Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The law of the Spirit of Life

A friend of mine asked What is the "law of the Spirit of Life"

Some autobiography
This is a more complicated question than I was anticipating.  I've been reading all about the first part of Romans; this is a good excuse to get to Romans 8.  Before tonight, my only recall of the passage was that I'd memorized Romans 8:1-2 a long time ago, have heard some lectures and sermons on Romans 5-8 in general (mostly in the contexts of the topic of sanctification.  And I'd read John Owen's book on Indwelling Sin.

So when I heard the question, I quickly consulted 3 books:
 (1) To start with, I read what Gordon Fee's book "God's Empowering Presence" had to say about it. In this book, Gordon walks through literally every Pauline passage that makes reference to the Spirit.  But he does so in its full context, so the book also acts as a stand-in commentary on the entire Pauline corpus.  It's a pretty magisterial book, so any time I'm in a passage where Paul mentions "Spirit", I consult it.

(2) Next, I read the relevant pages in Moo's commentary on Romans.  This is the meatiest book I own on Romans.  And as expected, it proved the most helpful.

(3) Lastly, I picked up John Owen's book on Indwelling Sin.  Like I said, I had read this several years prior and still had its definition in my mind.  But I wanted to make sure I wasn't just taking Owen's word for it.  The cool thing is that he and Moo (resource # 2 above) agreed.  So that was cool.

So I'll work backwards through those 3 resources:

John Owen's view
John Owen starts out his book saying that Romans 7:21-23 is the foundational text for understanding indwelling sin in the life of believers.  And so to make his point, he has to give a definition for "law".  The one he lays out is:

"An inward principle that moves and inclines constantly unto any actions is called a law.  The principle that is in the nature of everything, moving and carrying it toward its own end and rest, is called the law of nature.  In this respect, every inward principle that inclines and urges unto operations or actings suitable to itself is a law.  So the powerful and effectual working of the Spirit and grace of Christ in the hearts of believers is called "the law of the Spirit of life" (Rom 8:2). ... It is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing unto actions agreeable and suitable unto its own nature." [1]
But often, when you read something by a guy a few hundred years ago on a peripheral passage like this, you'll learn that modern Greek exegesis has something else to say about it.  So that's where Moo comes in.

Moo spends 5 very detailed, heavily footnoted pages explaining his view on verse 2.  So the rules for me re-explaining what he said are that I'm not allowed to open the book.  (Keeps my response short!)  As I remember, he said the following things:
(1) Some people take "law" to refer to the Mosaic law.  In this interpretation, the Spirit now helps us to obey the law and so it is an agent of life rather than an agent of death.  However, this interpretation is unlikely.  How much hope is there if our deliverer turns out to be our enslaver?  He had other linguistic arguments against this interpretation but I forget them.
(2) nomos, the Greek word for "law" can mean "principle" or "binding authority" (as Owen mentioned above), and so is a viable interpretation here.  And it parallels 7:23 nicely, which refers to the "law of sin".  We even expect for Paul to "finish the story" and explain how we are set free from the "law of sin".  There, in 7:23, it refers to a binding principle / power as well.  The Greek construction is the same and given the parallel, it is likely that the meaning is retained.

"But", some might object, "what is the point of Paul using this language here?  This just seems so ad hoc of him.  He never uses this language anywhere else..."  This is a good objection and a true observation.  The most likely reason for him doing this is that there is a play on words going on in the Greek.  "Pneumatos" (Gk. for "spirit") sounds like "nomos" (Gk. for "law").  So Paul is saying, the real 'law' that sets you free isn't the law (nomos) of Moses - it's the "law" (nomos) of the Spirit (pneumatas).

Here are Moo's closing words on chapter 2:

"Verse 2, we might say, is speaking directionly about neither justification nor sanctification but about that "realm transfer" that is the presupposition of both.  As such, it significantly advances the discussion of chaps. 5-7 by introducing the Spirit as a key agent of liberation from the old realm of sin and death."

[1] p. 234, Indwelling Sin, in "Overcoming Sin and Temptation", edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic.  Italics their own.

***   Update 9/17  ***
One thought I had after posting this was that I believe there is a slight difference in Moo's position and Owen's.  Moo (and Fee) see "law", in 8:2a as epexegetical.  That is - they see it as just another word for "Spirit".  This is important because it means that they see the Spirit as the agent that is setting the believer free (instead of the law-ish aspect of the Spirit, as, I think, Owen interpreted it).

However, though both Moo and Fee (is it odd that both of these men have a consonant-vowel-vowel last name?) agree that "law" is epexegetical here, they actually still have a mild disagreement.  Moo sees "law" acting as, more or less, a metonymy.  He thinks Paul is intentionally brining to the reader's mind this aspect of the Spirit - the way the Spirit powerfully works in the believer's life.  Fee, however, doesn't see it this way: he thinks "law" is used purely as a rhetorical device - a segue from talking about the Law of Moses to talking about the Spirit.  It's an odd position for him to hold, especially since the title of his book is "God's Empowering Presence".

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