We were asked to consider the book of James at the same time so I spent a few days meditating on these things. If I avoid answering the question directly, I will tell you now I am becoming more persuaded by the idea that the 'I' is devoid of the Holy Spirit.
Here's my thinking on these things.
An Exegetical Study of Romans 7:14-25 with reference to James 3:3-10
This essay will exegete the above pericope from Romans and comment on the major hermeneutical puzzle: the identity of the ἐγὼ.1 It will briefly comment on Romans' relationship to James.
The origins of the church in Rome are 'obscure' (Moo, 1996, 4) but with Bruce (1985, 15), Moo is alert to those 'visitors from Rome' to the Pentecost festival of AD 30 (Acts 2:10), receiving the Holy Spirit poured out 'on all people' (Joel, 2:28). There would have been a mixture of Jewish converts, Gentiles and Godfearers 'who had associated themselves with Judaism before coming to Christ... who know the law,' (Stowers, 1994, 202). Scholars tend to date Romans between 55 AD (Morris, 1992, 6) and 57 AD (Moo, 1996, 3), with a consensus that it was written in Corinth. Acts 20:2-3 relates Paul's three month stay in Greece. Phoebe, who carries the letter, is from a church in Cenchreae and would travel to Rome from Corinth's west port. Paul, although intent on seeing the recipients of his letter (Rom. 1:8-15), neither founded nor visited the Roman Christians before writing to them.
Paul's purpose for writing is to ask for spiritual and material aid for his missionary endeavour to Spain. Persuasive also would be news of the collection for the Jerusalem church. Christian generosity is lent a theological impetus as an act of practical agape and the collection as a symbol of unity acts as a corrective to the Jewish/Gentile divisions in the Roman church. Campbell (2008, 76) describes how 'Paul was dealing with a continuum of stances varying from close adherence to Jewish practice to gentile life 'apart from the Law'.
Style and overview
The letter has been considered 'epideictic,' 'ambassadorial' and protreptic' (Moo, 1996, 15). What is certain, is that Paul is exhorting the Roman Jewish and Gentile Christians on issues concerning misunderstandings over the law. Stowers (1994, 180), believes that with his Graeco-Roman education in rhetoric, Paul employs prosopopoiia in 7:14-25 so that a figurative 'I' expresses the condition of a life under the law. This would account for the change in tense from aorist to present at verse 14 for the promotion of immediacy and impact. Cranfield (1985, 156) asserts, 'Paul's choice of this form of speech ... reflects Paul's deep sense of personal involvement.'
Overview of 7:14-25
Paul can not help but be engaged, understanding, as the reader might from the Epistle of James, that a defence of his theology is required. He has already taught that the law is impotent in regard to securing salvation, which can only be obtained through faith in Christ's work(3:28). This pericope (7:14-25) expands upon Paul's determining that the nomos (Mosaic law) has stimulated sin's accumulation, both by revealing sin and increasing sin (7:5 and 5:20). Whilst teaching that a Christian has died to the law (7:4), he needs to reaffirm that the law is holy, just and good (7:12). The transitional sentence at verse 13a is the unacceptable conclusion to the incorrect use of the law in verses 7 to 12, posed in a question, which is counteracted with the exclamation 'By no means!' (13b). Verse 14 begins with an affirmation of the law being spiritual (it being of God) to correct any thesis that the law might be evil, when it is sin that causes the law to bring death. This is followed by three separate clauses (15-16, 17-19 and 20-23) with the discourse intensifying and employing a military metaphor as the Antistrateuomai (waging war) intensifies through sin's kakos (bad) use of the law through the sarx (fleshly or sin-nature), even when the kalos (good) use of the law is perceived with the noos (mind). Closure is found in the emotional anacolutha of Romans 7:23-25a, with the pronouncement of wretchedness giving way to Paul's interjectory praise so that his hopeful exultation counteracts all the desperation that has come before, on account of God's action through Christ. 25b recapitulates in summary form the state that has been described of the conflicted life.
In deconstructing the pericope, binary oppositions are evident: law and sin; good and evil; flesh and mind; knowledge and will. Paul draws his readers into complicity with his viewpoint with the plural pronoun 'we' at verse 14 and the first contrast is established between the 'spiritual' law and the 'fleshly' ἐγὼ. That the law is 'spiritual,' he assumes all know. If what is in antithesis to the law is sin, this is manifest in the human person, the 'I', because s/he is 'fleshly'. This is where too easily seeing dualisms can be problematic. There is no dichotomy between a mind focussed on spiritual things and the flesh/body, the carnal. This would be to read platonic reasoning into Paul. In translating σαρκινος as 'unspiritual,' the NIV does not deter from unhelpful dualisms. Paul means that a human in their entirety (Gr. Sarkinos, made of flesh; cf. 1 Cor. 3:1) is 'sold under sin.' 'Those who are according to the flesh' are contrasted in Romans 9:5 to 'those who are according to the Spirit.' Without the Spirit, (Romans 8), humanity is under the authority of the flesh: enslaved. Metaphors of mastery pick up the idea of enslavement again (6:16-23) in contrast to the marital analogy which explained relations to the law and grace in 7:1-4. That the ἐγὼ is in a very difficult predicament is compounded by verse 23's continuation of the military theme, where the law has made the ἐγὼ a prisoner again in his members.
Verses 15-23 explain the seeming spiritual schizophrenia of a life under such mastery. The tendency to psychologise the struggle is considered symptomatic of a modern, western outlook,2 but it is interesting to note that 'akrasia (weakness of the will)' was a subject for the 'philosophical discussions' of the day (Engberg-Pedersen, 2000, 36) and Witherington (2004, 195) alerts attention to literature, like Ovid's Metamorphoses (7:19-20) exploring the theme. In Romans, even though the ἐγὼ can cognitively assent to the law being good, achieving the perfection for which the law aims is impossible when sin reigns. Ironically the 'knowing' that the law is spiritual, about which Paul assumes a consensus, contrasts with the inability to γινώσκω the self, no longer recognisable when actions do not bear out ideas to which one assents. The sin indwelling the human causes this. With the use of the definite article in the Greek (v.20), it is the condition that is blamed, the condition inherited from Adam, as well as the propensity to sin. The will to do good ceases to indwell because of this indwelling sin, reaffirmed in verse 20 so that 18 -20 describe the conclusion reached at verse 17. At verse 21 'this law' is not to be confused with Torah. It is the principle (v. 23, also 8:2) that the 'I', like all people, is a slave to sin and obeys it whether he wants to or not.
The theological point that Paul is making is that any attempt to attain righteousness through the law will be thwarted by sin. The remedy for this is articulated passionately at verse 25, without expansion, but the means by which victory is won, is the subject of Romans 8, where the Spirit reigns over sin. Scholars disagree about whom precisely Paul is making his theological point and this has everything to do with the hermeneutical puzzle that has baffled scholars through the ages: the identity of the ἐγὼ.3
It might seem because Paul describes 'delight in the law of God,' the 'I' must be a Christian. Scholars, with variations, do suggest that the ἐγὼ is regenerate. For Augustine, Luther and Packer, this is the present condition for mature Christians who struggle with sin until the resurrection of their bodies. Augustine did admit, 'it is not so clear how what follows can be understood concerning Paul,' (Schaff, 1956, 383) but was confident that Paul describes his own life and the life of the Christian believer. Augustine responds to the Pelagians who stressed human effort in the journey to sanctification. Packer (1999, 71-77) remarks, ''Pelagians, then and since have taken the 'wretched man' to be someone other than a Christian,' and identifies the ἐγὼ as 'the healthy Christian in honest and realistic self-assessment,' caught between the inaugurated but unrealised eschatological age. Garlington (2000, 112) and Dunn (1998, 495) similarly believe that Paul is describing the eschatological tension experienced in pursuing from faith an obedience that will never be perfected but remains a goal. For other scholars like Lloyd Jones (1973, 229-57), this person is spiritually immature and the battle will lessen, not so much with the commencement of the new age, as with a spiritual maturity through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8). Cranfield (1990, 356) cuts through dichotomies between mature or immature Christians by stressing that what is being described is 'not two successive stages but two different aspects...of the Christian life, both of which continue so long as the Christian is in the flesh.'
Moo (1996, 469) asks 'Should we expect Christian experience to be characterized by the sort of severe struggle described here?' Those who believe so claim that the unregenerate person can not perceive the law's claims upon them, nor delight in the law (7:22) or be cognisant or their own wretchedness. However, this fails to remember Paul's teaching about the 'law...written on their hearts... conscience... and thoughts [that] will accuse...' (Rom. 2:14-15). Moreover, Paul speaks of the Jew who 'boasts in the Law' (Rom 2:23; see 2:17). Continuing to defend their thesis for the regenerate, scholars contend that this passage agrees with the experience of the Christian life described in Galatians 5:17. However, it is also true that contrasts can be found here, where the ἐγὼ in Romans 7 describes sin's indwelling, Galatians describes how, 'it is Christ who lives in me' (Gal.2:20).
For Witherington, (2005, 21-23), 'the I is … all those who are currently “in Adam” in vv. 14–25.' He encourages careful thought on this issue because 'all of Protestant theology about human fallenness and the nature of life outside and inside the Christian sphere hangs on this text to some degree.' Moo believes the 'I' cannot refer to a regenerated Christian either because of contrasts in the text by which being 'set free' (Rom. 6:18; 6:22) and also 'imprisoned' (7:23) in relation to the law, cannot be seen to co-exist. The lack of reference to the Spirit is a factor in his conclusion that this is a non-Christian being described, adding a caveat that this description of the unregenerate's wretchedness does not mean that the Christian life is free from sin. Cranfield, Wright4 and Witherington emphasise Paul's allusions to the fall narrative where Moo draws out parallels with the experiences of Israel. Moo imagines an unregenerate with whom Paul can identify as Paul looks back to that state in which he shared, of being a Jew highly exacting about the law but powerless to fulfil it, (1996, 448). Where the 'I' gives way to 'our' at verse 25a, the Christian Paul interrupts his own 'speech-in-character,' to celebrate freedom from the predicament he recaps in the remainder of the verse, closing the chapter.
Romans 7 explores the sin-exposing activity of the law. It glances back to Adam and explores Torah's ineffectiveness for salvation. In speaks into Christian experience today with the ἐγὼ representing the Christian's journey from unbelief to belief where an assessment is made of life before. Two states, with the second continuing and advancing on the first are described. 'The exclamations at the end of the chapter articulate the experience in its double-aspect...one for lament...whereupon follows, paradoxically, the prayer of thanksgiving...' (Betz, 2000, 574). However, whilst all this is important for theological praxis; preaching the text and applying it to the human condition and Christian experience, the pericope's theological impetus must not be neglected. Chang (2007, 272) describes how this passage is not a psychological study of the Christian experience. 'The ‘I’ is, rather, to be reckoned as a performer Paul called out to the stage, allotting a role to... convey... the intrinsic goodness as well as the practical impotence of the Mosaic Law.' Moo highlights too that what is to be learnt from this pericope is the 'inability of the Mosaic law to rescue sinful people from spiritual bondage ...the condition of the unregenerate person - who can not be saved through the law – or... regenerate person...' (Moo, 1996, 443). Ultimately, in this pericope, Paul is not primarily concerned with explaining the Christian life. He is concerned with defending the holiness of the law. He illustrates through the experiences of the ἐγὼ, that obtaining righteousness through law-keeping is futile, because the law does not provide the power to resist sin, this can only come through 'God through Jesus Christ our Lord' (7:25a). This is the theological truth Paul hopes to make clear.
Romans and James
Moo (1996, 443) describes how, 'the interpretation of few passages has been more influenced by one's broad theological perspective, experience and a priori assumptions than Rom. 7:14-25.' Much of Luther's later teaching flavours5 interpretation of Romans, worth bearing this in mind, when exploring this letter's relationship with James, which Luther considered 'an epistle of straw,' (McKnight, 2010, 30). McKnight (2010, 3) contends 'that the more uncomfortable Christians are with James in a Luther-like way, the less they really understand Paul!'
Pastorally, perhaps with Paul, the Christian's role is to exhort brothers and sisters to 'consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus' (Rom. 6:11). Contra Stuhlmacher (1986, 142), who proposes 'With Christ the law, fallen into the clutches of sin...reaches its end,' Paul's descriptions of the law are less negative than such a reading would imply. Stuhlmacher might read instead that Christ is the telos, the fulfilment of the law. In this way we understand where Paul is negative about the law, it is only in terms of its impotence in securing salvation. Paul's is an appeal into a very different sort of life, characterised by the law of the Spirit in Romans 8.
Where James is positive about the law, it is in that through obedience to the law, faith is made manifest in practical actions which impact fellow believers and strengthen the community. Where critics believe that James raises problems with Paul's idea that the law tempts people to sin because for James, reductio ad absurdum, this would be tantamount to saying God tempts (James 1:13-15) since the law extends from God as his gift, a more careful appreciation of Paul's defence of the law needs to occur. Paul was aware of this charge which motivates him to exhort that blame should be lain with sin and not the law.
James and Paul are both aware of the tendencies within humanity that can lead us off course. With both there is emphasis on an evil force which James makes specific in chapter 3 with its exploitation of a particular member: the tongue. Paul's is a reference to 'members' by which he means his entire person. Having said that, the tongue acts as synedoche for the entire person in James. As with Paul, through his 'speech-in-character,' James addresses inner conflict. He explores the state of being 'double-minded,' (1:8) and also exhorts Christians to let their 'yes' be 'yes' and their 'no' be 'no' (5:12). Where Paul explored sin as an evil force, personifying it as a cruel tyrant that 'dwells within' (Rom. 7:17, 18, 20), lies 'close at hand,' (Rom. 7:21) wages 'war' (Rom. 7:21) and makes 'captive' (Rom. 7:14, 23, 25), James explores how it is the tongue dwelling within that is a 'restless evil – full of deadly poison,' (James 3:8). Its tendency to overpower the will is illustrated with metaphors drawn from nature. That it generates a kind of schizophrenia is this time manifested in the blessings and the curses of which it is simultaneously capable.
Although Pate (2000, 389) believes that James is full of anti-Pauline polemic, he does describe in a footnote that James 'attacks an aberration of the Pauline message, i.e., anti-nomianism much as Paul does in Romans 6 and 7.' He contends that whilst 'James discusses the importance of the outward evidences of one's faith, Paul teaches about its inner reality.' Paul does not say that we are not to fulfil the law, he is instead confident that we will fulfil it but through the Spirit and James shows us what this might look like. It involves our taming the tongue, avoiding favouritism, attending to the needs of the poor and showing by our works that we have been saved by faith. James and Romans are not to be seen to contradict one another for as Moo (1985, 46) describes:
'Paul and James are combating opposite problems...Against an over-emphasis on works, Paul highlights faith ...James on the other hand, is combating an under-emphasis on works...'
1Witherington (2005, pp.25-26) describes many of the possible positions in the appendix of this essay, which will focus on the idea of the 'I' either being regenerate or unregenerate.
2See Stendahl, K. (1976). 'The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.'
3For example, Cranfield (1990, 341) explores identity as autobiographical, typically Jewish, Adam, the Jewish people as a whole, mankind as a whole, and as generally rhetorical. Moo considers whether he might be autobiographical, Adamic or representative of Israel. Moreover, scholars fall into different camps depending upon whether the 'I' is regenerate or unregenerate.
4Wright (www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_New_Inheritance_Paul.htm) roots his reading of Romans 7 in the idea that 'when the Law was originally given Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam… in her continuing life under the Torah Israel finds herself simultaneously desiring the good and unable to avoid the buildup of sin... (Romans 7:1-6, 13-25)
5Luther's attitude to Judaism was influenced by the debate over grace and works originating in Palagius and Augustine so that the Jews became associated with a theology finding no favour with Luther, he lost his sense of them as a people and represented them as Palegians. J I Packer, whom, I consider later in this essay, in his reading of Romans 7, seems to continue in this vein.