From the Letter to the Romans:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 4:13-15 (NRSV) – June 25, 2014)
Sometimes I just don’t understand Paul.
I have read this Letter to the Romans on many occasions and when I get to this part of Paul’s theological argument, I get lost. I don’t know what he means by “where there is no law.” He seems to be suggesting that, because the Law of Moses had not yet been given when Abraham responded faithfully to God, Abraham’s righteousness is somehow superior to that of someone who is bound by the Law. But I don’t buy the premise that there is a time when there is “no law.”
I’m a lawyer and I believe in the “natural law” concept of law. I believe that there is a pre-existing law knowable to human beings exercising natural reason. It pre-exists human conventions and divine-human covenants, and is not dependent on them for its authority. It depends instead on the logical relationship in which it stands to an objective morality, and provides natural, objective standards of behavior. So, as far as I can tell, there is no time or place “where there is no law.”
St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished four kinds of law: (a) eternal law; (b) natural law; (c) human law; and (d) divine law. He called eternal law those things necessary for the natural order of the universe; what today we might call “the laws of nature,” the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. Natural laws, which can be thought of as the moral subset of the eternal laws, are objective laws discernible by human reason. Human laws are subjective, dependent upon social convention. Divine laws are those revealed by God and which human beings cannot discover on their own. Is following and living in accord with this pre-existent natural law (type “b”), which human beings have a natural faculty to discern, what Paul is calling “the righteousness of faith”?
If, as Aquinas argued, the natural laws are those moral “rules” of the eternal law governing the behavior of beings possessing reason and free will, then Abraham’s “righteousness of faith” must be living in accord with them, which means that “righteousness” is an active principal of human existence. So Abraham was righteous in that he discerned and followed the natural laws discernible by human reason. He was not righteous, as Paul suggests, separate and apart from any law. In fact, such righteousness would be impossible; to speak of righteousness in the absence of law is oxymoronic. So I don’t know what Paul means by “where there is no law.”
One could also argue that Abraham was also righteous in that he obeyed God’s instruction to depart his homeland and set out for the Promised Land . . . and I wonder how this (obeying God’s directions) is not “following the law.” How is a direct command from the Almighty not equivalent to the Law given at Sinai? So, again, I don’t know what Paul means by “where there is no law.”
Sometimes I just don’t understand Paul. Today is one of them.
[Today I am traveling — headed for Israel and Palestine on pilgrimage. This blog will become travel commentary for the next several days. Hopefully, I’ll have necessary connections and time to post photographs and remarks.]
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.