Thesis 4: Rom 7:7-25 is an “Open” Text
I want to suggest here that a little dose of reader-response criticism might actually be helpful for understanding this passage. Since Paul does not explicitly nominate the identity of the speaker in the speech, the identity of the “I” remains quite “open,” perhaps deliberately. The open-endedness of the speaker’s identity explains precisely why so many divergent interpretations have arisen over the centuries. Let us remember that if postmodern literary theorists have taught us anything it is that meaning is a matter of context. One’s own experiences and one’s own literary repertoire will inevitably shape how we identify the “I” in the text. Modern readers of Rom 7:7-25, therefore, could quite naturally and quite reasonably project a whole host of experiences and persons into the biographical narration of the passage. A Muslim reading the passage might think of themselves as powerless in their inability to obey the Qur’an and thankfully see Jesus Christ as the one who rescues them from shame and condemnation. An atheist may be forced to see themselves as one controlled by their own primal and perverted impulses and completely unable to escape from it even through the best humanist philosophy. A Jewish reader might be led to remember how, after their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, they soon felt the lure of sexual temptation and struggled to contain it. A Buddhist could understand the passage as teaching the slavery of the self to “desire” and their inability to follow the noble eightfold path. That is not to say that the text is just a mirror and it reflects only we project upon it. Rom 7:7-25 does give us a few clues about the speaker’s identity, esp. the reference to the tenth commandment. However, in the providence of God and through the power of Scripture, the Holy Spirit is able to speak to people in multiple contexts precisely because of not in spite of the “open” nature of some biblical texts.