Romans 2:14-15

Having discussed the meaning of Romans 1-4 at considerable length in the comments of this recent Green Baggins post, I decided that it might be worthwhile posting this brief exegetical essay I wrote on Romans 2:14-15 a couple of months ago. It may not be as polished as I would like it to be, but it makes a basic case for a reading of these verses as a reference to Gentile Christians, and helps to support the broader argument that I have been making over on Lane’s blog.

Questions of Interpretation
Few verses in Romans are perplexing as 2:14-15. Patience and care are demanded of the exegete, lest, in pulling too vigorously on one of the threads bound up in the complex weave of Paul’s argument, while neglecting others, the passage is rendered knottier than it already is, or Paul’s argument begins to unravel in our hands.

Perhaps the key questions facing the exegete of Romans 2:14-15 concern the identity of the persons spoken of in these verses. Are these doers of the Law real or hypothetical?[1] Are they Christian (as Ambrosiaster,[2] the later Augustine,[3] Barth, Cranfield[4] and Wright maintain[5]), non-Christian (the historically dominant reading, held by most of the Reformers[6] among others) or even pre-Christian believing Gentiles? Is the portrayal of them intended to be positive or negative?[7]

The role of the word φυσει in this context is also a matter of debate. Does it modify the verb ποιωσιν, describing the manner in which these Gentiles do the things of the Law, or does it belong with the earlier part of the clause, in which case it refers to the fact that Gentiles do not possess the Law by birthright, in the manner of the Jews? Is Paul making a reference to some form of natural Law in this context?

A number of further questions must also be addressed. What sort of ‘doing’ of the Law is here envisioned? How are we to understand the work of the Law written on the hearts of these Gentiles? Is this an allusion to OT passages concerning the New Covenant, or is a reference to an inner moral sense possessed by every person?

Within this post I will present an argument for favouring a Gentile Christian reading of these verses. I will engage with some of the principal objections that have been raised against this reading and will explore the manner in which the reading that I propose functions in the context of Paul’s larger argument.

In Favour of the Gentile Christian Reading
Perhaps one of the first things that we can observe about the Gentiles referred to in these verses is their exceptional character. Paul has already spoken in verse 12 of those who are within the Law and will be judged by the Law and those who are without Law and will be judged without Law. Here he seems to describe a tertium quid, a set of persons who do not fit tidily into either category. While they do not possess the Law by birthright as the Jews do, they nonetheless ‘do the things of the Law,’ ‘are a Law to themselves,’ and ‘show the work of the Law written in their hearts.’

It could be argued that Paul is here focusing on a hypothetical case of an upright Gentile, in order to cover all possible bases and prove the impartiality of God beyond all dispute.[8] However, this would still leave us with the problem of Paul’s apparent equivocation, whereby Gentiles are described as being without Law in verse 12 and as having a significant relationship with the Law in verses 13-15. Far better, I believe, to interpret this as a reference to Gentile Christians who are, to use N.T. Wright’s expression, ‘neither fish nor fowl.’[9]

The paradoxical doing of the Law by those naturally without the Law could be understood in terms of a theology of natural law, a natural law somehow related to the Mosaic Torah.[10] How Paul would account for Gentiles doing the Torah by means of obeying natural law is by no means clear. Where Paul elsewhere speaks of a non-Jewish mode of Law-fulfilment, it is always articulated in terms of, or in the clear context of, new covenant faith. Were we to adopt a natural law reading of this text, we would have to account for an alternative manner in which one can do the Torah as a non-Jew. We might also end up playing down the extent to which Paul conceives of the Torah as positive legislation (cf. Romans 5:13, 20; 7:7-12). We should further recognize that, when Paul does speak in terms of a natural knowledge of God and his will in Romans 1:19-21, it is an external voice suppressed by man that is spoken of.

If we determine that the people in view in verses 14-15 are not a hypothetical class, the question of how exactly Gentile Christians could be said to do the Law in a manner that will result in justification is raised. Is the obedience in view here ‘partial’, ‘vague’ or ‘perfect’? Gathercole rather suggests that ‘the reference is to the fundamental knowledge of God and orientation to his will that is lacking in the Jewish contemporaries of these Gentiles’,[11] something which is intrinsic to Spirit-given Christian faith. It is our opinion that this non-Jewish doing of the Law is a reference to the Christian fulfilment of the Torah by faith, a position that Paul expresses more explicitly in various other parts of his corpus.

Further supporting our reading is the apparent allusion to the new covenant within these verses. Paul’s claim that the work of the Law is written on the heart of these Gentiles is regarded by a number of scholars as an allusion to LXX Jeremiah 38:33. A comparison of the two texts reveals a number of strong similarities:

[νομους μου] … επι καρδιας αυτων γραψω αυτους – LXX Jeremiah 38:33b

το εργον του νομου γραπτον εν ταις καρδιαις αυτων – Romans 2:15a

As Gathercole observes, these verses have ‘four key lexemes in common.’[12] The writing of the work of the Law on the heart would also stand in sharp contrast with the way that Paul earlier described the darkening of the foolish hearts of the Gentiles in 1:21.

Our reading is further buttressed by the close relationship between these verses and verses 25-29, which speak of the uncircumcised man who ‘keeps the righteous requirements of the Law’. In verses 28-29 we see an accumulation of distinctions that Paul habitually employs with reference to the difference between the old and new covenants: inward/outward (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 6:12-13), flesh/Spirit (cf. Philippians 3:3), letter/Spirit (cf. Romans 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:6). In speaking of the circumcision of the heart, Paul also alludes to the new covenant promise of Deuteronomy 30:6 and to Ezekiel 36:27. While Wright takes verses 28-29 to be speaking of the distinction between two types of ‘Jewish’ people, transferring validity from one group to another,[13] in our estimation these verses are better understood as a clarification of the puzzling status of the new covenant Gentile Christian in particular.

While our reading doesn’t necessarily commit us to one side or another in the debate concerning the term φυσει (see Ito[14]), a number of considerations lead us to favour reading φυσει as belonging with the earlier half of the clause.[15] Not least among these reasons is the fact that, as Achtemeier has observed, every time Paul uses φυσει it is used ‘to characterise further some group’ rather than ‘to describe an action’.[16] Wisdom 13:1a is one counterexample to the claim that φυσει would have to occur in the middle of the phrase in order to function in such a manner in this clause.[17] The fact that an adverb generally follows the verb that it qualifies is also worth noting here.

The parallel with verse 27 (η εκ φυσεως ακροβυστια) is significant for this case. Gathercole remarks:

[O]f course the contrast is the same: in 2.14, ‘those without Torah by birthright, actually nevertheless obey it’; in 2.27, ‘those uncircumcised by birthright, actually nevertheless fulfil Torah’.[18]

That Paul uses φυσει to explain the exact sense in which these Gentiles do not possess the Law might be further supported by comparison with Romans 11:21-24, where ‘by nature’ is the precise manner in which Gentile Christians are not members of the olive tree. Finally, speaking of Gentile Christians fulfilling the Law ‘by nature’ would jar with other statements elsewhere in Paul.[19]

A number of objections have been raised to this reading of Romans 2:14-15.

The Contrast in Context
One of the first objections is that a contrast between Jews and Gentile Christians is inappropriate in the context. Achtemeier claims that Paul makes ‘no reference at all to the new situation in Christ until 3:20.’[20] This claim, however, does not seem to take sufficient account of the language of verses 25-29: Paul seems to be anticipating later movements in his argument. Also, contra Bornkamm, antitheses between Jews and Gentile Christians are found elsewhere in Paul (Romans 9:30; 11:11-14).[21]

The Impartiality of God
Bassler argues against the Gentile Christian reading, insisting that the context of Romans 2:12-29 demands ‘a discussion in terms of Jews and Gentiles per se’[22] if Paul is truly to address the question of the impartiality of God in light of the ‘selective dispensation of the Law’. We suggest that that particular point has already been established and that Paul is here moving on to explore the paradoxical obedience to the Law of the new covenant Gentile, demonstrating the manner in which the Law can remain a ‘boundary marker’ for the true people of God, without undermining divine impartiality.

A Law unto Themselves
Räisänen and Schreiner ask what exactly is meant ‘that Gentile Christians are a (the) law for themselves’, presenting 1 Corinthians 9:21 as a problem text for such a reading.[23] Gathercole helpfully observes that speaking of Gentile Christians ‘being’ the Law unto themselves, refers to the manner in which they ‘embody’ or ‘incarnate’ the Law and do not merely ‘possess’ it.[24] Paul is not here absolving Gentile Christians of any relationship with the Law, but is clarifying the sense in which such a relationship exists.

The Work of the Law
Moo alerts us to the fact that, although Jeremiah speaks of the Law being written on the heart, here, with a hapax legomenon, we read of the ‘work of the Law’ being written on the heart.[25] Perhaps it is best to understand Paul’s choice of this expression as resulting from his tendency to present the fulfilment of the Law as something that occurs through the enactment of a simple principle of action (so Cranfield[26]), such as faith or love (e.g. Romans 13:8-10), in contrast to the observance of piecemeal regulations.

Gentiles ‘Doing’ the Law
A further objection levelled against our reading proceeds from the recognition that, when Paul speaks of Christian’s relationship with the Law elsewhere, he always uses verbs other than ποιεω.[27] We suggest that Paul’s deviation from his preferred verbs in this instance is determined in large measure by the hearing/doing contrast of the immediate context in verse 13.

The Accusations of Conscience
Perhaps the weightiest of the objections against our reading concerns Paul’s description of the work of the heart, conscience and thoughts in accusing and excusing.[28] Why, the objection goes, would Paul present the situation of the Gentile Christian in a manner that gave such an accusatory voice to these three witnesses? The fact that the witnesses sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse points to the occasional and non-saving nature of the obedience in question.[29]

Gathercole observes there is no reason why we could not have many accusing thoughts and still not be condemned by God (1 Corinthians 4:4-5; cf. 1 John 3:20).[30] He counsels us to attend to the contrasts between the description of the Gentiles in 1:18-32 and in 2:14-15: Gentiles, formerly without excuse (1:20) and knowing themselves to be worthy of death (1:32), now find themselves occasionally excused by their conscience, heart and thoughts. Gathercole remarks, ‘the surprise for the Jewish interlocutor would have been that the thoughts could actually provide a defence at all.’[31]

Wright surmises that the self-accusations may result in part from the ‘inner conflict’ that the Gentile Christian faces as he approaches the Day of Judgment, aware of his ambiguous status.[32] The Gentile Christian would, in many respects, be more susceptible to a weak and self-accusing conscience than his Jewish counterpart would.

Nils Dahl has suggested has suggested an alternative reading: that the role of the heart, conscience and thoughts as advocates for the Gentiles is designed to counter Jewish claims that the Torah and its commandments would serve as special advocates for them. Jouette Bassler argues that God’s impartiality demands that God judge Jews and Gentiles in ‘different but equivalent ways’; this impartiality is maintained as Christian Gentiles have the advocates of conscience and thoughts, which correspond to the Jewish advocates of Torah and Miswot.[33]

In conclusion, on the basis of the allusions to the new covenant promise of Jeremiah, the parallels with verses 25-29, and the contrast with the way that Gentiles are described in Romans 1, the Gentile Christian reading of Romans 2:14-15 appears to be the most satisfying of the exegetical options open to us. We do not believe that any of the objections that have been raised against this reading are sufficiently convincing to undermine it.

[1] E.g. Westerholm, Stephen. 2004. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 271n23. See also Sanders, E.P. 1983. Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 126-127.
[2] Bray, Gerald (ed.). 1998. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament VI – Romans. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 67
[3] Cf. Patte, Daniel and Eugene TeSelle (eds.). 2002. Engaging Augustine on Romans: Self, Context, and Theology in Interpretation. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 147-170
[4] Cranfield, C.E.B. 1975. The Epistle to the Romans: Volume 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 155ff
[5] See Gathercole, S.J. 2002. Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 126n50 for a list of modern exegetes.
[6] Parker, T.H.L. 1986. Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans 1532-1542. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 138-141
[7] Gathercole, S.J. 2002. ‘A Law unto Themselves: The Gentiles in Romans 2.14-15 Revisited.’ JSNT, 85:27-49, 29
[8] Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 271n23
[9] Dunn, James D.G. (ed.). 1996. Paul and the Mosaic Law. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 146
[10] Stuhlmacher, Peter. 1994. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 42-43. See Bockmuehl, Markus. 2000. Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 131 for a challenge to the natural law reading.
[11] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 35
[12] Ibid, 41
[13] Wright, N.T. 2002. The Letter to the Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume X. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 448-449
[14] Ito, Akio. 1996. ‘Romans 2: A Deuteronomistic Reading.’ JSNT, 59:21-37, 33
[15] See Stowers, Stanley K. 1994. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles. London: Yale University Press, 116-117, 138-139 for a helpful discussion of this.
[16] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 36
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, 36-37
[19] Cf. Dunn, James D.G. 1988. Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38a). Dallas, TX: Word Books, 98
[20] Achtemeier, Paul. 1985. Romans. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 51. See also Ziesler, John. 1989. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. London: SCM Press, 86-87.
[21] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 31
[22] Bassler, Jouette. 1982. Divine Impartiality: Paul and a Theological Axiom. Chico, CA: Scholar’s Press, 144
[23] Räisänen, Heikki. 1983. Paul and the Law. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 104; Pate, C. Marvin. 2000. The Reverse of the Curse: Paul, Wisdom, and the Law. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 262. See also Käsemann, Ernst. 1980. Commentary on Romans. London: SCM Press, 65.
[24] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 37
[25] Moo, Douglas J. 1996. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 151-152. Cf. Schreiner, Thomas. 1993. ‘Did Paul Believe in Justification By Works? Another Look at Romans 2.’ Bulletin for Biblical Research 3:131-158, 146.
[26] Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans: Volume 1, 158
[27] ‘Romans 2: A Deuteronomistic Reading’, 36
[28] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 40ff; Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 65-66
[29] ‘Did Paul Believe in Justification By Works?’ 147
[30] ‘A Law unto Themselves’, 45
[31] Ibid, 46
[32] Paul and the Mosaic Law, 146
[33] Bassler, Jouette. 1984. ‘Divine Impartiality in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’ Novum Testamentum 26:43-58, 51, 52n26

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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