Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robert Reymond, Charles Leiter, Romans 7, and the Phantom Antinomian

I recently got involved in a discussion on Facebook in regards to Romans 7. The person I was arguing with is of a Calvinistic Baptist persuasion and is convinced that in Romans 7:14-25 is speaking of himself in his pre-Christian state. Paul served God with his mind but with his flesh served sin. But when Paul became a Christian he gained victory over sin. The person I was arguing with referenced an article by Charles Leiter. Leiter does a rather poor job of defending his position. He never responds to the real objections. Leiter recommends another article by Robert Reymond. Reymond does a  better job defending his position that Leiter does. I read this same article in Robert Reymond's A New Systematic Theology several years ago.

Robert Reymond is a "conservative" Presbyterian and this article in his systematic theology seems to have popularized the idea that Romans 7 is about Paul prior to converting to Christianity among Reformed folks. Historically the vast majority of "conservative" Reformed and Presbyterian folks adopted the Augustinian interpretation where Paul is speaking about his current state. But now many believe that this is impossible. There are several other problems in Reymond's systematic theology that I won't go into hear--not the least of which is his abandonment of Nicene Trinitiarian Orthodoxy.

For the present, I will only examine his interpretation of Romans 7. Prior to the twentieth century the Augustinian position that Paul is speaking of his current state reigned in the church across denominational lines both in the east and the west. There was the occasional commentator such as Origen who believed that Paul was speaking of himself in the preconversion days of yore, but there has been a general consensus that Paul was speaking of his current situation. But in the magical infallible land of academia, where all now turn, Paul must be speaking of either his own unconverted state or perhaps not even about himself.

Reymond believes that Romans 7:14-25 is autobiographical but that Paul is making use of the historical present to make his telling of the past event more vivid. Reymond is right that the use of the present tense does not automatically mean that the action is present. Throughout the Gospels we find the use of the historical present to make the passages more vivid--to draw the reader (or more likely hearer) in to the event as a contemporary. However, in the context of Romans 7 that doesn't seem to be the case. Paul begins in the past tense to describe his pre-conversion state and then shifts into the present tense to describe his current state. That seems to be the most natural way of reading the passages as can be attested by the fact that that is the way almost everyone in the Christian church has understood it both in the east and the west throughout history.

Reymond says that Paul cannot be describing his current state because in vs. 14 Paul describes himself as being "carnal" which according to 8:6 is to be in a state of spiritual death. But this is actually circular reasoning. The Augustinian position is that the believer receives a new nature but that he still has the old nature. The new nature never sins and the old nature always sins and they are constantly battling against one another--which is the state the Paul is describing in Romans 7 and elsewhere. Reymond wants us to believe that since the "spiritual" is present, the "carnal" is no longer present. Reymond has 10 main points but most of his points are basically just a restatement of his belief that if the new is present, then the old cannot be in the same person. Reymond assumes what he is trying to prove.

If Reymond believed that Christians no longer sin after conversion then his argument might make a little more sense. But Reymond does acknowledge that Christians still sin. The Scriptures are clear that the new man does not sin at all. It's not about trying hard or being really sincere (which aren't any time you sin anyhow) but about absolute sinlessness. Reymond warns against the dangers of antinomianism but legalism is far more widespread that antinomianism is and there have been plenty of Christian bodies throughout history that have taught the Augustinian interpretation without even getting close to antinomianism. Of course Paul was accused of antinomianism, so if a person is not accused of being an antinomian he probably isn't preaching the Gospel.

I (and others) would argue that Romans 7:14-25 could not be speaking of an unconverted person because Paul says that he delights in the law of the Lord. Reymond argues that as a self-rigtheous Pharisee Paul did delight in God's law in his mind. But in Romans 7:22, Paul does not say that he outwardly conformed to the law or delights in a superficial way. Rather, Paul delights in God's law in his inner being. In verse 25, Paul uses the word "mind" (nous) to speak of the same thing. He says that he serves the law of God with his mind. In Romans 8, Paul says that the person whose mind is not in the Spirit is hostile to God and does not submit to God's law. Elsewhere, Paul says that whatever is not done in faith is sin.

Paul is restating basically the same thing as is found in Psalm 119, where the Psalmist speaks of how he delights in God's law but recognizes his own sinfulness. In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul says that our outer being is wasting away but the new being is being renewed day by day.

There is a great paradox here. How can both saint and sinner exist in the same person? How can a person be utterly sinful and yet righteous? But this is not something unique to Paul. In 1 John, John says that if we say we do not sin we are calling God a liar and God's truth is not in us. In the same epistle, John says that if we sin we are of the Devil and do not belong to God. Some say that John is not speaking absolutely but only of habitual sin, but all sin is habitual, otherwise we would stop doing it and if we say that we don't commit habitual sin we are calling God a liar which is a sin.

Our new man never sins. Our old man always sins. The life of the believer is one of constant struggle between his old and new natures. This struggle does not exist in the unbeliever.

It is not surprising that Reymond is uncomfortable with this paradox. Paradoxes are always uncomfortable and throughout his systematic theology Reymond is unwilling to accept them. Reymond is a Calvinist and both Calvinism and Arminianism are attempts to resolve Scriptural paradoxes. They are intellectually satisfying systems but Biblically unfaithful. Calvinism is all about God's glory and bends and twists any passages or teachings of the Scriptures that Calvinism believes detracts from God's glory. Arminianism is all about free choice and bends and twists any passages that make it sound like free choice is being threatened.

But the Christian faith is not mathematical. God ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. We can know what God has revealed to us about Himself but the secret things belong to Him and it is sinful to pretend we have God figured out. We only end up making an idol in our own image when we try to resolve the paradox.

The Christian faith confesses that God is one being and three persons. Nobody can explain that. It's a paradox. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but there are not three Gods but one God. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, etc. Modalism is intellectually satsifying and so is Tritheism but Trinitarianism is not (of course finding a real Tritheist is almost as hard as finding a real antinomian).When the core of our confession is a pardox, how can we expect to be able to be able to resolve other issues that have not been explicitly revealed to us? God suffered, bled, and hung naked and dead on a cross for us. Nothing makes sense about that. All we can do is rejoice that it is true. There is no way we can make God dying for sinners make sense. God destroying sinners makes sense.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well explained. I appreciated how you wrote this. Actually when I first started reading it, I was wondering if you were doing something with names because you have Robert (your father's middle name), Reymond (Caleb's middle name), and Charles (your name). Anyhow, it was done very well! Love Mom