CONDEMNATION OF GENTILES
(Rom 1:18-2:4, 12-15)
Paul believes that gentiles are sinners and like Jews are “under sin” (huph' hamartian) (3:9). In Rom 1:18-2:16, Paul focuses his attention on gentiles, although he does not name them as such; the context, however, implies that he has gentiles in view. (Of course, what he says could, in some cases, apply to Jews also.)
Paul concludes that gentiles stand condemned before God, even though in principle they could have made themselves righteous by doing what they knew to be the will of God. Rom 1:18 is joined to the previous verse by means of the conjunction "for" (gar). This conjunction, however, seems to be used in a weak sense, so that one should assume that there is only a loose connection between Rom 1:18 and 1:17, which means that the conjunction "for" (gar) serves only as a transition from one section of the letter to another. In fact, Rom 1:18-3:20 is more of a digression on Paul's discourse on the righteousness of God begun in Rom 1:16 and resumed in 3:21; this digression provides a basis for Paul's assertion of the need of "the righteousness of God," namely, as he concludes in Rom 3:20, "because by the works of the Law no flesh will be declared to be righteous in his sight." Nevertheless, by juxtaposing the statement in Rom 1:17 "For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith" with that in Rom 1:18 "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men," Paul does seem to imply that the proclamation of to euaggelion necessarily reveals God's wrath, insofar as the gospel presupposes that human beings are universally sinful and cannot be righteous apart from the "righteousness of God "revealed "from faith to faith" (the content of to euaggelion). In other words, to euaggelion ("the good news") presupposes the wrath of God as the problem for which the righteousness of God is the solution. Paul states that the wrath of God (orgê theou) is being revealed from heaven against "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (pasan asebeian kai adikian anthrôpôn) (1.16-18). The "place" from which God's wrath is revealed is "heaven," by which Paul means from God (see 2 Cor 12:2; Gal 1:18 ). It should be noted that Paul uses the present tense "is revealed" (apokaluptetai), implying that what he describes is a present fact, and is not to be assigned to the eschatological future. The wrath is "from heaven," which is to say, from God (see Gal 6:7). (For parallels to the "wrath of God," see Ps 90:7-12; 1 Enoch 91:7. The terms "ungodliness" and "unrighteousness" are semantically indistinguishable from each other; used in tandem, they express emphatically the idea of sin in general (see the use of the two terms in tandem in LXX Ps 72:6; LXX Prov 11:5; 1 Enoch 13:2). Paul adds that gentiles actually "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (tên alêtheian en adikia katechontôn) by which he means that gentiles know the truth about God and his creation but willfully and paradoxically choose to be ignorant because of their unrighteousness, that they do not find the truth to be convenient. (There does not seem to be any sense that the wider Hebraic understanding of "truth" is meant. Rather, in this context, "truth" denotes knowledge.) (For a similar use of the verb katechô, see 2 Thess 2:6; Phlm 13) (He explains this in more detail later in Rom 1:20-23.)
In Rom 1:19, Paul provides warrant for his indictment of gentiles as those who suppress the truth because of unrighteousness. He says that what is knowable about God is evident among the gentiles, for God made sure that this knowledge was available to them: "For God made it manifest to them." (Paul uses the preposition en, which is this context probably means not "in" but "among." This means that even without the "logia of God" (Rom 3:2) gentiles are far from being ignorant of God. Paul explains, "For from the creation of the world his invisible attributes have been seen, being discerned from what he has made: his eternal power (hê aïdios autou dunamis) and divine nature (theiotês) so that they are without excuse" (1:20-21) (Paul refers to God's invisibility also in Col 1:15 [ho theos ho aoratos] and 1 Tim 1:17 [ho basileus...aoratos].) To say that God has "invisible attributes" runs counter to the pagan assumption that the gods possess visible forms, which they could manifest to human beings at will. God's "invisibility" is his incorporeity, so that to confess God as "invisible" is to confess that God is nothing like his physical creation. (In the Old Testament, however, there are numerous theophanies in which God is anthropomorphically visible [Gen 32:30; Exod 24:10-11; 33:20-23; Judg 6:22-23; 13:20-23; Isa 6:5].) Nevertheless, in spite of his "invisibility," God's existence and attributes can be inferred by means of what he has made (tois poiêmasin). By his use of the participle nooumena, Paul implies that a human being has the capacity of "inference," by means of which he can infer God's invisible attributes from what is visible (or perceptible). On this interpretation, the participle phrase "being discerned by what he has made" (tois poiêmasin nooumena) adverbially modifies the verb "have been seen" (kathoratai), indicating that the "seeing" is really "understanding" or a "seeing with the mind," as opposed to actual sight. In particular, from first hand experience of created reality, a human being is naturally led to the conclusion that there is a first cause or "divine nature" (theiotês), which is eternal and with power sufficient to bring into being all that is ("eternal power") (hê aïdios autou dunamis). In other words, Paul presents a version of the cosmological argument: the finite and conditioned requires an infinite and unconditioned cause. This is how God made the knowledge of himself known to human beings. (In Wis 2:23, eternity [aidiotês] is said to be an attribute of God; see also Wis 7:26 and 4 Macc 10:15. The term "divinity" [theotês] is a Hellenistic term denoting the divine nature, and occurs in Wis 18:9].) (See also Eph 4:18 where Paul says about the gentiles that their ignorance of God was the result of the hardening of their hearts, implying that they knew God.)
The fact the human beings can infer the existence and attributes of God from what has been created results in their being rendered inexcusable (anapologêtos). In spite of knowing God from creation, gentiles generally did not "glorify" (doxazein) God or give him thanks. Paul uses the term "to glorify" (doxazein) and its cognate "glory" (doxa) extensively in his writings, often with different meanings. In this context, "to glorify God" is to ascribe unrestricted greatness to God and to live in conformity with his will. Paul also says that gentiles did not thank God for the fact of their existence and all the benefits that they derive from him (1:21a). Instead, "they became futile in their thinking" (emataiothêsan en tois dialoismois autôn) (1:21b), by which Paul means that they chose to believe things that not only they knew were not true, but were actually ridiculous. In other words, there was a knowledge of God among gentiles but not an acknowledgement of God. In particular, gentiles came up the absurd notion that one can make a representation of the divine (idolatry). (It is no coincidence that in the LXX the substantive "futile things" [ta mataia] translates two different Hebrew words for "idols" (1 Kings 16:13, 26; 2 Kings 17:15; Jer 2:5 [hebel] and 2 Chron 11:15 [sa'ir] [see also Isa 2:20; Ezek 8:10]. In LXX Jer 2:5, the prophets speaks about how the people "became futile" [emataiothêsan].) In 1:23, Paul says that, as idolaters, gentiles "exchanged the glory of the immortal (or "incorruptible") (aphthartos) God for the likeness of the image of mortal (or "corruptible") (phthartos) human beings, birds, four-footed animals and reptiles" (see Deut 4:15-20). To "exchange the glory of God" is to substitute an inglorious visible image for the invisible glorious God. Whatever can be represented is finite and therefore created and mortal; God who is the eternal first cause or creator is necessarily immortal and therefore unrepresentable by that which he has made. (Indeed whatever can be represented is by definition inglorious since God as "invisible" or transcendent cannot be represented.) (In Rom 1:25 Paul reiterates this point.) Paul also says of gentiles that "their uncomprehending heart became darkened" (eskotisthê hê asunetos autôn kardia) (1:21b). The heart (kardia) denotes the "center" (to use a metaphor) of the human being, with a stress on the cognitional and volitional (and therefore moral) nature. (This is a relatively common term in Paul's letters, which is not surprising, since this term is used in this sense in the Old Testament and second-Temple Jewish texts [kardia reflects the Hebrew use of lb or lbb].) The heart was uncomprehending because gentiles chose "to suppress the truth"; the natural result was that gentiles willingly ceased to know what was true and good, which Paul expressed as a "darkening of the heart." (See Col 2:18; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:8; Titus 1:15 for the synonymous idea of the corruption of the mind.)
Refusing to acknowledge God leads to a general moral degeneration, especially sexual immorality; God allowed gentiles to sink into greater and greater moral turpitude (1:24, 26-28). (In Wis 14:12, sexually immorality is causally connected with idolatry and moral corruption in general.) Three times Paul says that God “handed over” (paredôken) gentiles: “God handed them over to the desires of their hearts to dishonor their bodies among themselves" (see Exod 23:31; Deut 7:23) (1:24); “God handed them over to shameful passions” (1:24); “God handed them over to a worthless mind, to do what is not proper” (1:28) (Paul uses word-play by using the verbs edokimasen and adokimon in 1:28.) To hand over the gentiles to sin is not to restrain them in their sinful desires. He concludes with a list vices characteristic of gentiles (1:29-31).
In Rom 1:32-2:4, Paul puts forward what seems to be another basis of the judgment of gentiles. What he says, however, would also have application to Jews even though, unlike gentiles, they have the Law as an objective standard against which to be assessed. Rom 1:32 consists of a relative clause having for its antecedent “them” (gentiles) in Rom 1:28, but introduces a new idea. Human beings condemn themselves and so bring themselves under divine judgment insofar as they know that those who do such things as he describes in his list of vices in Rom 1:29-31 deserve death and yet they still do such things and even commend others who do the same things (see T. Asher 6:2). To commend others for sinning is worse than actually sinning oneself, because it is disinterested and for that reason truly reflective of a person’s moral values. The person who sins can sometimes justly claim that he acted rashly or out of weakness, but the person who approves of another’s sin cannot appeal to such extenuating circumstances.
Paul then explains how gentiles know the just decrees of God even without having the Law. He writes, "Therefore, you are indefensible, O man when you judge others (2:1a). It should be noted that in Rom 2:1, Paul adopts the diatribe style, whereas in Rom 1:18-32, he refers to gentiles indirectly, using the third person (see 2:17). The conjunction dio serves as a logical connective, indicating that Rom 2:1 is an inference from the fact that gentiles know the righteous judgments of God stated, as stated in Rom 1:32. Because they know them, gentiles are without excuse every time that they judge. This is because their act of judging presupposes and reveals the fact that they know the righteous decrees of God. In particular, for Paul, the law of reciprocity is the innate ethical standard of right and wrong, as he explains in Rom 2:1b “For in what you judge others you judge yourself." It is a universal ethical principle that one should to act towards others as you would want them to act towards you; the specifications of this principle are revealed most clearly in the judgments that a person makes of others not the judgments directed towards himself. The righteous judgments of God that gentiles know and are demonstrated in the fact that they pass judgment are the specifications of this universal moral principle.
In Rom 2:12-13, Paul explains that even though they do not have the Law, gentiles are not thereby exempt from judgment. (This follows upon his inclusion of what may be a pre-Pauline tradition concerning God’s impartiality in 2:6-11.) It is still possible to be disobedient without the Law (anomôs) and be judged and destroyed without the Law. The reason for this Paul explained in 1:18-2:5: that even without the Law gentiles as moral beings know that one is subject to the law of reciprocity. As a correlative to this, Paul adds that those who sin “in the Law” (en nomô) will be judged by the Law. His point is that the privilege of having the Law does not exempt the Jew from eschatological judgment: “It is not the hearers of the Law who will be declared righteous but the doers of the Law” (2:12-13). The doers of the Law (hoi poiêtai nomou) are the ones who are possession of “works of the Law” (erga nomou) (3:20, 28). This the first time that Paul uses the verb dikaiein; he uses it in a judicial sense: to be declared righteous in the sense being judged to be righteous. (These verses anticipate his consideration of the unique situation of the Jew beginning in 2:17.) Turning his attention back to the situation of the gentile, Paul says that gentiles are a law to themselves; in other words, standards of right and wrong are innately known to gentiles. Gentiles do not have the written Law, but still "do by nature the things of the Law" (phusei ta tou nomou poiôsin), by which Paul means that gentile moral theory and practice naturally and inevitably conforms, in part, at least, to the Mosaic Law (2:14-15). As moral beings, gentiles demonstrate that "the work of the Law" (to ergon tou nomou), by which Paul means what the Law requires, is innately present or present "by nature" within them, or as Paul expresses it, is "written on their hearts" (grapton en tais kardiais autôn). Implicitly, Paul assumes that the Mosaic Law has an essential core expressive of a universal moral standard, since it is obvious that not all the commandments in the Torah are innately present in all human beings (see Rom 13:8-9; Gal 5:13-14; 5:6b). Probably, the "law" written on the hearts of gentiles is the law of reciprocity, which is why Paul uses the singular "the work of the Law." It is on this basis that gentiles by nature judge others and judge themselves. Paul also expresses this fact about the gentiles by saying that gentiles have a conscience (suneidesis), which testifies to them concerning their own moral status (2:15b).
According to Paul, at the time of final judgment, gentiles will condemn or vindicate themselves on the basis of their own self-evaluation, because they will judge themselves on the basis on the law of reciprocity. Their own consciences will be their judge, which will use their own thoughts to condemn or even commend them before the divine tribunal (2:15c-16). (It is probably best exegetically to take the genitive absolutes in 2:15c ["accusing" and "excusing"] as related to the main verb in 2:16 ["judges"]. This is preferable to taking the two genitive absolutes as attributive, related to the participle "testifying" [summarturousês].) Nevertheless, even though sometimes they do "the things of the Law" (2:14) gentiles fall far short of the perfect obedience required to be declared righteous eschatologically.
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