A law unto themselves: virtuous pagans in Romans 2

A law unto themselves: virtuous pagans in Romans 2 December 7, 2012

I’ve been struggling through the beastliest book about the beastliest book in the Bible: Doug Campbell’s 1000 pager on Romans called The Deliverance of God. Campbell has been pummeling the exegetical claims of the Four Spiritual Laws gospel of Bill Bright (aka “decision for Christ,” “sinner’s prayer,” “getting saved,” etc) that has become such a brilliantly successful commodity in the evangelical salvation industrial complex that most of today’s evangelicals cannot really imagine any other purpose for Christianity. What’s interesting is that to Campbell, Calvin and Luther are not the problem behind the disaster of the evangelical gospel; the problem is the 18th century British empiricist/rationalist lens (Hume, Locke, et all) through which Calvin and Luther are studied and interpreted. I’m only about a third of the way in and only that far because I skipped a hundred or so pages. But one of the hugest potholes in the Romans Road I’ve discovered is the presence of virtuous (perhaps even heaven-bound?) pagans in two places in Romans 2. Let me share the passages and briefly reflect on them.

Romans 2:14-16

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Romans 2:26-29

So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

Now it is true that Romans 3 quotes a psalm which says among other things, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (v. 10). The standard Romans Road move is to use Romans 3:9-20 as a trump card that annihilates all the nuance in the discourse before it by claiming that God expects everyone to be perfect; nobody is; therefore we’re all hell-bound without Jesus. But the statements about God’s judgment within Romans 1-2 do not suggest a nihilistic infinite perfectionism on the part of God’s judgment but simply that people who do evil get “anguish and distress” while people who do good get “glory and honor and peace” (2:9-10). Paul would have written those verses differently if doing good were an impossible hypothetical that we’re supposed to be discouraged from striving to emulate. Furthermore, it’s important to read exactly how Paul words Romans 3:20: “No human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” He’s essentially recapitulating what he said in 2:26-29 about circumcision being inward and not external. The way Romans 3:20 is written, it does not condemn the pagans who are inward Jews with instinctively lawful dispositions. It merely condemns trusting in technical rule-following as a means of bringing about the deep connectedness with God that the Bible calls “eternal life.”

The common tactic for dealing with the distressing virtuous pagan passages is call them “hypothetical” by editing Romans 2:14 to say, “What if Gentiles could follow the law” instead of “When Gentiles follow the law” (v. 26 already opens with an “if” clause). But such interpretations don’t adequately account for why these wrinkles are even in the text at all. If Paul’s point is simply to say everybody’s screwed, why detract from his argument with speculations about people who can be good without making a “decision for Christ”? Of course, I think Paul has a completely different agenda than the one Bill Bright encoded into his wildly successful pamphlets.

I think the telos of Paul’s entire rhetorical strategy of Romans 1-3 is revealed quite well in Romans 3:27-29: “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.” Paul is undermining any basis his Jewish readers have for looking down on Gentiles. When we put together the examples of virtuous pagans in 2:14-16 and 2:26-29 with Paul’s vicious attacks on judgmental Jews in 2:1-5 and 2:17-24 along with the sobering nihilism of 3:9-20, it suggests a rhetorical strategy of putting the Jewish Christians in their place and eliminating arrogant self-righteousness as opposed to Paul browbeating his readers, Jewish and Gentile, into fearing God’s damnation, throwing themselves on God’s mercy in despair, and saying a sinner’s prayer. Remember that this letter was written to people who were already Christians, not heathen masses on the street who needed to be converted.

Paul’s passion throughout his epistles is tear down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. This key verse captures that goal perfectly:  “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24). Jesus atonement is what makes it possible for Paul to say, “There is no distinction.” This is completely in line with the account of Jesus’ unifying sacrifice in Ephesians 2:14-16, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

It’s gotten late so I don’t have the energy to tighten this up. I just think it’s important to recognize that no Biblical text, even Romans, has been explained exhaustively. There’s still new mystery to be uncovered.

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