Romans 7, pt.2

Tonight we are reading through Romans 7. Within this chapter and into chapter 8, Paul begins to address the issue of free will. Today, particularly in the U.S., we think of “free will” in terms of the ability to choose among competing alternatives.  If our will is truly free, then we can choose anything we wish. In the Hellenistic world in which Paul wrote, free will had a less libertarian understanding. Beginning in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, Socrates reasons that “No one voluntarily pursues evil or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature.” (s.358). Therefore if the will is truly free, it will necessarily choose the Good. The only reason the will does not choose the good is because it is ignorant of the Good. In other words, we always make and follow through with what we believe is the right choice and therefore we are not free to choose otherwise. 

On the other hand, Plato’s student, Aristotle, taught that even if a person knew the good, he nonetheless could fail to pursue the Good if he was overcome by akrasia or “incontinence.” Ethics, Book VII. Incontinence is caused in one of two ways. First, it is caused by propeteia or “impetuosity” which occurs when a person fails to go through a process of deliberation and simply acts in accordance with his passions (principally either pleasure or anger).  Alternatively, incontinence is caused by astheneia or a “weakness of will” whereby the person goes through a process of deliberation and makes a choice; but rather than act in accordance with his reasoned choice, he acts under the influence of his passion (again, usually pleasure or anger). Of interest, Paul uses the term astheneia throughout his letters. (cf, Rom 6:19, 8:26). Therefore, for Aristotle, “free will” is not simply a matter of ignorance but also freedom from the passions. However, Aristotle would agree with Plato, that a will freed from ignorance and the passions will always choose the Good. The will is never “free” to choose any option. (An excellent summary of Aristotle’s reasoning on this issue is found HERE in section 7.)

As you read Romans 7, hopefully, you will see how Paul employs this Aristotelian understanding of free will. In Romans 7:7-12, Paul tells us that the Law cures our ignorance of sin and our impetuousness (v.7). However, the Law cannot cure the weakness of our will. In Romans 7:13-25, Paul speaks of how his (or the person of whom he speaks) reasoned desire is to choose the Good, but evil (the passions) lie close at hand (7:21). And it is this fleshly desire which overrides his reason causing him to sin. For Aristotle, a person can seek to overcome his weakness of will through self-discipline. For Paul, the answer is the Spirit of Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2) which crucifies the weakness. 

I have attached the relevant excerpt from Enberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics. pp.239-55. If you have time today, please read the attached.  He provides us with a fairly straightforward interpretation of the text and particularly of why Paul sees the Law as insufficient to divest us of incontinence and a weak will.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is ribs. Discussion about 6:45. We will not be discussing Greek philosophy, only Romans. The above is simply to provide the contemporary context for Paul’s argument. Hope to see you here.

Every error involves a contradiction.  For since he who is in error does not wish to err, but to be right, it is clear that he is not doing what he wishes.  For what does the thief wish to achieve? His own interest. Therefore, if thievery is against his interest, he is not doing what he wishes . . . but doing what he does not wish.

Epictetus (55AD-135AD), Discourses 2.26

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