Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What the Gentiles Do by Nature: How to Translate Romans 2:14

It has been traditional for our English versions of Rom 2:14 to translate this verse something like what occurs in the ESV: “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Significantly the phrase translated as by nature is taken as qualifying the verb that follows it. Following this translation, the idea is that Gentiles can naturally do some of the things that the law of God requires. From this has developed the idea that Paul is talking here about moral pagans.

But the phrase by nature can also be taken as qualifying the verb that precedes. In this case it should be translated as: “For when the Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” The idea in this case is not the idea that Gentiles can naturally do morally good things, but rather that Gentiles naturally do not have the law, i.e., the Gentiles, because they are Gentiles and not Jews, do not possess the law of Moses.

Which translation is better?

There are three reasons why the second option is the one to choose. Firstly, the phrase by nature immediately follows the verb that precedes it, whereas it is separated from the verb that follows it by another phrase. The proximity of the phrase by nature to the first verb means that these two syntactical elements have a higher probability of going together.

Secondly, Paul’s usage of the phrase by nature in connection with human beings elsewhere in his letters is consistently used to indicate the nature that a person has by virtue of birth. In Rom 2:27, Paul speaks of Gentiles as “the uncircumcision by nature.” In Gal 2:15: “we are by nature Jews and not sinners of the Gentiles.” And in Eph 2:3: “we were by nature children of wrath.”

Thirdly, in Old Testament and Pauline thinking it is not possible for the natural person to keep the law. In Old Testament thinking, the law must be written on the heart in order for a person to be able to keep it. But the writing of the law on the heart is not a natural phenomenon; it is a work of the Spirit of God. It is inconceivable from an Old Testament perspective for Gentiles naturally to be able to keep torah. And likewise, I suggest, from Paul’s perspective. Gentiles, are clearly born as children of wrath (Eph 2:3) and of the flesh. But “the mindset of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom 8:7). Gentiles cannot by their natural selves keep the law. Neither can Jews for that matter. Only a work of the Spirit of God writing the law on the heart can bring about such a result (Ezek 36:26-27).

All of this confirms, therefore, that the second translation for Rom 2:14 is the way to go. Gentiles are born outside of the Mosaic covenant. By nature they do not have the law.

But as Paul will argue in Rom 8:1-17, thanks be to God for the new covenant in Christ (Rom 7:25)! With the Spirit poured out upon all flesh, and the law written on the heart, God’s people (including Gentiles) are now able to fulfill the requirement of the law (Rom 8:4). It is true to say, therefore, that Christ has come to bring about the obedience of Israel and the nations to torah. What was once unnatural for Gentiles has become natural in Christ.


Jeff Miller said...

I don't know if I have gotten there exactly the way you just explained it, but I have been convinced for some time that Paul is speaking of Gentile Christians in this passage as I try to read him in a consistent manner through this letter. I know that John Thomson is reticent to accept "Law" as that which Christians fulfill because of the anthropological issue in it. I think I could agree with you both if faith as loyalty/loyal-acknowledgment meets the righteous requirement of the law in a way that self assurance of compliance with the impersonal standard (law) never could. This way it is those moved toward compliance by personal loyalty that are the true law keepers. As opposed to the faithless (non-loyal), whether moved by the the delusion of compliance to the impersonal standard or by the delusion of not being answerable in any way to the God of Israel, the only true God.

"The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit LAWLESSNESS, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.(Mat 13:41-43)

Anyway, I know this post is important and thanks for posting it.

Michael F. Bird said...


John Thomson said...


A good case here, even if you aussies appear to have fewer numbers on your Bingo cards than in the UK.

Moving 'by nature' does challenge the likelihood of the tradition interpretation. Does this syntax have fairly widespread approval?

Some phrases continue to trouble me with this interpretation.

1. 'they are a law to themselves'. This seems an unusual way of describing new covenant gentile obedience.

2. 'the work of the law written on heart' rather than 'the law written on their heart' Written apparently agrees with work not law.

3.'conflicting thoughts accusing or excusing' on day of judgement seems to indicate uncertainty on the day of judgement.

Any comments will be helpful.

Thanks for comments too chaps. (now there is a noun with all sorts of sociologica implications about me. What if I had said guys/fellas/buddies/dudes/lads? Would I have sent different signals about my age/class/education/locale etc. Or is it better to say 'in Christ there is no difference'?

John Thomson said...

PS And which Scripture do we go to to confirm natural law?

Joseph said...

Hey Steven,

I think the Moo/Schreiner position makes more since (the first ESV translation you mention). Westerholm follows them as well.

Moo makes an interesting note - if Paul was talking about Gentile Christians, he would have said they "fulfill" the law, not "do" it. Paul never talks about Christians "doing" the law. Again, see Westerholm.

Furthermore, the Old Testament is filled with examples of pagan gentiles "doing" the law, sometimes even better than the covenant people: See Genesis 26 and 29

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, everyone, for those comments.

From the Old Testament perspective, Israel will be moved to keep torah as part of the new covenant in order that the covenant blessings of life might be realized (e.g., Ezek 36:26-30). The righteousness of God’s people is necessary in order that God might realize his promises. God says of Abraham: “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19). The realization of the promise of blessing for Abraham was dependent on Israel doing righteousness and justice. The covenant righteousness that Christ works in his people through the Spirit is not just a by-product of the gospel; it is part of the gospel, and necessary for our salvation (Rom 8:13).

Regarding John’s questions, I tell my Greek students that in cases of potential ambiguity, then the rule of proximity should be used to indicate the more likely syntactic grouping. Greek does have a relatively flexible syntax, but it also makes use of proximity. Obviously the many who go for the traditional translation dispute that the rule applies in this context. James Dunn sees Gentile Christians mentioned in 2:7, 10, 26-29, but not in Rom 2:14!

The phrase “they are a law to themselves” speaks of anarchy in English usage, but this is not the sense in the Greek, as the context indicates. A possible translation would be: “they are the law for themselves.” I take it that v. 15 explains further what Paul means by this. The Gentiles don’t possess the law of Moses, but they (i.e., the Christian ones) have the law written on their hearts. They are the law for themselves, because it is carried around in their heart, as their consciences will testify on the day of judgment.

You are right, John, that written agrees with work, but the work of the law is still one phrase. But it begs the question: How can a work be written? It just goes to show, I think, that Paul is making a play on words, mimicking the terminology of the works of the law that his opponents were seeking to emphasize without using that phrase per se (given its “negative” overtones in Paul). It's almost as if Paul were saying: “You say that we need the works of the law to be classified as righteous according to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, but look! Gentile Christians have that as well, because the law has been written in their hearts!” I suspect that that’s probably the intent of Paul’s strange wording at this point.

Anyway, I’ll touch on the other points raised by John and Joseph later on today (my time), God willing, after a good night’s sleep.

Steven Coxhead said...

Getting back to the rest of John’s questions, the translation conflicting thoughts is perhaps a little too strong. In the Greek, the idea is literally their between-one-another thoughts. I take it that Paul is saying that on the day of judgment the consciences of Gentile Christians will testify to the fact that the law has been written on their heart. As we stand before God on that day, I take it that each Christian will have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, we will know our guilt and shame; on the other hand, we will be aware of the work of God in our lives that has moved us to persevere in following Christ. We will be aware of our many sins, but at the same time will be defended by our conscience from the charge of unbelief. All of this shows that the law has been written on our hearts, and that fact will be evident on the day of judgment.

Regarding natural law, is the idea of natural law biblical? No doubt there is a natural knowledge of God and his justice that leaves us without excuse for our rebellion (Rom 1:19-20, 32), but this is different from the biblical concept of the law on the heart. When the Bible speaks of the law on the heart, it is talking about a positive reception of divine revelation. From an Old Testament perspective, if the law is on your heart, you (super)naturally become a person who obeys God’s word.

This links in with Joseph’s comment. Keeping the law is not a matter of a particular instance of good morality. Keeping the law from the Jewish perspective means being committed to living out the whole of one’s life in accordance with divine revelation. Abimelech may have been a moral person, but I don’t think we could say that he was devoted to God’s word.

That Paul never talks about Christians “doing” the law is a moot point. Maybe Rom 2 is the exception. The evidence that we have concerning what Paul could or could not say is rather limited.

The other thing that supports my suggestion is the structure of Rom 2. The chapter can be divided into two parts: vv. 1-16 and vv. 17-29; and there is a parallel structure to the two. The first part involves diatribe against Paul’s Jewish opponent (vv. 1-5). This is paralleled in vv. 17-24. To see then the Gentiles in vv. 14-15 paralleling the Gentiles in vv. 26-29 seems natural.

Also, it should be noticed how much vv. 14-15 are conceptually dependent on vv. 12-13, which in turn are conceptually dependent on vv. 6-11. Notice the string of four instances of the word for; there is one for in each of vv. 11-14. In other words, following the Paul’s chain of logic, the Gentiles who have the work of the law written on their heart are the same Gentiles who “by patience in doing good” will receive “eternal life” (v. 7).