Part 1, The Early Christian Witness to the Arminian Interpretation

Daniel R. Jennings
Date Posted Dec. 4, 2009
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I (Rom 7:14-15).
Perhaps no other verses have been the subject of such intense debate as the above passage. To the Calvinist this passage represents a never-ending struggle with sin which will inevitably end in failure until the day one dies. For the Arminian it represents the life of spiritual struggle that God wants to deliver mankind from via the experience of regeneration.
While the best way to interpret a passage will always be to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture there is also much to be gained by studying the ways that the early Christians who followed in the footsteps of the Apostles interpreted a passage. It will be the purpose of this article to examine the ancient Christian interpretation of Romans chapter seven. This paper incorporates information from
A Dissertation Of The True And Genuine Sense Of The Seventh Chapter Of St. Paul’s Epistle To The Romans by James Arminius, along with new research.
An extensive search of Christian literature up until the fifth century revealed that prior to the fourth century no known Christian writer interpreted Romans seven in a Calvinistic manner. Rather, it was always understood up until that time to be either an unbeliever or, in one case, to describe a Christian who had evil desires that he did not want to have but never evil actions.
Throughout this paper I have focused only on those writers who commented directly upon Romans 7. There is a good amount of indirect testimony to this subject in the form of statements which indicate that various early Christian writers understood the Christian experience to be one that entailed complete victory over sin. These quotes have been left out for brevity sake but if included would add even more weight to the conclusion that no writer before the fourth century assigned the traditional Calvinistic interpretation to this passage.
The earliest existing writer to comment directly upon this passage was Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) in the second century.
In Against Heresies he connected Paul’s statement “that there dwells in my flesh no good thing” as typical of human infirmity which Jesus came to deliver men from [3:20:33]. In commenting upon the parable of the two sons in which one represented the repentant sinners of Jesus’ day, the other the unrepentant Pharisees (Matt 21:28-32) Irenaeus described the Pharisees using Romans 7 [4:36:8].
Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.220), a North African Christian teacher, in Stromata, a refutation of Gnosticism, indicated his belief that when Paul emphasized the war between the law of God and the law of his mind (Rom 7:22-23) it was only to show that Jesus rescues men from this through salvation [3:76-78].
Tertullian (c.150-240), another North African Christian leader, indicated that the Holy Spirit makes men free from the law of sin and death in our members (Rom 7:23). After this experience of being set free, “Our members, therefore, will no longer be subject to the law of death, because they cease to serve that of sin, from both which they have been set free” [On The Resurrection Of The Flesh, Ch. 46]. Elsewhere he noted his understanding that Paul was referring in Romans 7 to his pre-Christian days as an unbelieving Jew stating that “even if he has affirmed that ‘good dwelleth not in his flesh,’ yet he means according to ‘the law of the letter,’ in which he ‘was’; but according to ‘the law of the Spirit,’ to which he annexes us, he frees us from the ‘infirmity of the flesh'”[On Modesty, Ch. 17].
In his commentary on Romans, Origen (185-c.254) stated, “Yet when he says, ‘But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,’ as if a teacher of the Church, he has now taken upon himself the
persona of the weak . . . Paul becomes fleshly and sold into slavery under sin and he says the same things that are customary for them to say under the pretense of an excuse or accusation. He is therefore talking about himself as if speaking under the persona of these others . . . it seems to me that whoever assumes that these things have been spoken under the persona of the Apostle smites every soul with hopelessness. For there would then be absolutely no one who does not sin in the flesh. For that is what it means to serve the law of sin in the flesh.”
Methodius (d.311) wrote that “the expressions: ‘That which I do, I allow not,’ and ‘what I hate, that do I,’ are not to be understood of doing evil, but of only thinking it. For it is not in our power to think or not to think of improper things, but to act or not to act upon our thoughts. For we cannot hinder thoughts from coming into our minds, since we receive them when they are inspired into us from without; but we are able to abstain from obeying them and acting upon them. Therefore it is in our power to will not to think these things; but not to bring it about that they shall pass away, so as not to come into the mind again; for this does not lie in our power, as I said; which is the meaning of that statement, ‘The good that I would, I do not'” [The Discourse On The Resurrection: A Synopsis Of Some Apostolic Words On The Same Discourse, Part 1].
Lactantius (260-330) wrote in response to those who said it “is my wish not to sin, but I am overpowered; for I am clothed with frail and weak flesh . . . I am led on against my will; and I sin, not because it is my wish, but because I am compelled that Jesus refuted them by being “clothed with flesh, so that he may show that even the flesh is capable of virtue . . . that by overpowering sin he may teach man that sin may be overpowered by him” [The Divine Institutes, 4:24].
Elsewhere he very plainly says in refutation of those who taught that Paul referred to his Christian experience as “wretched man that I am” that “it is impossible for a man to be wretched who is endued with virtue” [3:12].
In the anonymous third-century documents that have come to be called the
Two Epistles Concerning Virginity it states in reference to Paul’s statement “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing” that Paul could say this of his himself “because the Spirit of God is not in it”[First Epistle, Ch. 8].
Macarius the Egyptian (c.300-390) noted his understanding of Romans 7 connecting it back to Adam who, in his sin sold his soul to the Devil and it was for this reason that Paul cried out “
Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” He then went on to compare life in the Spirit as the answer to life in the flesh as it was portrayed in Romans 7 [Homily 1:7 on Ezekiel 1:4-2:1].
Epiphanius of Salamis (c.310? -403) was a dedicated scholar of the early church whose area of expertise was heretical groups. In commenting upon Origenism he quoted the above-mentioned Methodius’ interpretation of Romans 7 without any indication of disagreement [Panarion
, Heresy 64:56:8-59:6. See also 64:62:8-13]. In fact Epiphanius referred to Methodius as “a learned man and a hard fighter for the truth” [63:2].
Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315-c.386) in commenting upon this passage noted for his students to “learn this also, that the soul, before it came into this world, had committed no sin, but having come in sinless, we now sin of our free-will. Listen not, I pray thee, to anyone perversely interpreting the words,
But if I do that which I would not” [Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 4:19]. He then went on to quote Isaiah 1:19-20, Romans 1:19, 1:28, 6:19, Matthew 13:15, and Jeremiah 2:21. In another place Cyril commented upon how Paul used the phrase “But I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity” to describe how the Devil had used the flesh against mankind since the time of Adam but that Jesus in taking upon himself human flesh had saved man’s nature [Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 12:15].
Basil the Great (c.330-379) in commenting upon Romans 7:14-17 states that Paul was developing fully the idea that it is impossible for one who is in the power of sin to serve the Lord and then goes on to indicate who will free a man from that kind of struggle with sin. He then continues that, in view of God’s free offer to redeem us from the life portrayed in Romans 7, that “we are under the strictest obligation . . . to free ourselves from the dominion of the Devil who leads a slave of sin into evils even against his will” as is happening with the man in Romans 7 [Concerning Baptism, 1.1].
Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395?) quoted Paul’s words in Romans 7:14 to describe all mankind as being “sold under sin” and then in asking what was the “method of release from this” directed his readers to the new birth [On Virginity, Ch. 13].
John Chrysostom (347-407) in commenting upon this passage indicated his belief that it was a man who was living under the Law of Moses noting that, “Wherefore he went on to say, ‘but I am carnal;’ giving us a sketch now of man, as comporting himself in the Law, and before the Law” [Homilies On The Epistle To The Romans, Homily 13, Commentary of Romans 7:14].
Paulinus of Nola (c.353-431) indicating his belief that Romans 7 was a picture of a man in his pre-Christian days stated “For now the old war, in which the law of sin struggled with the law of God, is wiped out in Christ, for the spirit which serves God governs by faith the soul subjected to it, and the flesh in turn becomes the servant of the soul, accompanying it, as it serves God, in every duty of obedience” [Letter 12:6]. He would later write that the phrase “sold under sin” refers to an individual who has not been redeemed by Christ [Letter20:5].
In analyzing the early Christian understanding of Romans 7 it has become very clear that the early church did not understand this passage to teach the necessity of sin in believers, usually attributing to it the interpretation that it was a man who was striving to please God under the Law of Moses. In fact this interpretation was so prevalent that when discussing this passage around 415AD, Pelagius (c.350c.420?) could write in his now lost work entitled Inv Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will, which is preserved by Augustine in On The Grace Of Christ And On Original Sin [1:43] that “that which you wish us to understand of the apostle himself, all Church writers assert that he spoke in the person of the sinner, and of one who was still under the law. . . .” Augustine, in his attempt to refute this statement of Pelagius, was unable to offer any church writers who disagreed with Pelagius.