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Many translations of Romans 7:5 have a phrase like "the sinful passions which were aroused by the law".

This seems puzzling to me because it doesn't make sense that the law would "arouse" sin or "sinful passions". So I have wondered:

  • Are there are other translation possibilities?
  • Why have so many translators decided that "sinful passions aroused by the law" is the most accurate translation?

Two points I'm particularly wondering about:

Firstly, the Greek word often translated "passions" is in most cases translated "sufferings". So perhaps this verse could be "sufferings of sin" rather than "sinful passions". But what translation principles favour "sinful passions"?

Secondly, in the phrase "aroused by the law", there is no Greek word that is directly translated to "aroused". Rather it is just the Greek "dia" which is something like "by" or "through". So it makes sense to translate as "by the law" or "through the law", but the word "aroused" seems to be a more specific word than what can be naturally obtained from the Greek text. So what translation principles lead to an English translation of "aroused by the law", or are there preferable alternatives?

5 Answers 5

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The law, says Paul, was 'weak through the flesh' :

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh ... [Romans 8:3 KJV].

That is to say the law would work, in and of itself, but the medium through which it would work - the flesh - was weak. This weakness, of flesh, cannot sustain the working of law. It fails.

'I am carnal' says Paul. 'What I would, that do I not' ... 'but what I hate, that do I', Romans 7:15.

Paul knows what to do : 'I delight in the law of God, after the inward man'. He not only agrees with it, he delights in it.

But he does not do it.

Because he is weak.

The weakness is due to pathema, παθημα. 'Affliction' or 'suffering' is the way the word is elsewhere translated. It is the passive state of weakness common to flesh.

Flesh and blood are not strong, they are subject to all kinds of distress, calamity, inherent weakness, tragedy, infection, contagion and death itself.

Mankind was never created to be strong, in and of itself. The Creator did not leave mankind to fend for itself : he provided in every possible way and he warned that there was a way of attempting to live that was not viable.

It would end in death. The tree of knowledge cannot sustain life, it cannot be digested, it is toxic and death will result.

In the inception of humanity, humanity was warned, 'Thou dost not eat of it.' It isn't food. You cannot assimilate it (as a source of life). You will kill yourself.

For flesh is weak. And the law cannot work through flesh.

Because of pathema.

Pathemata, παθηματα (Romans 7:5) is the nominative plural, expressing that there is a whole variety of weaknesses in flesh that render it incapable of accomplishing the task of keeping the law in its every word, every dictate, every requirement : every word, every sentence, every commandment, day by day, moment by moment, decade by decade.

The 'motions of the sins' (there are two articles present) should be translated 'the weaknesses of the sins' in my view : being the cause of the sins in the first place. I can see why 'motions' is used (in the KJV or 'passions' by Young) but it is not clear enough.

The origin of the sins is not the law. That origin is the weakness of flesh which, attempting to keep law, fails and results in sins. The flesh should never have attempted to live that way.

And this failure was expressed 'through', δια, dia, the law, the concept conveying the law to be a medium not an agency. Agency would be expressed as a dative case, perhaps, or another preposition ; απο, apo, for example.

There could be no success, attempting to express law through the medium of flesh.

It was destined to failure.


But there is another way : the Tree of Life.

For the rule of the Spirit (of Life in Christ Jesus) hath made me free from the rule of sin and death. [Romans 8:2.]

[Greek literal (TR - Stephanus) with my own brackets and translating νομοσ in its broadest sense.]

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Question 1 - πάθημα

The Greek word πάθημα (pathéma) occurs 16 times in the NT text and BDAG lists two meanings depending on whether the word expresses outward or inward emotions:

  1. that which is suffered or endured, suffering, misfortune, eg, Rom 8:18, 2 Cor 1:5, 6f, Col 1:24, 2 Tim 3:11, Heb 2:10, 10:32, 1 Peter 4:13, 5:1, 9, etc.
  2. an inward experience of an affective nature, feeling, interest (like πάθος, but less frequent than the latter ...), eg, Rom 7:5 - only in the writings of Paul = interests, desires (not limited to sexual interest).

Thus, it is that most versions render the translation, "passions", "desires", etc.

Question 2 - "through the law"

The Greek phrase involved here is διὰ τοῦ νόμου = "through/via the law". The translation "aroused" is somewhat interpretive but, in part, defensible (even though I prefer the more literal, by/via/through.)

The translation "aroused" is a modern cultural idea that some versions like to include - the text is simply saying that sinful passions came via the law, that is by means/mechanism of the awareness of the law. It is customary to say 'aroused" in modern "speak" that is not explicit in the Greek.

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The Greek phrase is τὰ παθήματα τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν (ta pathēmata tōn hamartiōn), which literally means something like "the passions of sin".

John Chrysostom (a Greek) explains the Greek as follows:

He neither says that the Law is the cause of sins, nor yet frees it from odium. For it held the rank of a bitter accuser, by making their sins bare: since that, which enjoins more to him who is not minded to obey at all, makes the offense greater. And this is why he does not say, the “motions of sins” which were produced by the Law, but which “were through the Law” without adding any “produced,” but simply “through the Law,” that is to say, which through the Law were made apparent, were made known.

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The word for passion is rightly translated. The modern ones are translating δια (through, by, due to) "aroused by" for taking it an efficient cause in nature, in this verse. This is objectionable and perhaps reveal their antinomian bias. Translations shouldn't be so interpretive.

BDAG3 references this verse in the efficient cause list. But it can also be a marker of occasion; (by virtue of grace, by virtue of law). It defines the word as having the primary causal focus 'owing to'.

ⓔ of occasion διὰ τῆς χάριτος by virtue of the grace Ro 12:3; Gal 1:15 (Just., D. 100, 2).—3:18; 4:23; Phlm 22. διὰ δόξης καὶ ἀρετῆς in consequence of his glory and excellence 2 Pt 1:3 v.l

It can mean "in the law" as cause of reason or virtue, not as efficient cause. 2 Cor 5:10 τὰ (the things done ) διὰ (in) τοῦ (the) σώματος (body). Ta dia, the same construct in this verse.

2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

The translation can be: when we were (living) in the flesh (sinful hypocrite), the passions of sins of/in the law were at work. This doesn't give the antinomian any excuse to blaspheme God.

The sins of the law or the sins defined in the law. You can also interpret it as sins of (the disobedience) of the law. Sin (transgression) is by definition, the transgression of the law. Law does not arouse sin (as though it's a tempter, which makes God a tempter), though it may cause sin consequentially. There's transgression only where there's a law. The context is about hypocrisy during living in the flesh. Flesh is a metonym of sin. A man can still live in flesh in the covenant of grace.

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The BDAG lists two primary meanings of πάθημα which can be differentiated on the basis of something which is experienced from without or within:1

that which is suffered or endured, suffering, misfortune, in our literature almost always in plural.
an inward experience of an affective nature, feeling, interest

These differences are seen in how Paul's two uses of πάθημα in this letter are translated:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, παθήματα, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (7:5) (ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings, παθήματα of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (8:18)

In the second, it is the sufferings, not the passions of the present time.

Nevertheless, in Romans 7, there are additional factors to consider: who is Paul addressing and what is his frame of reference?

1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Romans 7)

Those who know the Law include those who have not believed the Gospel and those who have believed are like the married woman whose husband has died. In the first, the person is not free from the Law and in the second they have died to the Law. Yet a person who has died to the Law knows both the reason, the sufferings of Christ and the sufferings sin caused and still causes.

While it is possible to consider παθήματα as an inward condition, within the passage the inward condition is not necessarily the passions of sin, but the sufferings from sins. This is especially true for the believer who sees freedom from the Law in terms of the sufferings of the Christ:

For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, παθήματα so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:5)

Anyone who knows the Law knows the sufferings sins brings, and those sufferings are both internal (passion to commit sin and remorse over sinful actions) and external (pain sins cause to others and self). In this case, I believe "sufferings" is the better translation since even the unbeliever who knows the Law, knows the sufferings from sins.

1. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 747-748

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