Are we Arminian?! image

Are we Arminian?!

I have been writing a paper on Reformed Theology for the Newfrontiers Theology Forum, and this has led me down some different reading channels from those I might otherwise habituate. One such book is Always Reformed, a collection of essays written in honour of Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary California. Some of these essays are very stimulating, while others could only possibly appeal to a very narrow band of Presbyterian theologians and historians.

One of the more interesting contributions is by Joel Kim on the interpretation of Romans 7:14-25. This has been a key passage for us in Newfrontiers, with the majority position being that Paul is describing a non-believers struggle with sin. Holding this position has important consequences for our understanding of the Christian’s victory over sin.
It is probably accurate to say that this view is considered more novel and recent than the more typical view that Paul is describing a believers ongoing wrestling with sin. What is so interesting about Kim’s essay is that it demonstrates a range of interpretive stances on Romans 7:14-25 in the Reformation period, including the one we have tended to hold. Kim describes the interpretations of four key theologians, which can be briefly summarized with quotations from the essay…


“Erasmus considered the speaker in Romans 7 to be unregenerate (i.e., pre-Christian). The speaker’s continued struggle with the law and sin is clearly contrary to Erasmus’ belief that freedom from sin and the ‘the servitude of the law’ characterize the regenerate…This is in clear contrast to the description of the Christian life envisioned by Paul in Romans 8.”

Martin Bucer

“The speaker is regenerate. In light of the descriptions presented in the text, Bucer sees no other possibility. The speaker clearly knows the law of God and loves it. This is apparent from the statements that ‘I agree that the law is good,’ ‘I desire the good and hate evil,’ ‘willing is present in me,’ and ‘in my mind, I serve the law of God.’ In light of these statements, Bucer simply concludes that since a profane unbeliever cannot confess these things, the text must refer to a saint who loves God and fears his Word, a regenerate Paul.”

In coming to this conclusion Bucer conceives of

“two kinds of regenerate persons: first, regenerate but without the power of the Spirit, and the second, regenerate and with the fullness of the Spirit.”

John Calvin

“For Calvin, Romans 7:14-25 is an illustration showing the contrast between the goodness of the law and corrupt human nature, and this contrast is better illustrated in the experience of a regenerate than in the experience of an unregenerate person…Calvin is convinced of the existence of conflicting spirit and flesh in the person, a condition only possible among the regenerate persons. The intention of Paul in all this, according to Calvin, is to show that the struggle between spirit and flesh is only possible and logical if the person being described is regenerate.”

Jacobus Arminius

In his discussion of Romans 7:14-25, Arminius

“proposes to show ‘that in this passage the Apostle does not speak about himself, nor about a man living under grace, but that he has transferred to himself the person of a man placed under the law.’…Paul is not speaking autobiographically but describes an hypothetical and unregenerate person. This is true not only because the exegesis supports such a claim but also because it is logical in light of the assumption that such inner conflict is impossible for the regenerate.”

Let’s try to pull this together in a table of interpretation:

Where does this leave us?!

Firstly, it should give us a sense of caution when making pronouncements about the interpretation of this passage in Romans – if the giants of the past do not agree then it is possible that we will not write the last word on the subject either. But a corollary to this is that whatever position we take it will have an impressive historical pedigree!
Secondly we can plot the position of contemporary commentators relative to their notable predecessors, and trace some rather unexpected alliances. For the purpose of this exercise I will group Erasmus and Arminius together, as their position is similar.

D.M. Lloyd-Jones seems to fall somewhere between Arminius and Bucer, arguing that the person is neither unregenerate or regenerate, but miserably failing to keep the law they love while waiting for the Spirit to come in revival power.
John Stott also doesn’t quite fit the grid, suggesting that Paul is describing an OT believer who is regenerate, loves God’s law, but does not possess the Spirit. Similarly, N.T. Wright describes the person as the “miserable I” and suggests it is a faithful Israelite who wants, but fails, to keep the Law.
Tom Schreiner rejects Stott’s position as implausible, and argues that the point Paul is making is the inability of anyone – unregenerate or regenerate – to keep the law.
Personally, I’m inclined to go with Schreiner, but you make of it what you will!

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