The Death of the Soul in Romans 7

A review of a recent look at Romans 7 in light of Greek moral psychology.

—Reviewed by Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, is deputy director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

The title of this book, a revised doctoral dissertation, is intriguing for Seventh-day Adventists because Adventists believe in the nonim­mortality of the soul and can refer to biblical texts that state that the soul dies. However, this book is not about the state of the dead.

As the title indicates, it deals with Romans 7, a text that is notori­ously difficult to interpret. Some perceive this chapter as pointing to the state of the unconverted per­son. Others challenge this position and would opt for the struggle of the redeemed Christian, illustrated by Paul’s own experience. Luther spoke about simul justus et peccator (“at the same time just and a sin­ner”). But this is not Wasserman’s approach. She seeks to present a new approach that differs widely from traditional interpretations. With regard to Romans 7, she distances herself from approaches that, for instance, opt for justification by faith. Wasserman goes back to Greek philosophers and feels that Paul is especially informed by, if not dependent on, a Platonic discourse.

She summarizes, “The death of the soul describes a moral-psychological drama in which the worst part of the soul defeats the best part. Platonic moral psychol­ogy divides the soul into three faculties that struggle against one another for dominance and control. In this struggle, the good part of the soul, reason or mind, always fights against the bad parts, the passions and appetites. . . . [I]n extreme cases the bad faculties gain control and perversely enslave, imprison, and even metaphorically ‘kill’ reason” (8). According to her understand­ing, the issue in Romans 7 does not consist of moral weakness, but rather the text deals with cases of extreme immorality when reason is imprisoned by the passions that would be described as the death of the soul.

The speaker in Romans 7 is not Paul; rather, it is reason. Sin has to do with the irrational parts of the soul and is “a personified representation of the passions” (8). She acknowl­edges that the term soul is not used in Romans 7 but nevertheless argues that Paul operates with a concept of the soul that includes those aspects of the person that are not “reducible to the body” (8). Apparently, she claims that Paul does not understand soul holistically but as the nonbodily functions of a person, subdivided into three additional categories among which reason is the highest category. If the passions dominate and enslave reason, the situation of Romans 7 is reached—extreme immorality.

Wasserman does not limit her study to Paul and Plato but also looks at other Greek philosophers, espe­cially those who take an approach similar to Plato, for instance, Philo, claiming that Romans 7 is “consistent with a middle-Platonic discourse alive in Paul’s day” (115). Her chapters deal with “Moral Psychology and Platonic Discourse,” “The Death of the Soul in Romans 7,” and “The Life and Death of the Soul in Romans 1–8.”

Although much more could be said about her work, the basic questions are the following: Should we hear Paul on his own terms? Or should we interpret his letter to the Romans by the use of Greek moral philosophy and psychology? Does Paul follow a Greek or Old Testament understanding of the soul? Although Paul undoubtedly was familiar with Greek philosophy, was he dependent on it, or did he rather follow a biblical approach, distinguishing inspired literature from noninspired literature? Since the term soul is not used in Romans 7, is it helpful to introduce it into the debate? Did Paul really endorse reason as the good faculty as opposed to desires and passions that are bad? Do not Greek philosophers typically consider vices as contrary to human nature, while Paul seems to understand them as part of fallen human nature? This reviewer is not convinced that all of these questions have been answered satisfactorily.

—Reviewed by Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, is deputy director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

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—Reviewed by Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, is deputy director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

May 2012

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