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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.

The key phrase to understand the verse is "when we were in the flesh". Meyer comments:

τὰ διὰ τ. νόμου] sc[1542] ὄντα, which are occasioned by the law; How? see Rom 7:7-8. It is erroneous in Chrysostom and Grotius to supply φαινόμενα. Comp rather 1Co 15:56."

[Rom 7:7-8 NHEB21] What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not. However, I would not have known sin, except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness, unless the law had said, "Do not covet." But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin is dead.

In light of Romans 7:7-8, we should understand the consequential risk of the law producing sin with the analogy of sex education to teenagers. Some children being innocent learn about sexual sins due to sex education, thereby may fall in the lusts and passions. The fleshly, corrupt teenagers will misuse the sex education to further go in the sinful path. 1 Tim 1:8 we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.

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Background
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

Most translations understand Paul understood and appealed to both meanings in this letter:

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)

Only in Romans and Galatians does Paul write of the Law, Abraham, and what constitutes the Israel of God (cf. Galatians 6:16), or who is "truly a Jew" (cf. Romans 2:28-9), Therefore, the relationship between the Law and the individual should not be described differently or in a manner which conflicts with Galatians:

24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (Galatians 3)

This does not describe the Law as that which arouses sinful passions.

The Law as paidagogos
In Galatians, Paul describes the Law as a παιδαγωγός, paidagogos, which the ESV renders as guardian; other translations have tutor, teacher, schoolmaster, custodian, and disciplinarian. Charles R. Erdman, explains why this word is so difficult to translate:

For this word there is no exact equivalent in English. It defines an office which does not exist in modern life. The "pedagogue," in the days of Paul, was a trusted servant, usually a slave, whose duty was not merely to lead his young master to school but in some measure to supervise his manners and morals. He was not qualified to instruct, nor was he given authority to control, but he was appointed to attend and to safeguard the child until his charge attained maturity and was no longer in need of guidance and discipline.2

A paidagogos should act to prevent the child from getting into trouble or doing something which was morally wrong. In that case, the child "suffers" by not doing what their flesh desired.

Conclusion
The meaning which is consistent with Galatians is sufferings, which the Revised Geneva Translation alone understands:

For when we were in the flesh, the sufferings of sins (which were by the Law) were at work in our limbs, bringing forth fruit unto death. (RGT)

Additionally, even if one considers παθήματα as an inward condition, it need not refer to passions to commit sins, but the sufferings one experiences from sinning. This is especially true for the believer who sees 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 sin brought to Christ and the sufferings it brings to self and others.


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
2. Charles R. Erdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, The Westminster Press, 1930, p. 75

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