Romans 2 Thoughts


Romans 2 presents two big questions to me:

I. What does Paul mean when he says that "The hearers of Law are not justified before God but the doers of Law will be justified. For whenever Gentiles who do not have Law do by nature the things of the Law, these although they do not have Law are Law for themselves, who demonstrate the work of the Law written on their hearts, and their conscience gives the same witness and either condemns or defends between their own reasonings on the day when God judges the hidden things of mortals according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

This is a puzzling statement, for Paul seems to imply that a Gentile might be found right on the Day of Judgment because they keep the Law adequately "by nature." On the one hand, it is clear enough that Paul is telling a person who might be self-righteous because they know the Jewish Law that they have no more leg to stand on than a Gentile who is good by nature. But does Paul really mean to say that a person might be justified because they keep the Law by nature? Isn't this the same Paul who will conclude both Jew and Gentile under sin in 3:9? Isn't this the same Paul who concludes both Jew and Gentile under a curse in Galatians 3:10-11?

We can find at least four answers to this question out there:

1. Paul is talking about a Gentile Christian, not a Gentile in general.
This is an attractive solution but not one that really fits Paul's comments. Paul is talking about a person who would do "by nature" the things of the Law without knowing the Law. In Romans 8 Paul will talk about a person doing the things of the Law by the Spirit but not by nature.

2. When Paul says all have sinned, he doesn't mean all individuals but all races: both Jew and Gentile.
This is the Krister Stendahl argument. Stendahl believes that Paul thought some Jews and Gentiles did keep the Law adequatedly enough in the face of God's grace to be justified.

Certainly this is the view that fits best with Judaism at the time. Indeed, I have expressed elsewhere here that Paul's view that all have sinned and are sunk is peculiar in Judaism, leading some scholars to suggest he either misunderstood Judaism or deliberately misrepresented it. The Jews believed that all had sinned and that it was only by the grace of God that justification was possible, but God's grace had made provisions for sin in repentance, the sacrificial system, acts of righteousness, etc... And for Jews, it was not a matter of "getting in" or earning salvation of some sort (when there was a belief that something was coming from which to be saved--not all Jews expected a soon coming cataclysm). For Jews being the people of God was a matter of staying in, not getting in (E. P. Sanders' famous description).

In that sense, Paul's discussion of righteousness in Romans 2 is closer to mainstream Jewish understandings in some ways than Romans 3 is. I like to call the standard of justification in Romans 2 "Jewish Standard Righteousness," and it was something a person might theoretically attain.

But in Romans 3, the measure is "Absolute Standard Righteousness," a measure by which no human could possibly stand before God. It is by this standard that Paul says "by works of law no flesh will be justified before God" (3:20). So taken straightforwardly, the comments in 3:20 and 2:14-16 seem to contradict each other.

3. And so some scholars believe that Paul does in fact contradict himself.
Some would say that in Romans 2 Paul is talking like a normal Jew, but in Romans 3 he has upped the standard so he can argue that justification only comes through Christ. Sanders argues that Paul basically knew that Christ was the only way, and so finds a way to argue why Christ is the only way. But Sanders doesn't think Paul's arguments proved convincing.

4. In Romans 2, Paul is building an argument that is not finished until we get to chapter 3.
By far the most plausible interpretation to me is that in Romans 2 Paul is simply not finished with the argument. In Romans 2 he is talking street level, on terms everyone agrees. He is exposing a basic hypocrisy among Judaizers, those who insist Gentiles keep the Law in order to be justified. Paul's argument is that there are plenty of Gentiles who are as righteous as any Jew.

But in Romans 3 we will find that God has introduced into the equation a factor much more important than law-keeping. The argument is not complete until we get there.

II. A second and more minor question is who the individual is of whom Paul says, "If you call yourself a Jew..." (2:17)? Is this an ethnic Jew or a "conservative" Gentile?

The most obvious answer to us is that it refers to a person who is an ethnic Jew. I think that 2:25 does indicate that even if such a person started out as a Gentile, he has now been circumcised. But there are questions like this one in various Roman writings that lead us to believe that this phrase could be used of Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism (e.g., Epictetus), and we know from Dio Cassius the historian that some wealthy Romans dabbled in Judaism. If Paul is picturing a Gentile proselyte to Judaism as he says these things, perhaps the enigmatic, "robbing of temples" will prove to make more sense.