The interpretation of the use of the word law in the Epistle to the Romans is one of the difficult problems of the epistle. On a question on which learned scholars differ, it is clearly impossible to come to a final conclusion. The present work is an attempt to show that a reasonable explanation is possible for every use of the word, an explanation which is consistent with the definitions and distinctions herein set forth. An attempt is made to show that the article or its absence has definite significance, that Paul is arguing in Romans for something more than a setting aside of Mosaic law, and that the significance of the whole finds fruit in definite statements of doctrine.
The Epistle to the Romans is not a polemic against legalism in the sense that the Epistle to the Galatians is. It is a setting forth of the principle that it is God who effects every spiritual fruit, whether justification or sanctification, and that our part in this transaction is that of receiving it by faith. Paul’s main purpose is to set forth the doctrines of justification and sanctification. In the nature of the case, he must demonstrate the contrast of this to the prevailing legalistic conceptions.
It has been impossible to attempt the refutations of other theories in every case and keep within proper limits. The writer in many cases only explains his conception. The possibility of other interpretations in some instances cannot be doubted. The present work, such as it is, is submitted as a demonstration that a reasonable explanation of Paul’s conception of law is possible.
The word law (Greek, νόμος) is used in Scripture in many different senses, most of which are found in the Epistle to the Romans. No two theological writers agree as to the exact categories or shades of meaning into which the word can best be divided. Essentially, law is any working principle, usually moral, regulating conduct, being binding either because revealed by God, established through custom, a part of man-made law, or a principle of operation true in the nature of things. Order, moral or natural, is bound up in the character of God. From this fundamental standard, all true moral distinctions and principles of operation must be determined. In contrast to standards of conduct which spring from an understanding of the character of God are the inferior standards of man. In Scripture, of course, we deal primarily with law as it relates to God, with only a very occasional reference to the standards set up by men.
In the Epistle to the Romans, in the way of preliminary distinction, the writer divides the various usages of νόμος into six meanings: first, any recognized principle in operation whether moral, civil, or natural-law in its broadest sense; second, the whole revealed will of God regulating conduct whether written or unwritten-any moral law; third, the revealed will of God, with particular reference to the Mosaic law in its quality as law; fourth, Mosaic law specifically, including the ten commandments, though not necessarily excluding always the other portions of the Old Testament; fifth, the whole Old Testament specifically; sixth, any sphere of rule or domination. These will be considered more at length under Section 4 of the Introduction.
One of the important basic problems which must be faced before any exposition or distinctions can be made in the use of νόμος in Romans is the problem of the significance of the Greek article. English translations are hopelessly confusing, due to the difference in usage between the Greek article and the English article, and to the fact that translators have used the English article indiscriminately. The best of scholars are at odds as to the significance of the article in the determination of the use of this word. Some have attempted to erect quite arbitrary standards. On this point, J. H. Thayer says, “Some interpreters contend that νόμος without the article [in the Epistles of Paul and James and the Epistle to the Hebrews] denotes not the law of Moses but law viewed as ‘a principle,’ ‘abstract and universal.’”1 Thayer goes on to refer to Lightfoot, Vaughan, Van Hengel, and Gifford as supporters of this idea. In refutation of this contention, Thayer quotes from the following as proving the contrary:
“This distinction is contrary to usage (as exhibited e.g. in Sap. XVIII.4; Sir. XIX.17; XXI.11; XXI.8; 1 Macc. II.21; 4 Macc. VII.7 and many other exx. in the Apocr.”2 Thayer further appeals to the context of the following New Testament passages to support this contention, “Ro. II.17, 25, 27; VII.1 (7); XIII. 8, 10; Gal III.17, 18, 23, 24.”3
It can be seen from this discussion that opinions vary as to the significance of the article. It is obvious that there must be some meaning to the use of the article or its absence, particularly when we observe careful distinction often in the same verse of Scripture. It is the writer’s contention that the article when used has some significance, and when it is not used there must be some reason for its absence. With such a fundamental assumption, the best plan of procedure is an examination of each passage with a view to determining why νόμος occurs sometimes with the article and in other instances without it.
There are three distinct uses of the article which may be found in the Epistle to the Romans as used with νόμος. The first is by far the most common, the simple definite use. This is found in the following passages: 2:14b, 18, 20, 23b, 26, 27a; 3:19a, b,21b; 4:15a, 16; 7:1b, 4, 5, 6, 7a, c,12, 14, 16; 8:3, 4. Everyone of these references will be found to be a specific reference to Mosaic law except 3:19a, b, which evidently includes not only the Mosaic law, but the entire Old Testament, and 7:1b which is probably more extensive than others, as will be pointed out later. This definite use of the article, more technically known as the prepositive use, serves, according to Thayer, “to distinguish things, persons, notions more exactly.”4 As the law of Moses was uppermost in Paul’s mind and in his argument, in connection with the defense of the principles and doctrines of grace, it is natural that Mosaic law should be referred to as “the law.”
The second use of the article, well established in Greek literature, is the use of the article when the noun has modifiers. The writer interprets the following passages as having this usage, and hence to be distinguished from the first: 2:15; 7:21, 23b, c; 8:2a, b. The article in this instance has the meaning of calling attention to the particular quality of the noun as portrayed by the modifiers, and hence the meaning of the noun is determined not by the article alone, but by the context. In the passages mentioned, therefore, while the article is used, Mosaic law is not specified.
The third use, while often found in much the sense of the first, is important in that the article is used when no modifiers are in the immediate grammatical construction. This third type, called anaphoric, or the article of second mention5 refers the word back to a previous use of the same word and indicates that the same sense is meant. In other words, it says the word is the same in kind as that previously used. This is found in connection with the discussion of the law of marriage in 7:2b, 3. The importance of this use is that though the article is used, νόμος does not necessarily refer specifically to the Mosaic law. Undoubtedly, this use sometimes coincides with the first use discussed, the simple definite use, but in this instance, it is to be distinguished from the definite use.
The importance of distinguishing between these various implications in the use of the article is apparent at once when we bear in mind that some have attempted to make νόμος with the article invariably the Mosaic law. To them, ὁ νόμος can refer only to the Mosaic law, or in some instances to the entire Old Testament. An examination of the use of the article with nouns having modifiers and its use in reference to a previous discussion makes it clear that νόμος may be used with the article without referring directly and specifically to Mosaic law.
The real burden of the controversy relative to the meaning of the article with νόμος falls on the effort to distinguish variant meanings of the word when no article is used. It is obvious in the nature of things that there must be some reason why the article is omitted. Generally speaking, the use of the article makes a noun more definite while its absence makes the noun less definite and even general, depending on the context. The exact extent of the implications in the absence of the article forms the burden of the controversy. Archibald M’Caig gives us a concise statement of the more common attitude toward the problem:
“The word is used both with and without the article, but though in some cases the substantive without the article refers to law in general, yet in many other places it undoubtedly refers to the Law of Moses. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it is that, where it does refer to the Mosaic Law, the word without the article points to that law, not so much as Mosaic, but in its quality as law. But speaking generally, the word with and without the article is used in reference to the Law of Moses.”6
The statement of the significance of the article just made may be taken as a very sane view which is supported by the best Greek authorities, though not without contradiction from able scholars, as has already been pointed out in the discussion on the use of the article (Section II). The only conclusion which may be reached which can be sustained in every instance is that the absence of the article does not necessarily make νόμος indefinite, though it at once admits the possibility. A. T. Robertson, who has no peer among recent Greek scholars, clearly points out this fact.7 He classifies it with nouns which have an anarthrous use, that is, used much in the sense of a proper name or term, definite in itself even though without the article.
Using this study in the use of the article as background, the only principle which can be followed is to determine in each instance the most probable meaning of the word, taking into consideration the whole field of possibilities.
Before attempting to expound the doctrine which is set forth in the Epistle to the Romans in the various discussions on law, it is necessary first to point out more at length the meaning of the various uses of the word. As has been demonstrated in the preliminary definition (Section I), there are at least six different meanings of νόμος found in Romans.
First, νόμος is used in the sense of any recognized principle in operation whether moral, civil, or natural-law in its broadest sense. It is a comparatively rare use in Romans, but is found a few times. A good illustration may be found in the two instances in 3:27, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.” In asking the question, “By what law?” Paul uses νόμος in its most general sense. Thayer calls it, “Any law whatsoever.”8 It occurs here without the article. It also occurs in this sense with the article in 7:21, where Paul writes, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” He finds this principle in operation. It is a reference to law as a recognized principle in operation. C. I. Scofield concurs in this view of its use here.9 It is usually found, however, without the article, as in 7:25a and 9:31a, b. This first use is found, then, both with and without the article.
A second use of νόμος may be defined as the whole revealed will of God as known in any case, whether Jew or Gentile, whether written or unwritten, in the sense of any moral law. It occurs both with and without the article. Of its use in this sense with the article, we find 2:15 a clear example, “Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” The passage refers to the Gentiles as the context clearly shows. It is not the Mosaic law, but the law “written in their hearts.” Paul could hardly be arguing that all Gentiles had the Mosaic law written in their hearts. It is the revelation which God has given them concerning right and wrong. Even Gentiles who do not have the Scriptures have some knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is their law, and on it they judge themselves. The article is used here in the regular use of the article when the noun has modifiers. In this case law is modified by “written in their hearts.” It is clear then that the word does not refer to the law of Moses.
In 3:20, there are two examples of the use of νόμος without the article with this same meaning: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” In the preceding argument, Paul has shown that both Jews and Gentiles are without excuse before God. The Jews have not kept their law. The Gentiles have not kept the “law written in their hearts.” He therefore concludes in 3:20 that “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.” As the word law includes both Jews and Gentiles in this summary, it is clear that it has the general meaning of any moral law. Other references are: 2:14d, 15; 3:20a, b,21a, 28, 31a, b; 4:13, 14, 15b; 5:13b; 6:14, 15; 7:1a, b,2a, b,3, 7b, 8, 9, 22, 25a; 8:7; 10:4; 13:8, 10.
A third use of νόμος occurs frequently in Romans in which there is reference not so much to the Mosaic law in its substance as to its quality as law. It includes the whole revealed will of God, but it has particular reference to the law character of such revelation as illustrated in the Mosaic law. It is law such as the law of Moses. It occurs only without the article. An illustration is afforded in 2:25, “For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.” It is obvious on the face of the verse that Paul is thinking of the Mosaic law here, not so much in its content as in its character as law. In the second occurrence of the word in the verse, the breaking of law includes not only the Mosaic law, but the whole revealed will of God. This is made evident as in the next two verses we have νόμος with the article, with the evident intention on the part of Paul of specifically referring to Mosaic law in a sense in which he does not in 2:25. Other instances of this use may be found in: 2:12 (all four instances); 2:13 (two instances); 2:14a, c; 2:17; 2:23a; 2:25a, b; 2:27b; 5:13a; 5:20; and 10:5.
The fourth use of νόμος is that in which it refers to the Mosaic law specifically, though not necessarily excluding the prophets in every instance. It always has the article; that is, it is a use more definite than the third use which has just been discussed. An illustration is found in 2:20, “An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.” Law here is clearly the Mosaic law, which is the Jew’s particular heritage, in which the Jew is instructed, and by which he is condemned. In 2:23b, it is evident that law there includes the ten commandments; in other words, the ten commandments are a part of the law of Moses. This is an important doctrinal point in view of the attempt on the part of some noted theologians to make the ten commandments exempt from the doing away with law by grace. Other illustrations of this meaning may be found in 2:14b, 18, 23b, 26, 27a; 3:21b; 4:15a, 16; 7:4, 5, 6, 7a, c,12, 14, 16; 8:3, 4.
A fifth meaning may be found in the use of νόμος to include not only the Pentateuch but the entire Old Testament specifically. This meaning is found clearly in 3:19, “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” In the immediate context, in the verses which precede this statement, Paul quotes from the Psalms and prophets. It is evident, then, that this use must include here not only the Mosaic law, but the rest of the Old Testament.
A sixth use of νόμος may be found in its reference to a sphere of domination or rule. An illustration of this is found in 8:2. Regardless which view of interpretation is followed in this verse, it is evident here that it is used in the sense of rule or sphere of domination. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” It could be translated just as accurately, “For the rule of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the rule of sin and death.” Other illustrations of this use may be found in 7:23b, c; and in 7:25b.
It may be noted that there are other possible uses of νόμος which do not occur in Romans, as for instance, its use to indicate laws which originate in man, such as civil law. The references in 7:2, 3 (reference to marriage) might be so taken, but could equally well be interpreted to be part of God’s revealed will, or perhaps both.
With these six variations in the meaning of νόμος in mind, we can now proceed to the consideration of the meanings in each instance, with the doctrinal implications arising from such interpretation, as explained in the foregoing introduction to the subject.
After the statement of the theme of the epistle, Paul begins in 1:18 with the formal argument. He sets out to prove that the whole world is guilty before God and under God’s condemnation. He begins first of all with the Gentiles. In 1:18-20, he points out that even the Gentiles enjoyed natural revelation and from this had a knowledge of His power and Godhead and are to be condeirmed if they do not live up to this revelation. Because of Gentile rebellion, God gives them up to their sin, as Paul indicates in 1:21-32. In a terrible arraignment of the Gentile world, Paul points to their depths of sin, facts concerning which the Romans were well familiar. In 2:1-16, Paul reveals the principles upon which God judges the Gentile world. From 2:17 to 3:19, Paul deals with the Jews, and shows their condemnation in relation to the law. In 3:20, there is a summary of the universal condemnation in relation to the law, for both the Jew and the Gentile. We will address ourselves first of all to the problem of Gentile condemnation by the law.
It may well be said at the outset that Gentiles are not condemned by Jewish law, but by their failure to measure up to such revelation of God as they had. This will be seen to be Paul’s argument in 2:1-15. In the latter part of this section, from 2:12 to 2:15, there are eleven references relating the fact of Gentile condemnation to law. In vs. 12 we have four references: “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” Paul is comparing the state of the Gentile to the Jew. The Gentile is referred to as having sinned without law and as perishing without law. The Jew on the other hand is referred to as having sinned in the law and as being judged by the law. In all four instances there is no article, but it is obvious that the meaning here is the third use of νόμος previously discussed, the use of the word to refer to the whole revealed will of God with particular reference to the Mosaic law in its quality as law. In other words, what Paul is saying about the Gentiles is that they did not have law such as the Jews did. They had natural law and a degree of revelation, but nothing to compare to that which the Jews had. Very well, Paul argues, they shall be judged on that basis. The Jews on the other hand had a law. The absence of the article may be taken as an emphasis on the quality of law-the state of law in which they were in, rather than to the law of Moses specifically. According to the law the Jews had, they shall be judged by it. Jews from Moses on had written law. Before that time they had oral law and tradition and direct revelation from God. On the basis of this revelation the Jew shall be judged.
In vs. 13, he points out that the fact that the Jews had law does not exalt their position in the matter of judgment. “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” The Jews unable to read the law themselves were accustomed to hearing the law read in the synagogue. This hearing of the law had no value, Paul argues, unless it is followed by doing. The justification here is not to be confused with the complete justification which comes of faith, but may be said to be the relative justification which comes in proportion to obedience to law. According as they obey the law, they are counted just in God’s eyes. It is a statement of the principle of judgment. Charles Hodge points this out very clearly,
“He is not speaking of the method of justification available for the sinner, as revealed in the gospel, but of the principles of justice which will be applied to all who look to the law for justification. If men rely on works, they must have works; they must be doers of the law; they must satisfy its demands, if they are to be justified by it.”10
The absence of the article would refer the law mentioned here to the third use discussed in the Introduction-referenee to law in its quality as law, with the Mosaic law in mind. The quality of law is such that judgment is based on obedience to it.
Verses 14 and 15 carry out this argument further:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”
Verse 14 is introduced by ὅταν, meaning whenever. Paul is not saying that what follows is true or that it occurs, but is saying to the extent that this is the case, the conclusion he reaches is true. To the extent the Gentiles should actually accomplish the fulfillment of the law, they have a standard of their own. The article occurs with νόμος in its second occurrence in vs. 14. The “things contained in the law” would be the things contained in the law of Moses. If the Gentiles which do not have a law such as the law of Moses, should do the things which are actually contained in the law of Moses, they not having a law such as the law of Moses become a law unto themselves, i.e., have a law of their own. On this basis they will be judged. Verse 14 connects with vs. 12 rather than with vs. 13. Paul’s argument is that judgment will be for both Gentile and Jew on the basis God has given them. In vs. 13 the Jew is seen to have no special exemption because of merely hearing the law. In vs. 14 the Gentile is shown to have a basis even though they do not have the Mosaic law.
Verse 15 continues the thought of the preceding verse. The fact of conscience even among Gentiles indicates the existence of law and a measure of revelation from God. The article is used to call special attention to the modifier. Paul, therefore, has established his case for a ground of judgment of the Gentiles. The judgment will be deferred until the day of judgment according to vs. 16. The judgment will be based on such revelation as God has given the Gentiles.
In 2:17, Paul begins his argument to prove that the Jew with the Gentile stands condemned before God. He shows first of all that the Jew stands condemned by his own law-the Mosaic law. In 2:17, Paul states, “Behold, thou art called a Jew and resteth in the law, and makest thy boast of God.” Νόμος occurs without the article, and is evidently a reference to Mosaic law in its quality as law. The Gentile rested in law too, but not a law such as the law of Moses. The whole background of the Jew was that of law. In vs. 18, Paul uses νόμος with the article, reminding the Jew that they are “instructed out of the law.” Here it is specifically the law of Moses, as pointed out by the context and the presence of the article. It is an interesting proof of the accuracy of the use of the article in Romans. Paul could not have said that the Jews were instructed by the quality of law, as would be inferred if the article was absent. They were instructed in the law itself. In 2:20, Paul makes the further statement that they have “the truth in the law.” Again the article is present. It is the truth in the Mosaic law. Paul is proving to the Jew that the Jew, possessing the Mosaic law, is in a peculiar position to know the will of God. Having proved this point, evident in itself, he makes his application. The Jew found fault with the Gentile for not keeping Jewish law. Now, Paul argues, has the Jew himself kept his Jewish law? To make the case more specific, Paul quotes from the ten commandments.
It could be noted that the ten commandments are used as an example of what Mosaic law is. They sum up the Mosaic law. The idea that the ten commandments are a separate law in themselves is contradicted by the plain fact that Paul, in proving the privilege of the Jew under the Mosaic law, used the ten commandments as an example. It is an assumption without proof that where the law is stated to be abrogated, it is only ceremonial law that is concerned. In a later section, it will be demonstrated that Paul proves the inability of the law to sanctify. The ten commandments can be applied to the Christian only in the sense that any of the Old Testament can be so used-by spiritual application.
Three specific sins are mentioned by Paul: stealing, adultery, and sacrilege. The cunning of the Jew in stealing was proverbial. That adultery was a common sin among the Jews both Scripture and history have demonstrated. As to sacrilege, the Jews were noted for robbing heathen temples. In Acts 19:37, it is something worthy of special note in the mind of the Ephesian town clerk that Christian Jews involved in the disturbance at Ephesus were not robbers of temples. The questions are self-answered. Paul makes application of these facts in vs. 23, “Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?” There is a delicate difference in meaning in the two uses of νόμος in this verse. The first has no article and the second has the article. What Paul is saying is that the very Jew who boasts of law and of being under law, by breaking the law of Moses brings dishonor to God. The Jews were proud of the fact that they were under law. The first instance in this verse is a reference to the law of Moses in its quality of law. The second instance is a reference to the law of Moses itself in its content. The Jew boasts because he is under the sphere of Mosaic law, but by breaking the law itself, he makes his boasting vain. Paul does not disparage the Jew in claiming special privilege because he is under the law. He points out that the special privilege of the Jew in having this special revelation from God results in greater condemnation, because they do not keep their law.
In 2:25, Paul points out that even circumcision loses its meaning when the law is not kept, “For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.” Both references to law are without the article. Paul is evidently pointing out that not only is the Jew who breaks the Mosaic law a violator of that law, but he becomes a violator of law in general-a violator of moral law of which the Mosaic law is an example. The point is clear when we remember that circumcision was given before the Mosaic law was given, and hence law must be wider in its scope than the specific reference to the content of Mosaic law. As far as Paul’s generation is concerned, however, the Mosaic law is the issue. In vs. 26, Paul continues the same argument and again uses νόμος without the article, “Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision.” The lot of one who keeps the moral standards of the Mosaic code without being circumcised is better than that of the circumcised who breaks the Mosaic law. Νόμος is used here with the article, and evidently refers specifically to the law of Moses as such. Paul does not say that it is possible for anyone to keep the righteousness of the Mosaic law, except in a relative sense, but in this relative sense the keeper of the righteousness of Mosaic law is obviously better than that of the circumcised Jew who breaks the law.
In vs. 27, Paul makes his final statement on this matter. Those naturally uncircumcised, if they fulfill the law, make the position of the circumcised Jew who breaks the law all the more to be condemned. Paul is saying that the Jew is hopelessly condemned by the very law which he professes to keep. The verse contains two references to law, “And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter of circumcision dost transgress the law?” The first instance has the article and the second does not. Paul’s argument is without refutation. If the uncircumcised keep the law of Moses (νόμος with the article) can he not judge the Jew who though having the letter of the law and the rite of circumcision nevertheless breaks law-not only Mosaic law as such, but moral law in general as illustrated by the law of Moses?
In chapter three, Paul points to the exalted privilege of the Jew in having the law. As to the question of their condemnation, Paul writes in vs. 9, “What then? are we better than they? no, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” He then goes on to make fourteen specific indictments, all quotations from the Psalms and prophets to prove his point. At the conclusion of these quotations, Paul makes the statement, “Now, we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” We have here a clear reference to νόμος used to include not only the Mosaic law, but evidently the entire Old Testament specifically. The article occurs in both instances. The Jew is left hopelessly condemned. The very law of which he boasted condemned him. As Paul points out, the Old Testament quotations which he made are not referring to the Gentiles specifically, but to the Jews.
In conclusion, Paul sums up the argument of the entire section in 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The article is not used in either instance. Including the whole human family in one wide sweep, Paul is saying that whatever moral code man may be under, whether Jew or Gentile, observing such a code will never justify in the sight of God. It is law in the widest sense, including any rule of conduct, written or unwritten. Law however perfect can only condemn; it cannot justify; it cannot save.
John F. Walvoord
(To be continued in the April-June number)
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 428.
2 Loc. cit.
3 Loc. Cit.
4 Ibid., p. 433.
5 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 762.
6 International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, v.s. Law, p. 1848.
7 A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 796.
8 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 427.
9 Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1200, note.
10 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 82.