Alleged Classical Parallels to Paul’s “What I Want To Do I Do Not Do, But What I Hate I Do” (Rom 7:15) -- By: Ronald V. Huggins

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:1 (Spring 1992)
Article: Alleged Classical Parallels to Paul’s “What I Want To Do I Do Not Do, But What I Hate I Do” (Rom 7:15)
Author: Ronald V. Huggins


Alleged Classical Parallels to Paul’s “What I Want To Do I Do Not Do, But What I Hate I Do” (Rom 7:15)

Ronald V. Huggins

1. Introduction

Is the “I” of Rom 7:14–25 in Christ or under law? This question, as everyone knows, has been a bone of contention for centuries. From the perspective of this writer the latter is correct. The present study, however, seeks to show that one of the key objections against the former in-Christ view, namely, that there are classical parallels to Paul’s “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, that I do” (Rom 7:15), is invalid, since these alleged parallels do not really represent statements conceptually equivalent to Paul’s. In its most basic form the objection is as follows: since passages can be adduced from classical authors (who all would agree are not Christians) that parallel precisely the dilemma of the “I” of Rom 7:14–25, it is not possible to insist, as do those who see in the passage a description of an exclusively Christian experience, that the level of spiritual enlightenment found in that section exceeds that of the unconverted. To begin, a number of these alleged parallels may be quoted, starting with the most familiar:

Ovid (43 BC - AD 17): “I see the better part and approve it; but I follow the worse” (Metamorphosis 7.21).1

Plato (427–347 BC): “…most people…say that many, while knowing what is best refuse to perform it” (Protagorus 352d).2

Aristotle (384–322 BC): “An uncontrolled man does what he knows to be wrong under the influence of emotion” (Ethica Nicomachea 7.2).3

Euripides (c. 480–406 BC): “That which is good we learn and recognize, yet practice not the lesson, some from sloth, and some preferring pleasure in the stead of duty” (Hippolytus 379–83).4

Plautus (c. 254–184 BC): “I knew what I ought to be, but, unhappy that I am, I could not do it” (Trinummas 657–58).5

At first sight these appear to provide striking parallels to Rom 7:15. But, as we shall see, this is not the case. The classical debate on the relation of reason and the passions is both excruciatingly intricate and protracted. Th...

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