Paul’s use in this chapter of the rhetorical device of impersonation or speech-in-character is now widely recognized by scholars. As Ben Witherington III states, “the old traditional interpretations that Paul was describing his own pre-Christian experience, or alternately the experience of Christians in this text fail to grasp the rhetorical finesse and character of this material.” Recognition of this literary device, however, does not make it any easier for Paul’s interpreters. Just who is represented by Paul’s rhetorical “I” may have been well understood by the believers in Rome, but it is not so clear to us.Witherington explains that Paul’s audience would understand by his change of voice when they heard the epistle read to the congregation that he is resuming his discourse on Adam from 5:12–21.
Paul does appear to be impersonating Adam, as we saw in the previous message, but his first-person narrative is likely also autobiographical. Moreover, Paul’s experience of the law can represent or personify the experience of the nation of Israel when it stumbled over the commandments given through Moses. And because all people are under law (2:14–15), the passage takes on universal meaning. Douglas Moo, who insists that “law” in this passage means specifically the Mosaic law, says in reference to the chapter 2 passage that “what is true of Israel under God’s law through Moses is true ipso facto of all people under ‘law’.”
All of these options are available to interpreters, and commentators assign varying weight to details of context and grammar as they choose which option or combination of options to prefer.Adam and Israel
In Genesis 3, the serpent acted as Paul describes: it seized an opportunity through the commandment to create doubt about God’s prohibition with the question to Eve, “Did God really say…?” Eve’s passions were aroused by the aesthetic appearance of the fruit and the promise of a fuller life through equality with God, and she succumbed. Adam in turn elevated his devotion to Eve over his allegiance to God and fell into idolatry.
Israel likewise rebelled and fell into idolatry soon after receiving all the words and rules of the covenant. The people solemnly said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:3–8). Adam sought to make himself on par with God, and Israel, soon after its solemn pledge, made its own god to worship in the incident of the golden calf.Alternative interpretations
Colin Kruse views the “I” in 7–13 as representing first Adam, who disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden, and second (and primarily) Israel, as that nation repeated Adam’s transgression by violating multiple commandments after it was given the law at Sinai.
Douglas Moo, though noting how well the passage fits Adam, is persuaded to a different conclusion by the fact the law is the Mosaic law. Moo suggests “that Paul in vv. 7–11 is describing his own involvement, as a member of the people Israel, with the giving of the law to his people at Sinai.” Thus he argues “for a combination of the autobiographical view with the view that identifies egō with Israel. Egō is not Israel, but egō is Paul in solidarity with Israel.” And he acknowledges that Israel’s experience parallels and, to some extent, recapitulates Adam’s experience with the commandment in the Garden. (In a 2012 seminar class on Romans, Moo says that he would give more attention to the Adam view were he to rewrite his 1996 commentary.).
Richard Longenecker says that Paul’s language in 7–12 is “so personal and so related to a time in the past that it seems necessary to posit that Paul is recounting his own experiences as a Jewish Pharisee prior to being encountered by the risen and exalted Christ.” Longenecker, like other commentators, thinks the “I” in 7:14–25 has a different meaning. There, he says, the “I” speaks in a “general sense of people who attempt to live out their lives in their own strength.”
Witherington believes the “I” is Adam in vv. 7–13 and is all people who are currently “in Adam” (meaning unsaved) in vv. 14–25. He points to Chrysostom, who was aware of Paul’s rhetoric and did not think Romans 7 is about Christians or Paul’s experience as a Christian. Chrysostom “takes it to be talking about those who lived before the Law and those who lived outside the Law or lived under it. In other words, it is about Gentiles and Jews outside of Christ.”Conclusion
Paul seems to have decided that the rhetorical “I” enabled him to apply the truths about the law in verses 7–12 to several categories of people at once, and for this reason I take an expansive view of this text. As with the example that began this chapter and also poses a challenge for interpreters, we should not expect every detail of Paul’s picturesque language to have relevance to his primary and unmistakable point, which is that sin took advantage of the law’s weakness to do its woeful deed.
Moo is right to insist “that the central topic of these verses is not human nature, or anthropology, but the Mosaic law. Because this is the case, the most important teaching of the section is the same however the ‘I’ is identified.” The only escape from sin is to be out from under law and safely under Christ.
Again we can appreciate Paul’s genius. He is able to vindicate the law and at the same time highlight its weakness by pointing the blame directly at sin, and also through deft use of the “I” demonstrate that the law reveals sin and is an unwilling ally of sin in unbelievers, as was once the case with himself and Israel and now also with Jews and Gentiles alike who are apart from Christ.
Paul’s allusion to Adam’s victimization by sin is especially meaningful. By identifying as covetousness Adam’s transgression of the particular commandment given him—showing Adam to have been the first human to violate, in retrospect, the 10th commandment—Paul once again highlights even the holy and good Mosaic law’s inability to cure the disease of sin, which infects the desires and motives of all humanity (see 5:13–14).
This assessment applies to verses 7–12. A shift from past tense here to present tense in 14–25 is one signal that Paul has someone else in mind with his “I” there.