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POWER TO THE PEOPLE: REVISITING CIVIL RESISTANCE IN ROMANS 13:1-7 IN LIGHT OF THE NOAHIC COVENANT

  • David VanDrunen (a1)
Abstract

Romans 13:1–7 has been the most important text in scripture for Christian reflection on political authority, yet what it does not say has left Christian social ethicists and political/legal theorists with many lingering questions, especially about the proper response to unjust magistrates. To what resources should Christian thinkers look to illumine the gaps left by the Pauline silence, and just how absolute or relative did Paul intend his remarks in Romans 13:1–7 to be? This article presents a twofold thesis in response to this twofold question. First, it argues that the Noahic covenant, Genesis 8:21–9:17, is an important, although overlooked, background resource for interpreting Romans 13:1–7. Second, this article illustrates the practical benefit of reading Romans 13 in light of the Noahic covenant by offering a new argument for why Christians should not interpret Paul's unqualified command to submit to civil authorities as absolutely forbidding resistance to unjust magistrates. Paul's words about magistrates in Romans 13 have not superseded the obligation to pursue justice that God gave to the human community as a whole in the Noahic covenant. Thus the primal obligation resting in the people implicitly qualifies Paul's instructions.

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1 In this article I usually refer to enforcing justice rather than simply doing justice, because the two biblical texts on which I focus, Genesis 9:5–6 and Romans 13:1–7, speak about rectifying justice rather than primary justice. Primary justice refers to the obligation to treat people justly by giving them their due: a professor who gives an A to a student doing excellent work treats her justly; a shopper paying the store's price for an item before leaving with it treats the shop owner justly. Rectifying justice refers to the just remedy for a violation of primary justice. Genesis 9:5–6 and Romans 13:1–7 speak of the authority to render rectifying justice, not the general obligation to pursue primary justice. On the distinction between primary and rectifying justice, see also Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), ix–x.

2 See, e.g., Michael J. Broyde, “The Obligation of Jews to Seek Observance of Noahide Laws by Gentiles: A Theoretical Review,” in Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law, ed. David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman, and Nathan J. Diament (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997), 109–10; Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 150, 160. See generally David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1983).

3 For relevant discussion, see Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 150–51; Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew, 151; David Novak, The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 50.

4 On the obligation of Gentiles to administer justice through courts of law, see especially Nahum Rakover, Law and the Noahides: Law as a Universal Value (Jerusalem: The Library of Jewish Law, 1998).

5 Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 137.

6 See Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew, 3. The relevant part of the Tosefta begins in this way: “Concerning seven religious requirements were the children of Noah admonished.” Jacob Neusner, The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew with a New Introduction (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 2:1291–92.

7 See Klaus Müller, Tora für die Völker: Die noachidischen Gebote und Ansätze zu ihrer Rezeption im Christentum, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Institut Kirche und Judentum, 1994), 47–48; Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 159.

8 The relevant section is Jubilees 7.20: “During the twenty-eighth jubilee … Noah began to prescribe for his grandsons the ordinances and the commandments—every statute which he knew. He testified to his sons that they should do what is right, cover the shame of their bodies, bless the one who had created them, honor father and mother, love one another, and keep themselves from fornication, uncleanness, and from all injustice.” See The Book of Jubilees: A Critical Text, trans. James C. Vanderkam (Lovanii: E. Peeters, 1989), 2:46–47.

9 The perception of Noah and the meaning of the Noah stories among Jewish communities during this time period are complicated subjects. For general discussion, see, e.g., Jack P. Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1968); Dorothy M. Peters, Noah Traditions in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Conversations and Controversies of Antiquity (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008). Such studies indicate that Noah was a pervasive topic of conversation in Jewish circles, which seems to confirm the likelihood that Paul would have been aware of the developing tradition of the Noahide laws.

10 Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1:13.

11 See, e.g., Dunn, James D. G., “Romans 13.1–7—A Charter for Political Quietism?Ex Auditu 2 (1986): 6465, 67; James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary 38B (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 764, 770; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 794, 798; Ben Witherington and Darlene Hyatt, Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 309, 311; Arland J. Hultgren, Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 467; Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 37–38; N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 10:717, 718; N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 65–66; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 789; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 682; Leander E. Keck, Romans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 314; Thomas H. Tobin, Paul's Rhetoric in Its Contexts: The Argument of Romans (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 397; Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 79, chapter 5; Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 136–37.

12 Unless otherwise noted, English translations of scripture are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001).

13 For arguments in favor of this view, see, e.g., W. Randall Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 163; Mason, Stephen D., “Another Flood? Genesis 9 and Isaiah's Broken Eternal Covenant,Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32, no. 3 (2007): 192–93; David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 116–17.

14 For penetrating discussion of these and other issues pertaining to the lex talionis, see William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

15 See Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 85–87; Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 198.

16 The similar terminology is easy to see even in translation, but is especially evident in the original Greek. Christians are not to return κακον for κακου (Romans 12:17), while magistrates are to punish those who do κακον (13:4). Christians are not to avenge (εκδικουντες) themselves, for vengeance (εκδικησις) is the Lord's (12:19), while the magistrate, as servant of God, is to be an avenger (εκδικος) (13:4). Christians are to leave place for God's wrath (οργη) (12:19), while the magistrate, again as God's servant, is to be an avenger unto wrath (οργην) (13:4).

17 Among New Testament scholars who see a similar connection between Romans 13:3–4 and these earlier verses in Romans 12, see Dunn, Romans 9–16, 759; Moo, Romans, 792, 802; Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” 717–18; Jewett, Romans, 796.

18 Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty, 101.

19 Wolterstorff offers an explicitly protectionist interpretation of Romans 13:1–7 in The Mighty and the Almighty, chapter 8. N. T. Wright does not use the language of “protectionism,” but he seems to make a similar point in remarking that the “appointed task” of the “temporary subordinates” is “to bring at least a measure of God's order and justice to the world.” Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” 719.

20 Perhaps the only statement in 13:1–7 that sounds remotely perfectionist is Paul's comment that the one who does what is good will receive praise from the magistrate. This comment is enigmatic, but the most thoroughly documented study of this statement, of which I am aware, argues that Paul referred to the honor that Roman officials rendered to wealthy public benefactors, not to the promotion of community virtue. See Winter, Bruce W., “The Public Honouring of Christian Benefactors: Romans 13.3–4 and 1 Peter 2.14–15,Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (1988): 87103.

21 From a Mennonite perspective, John Howard Yoder recognizes the clear differences between Romans 13:1–7 and what precedes and follows, concluding, “The function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.” See Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), 199. For Yoder, this means that Christians should not participate in these government functions. Other writers, sympathetic to a liberationist perspective, also see 13:1–7 as very different from the surrounding material, and believe Paul's conservative posture here exposes contradictions in his thought. See, e.g., Neil Elliott, “Romans 13:1–7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1997): 186, 203; Neil Elliott, “The Letter to the Romans,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah (New York: T & T Clark, 2009): 210; Jewett, Romans, 803. Another approach, to which I am sympathetic, defends a “minimalist reading of Romans 13,” but not in a way that makes Paul's thought internally inconsistent or makes the Bible politically irrelevant. See Gerrit de Kruijf, “The Function of Romans 13 in Christian Ethics,” in A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan, ed. Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, and Al Wolters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002): 233–35. Among other scholars commenting on the distinctiveness of the Romans 13:1–7 ethic in comparison with surrounding texts, see Stein, Robert H., “The Argument of Romans 13:1–7,Novum Testamentum 31, no. 4 (1989): 326; Engberg-Pedersen, Troels, “Paul's Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13.1–10 in the Argument,Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29, no. 2 (2006): 163–72. Among scholars noting the lack of anything distinctively Christian in 13:1–7, see Keck, Romans, 324; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 771.

22 See VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, 104–7.

23 See, e.g., Dunn, “Romans 13.1–7,” 65; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 771; Stein, “The Argument of Romans 13:1–7,” 329–30; Hultgren, Romans, 467; Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” 717, 721; Keck, Romans, 319, 321; Tobin, Paul's Rhetoric, 396; Porter, Stanley E., “Romans 13:1–7 as Pauline Political Rhetoric,Filologia Neotestamentaria 3, no. 6 (1990): 131–32.

24 In light of these similarities between Romans 13:1–7 and the Noahic covenant (and to a lesser extent many other Old Testament texts), I disagree with Oliver O'Donovan's claim that Romans 13 presents a new characteristic of civil government following Christ's exaltation, even though I am sympathetic to his claim that the state's sole authority is rendering judgment. See O'Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 4.

25 Although most commentators believe that Paul had specific circumstances of the Roman church in mind, some have helpfully noted how difficult, or even impossible, it is to reconstruct the social-political situation facing Paul's original readers. See, e.g., Stein, “The Argument of Romans 13:1–7,” 327; Hultgren, Romans, 467–69.

26 See, e.g., the discussion in Engberg-Pedersen, “Paul's Stoicizing Politics,” 167–69.

27 For a recent discussion of Paul's view of natural law in this extended text, see VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, chapter 5.

28 For discussion of natural law in the Noahic covenant, see VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, chapter 2.

29 Porter, “Romans 13:1–7 as Pauline Political Rhetoric,” 123–24.

30 Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty, 92–95, 117.

31 Here the king (or emperor) is described as υπερεχοντι, in distinction from governors who are sent for the punishment of evildoers and praise of those doing good.

32 Of many possible examples, I mention the following: on killing, compare Exodus 20:13 with Exodus 21:15–17; on divorce, compare Mark 10:11–12 with Matthew 19:9; and on the Sabbath, compare Exodus 20:8–11 with Matthew 12:9–13.

33 Among New Testament texts discussing this theme, see, e.g., Matthew 5:10–12, 43–48; and 1 Peter 2:13–25.

34 See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas's discussion in Book 1, Chapter 6 of De Regimine Principum. For English translation, see R. W. Dyson, ed. and trans., Aquinas: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

35 See, e.g., VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, 382–85, 399–404.

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