Romans 2:14-15 – Moral Pagans?

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Romans 2:14-15 seems to refer to Gentiles who are moral, “doing the law by nature” and that they “have the law written on their hearts.”   After reading Romans 1:18-32, we might have had the impression that the Gentile world was a seething pit of sensual hedonism.  But now Paul says that there is a category of people that might be called “righteous Gentiles.”  Who are these “moral Gentiles”?  C. E. B. Cranfield lists the following possibilities:

  • Pagan Gentiles who fulfill God’s law because of their own morality and therefore merit his favor.
  • Hypothetical moral pagan Gentiles.
  • A secret hidden faith known only to God that is mysteriously in some Gentiles hearts, or to the works that expresses this faith.
  • Gentile Christians, with two variations.  Some take the “who do the things of the law”  as referring to the Gentile Christian’s faith, others take the phrase as referring to a Gentile Christian’s  works of obedience (Sabbath? Alms?).

Cranfield rejects the first possibility because it is incompatible with Romans 3:9, 20, 23.  he rejects the second because there is nothing in the context that indicates Paul is speaking hypothetically.  He settles on the last possibility, that Paul has in mind Gentile Christians who are acting ethically. Edwards makes an excellent point against Cranfield  by point out that these cannot be Christians because Paul has not even mentioned Jesus yet, nor has he introduced the idea of salvation (Romans, 70).  At this point in the argument, men are still trying to please God on their own, whether a Law keeping Jew or a Moralist Gentile.

Aristotle (Wikipedia)

James Dunn seems to take the first possibility. He understands “nature” as belonging to the phrase “do the things of the Law.”  This means there are Gentiles who, by their nature, respond to “general revelation” and are in fact rather moral in most respects.  Aristotle may be an example who Paul has in mind.  His Nicomachean Ethics often has the same high moral standard of the Jewish Law.  There are many examples of Roman Moralists who encouraged honesty, loyalty, and other excellent virtues.  Obviously no Greek or Roman would argue for a Sabbath, or circumcision as a sign of one’s loyalty to God, but those things were given specifically to Israel anyway.  (After I wrote this post I ran across this wikipedia “virtuous pagans.”  Check it out….)

This might be a bit of a surprise to learn that there are non-Jews who were generally moral and upright people.  We tend to have a fairly low opinion about the morality of the Gentile Roman world, but some were in fact more “moral” than some Jews!  (Compare Seneca with Herod the Great, for example!)  One cannot say that all Romans are hedonistic pagans, some were in fact  ethical and moral.  Paul points out they are still in need to Christ because they cannot live up to their own moral knowledge, but they are “closer” than the Gentiles described in Romans 1:18-32!

This observation has some fairly important application for our lives.  Christians cannot say things like “atheists are unethical and immoral.”  While I disagree with their conclusions on the existence of God, there is a possibility that they are living their life as ethically and morally as me (perhaps even more ethically!)  Seems to me that Christianity represents itself as “holy” when in fact individual Christians seem to sin in the exact same (skanky) ways as the world.  Are there “Moral Atheists” and “Immoral Theists”?  Absolutely!

How would this observation effect our interaction with people outside of the Church?