THE PATRISTIC INTERPRETATION OF ROMANS 7:14-25. Part 2
Daniel R. Jennings
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2010. Volume 28.
Date Posted July 10, 2010

Four people from the fourth and fifth centuries, more than anyone else, seem to be connected with the push that led to Romans 7 being used to teach the necessity of sin in a believer's life. Before each of these men are examined it is important to make mention of the societal changes which were taking place during this time and their impact upon the church.

In A. D. 312 the Roman emperor Flavius Constantine converted to Christianity and the subsequent favor that he showed toward the church inadvertently opened the doors to a flood of nominal Christians. In times past becoming a Christian had oftentimes brought with it the death penalty, but it was now favorable and to one's own advantage career-wise to become a Christian. The first Christians had understood all sin to be deadly and showed hatred for "even the garment spotted by the flesh" but with a large number of unregenerate persons joining the church for unspiritual reasons it became inevitable that people would look for a theology which would describe an unregenerate person as regenerated.

The first was Gregory of Nazianzen (c.330-389). In 362 he presented his understanding that Romans 7 described the case of a believer who "by a long course of philosophic training, and gradual separation of the noble and enlightened part of the soul from that which is debased and yoked with darkness, or by the mercy of God, or by both together, and by a constant practice of looking upward" could overcome the desires of the flesh presented in Romans 7. This was probably more of a confused reaction to the nominal Christianity that he encountered than an attempt at justifying sinful behavior. He probably just did not know how to reconcile the strict teachings of the Scriptures with the lukewarmness that was so prevalent in the church and came to the conclusion that men start out their Christian experience in a sinful state and over time are able to achieve the righteousness that is described in the New Testament.

Following closely in Gregory's footsteps was Ambrose (c.340-397), the bishop of Milan. As late as 379 Ambrose appears to have understood this passage from the Arminian perspective. He indicated his belief that Paul's statement "I see a law of the flesh in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity in the law of sin" was a description of something to which "We are all attached . . . but we are not all delivered" from. He then goes on to show how that Jesus is the deliverer from this life of bondage.

Eight years later he gave a very strong Arminian interpretation indicating that "when flesh is employed in reference to man, a sinner is meant, as in this passage: 'but I am carnal, sold into the power of sin. For I do not understand what I do, for it is not what I wish that I do, but what I hate, that I do.'" However, by 394 it is clear that he had adopted the Calvinistic interpretation noting that "Well, we who are older sin, too. In us, too, the law of this flesh wars against the law of our mind, and makes us captives of sin, so that we do what we would not."

Following Ambrose was his disciple to some extent, Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His name, more than any other, has been connected with the introduction of the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 7 into the church. However, an analysis of his understanding of this passage will show that even he differed from the modern day Calvinistic interpretation.

By his own admission, Augustine originally believed that this passage referred to Paul before his salvation as a Jew striving to fulfill the Law of Moses. He wrote in Against Two Letters of The Pelagians, "And it had once appeared to me also that the apostle was in this argument of his describing a man under the law. But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea."

Surprisingly, however, in giving up the traditional Christian interpretation of the first three centuries Augustine did not embrace the modern Calvinistic understanding of the text. Rather, he chose to embrace the understanding that Methodius had given to it over a century earlier--that it described a man who had "evil, lustful desires" that he did not want, but not "evil actions." Augustine preached

The Apostle therefore does what he would not: for he would not lust, and yet he lusts: therefore he does what he would not. Did that evil desire draw the subjugated Apostle to fornication and adultery? God forbid. Let no such thoughts arise into our hearts. He wrestled, he was not subjugated. But because he was unwilling even to have this against which to wrestle, therefore he said, I do what I would not. I would not lust, and I do lust. Therefore I do what I would not; but yet I do not consent to lust. For otherwise he would not say, You shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh; if he himself fulfilled them.

For Augustine, this evil desire was located in the flesh and it was because of its location there, which ultimately made it a part of who a man was, that the Apostle Paul referred to it as himself doing the thing that he did not want to do:

I see another law, he says, in my members resisting the law of my mind. And because I would not that it should resist [my desire to do the right thing] (for it is my flesh, it is my very self, it is a part of me): what I would, that do I not; but the evil that I hate, that do I; in that I lust.

For Augustine this battle with fleshly lusts was the lifelong "fight of [the] Saints" which mankind will be forced to endure so long as in this body saying "With the mind I serve the Law of God, by not consenting [to my fleshly desires]; but with the flesh the law of sin, by lusting…I at once delight in the one, and lust in the other; but I am not conquered."

Finally, Augustine would remind those who wished to use the Apostle's words to justify their sinful behavior that it was only the desire to sin that Paul struggled with, not the act of sinning:

I have already told you, that what the Apostle says, With the mind I serve the Law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin, is in such sort to be taken: that you allow nothing more to the flesh, than the desires, without which it cannot be.

Lastly, it would be Jerome (c.340-420) who would lay the final capstone on the introduction of the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 7 into the ancient church. Jerome was a monk who is best remembered for translating and editing the Latin Vulgate. Though he is remembered for his exceptional scholarship and wealth of classical learning his testimony does not bear out the marks of a man who lived in genuine "meekness toward all men" (Titus 3:2). His entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia describes him as a man of "harsh criticisms" who possessed a "censorious spirit against authority," "lack of good taste," was "bitterly satirical," "unsparingly outspoken," who could be "scathing in sarcasm" and employed an "imprudence of language." One of his own contemporaries described him as a man motivated by "envy" and "jealousy" who, though a distinguished Latin writer and cultivated scholar, "showed qualities of temper so disastrous that they threw into the shade his splendid achievements."

Other writers have referred to him as a man with a "fiery temper" and a "biting tongue," "vehement and haughty," "harsh and impetuous," a man whose temper was "unsanctified," "overbearing" and "irritable," and one who was motivated by "personal hostility" and a "revengeful spirit."

Not surprisingly it is an individual like this who is the first recorded theologian of whom we have any record to attempt to use Romans seven to justify his personal behavior. In discussing his understanding of man's struggle with sinful desires he noted that Paul's words in Romans 7 indicated that all men (Christian and non-Christian) sin in actuality stating:

we do not what we would but what we would not; the soul desires to do one thing, the flesh is compelled to do another. If any persons are called righteous in scripture…they are called righteous according to that righteousness mentioned in the passage I have quoted: "A just man falls seven times and rises up again,"…Zachariah the father of John who is described as a righteous man sinned in disbelieving the message sent to him and was at once punished with dumbness. Even Job, who at the outset of his history is spoken of as perfect and upright and uncomplaining, is afterwards proved to be a sinner both by God's words and by his own confession.

Jerome by his own admission was a man prone to sin. In a discussion with Ctesiphon which involved Romans 7 he confessed "Yet, to lay bare my own weakness, I know that I wish to do many things which I ought to do and yet cannot. For while my spirit is strong and leads me to life my flesh is weak and draws me to death." And his testimony, as noted above, reflects the life of a man who relied on passages like Romans seven to justify his sinfulness.

In conclusion, the Apostle Paul never intended Romans 7 to convey the idea of the necessity of sin in the believer's life. This unfortunate conclusion was arrived at during a time of moral laxness in the church and has been reinforced over the centuries by individuals who refuse to read it within the context of chapters six and eight. It will, however, serve as an encouragement to the Christian who has embraced the Arminian interpretation to know that there is no extant record of any Christian until the fourth century who saw this passage as teaching the necessity of a failed Christian experience.