes more sense of the passage.

Nor does the interpretation of Romans 2:14 as referring to Christian gentiles destroy the idea of a natural law. After all, the whole idea of a natural law is that it can be known from nature by reason. So even if the concept of natural law was never mentioned anywhere in the Bible, that would not discount the natural law.

Anonymous said...

The Protestant interpretation of this letter cannot stand because it makes nonsense of St. Paul's Gospel. Paul writes in this same chapter,

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.

If Paul's Gospel is that justifcation consists solely in the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness, why is the constant message throughout his epistles that we will be judged on the basis of our works. If justification is entirely "extra nos" as Protestants delight to say, how can eternal life be given out on the basis of our works? The only way that could be is, as you suggest, that Paul spends all his letters talking about things that never happen, which is utterly ridiculous. If what Paul meant to say here is that Christ receives eternal life by patient continuance in well doing and every one else receives indignation etc., why does he never make that connection for us, leaving us, if we are reading the text honestly, with the impression that men are judged worthy of eternal life on the basis of their conduct? Why does Protestant apologetics always seem to consist (when it is not making fallacious leaps like "justified by faith--therefore, double imputation!") seem always to consist in having to explain how Scripture teaches something entirely different from what it actually says?

The point of this chapter is actually that Paul is rebuking the Jews who gloried in their circumcision. Being born into Israel according to the flesh does not matter. What matters is living according to the commandments of Christ in the life of grace. In St. Paul's own words, "what matters is not he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Rom. 2:29). And what is the commandment? "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Amen.

Non-Protestant said...

The Protestant interpretation of this letter cannot stand because it makes nonsense of St. Paul's Gospel. Paul writes in this same chapter,

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.

If Paul's Gospel is that justification consists solely in the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness, why is the constant message throughout his epistles that we will be judged on the basis of our works (faith included)? If justification is entirely "extra nos" as Protestants delight to say, how can eternal life be given out on the basis of our works? The only way that could be is, as you suggest, that Paul spends all his letters talking about things that never happen, which is utterly ridiculous. If what Paul meant to say here is that Christ receives eternal life by patient continuance in well doing and every one else receives indignation etc., why does he never make that connection for us, leaving us, if we are reading the text honestly, with the impression that men are judged worthy of eternal life on the basis of their conduct? Why does Protestant apologetics always seem to consist (when it is not making fallacious leaps like "justified by faith--therefore, double imputation!") seem always to consist in having to explain how Scripture teaches something entirely different from what it actually says?

The point of this chapter is actually that Paul is rebuking the Jews who gloried in their circumcision. Being born into Israel according to the flesh does not matter. What matters is living according to the commandments of Christ in the life of grace. In St. Paul's own words, "what matters is not he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Rom. 2:29). And what is the commandment? "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Amen.

Hymenaeus said...

Dear Michael,

Nick's interpretation is undoubtedly the correct one. The idea that it refers solely to keeping the natural law apart from Christ cannot be so because it is Pelagian. I should hope you don't consider it uncatholic since it is the primary interpretation of St. Thomas.

But the expression, by nature, causes some difficulty. For it seems to favor the Pelagians, who taught that man could observe all the precepts of the Law by his own natural powers. Hence, by nature should mean nature reformed by grace. For he is speaking of Gentiles converted to the faith, who began to obey the moral precepts of the Law by the help of Christ’s grace. (Commentary on Romans 216)

He also gives the natural law interpretation as a possibility, specifying that if it meant that, it "does not rule out the need of grace to move the affections." But undeniably the first interpretation makes more sense of the passage.

Nor does the interpretation of Romans 2:14 as referring to Christian gentiles destroy the idea of a natural law. After all, the whole idea of a natural law is that it can be known from nature by reason. So even if the concept of natural law was never mentioned anywhere in the Bible, that would not discount the natural law.

Michael Taylor said...

Hym,

I'm a little lost here. When you say Nick's interpretation [of Romans 2:14-15] is "undoubtedly the correct one," you're not just cheering for the team, you're misunderstanding the team's view. Here is what Nick said regarding the "natural law" interpretation:

Nick>>This New Covenant interpretation of Romans 2:14-15 has several advantages over the Natural Law interpretation, including making the message and context more coherent, connecting nicely with the New Covenant prophecies and Biblical references to the Holy Spirit writing upon the heart, and ultimately giving Paul a lot more depth. Going by the Natural Law reading, it gives the impression that unbelievers are capable of fulfilling the law and doing all these good works, which really is a very dubious conclusion to come to. It would be ridiculous for Paul to go on and on about us needing forgiveness and living by the Spirit and then turn around and give unbelievers a sort of easy pass with lower expectations.<<


Now perhaps I'm missing something, but it sounds like Nick rejects the natural law reading of this passage.

Yet in your post to me you go on to cite Aquinas who champions the natural law reading.

So I am at a loss as to how Nick's can be "undoubtedly the correct interpretation," when it is precisely your interpretation that he rejects.

Best,

Mike

Hymenaeus said...

Dear Michael,

I think you are missing something though I am not sure what that something is. My guess is that you, coming from a Reformed background, are not keeping in mind that St. Thomas is approaching the text from a Catholic view. Although he speaks about fulfilling the precepts of the natural law, he is clear that he means this done in grace, and you will see if you turn to the questions on grace in the Summa Theologiae that Thomas means something quite different from a Protestant. Nick's primary consideration, as far as I understood, is the subject of "doing what the law requires." One common interpretation is that it is referring to unconverted Gentiles (non-Christians) who naturally (here meaning apart from the light of grace) keep the law. This is not what St. Thomas is saying. He is clear that he believes St. Paul is speaking of those regenerate gentiles (Christians) who keep the precepts of the law. "For he is speaking of Gentiles converted to the faith, who began to obey the moral precepts of the Law by the help of Christ’s grace." Thus, after suggesting the possibility that "by nature" refers to "the light of natural reason," Thomas says, "All this does not rule out the need of grace to move the affections any more than the knowledge of sin through the Law (Rom 3:20) exempts from the need of grace to move the affections." He is clear in his intention to entirely reject any Pelagian interpretation. Indeed, his primary interpretation of "by nature" is "nature reformed by grace."

Keep in mind that the New Law that Nick has in mind is not something divorced from the natural law. Natural law theory holds that we can know how we ought to act by the light of natural reason. Natural reason tells us that we ought to love God and our neighbor. We don't need any special revelation from a prophet to know that. However, for St. Thomas, following such precepts is not meritorious if it is not done in grace (i.e. sanctifying grace). Nick only rejects the natural law reading if grace is excluded. St. Thomas is saying exactly the same thing as Augustine (and Nick).

Michael Taylor said...

Hym,

Thanks, I think that does clarify the differences. It's been a while since I read and responded to this thread so I may have lost the "thread" so to speak in Nick's argument.

That said, I am aware of Thomas' take on the identity of the "Gentiles" in question. Historically there have been 3 views: 1. Gentles who fulfill the law and are saved without an explicit knowledge of Christ. (Chrysostom and a few modern commentators). 2. Gentiles who partially keep the law but who are not saved (Calvin, Melanchthon and possibly Luther, as well as most modern commentators, Catholic and Protestant). 3. Gentile Christians who fulfill the law by grace (Augustine, Aquinas, but also Cranfield and Barth).

Clearly you are going with 3. I side with 2. I'll take your word for it that Nick is going with 3 as well, though I'd like to hear him say that for sure and also explain what he means by natural law.

I do accept your clarification of the difference between natural law and natural law precepts done in the state of grace which can be meritorious. I do not, however, believe this is what Paul has in mind when he is speaking of Gentiles "doing what the law requires." Although at least one Reformed commentator does:

Tom Scrheiner defends the view that in Romans 2, Paul is speaking about justification by works done in the state of grace by the Christian. Although, interestingly, he rejects the notion that the "Gentiles" in Romans 2:14-15 are Christians. He does, however, argue that Gentile Christians are elsewhere in view in Romans 2.

So there are two issues to sort out here:

1. What is the identity of the "Gentiles" in Romans 2? Are they Christian converts? Or are they unbelievers? Or is Paul speaking of both groups?

2. What is the nature of the "justification" that is mentioned? Is Paul seriously saying we can be justified by works in some specific sense? Or is this a hypothetical argument designed to push us to to the ultimate conclusion that there are "none who are righteous"?

For the record, you will find Reformed interpreters on all sides of these issues as well as Roman Catholic ones.

You might find this article helpful:

http://www.sbts.edu/documents/tschreiner/BBR_3.pdf

As for myself, I still favor the hypothetical view, but as I said in previous posts, I am not dogmatic about it and if I were to change, I think I'd give Schreiner's argument a bit more consideration.

Mike Taylor

Hymenaeus said...

Thank you for sharing the article. As the author himself admits, his reading is unusual as he considers the chapter to refer mainly to Christian gentiles, but he takens 2:14-15 as a paranthetical referring to non-Christian gentiles. Obviously, then, his reading differs from Augustine's although otherwise his interpretation of the chapter is not so far off. However, it doesn't appear that he necessarily objects to the idea behind that reading, so much as he thinks that it isn't what the text happens to be saying in this particular place. For others who have a hard time accepting this

I understand the reasoning for the typical Protestant interpretation of Romans, but I think the factor that decides against it is the plain sense of the text. Paul gives a way to salvation: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life (2:7). The question is whether this is a reachable precept or not. A second question is when Paul teaches that "the just shall live by faith," and that we shall be justified "by the law of faith," does Paul have in mind something closer to the Protestant doctrine that when we trust that Jesus died for our sins, his perfect active obedience to the law is counted as our own as if we kept the law perfectly ourselves (and of course he is regarded as if he committed all our sins in our stead)? I cannot give a verse-by-verse commentary in a com-box so I will just propose a few points concerning the first few chapters.

I do not think that Paul's way of salvation (from 2:7) is intended to be something unreachable since he sums up chapter 2 saying, For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. So the idea is that 2:7 (and 2:10) are fulfilled by faith, rather than faith being an alternative to "patient continuance in well doing." Traditional Reformed theology sees faith as something like a ticket out of the Covenant of Works into the Covenant of Grace, but that doesn't seem to be what Paul believes. I think the obvious reading is that Paul intends to teach in this chapter that it is not adherance to the Law of Moses that matters, but adherance to the law of faith, which is accessible to everyone regardless of ethnicity. In order for the "hypothetical" view to make sense, it would have to be demonstrated that "patient continuance in well doing" means "keeping the Law perfectly" or something like that without any room for failure. On the contrary, I think the easiest way to reconcile his command to do good and his judgment that we have all sinned is that we should live in the just way he outlines and that our failings will be forgiven "throught the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Secondly, Paul's concept of justification does not seem to be, as Protestant theology would have it, something that is totally "alien" to the one justified. Consider chapter 4. He says, "faith is counted for righteousness." Faith is not something alien to the believer. It is something inherent to the believer, either considered as an act or virtue. This does not fit in any way if the message is that our own works will have no bearing on our justice before God.

Hymenaeus said...

I will do my best to respond to your questions.

1) The Gentiles are Christians because:

-They "seek for glory and honour and immortality."
-They "worketh good." Infidels do not work good.
-They have the "law written in their hearts" as Jeremiah prophesied.
-The Gentiles in question are paired with the Jews. It would seem, therefore, that they have faith in God (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).

2) I think we can say with assurance that Paul considers those who "keep the righteousness of the law" to be accounted just on account of their works in some way, to state the obvious. He seems in this chapter to be speaking eschatalogically, pointing to the reward of eternal life, and thus these just works are in some way meritorious. I think reading further into the letter we can distinguish between the aspect of justification entailing the translation from ungodlieness into the state of righteousness and subsequent justification where we are judged on account of our righteous works. I do not think that this is a "justification before men" place, as you seemed to suggest in an earlier comment, since eternal life is in view. I don't think this is hyopthetical because I see this to be in continuity with the example of Abraham given later rather than in contrast to Abraham.

Nick said...

Sorry folks, it seems some comments got caught up in the spam filter and I forgot to check it until just now. Hopefully nobody's contributions were lost.