A new approach to Romans 12:1-15:13

Social identity, the virtues, and the good life: a new approach to Romans 12:1-15:13

Philip F. Esler


Romans 12:1-15:13 comprises a recognizable unit in the letter. But existing attempts to describe its distinctiveness focus upon concepts of “ethics” and “paraenesis” which are problematic in a number of respects. This study proposes a new manner of characterizing this section of Romans that integrates social identity theory with notions of the good life and the virtues derived from Aristotle that have staged a powerful resurgence in recent ethical discourse. This integrated approach is then applied to Romans 12:1-15:13 in a general way. From this discussion it emerges that this part of the letter can be interpreted both as Paul’s attempt to outline descriptors of the new identity his addressees experience as members of the Christ-movement, especially in relation to agape, and as a vision of the moral life very similar to the Aristotelian interest in the virtues as the means to promote human flourishing.

Many commentators and critics have proposed that Romans 12:1 begins a recognizable unit in the letter, which extends as far as 15:13. At 12:1 there is clearly a change of subject from the status of Israel, which has occupied Paul in Romans 9-11. In this section of the letter, moreover, Paul also shifts his focus in a manner commonly described as being from instruction to exhortation, from “indicative” to “imperative” (Moo: 744). There are numerous, more technical ways of describing this change of focus. A common view is that of a movement from “theology” to “ethics” (Dodd: 188) or from “doctrine” to “paraenesis.” (Black: 150). It is, indeed, commonplace to describe 12:1-15:13 as “ethical” or “paraenetic” in character. According to Joseph Fitzmyer:

Romans 12-15 forms a catechetical unit, a paraenetic

development of the consequences of justification. This hortatory

part of Romans is also an expression of God’s uprightness,

but now in terms of concrete conduct. The unit

reflects the tendency in the early church to join paraenesis

to a kerygmatic or doctrinal expose [637].

Critics often also see a division falling between Romans 12-13 and 14:1-15:13, sections which Ernst Kasemann, for example, describes respectively as “general exhortation” and “a clearly separate set of teaching directed to the Christians at Rome” (323). Fitzmyer (638) says that many of the topics in Romans 12-13 are generalities, “reflecting problems with which Paul had to cope in the past in other churches founded by him, perhaps problems even of the church of Corinth, from which he sends this letter to Rome,” whereas the discussion in 14:1-15:13 reflects the situation in the Roman church of which Paul has become aware.

But the extent of the break between 12-13 and 14:1-15:13 can be exaggerated. Rather than a division between these two parts of the letter, some critics instead discern a movement from the general to the particular as the chapters advance. Thus Karl Donfried reasonably states that “One cannot fully appreciate Paul’s intention in Romans 12-15 without seeing the movement and the heightening specificity, beginning with Romans 12:1 and moving through Romans 15:13” (108). This view is developed by James Miller, who sees a movement from Romans 12:1 to the call for mutual acceptance in Romans 15:7 (154-55). Others (Wilson and Yinger, for example) have expressed similar views.

These views pose a fundamental challenge to interpreters: what interpretative framework, what methodology, or what model is most appropriate for the investigation of Romans 12:1-15:137 An interpretation that takes up this challenge needs to address both the distinctive character of the whole passage and also to be sensitive to the differences between Romans 12-13 and 14:1-15:13. The thesis of this article is that existing approaches, which tend to characterize it as “ethics” or “paraenesis,” are inadequate for the task and that a better solution lies in situating this material in the letter in relation to ancient philosophic understandings of “the good life,” essentially meaning the condition of optimal human flourishing, and modern social psychological theory that focuses on social identity, meaning that part of an individual’s identity that derives from belonging to a particular group. The present writer has recently applied this theory in detail to Galatians (Esler 1998) and Romans (Esler 2003). I will now set out problems with the use of “ethics” and “paraenesis” in relation to this passage and then proceed to these more promising perspectives.

The Problem with “Ethics”

The production of books and essays on the subject of “New Testament ethics” or on the “ethics” of various parts of the New Testament is a flourishing business, with monographs having been published by Leslie Houlden, Jack Sanders, Wolfgang Schrage, and Frank Matera, to name only a sample in English. There are similar writings in the Old Testament field, for example by John Barton. Sometimes the words “morality” or “moral” substitute for “ethics” and “ethical,” as with works by Rudolf Schnackenburg, Wayne Meeks, and Richard Hays.

Yet although critics routinely apply the label “ethics” to material such as that contained in Romans 12-15, it is not immediately apparent that this concept should be applied to biblical material like this at all. The main problem is that in the modern world “ethics” largely refers to the systematic formulation of rules for good conduct by individuals. Moreover, this is an enterprise heavily influenced by philosophical approaches, some of which at least may not be well adapted to investigate the type of material we have in the Bible. It has acquired its present-day connotations largely since the time of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) as a result of the philosophical traditions, of deontological and utilitarian ethics respectively, that they brilliantly pioneered. The risk in studying the “ethics” of New, and indeed Old, Testament texts is that it entails squeezing them to produce a system of rules derived from philosophy and directed to right action by individuals which may overlook, or even stand in opposition to, important biblical insights on how human beings should live, as well as doing violence to the forms and genres in which those insights are expressed. Contemporary ethics are also largely absorbed with individual human agents and are not necessarily well suited to the strongly group-oriented culture in which Paul was socialized, lived and worked.

Many writers point out that “ethics” (or “morality”) is used in this context in a rather particular sense, especially in contrast to philosophical ethics. Stephen Barton comments that the “New Testament does not present abstract reflection of a philosophical kind on the nature and grounds of moral action. It is not a compendium of systematic reflection on the good.” Rather, “It invites its readers to a new way of life under the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ”(63). Schrage has expressed a similar view (“Now the New Testament is certainly not a handbook or compendium of Christian ethics, with universal rules or detailed descriptions of conduct”–2). These opinions invite the obvious question: “So why persist with the expression ‘ethics’ in respect of the biblical corpus?” Rather than going back to fundamentals to deploy a framework which more naturally addresses the biblical material under discussion, these critics see the difficulty but still persist in employing terminology which is arguably rendered unsuitable to the task by reason of its origins and character.

Yet while it is self-evident that the New Testament is not a handbook of philosophic ethics, we should leave open the possibility that particular passages in its twenty seven texts (including Romans 12:1-15:13) might bear interesting comparison with philosophic approaches. Similarly, although it is true that philosophic ethics are autonomous (Houlden: 6), meaning they gain their dynamic force from human reason (whether or not God played some part in their origins), there is no reason why New Testament writers should not have drawn upon ancient Greco-Roman philosophy even if they incorporated its insights into a new framework centered on God’s redemptive action and the resulting possibility of human beings living life in Christ under the power of the Spirit.

The Problem with “Paraenesis’

The very foreignness of the word “paraenesis,” the second problematic category widely used in relation to Romans 12:1-15:13, seems to convey reassuring connotations of antiquity and technical precision. Yet the extent to which such impressions can mislead is amply revealed by the fact that this word is never used in the New Testament and only once in the Septuagint (at Wisdom 8:9) and there with the non-“ethical” meaning of “comfort.” It was, in fact, introduced into biblical criticism only by Martin Dibelius in the 1920s. Dibelius was heavily reliant on research into a strand of Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric conducted principally by Rudolf Vetschera (1912) which concerned itself with “paraenesis,” by which was broadly meant “a text which strings together admonitions of general ethical content”(Dibelius, ed. Greeven 1976: 3). A paraenetic writer (such as Pseudo-Isocrates in the AD DEMONICUM) drew these admonitions or exhortations from a wide variety of sources, including philosophic ethics and folk wisdom and often strung them together without inner connection (Dibelius 1937:217). Paraenetic sayings could be addressed to a real or fictional audience (Dibelius, ed. Greeven 1976: 3). Thus, Pseudo-Isocrates admits that although not all his rules might be suited to his addressee, in the future he would be able to use these pieces of advice like jewels “drawn from a treasury” (AD DEMONICUM 44). Greco-Roman paraenesis was expressed both in discourses and in letters (Fiore: 163).

His adoption of a “paraenetic” framework led Dibelius to a particular set of views concerning “paraenetic” sections of the Pauline correspondence, including Romans 12 and 13, Galatians 5:13 ff. and 6:1ff and 1 Thessalonians 4:1ff. According to him, these passages differed widely in style from the rest of the letters in which they occurred; they were not based on Paul’s religion or theology, but consisted of sayings loosely strung together or following one another without connection; they lacked a particular connection with the circumstances of the letter in question, since they were not formulated for special congregations but for “the general requirements of earliest Christendom”; and, finally, they had nothing to do with the theoretical foundation of Paul’s ethics or with ideas peculiar to him, but belonged to tradition, or even to materials appropriated from the Hellenistic world which he had “Christianized” (Dibelius 1934:238-39 and 1930).

As Richard Hays has noted, while some critics, such as Victor Furnish, have strongly challenged this description of Paul’s “ethical material,” others, including Hans Dieter Betz, in relation to Gal. 5:1-6:10 at least, have agreed that Paul does not provide a specifically “Christian ethic” but conforms to the ethical thought of his contemporaries (Hays: 17; Furnish; Betz: 292). As far as Romans 12-15 is concerned, the views of Dibelius have encountered opposition both on account of the growing sense of the extent to which Romans 12-15 (but 14-15 perhaps more than 12-13) are integrated into the argument of the letter and of the order and interconnections which are to be found in this section (Smiga; Wilson).

Yet even scholars unsympathetic to Dibelius continue to operate in relation to the “paraenesis” perspective. Rather than raising a large question-mark over the usefulness of this framework, they argue that the characteristics Dibelius identified as “paraenetic” are not what we find in the Pauline passages still almost universally, and most confusingly, labeled as “paraenetic.” Troels Engberg-Pedersen, a scholar well familiar with the Aristotelian and Stoic ethical traditions, has recently compounded the confusion by using “paraenesis” in relation to extensive sections of Romans in a way that actually diverges from its conventional understanding in the field, in that he suggests that Romans is “directly geared” to its addressees “since any kind of parenesis is necessarily that” (183). Abraham Malherbe describes paraenesis as “moral exhortation in which someone is advised to pursue or abstain from something”(124); yet this is so general that doubt arises as to whether anything other than obfuscation is achieved by using “paraenesis” when “moral exhortation” would serve just as well.

The Role of Norms in Social Identity Theory

In truth, there is nothing inevitable or necessary about such approaches or terminology. Instead of endlessly reiterating labels like “ethics” and “paraenesis” without devoting much thought to their provenance or utility, the challenge before us is to turn to ideas that offer a fresh approach to Paul’s message, hopefully producing new answers to old dilemmas, but also setting his strategy within agendas not hitherto employed but having the capacity to let us hear him speak on pressing contemporary issues, such as the nature of personal and group identities. We will begin with social identity theory.

The central insight of this theory, originally developed by Henri Tajfel (1972, 1978, and 1981) and further explored by John Turner and his collaborators (1987), is that as soon as people are included in a group they begin to act in group oriented ways, paradigmatically by discriminating against outgroups. The identity of a group is installed in the minds and hearts of members, thus producing “social identity,” by which is meant that part of the identity of each member that derives from belonging to that particular group. Social identity includes a cognitive dimension (the sheer sense of belonging to a group like this), an emotional dimension (how it feels to belong) and an evaluative dimension (how members rate themselves in relation to other groups). At times, such as when the membership is being persecuted, that identity may be salient in their respective self-identities. The whole theory has been well explained by Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams (1988).

The dominant theme of a book I have recently published on Romans is that in this letter Paul is attempting to exercise leadership in relation to the congregations of Christ-followers in Rome by reducing ethnic tension and conflict, especially between Judean and non-Judean members, by transforming the perceptions of all concerned so that they understand, accept and internalize the fact that they now belong to a new group in Christ (Esler 2003). Paul wants to bring home to them that by their faith in Christ, manifested in their sharing in his death and resurrection in baptism and in their receipt of the Holy Spirit, they have been recategorized and now have in common an ingroup identity which aligns them directly to the divine will. This perspective includes the recognition that an attempt at recategorization, of creating or confirming a superordinate identity, is more likely to succeed if its proponent acknowledges the continued existence of the identities of the subgroups and modulates the message to attend to their distinctive outlooks and interests. Much of Romans 1-11 can be seen as taken up with such issues.

Yet Romans 12-15 poses a new challenge. Here Paul is concerned in particular with the consequences that God’s redemptive initiative has upon the ongoing, lived experience of Christ-followers, especially their daily face-to-face relationships with one another but also, to an extent, with the wider world. This represents another arena in which Paul must try to bring Judean and non-Judean together. This impels us to ask whether social identity theory has resources specifically related to this subject. The answer is “Yes,” in its understanding of “norms” and how these might be presented in the context of the overall task of recategorizing two sub-groups in the new identity. Elsewhere I have sought to demonstrate the utility of “norms” in social identity theory in connection with material similar to Romans 12-15 in Galatians 5:13-6:10 (1998: 215-34).

It must be emphasized, however, that the notion of identity embraces its foundations, its cognitive, emotional and evaluative dimensions and the demands it makes on how those who ascribe to it must live their lives. While we are mainly interested in the last issue in this article, we should not forget the inter-connected nature of the theory, which thus offers a new framework for interpreting the letter not subject to some of the intellectual disjunctions (as between “theology” on the one hand and “ethics” on the other) which beset existing approaches. This integrated character of social identity theory actually finds a close analogue in Paul’s own style of communication in Romans. Even when speaking of the origin and nature of the new identity, he can insist upon the demands this makes for everyday experience (at Romans 8:12-17, for example), while his presentation of how to live in Christ in Romans 12-15 frequently depends upon his earlier account of the foundations of this identity.

All groups are distinctive. All groups have different ways of viewing the world, hold various attitudes and values, and behave in ways unique to themselves. Underlying this diversity are systems of what social identity theorists have taken to calling “norms.” Rupert Brown describes a norm as “a scale of values which defines a range of acceptable (and unacceptable) attitudes and behaviors for members of a social unit” (56, paraphrasing Sherif & Sherif). He adds that norms “specify, more or less precisely, certain rules for how group members should behave and thus are the basis for mutual expectations among group members.” Thus norms bring order and predictability to the environment, especially by narrowing down social and moral choices from the vast range of possibilities on offer to the members to those that are in keeping with the group’s sense of who and what it is.

According to Tajfel, norms are collective constructions which are essential in connecting the members to the group, in mediating between the individual and social levels. They embody rules as to the attitudes and actions necessary by group members in order for them to manifest group identity in particular situations. Thus, any action taken by a member or members of a group reflecting their membership represents a reworking and instantiation of collective conceptions of appropriate behavior (Tajfel 1981: 36; Wetherell: 272). Norms demand, in short, “If you wish to share in this group identity, to tell yourselves who you are in relation to your belonging to this group, these are the values you should hold and this is how you must conduct yourself.”

It is helpful to distinguish the function of norms in relation to the individuals who comprise the group from their function for the group itself. As far as individuals are concerned, norms constitute flames of reference, or signposts, through which the world can be interpreted. By helping the individual member construe the world and offering firm guidance in the face of its complexities, especially those produced by new and ambiguous situations, norms bring a measure of order and predictability to the environment and the member’s relationships with it. As for the group itself, norms, firstly, help to regulate social existence by coordinating the attitudes and activities of the membership. Without norms to serve this purpose, the group might not be able to exist and operate as a social unit at all. Secondly, norms assist the group to achieve its goals. There is no purpose in a group having a particular vision of reality if that vision is not installed in the hearts and minds of the members through their acceptance of norms aimed at bringing it about. These functions might be summarized by saying that norms maintain and enhance group identity (Brown: 58-60).

Norms in this sense are considerably wider than the “ethics” that is regularly discovered in passages like Romans 12:1-15:13 in scholarly discussion at present. They stem from–and are inseparable from–a larger reality (“identity”) or the experience of group-belonging, which has dimensions, which we have followed Tajfel in describing as cognitive (the sheer fact of belonging); emotional (the affective side of membership); and evaluative (the positive or negative value we attach to belonging, with inevitable emotional consequences).

Finally, there is one issue with the word “norms” that requires our attention. Later in this study I will consider how recent understandings of philosophic ethics have moved beyond a previous preoccupation with laying down rules for right and wrong action (stemming from Kant and the Utilitarians) in favor of much broader conceptions of the good life and of the virtues that contribute to it. There is some risk that the expression “norms” (although in its social identity meaning going far beyond rules for right action) may seem rather too closely allied to the older Kantian and utilitarian approaches, as expressive of “normativeness.” Accordingly, as a reminder that “norms” has a wide meaning in a social identity framework, I will occasionally refer to them as “identity descriptors.”

The Broad Applicability of Norms and Social Identity to Romans 12:1-15:13

The approach to norms within social identity theory offers a useful framework for interpreting the material in Romans 12:1-15:13. First of all, the social identity model provides a coherent basis for holding Romans 1-11 and this passage closely together. Rather than positing some sharp distinction between “theology” or “doctrine” (in Romans 1-11) and “ethics” or “paraenesis” in Romans 12:1-15:13, we may treat Romans 1-11 as setting out Paul’s view of the foundations, nature, and goals of the (recategorized as Christ-believing) group of Judeans and non-Judeans in Rome he is addressing, while Romans 12:1-15:13 covers the norms necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of the identity of that group. Paul sets out his vision of reality in relation to this particular group comprised of two sub-groups in Chapters 1-11 and then lays out the norms which the members must accept and internalize for this vision to be realized. There is a predecessor to my argument here for integrating Romans 12:1-15:13 into the rest of Romans along social identity lines in my similar case for the function that Galatians 5:13-6:10 serves in that letter (Esler 1998: 215-18).

This brings us to the area of ancient philosophical and social thinking with a direct bearing upon the form in which Paul casts his norms for the new identity, the Aristotelian interest in virtues and the good life.

The Resurgence of Aristotelian Notions of Virtues and the Good Life

Attempts, such as those of Stephen Barton and Wolfgang Schrage noted above, to create clear water between New Testament “ethics” and philosophical ethics (even if troubled by continued use the same term) derive much of their force from the fact that the latter field was, until quite recently, primarily concerned with determining the criteria for right and wrong actions by individuals. So circumscribed an emphasis stood in rather stark contrast with the rich diversity of text-forms and interests represented in the New Testament.

The philosophic traditions providing the foundation for much contemporary ethics were developed (at least until quite recently) almost entirely in the context of generating criteria for right and wrong actions, with (Kantian) deontology emphasizing duties or rules and uilitarianism emphasizing the consequences of actions. This led to the notable neglect of other issues, which seem to have great relevance for the New Testament, such as the motives for moral actions, moral character, moral wisdom or discernment, moral development, friendship and family relations, the role of emotions in the moral life, the meaning of happiness, and questions concerned with sort of persons we should be and how we should live (Hursthouse: 3).

In the last few decades, however, there has been a renaissance in the study of ancient Greek ethics which has seemed to many to offer a wider perspective on the subject, in particular by addressing issues such as those just mentioned, than has been the case for much of the modern period. Gisela Striker has isolated three factors in particular which account for the renewed enthusiasm for Greek ethics (169). First, Greek authors were usually interested in providing an account of the good life for human beings (which they called eudaimonia, happiness or human flourishing) as opposed to focusing narrowly on right or wrong action. Secondly, this wider scope led them to treat seriously the question of motives for morality, or reasons for wanting to be good–a question that is an embarrassment for much modern ethics, including Kantian and utilitarian theories. Thirdly, Greek philosophers tended to be concerned with virtues of character, which (pending a fuller treatment below) may be described as traits that underlie and explain a disposition to act in the right way, rather than with the principles of right action. This emphasis is particularly important because, as many believe, what people do tends to depend more on their character than on their knowledge of moral or legal rules. On this view we should study and seek to attain excellence of character, rather than becoming embroiled in debates about moral epistemology or ethical foundationalism. This emphasis on virtue over action connects naturally with the theme of the good life, since what a person regards as a good life will largely depend on what he or she desires, and desires are more closely linked to character than to reasoning.

A particular topic taken up by Striker is how philosophy moved from the (classical Greek) view that ethical theories were theories about the good life to our understanding (dominant until recently) that the central ethical problem is “the justification of moral decisions or the foundation of moral rules” (170). To answer this question she traces central themes in the development of Greek eudaimonism, starting with its earliest manifestation in Socrates’ question in the GORGIAS (How should we live to be happy? [472C-D]). Ethics understood as eudaimonism involved determining the ultimate end (telos) of human desire and action, to be called happiness or living well, and how best to achieve it. This study could and, in the hands of Plato (c. 429-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), did proceed largely in the absence of any discussion of the criteria of right action. Yet this latter question nevertheless rose to prominence in the Hellenistic period, particularly in aid of explicating the meaning of just actions. Here the line of development passes from Epicurus to the Stoics, Carneades, Panaetius and Cicero. The central dilemma that emerged was whether happiness and virtue, the advantageous and the morally right, went together (as originally supposed) or could actually be in opposition with one another, as Carneades seems to have argued. The discovery of apparent conflicts between utility and virtue in the Hellenistic period unfortunately suggested that the pursuit of happiness and the path of virtue were distinct and separate. Since this time until about twenty years ago we have lived with the view that there is a sharp distinction between obtaining happiness (a question of non-moral utility) and moral considerations, which are concerned with a different sort of value unrelated to happiness (172-80).

The recent resurgence of interest in an ethics of virtue, which received an early stimulus in Elizabeth Anscombe’s 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy and is especially seen in the warm reception accorded Alasdair MacIntyre’s important work AFTER VIRTUE (1981), witnesses to the growing realization in philosophical circles that eudaimonism and moral theory should be seen not as rivals but as complementing one another. The pursuit of an ethics of virtue, of excellence of character as the key to right action, has, for example, flowed into business ethics, where it is now being increasingly recognized that the aim must be to make a business organization excellent at all levels and in all respects, so that its employees will do the right thing because that is simply its and their identity, rather than to insist on compliance with the regulations in corporate codes of ethics (Solomon).

What are virtues? Essentially they are dispositions of a certain kind. Here the word “disposition” means a certain capacity, tendency or propensity possessed by a person, or a liability to which he or she is subject. Dispositions tend to be stable and settled, in contrast to inclinations, which may come and go. Dispositions themselves narrate no incidents but, if true, are satisfied by narrated incidents in a person’s life (Ryle: 119-20). They are frequently posited as explanations of past events in someone’s life and grounds for the prediction of future events (Mumsford: 11). If, for example, a young man is said to have the disposition of clumsiness, that statement may be substantiated by narrating accidents in which he has been involved in the past, or to predict what might happen if he attempts to negotiate a path through an antiques shop crowded with towering piles of fragile china. In this sense, dispositions are close in meaning to traits of character. Yet a virtue is a disposition (or character trait) of a particular type, namely, one that makes its possessor morally good and contributes to his or her eudaimonia. Examples of virtues include honesty, generosity and courage. Thus a virtue is really an excellence of character.

It is essential to the Aristotelian conception that each of the virtues involves getting something right in a particular arena of human experience on a particular occasion. For a person to get things right it is necessary to exercise what Aristotle called phrongsis, or “practical wisdom,” the ability to reason correctly about practical matters. Often this will mean steering a course between too much and too little. Thus the virtue of generosity involves the use of “practical reason” to allocate the right sort of thing, for the right reasons, to the right people, at the right time, avoiding stinginess on the one hand and profligacy on the other (Hursthouse: 12-13).

Certain features are, broadly speaking (Hursthouse: 25-42), characteristic of an ethics concerned with virtue. First, they focus on persons rather than on their actions; that is, they are agent-centered rather than act-centered (as is the case with deontological and utilitarian ethics). Central to this emphasis is an interest in the unity of character that a virtuous person exhibits. This means that such a person will integrate values, choices, desires, strength or weakness of will, feelings, emotions, perceptions, interests, expectations, hopes, and sensibilities in the expression of the various virtues. It follows from this that virtue ethics is mainly interested in those issues which relate to the general tenor of everyday life, not in the resolution of difficult (and generally uncommon) moral decisions (MacIntyre; Kotva). Secondly, and as a result of this first feature, virtue ethics address the question “What sort of person should I be?” rather than the question “What types of action should I perform?” Because of this, virtue ethics does not promulgate principles to obey, but holds up saints and heroes to emulate, personal examples to follow (Beauchamp: 153-54). Thirdly, virtue ethics takes as fundamental concepts such as virtue itself, or “the good,” happiness and so on, rather than deontic concepts like “duty” “obligation,” or “right.” In spite of these features, it is a common misconception to assert that virtue ethics cannot provide guidance in relation to specific actions. Rather than the codified rules generated by act-oriented approaches, however, virtue ethics asks what a virtuous person, enacting virtues like honesty or charity, would do in the circumstances (Hursthouse: 25-31). Fourthly, virtue ethics subscribes to the notion that people become virtuous by practicing virtue. As Aristotle said, “We acquire the virtues as a result of practicing them, just as with the other skills .. we become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions” (NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS 1103A-B). In other words, virtue ethics teaches that moral formation and the development of moral character can take place over time (Meilaender).

There have been some developments in the study of the New Testament which parallel the movement from act- to person-centered ethics and the highlighting of the formation of character in a particular social context (the latter sometimes in connection with the notion of the “ethos” of a community). “Ethos” in this area largely derives from the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It refers to a “powerfully coercive ought,” to the evaluative elements, the moral (and aesthetic) aspects of a community: ‘A people’s ethos is the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; it is the underlying attitude toward themselves and their world that life reflects” (Geertz: 127). An early sign of this interest was an essay published by James M. Gustavson in 1970 in which, inter alia, he insisted upon the extent to which the New Testament was concerned with community formation and practice. Since then the focus of attention among some “ethicists” has shifted from trying to impose upon biblical texts a model of deductive argumentation to an interest in scripture as foundational to the formation of communities of moral agency (Cahill: 384). In particular, Stanley Hauerwas has consistently argued that the New Testament narrative about Jesus shapes and preserves a community of character-formation and encourages distinctly Christian forms of discipleship necessarily in tension with the wider world (Hauerwas 1976; 1981; Hauerwas & Willimon). A number of scholars (such as Schutz and Meeks 1986: 15, 155-56) have appropriated the notion of ethos in the study of New Testament ethics. In addition, Abraham Malherbe and Wayne Meeks (1986), and many of their former doctoral students, have produced a body of fine scholarship on Greco-Roman philosophical traditions relating to ethics and moral formation.

For critics who wish to interpret Pauline passages such as Romans 12:1-15:13 as “ethical” with at least some regard to what is happening in philosophical circles, it is probably now imperative to engage with the Aristotelian revolution in this field. As we have seen, some critics have begun to move in this direction. It is disappointing, therefore, that Richard Hays, in one of the longest works on New Testament ethics to appear in the last decade, THE MORAL VISION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (1996), is mainly preoccupied with determining the criteria for right or wrong action, an interest parallel to the focus upon deontological or utilitarian approaches to this subject which held the field prior to the renewal of in interest in Aristotelian approaches to a good life. When he interprets New Testament texts in this book, Hays is largely concerned with their capacity to yield moral imperatives, such as will allow him to proffer opinions on modern problems (many of them hotly controversial) allegedly supported by normative warrant from scripture. There are passing references to the question of the character of persons and communities (for example, p. 7) and he mentions Aristotle and Aquinas fleetingly in a discussion of Hauerwas (p. 254). Yet there is little, if any, recognition that theories relating to the good life stem from an approach very different indeed from his own preoccupation with using scripture as the foundation for ethical imperatives in particular areas.

Are Notions of the Good Life and the Virtues Applicable to Romans 12:1-15:137

What has the resurgence in ethical thinking related to the good life and the virtues got to do with Paul in Romans 12:1-15:137 Clearly caution is necessary.

First, we must be careful not to compress Paul’s message in this section of the letter into a new set of pigeonholes called “virtue ethics.” Rather, we must allow for the very distinctive nature of his material and treat the Greek philosophic tradition as a useful guide to understanding Paul’s aims and strategy in his ancient context, not as a total solution. We must be alert to similarities and also differences, although the former are more prominent in this study. Elsewhere I have argued that when one compares Romans 12 and Stoicism the differences are far more interesting than the similarities, especially because of the attenuated appreciation of the social dimensions of human life in Stoic thought (Esler 2003/4).

Secondly, Luther is widely thought to have opposed the idea of moral progress in the Pauline letters since the very notion seemed contrary to the principle of justification by faith with its understanding of a redeemed human being as simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”). In addition, John Barton has recently argued that “Paul is not telling his readers how to advance in the moral life, but describing the effects of conversion” (15).

On the other hand, Ambrosiaster, the highly perceptive late fourth century Latin commentator on the Pauline letters, seems to have been very much more sanguine about the connection between Paul’s thought and ancient traditions of virtue and the good life. For he observes in relation to Romans 12:1 that here Paul, “after the treatment of law and faith and a people Judean and non-Judean (sc. in Romans 1-11), offers exhortation on how to live a good life” (Post tractatum enim legis et fidei et populi Iudaici et gentilis ad vitam bonam agendam hortatur”–Vogels: 393).

As Gilbert Meilaender has noted (107-08), Luther’s position would mean that the whole of life is taken out of a person’s hands by the divine verdict and there is no real space left for the gradual development of character. This represents a serious affront to our everyday experience of individual moral development. In a careful analysis of Luther’s position on this matter, however, Meilaender has shown that Luther very properly adhered to the fundamental truth that those who believe in Christ are what they are through the divine gift of righteousness, while nevertheless allowing some scope for the virtues and the development of character (101-26).

There is considerable evidence that Paul did believe that individuals grew in the life of faith, as J. P. Sampley has suggested (47-48). He writes to the Philippians, for example, that he will stay with them for their “advancement (prokope) and joy in faith,” or, perhaps better, their “joyful advancement in faith” (1:25). This is highly significant. The word prokope was used in the ancient world for moral progress. Paul also tells the Philippians how he had attempted to advance to perfection in a metaphor from foot-racing (Phil 3:12-16). He employs athletics imagery again in exhorting the Corinthians to run in order to win the prize (1 Cor 9:24). Christ-followers who move in the right direction will advance in faith over time.

Thus, there are broad similarities between what Paul is attempting to do in Romans 12:1-15:13 and the philosophical traditions that stressed the need to practice virtue in order to live a happy life. These views were very widespread in the ancient Greco-Roman world and it would be astonishing if Paul had not encountered them. Yet there are also some very significant differences between Pauline thought and these traditions. In another paper I have argued that in Romans 12 Paul engages with Stoic ethics, but in the interests of presenting a vision of the moral life which, in its stress on agape and placing the interests of others ahead of one’s own, is radically different from Stoicism (Esler 2003/4).

Integrating Social Identity, Virtues and the Good Life in Relation to Romans 12:1-15:13

Even though the old arguments against understanding what Paul has to say about appropriate behavior in terms of the good life and the virtues are answerable, can these perspectives be integrated with social identity theory in relation to a particular set of data such as Romans 12:1-15:137 This question must be answered emphatically in the affirmative.

The reason is that this ancient philosophy and modern social identity theory both focus on the experience of individuals within a particular group. They coordinate the life of individuals to the realities of the group within which they are embedded. For Aristotle the good life is the optimal mode of living within a city-state, a polls and that is why he can describe a human being as a politikon zoon, “a creature whose nature it is to live in cities” (POLITICS 1253A). The virtues contribute to the end of a good life within a particular social context. Thus, enjoying a good life is the ideal way for a human being to live, the ideal mode of human identity.

Similarly, social identity theory describes how a group manages to imbue each of its members with a particular identity and, to the extent that it is successful, the sense of belonging that they experience is called social identity. Norms (or “identity descriptors”) find their role within this larger issue of identity and contribute to its establishment and maintenance. They do not exist in isolation from other features of group life. Like the virtues, they tell members who they should be in addition to what they should do. They contribute to the larger realm of group identity, just as the practice of the virtues is an important component of the good life.

In addition, groups always aim to ensure that the identity with which they are characterized is regarded by the members as a positive one. Any sense of inferiority in relation to outgroups is solved either by actual modifications in the relationships with them or, where that is impossible, by re-adjusting perspectives so that what seems to be a negative situation for the members is actually a positive one. The former option is known as social competition in social identity theory, and the latter as social creativity (Esler 1998: 49-55).

In addition, there are a number of other ways in which an approach to ethics concerned with virtues is similar to the role of norms in social identity theory. Both focus primarily on persons rather than on their actions; their main interest lies in what sort of persons we are and should be, rather than what we should do. Both have ample room for the emotions in their visions of human experience. Both cover issues of everyday life, rather than just the resolution of difficult moral dilemmas. Finally, both hold up as worthy of imitation exemplars or prototypes of people regarded as typifying the virtue or identity in question.

The proof of the proposal that social identity theory and Aristotelian approaches to human flourishing can be integrated emerges in the ease with which the same sets of data in Romans 12:1-15:13 respond to both of these frameworks of understanding. I will now demonstrate the accuracy of this proposition, admittedly in general terms in order to keep this article within reasonable lengths and given that I have recently offered detailed accounts of particular issues related to this topic elsewhere (Esler 2003, Chapters 13 and 14; 2003/4).

Social Identity, the Good Life and the Virtues Applied to Romans 12:1-15:13

When Paul, as early as Romans 12:1-2, tells the Roman Christ-followers who they are and who they are not, he is adopting the basic strategy of ingroup/outgroup differentiation. The outgroups he has in mind are Judeans who have not converted to Christ and who continue with the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem and the sinful world (“age”), especially of pagan idolatry, in which all concerned are located. The extremely broad and exalted identity of the ingroup is marked, first, by their being a people who offer themselves to God as a living, holy and pleasing sacrifice and a rational worship and, secondly, by their being transfigured by a renewed mind so that they might attest the will of God, which is good, acceptable and perfect. In addition, Paul’s concern is with something much closer to the classical Greek interest in a cohesive account of the good life than merely with the criteria for right and wrong action. To describe these verses as “ethical” in that sense would be reductionist. Nor does Paul delineate any specific moral rules in these verses. Rather, he is advising on fundamental attitudes and processes of identity in Christ that will connect the lives of the Roman believers with God and will enable them to manifest the divine will in their diurnal existence.

In Romans 12:3-8 Paul offers what is, in effect, his first illustration of the message of vv 1-2. He instructs his addressees as to how they should offer their bodies as a living sacrifice and rational worship, prevent themselves from being conformed to this age so as to demonstrate the will of God and think in a sound and restrained manner. Here his interest is with specific ministries within the Christ-movement, the diversity of which appears only in connection with the fundamental unity inherent in the members forming the body of Christ. Paul sets out and urges upon them a “norm” of identity for the Christ-believers of Rome. An important aspect of this norm is that members of the Christ-movement who hold a particular ministry should eschew attitudes and practices based on honor and derived from the surrounding culture and adopt a sober outlook on those who hold different ministries. This group was unique in its social setting in that it embraced people who, in an everyday urban location, spoke prophetically as a mouthpiece for God under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, engaged in teaching, in consolation, and in works of mercy. These characteristics, in line with Tajfel’s understanding of a group, contributed to the cognitive sense of group-belonging (the fact of belonging to this group), the emotional sense (how they felt about such belonging) and the evaluative sense (how they rated themselves in comparison to other groups).

Romans 12:9-21 consists of a remarkable exposition of agape, the love which should characterize the Christ-movement. The passage contains some thirty distinct statements that exemplify agape and that can be set out down the page as a series of stichs, the first nineteen of which (to the end of v 16a) are characterized by a succession of aural features, such as rhyme, assonance and connected words suggesting that these are mnemonic features and that the passage represents a precious fragment of Paul’s actual proclamation, as compared with the much more literary analogue in 1 Corinthians 13 (see Esler 2003, Chapter 13). In this passage we observe that agape has a unique importance for Paul in designating the unique identity of the Christ-movement. Its significance encompasses a vital foundation of this identity, namely, the action of God (in association with the Spirit) in pouring his agape into the hearts of those who have faith in Christ (Romans 5:5), and also the ongoing experience of the members of the movement. Accordingly, within the perspective of social identity theory, agape extends both to the creation of the group, in all three dimensions (cognitive, emotional and evaluative), and also to its “norms,” the acceptable and unacceptable attitudes and behaviors for the members of this particular group.

At the same time, it makes sense to characterize agape as a virtue as already described, namely a disposition of a special type–one that makes a person morally good and contributes to his or her human flourishing. Whereas among the Greeks the primary virtues were practical wisdom, self-restraint, justice and courage, for Paul the primary virtue was agape.

While Romans 12:9-21 does not itself suggest that Christ-followers who embody the exemplifications of agape listed will advance in virtue, will make moral progress, other parts of extant letters strongly indicate that Paul held such a view, as argued above.

An important feature of Romans 12 is the extent to which Paul had exhorted his addressees “not to think arrogantly,” contrary to how they should think, but think with self-restrained thinking (12:3)–think in harmony toward one another (12:16). This is a significant strand in Romans 12:1-15:13 and indicates Paul’s having been influenced by the rational predispositions of Greek moral philosophy.

Romans 13:1-7 forms part of Paul’s treatment of agape which he had been presenting in Romans 12:9-21, since there follows immediately after it a section on the relationship of agape and the Mosaic law (13:8-10). In addition, the concluding statement in Romans 12:21, “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil by good,” leads easily into a statement concerning co-operation with tax-gathering authorities, who were renowned in the ancient world for their greed and oppression, in short, for their evil.

Paul concludes his treatment of agape in Romans 12-13 at Romans 13:8-10. The love characteristic of the in-group is contrasted with the law characterizing the Judean outgroup. This is a passage forged in the flames of intergroup group differentiation, not out of any irenic attitude on Paul’s part toward the Mosaic law, his negative attitudes to which are very evident in Romans 7. When Paul says that the person who loves has “fulfilled the law,” he means that he or she has achieved the ideal of the Mosaic law which was, however, never realized by that law. Someone who has faith in Christ is thus able to obtain the best that the law promised, although never delivered, but by an entirely different route. This is very similar to his point in Galatians 5:14.

In Romans 14:1-15:13 Paul offers material that relates to the attitudes and behavior appropriate to members of the Christ-movement, which we are referring to as “norms” in a social identity sense or, more particularly, “identity descriptors.” There are also some specific connections with Romans 12-13. After the abundance of material relating to agape within the movement in Romans 12-13, for example, we are not surprised when Paul comments at 14:15 that a person who behaves in the way he is censuring will no longer be walking in accordance with agape. Thus Paul characterizes the problems concerning the weak and strong in faith which he highlights in Romans 14:1-15:13 as a particular arena for the exercise or non-exercise of the agape discussed at length in Romans 12-13. It is likely that in Romans 14:1-5:13 Paul was addressing an actual situation in Rome, not just (as often suggested) generalizing on the basis of his experience in Corinth. Of particular importance, is the need to bring Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers together, partly driven by the arrogant attitudes that the latter group were expressing toward the former (see Esler 2003, Chapter 14).

Paul confronted a situation in Rome in which arguments over food, wine and holy days, based on ethnic divisions between Greeks and Judeans, were occurring within the Christ-movement and threatened its stability. He saw the need to intervene in a manner apt to push the members in a particular direction which would neutralize this particular issue. The resources he leveled at this disorder consisted essentially of the “norms” or identity descriptors he had formulated in general terms in Romans 12-13, especially agape and its various manifestations listed in Romans 12:9-21. Paul saw the practice of this virtue as the key to the reconciliation of the rival groups. But he also recommends the need for them to think in unison (Romans 15:5), thus signifying yet again his general alignment with the rational traditions of Greek moral philosophy.


An analysis that fuses the social identity theory of modern social psychologists with the theory of the good life and the virtues deriving from Aristotle offers rich new resources for interpreting Romans 12:1-15:13. Rather than endlessly reiterating notions of ethics and paraenesis in relation to this passage, without asking fundamental questions as to their appropriateness, we can situate it in relation to these alternative perspectives in a way that finds ample responsive data in the text, even on the basis of the admittedly very general survey that we have attempted here. In so doing, we observe how closely this material is tied to Paul’s overall task of reminding his Roman audience that the central feature of their lives is sharing a common identity in Christ. This identity, which sharply differentiates his addressees from the usual audiences addressed by ancient Greek philosophers, transcends boundaries of ethnicity and is maintained and exhibited to the world by their living in accordance with what may be called the norm or identity-descriptor of agape on one view, or the virtue of agape on another. This norm/virtue, of seamless unity with other dimensions of identity in-Christ, was foundational for the Roman recipients of his letter if they were to achieve the good life of the Christ-follower.

As already noted, Ambrosiaster regarded Romans 12:1 as beginning a section in the letter devoted to “how to live a good life” (ad vitam bonam agendam). Our analysis of Romans 12:1-15:13 in comparison with ancient Greek ethical thought has corroborated this view by revealing that it makes good sense to interpret Paul’s message in these chapters as related, in a highly distinctive way, to Greek ideas relating to virtues and how best to live a good life. This does not mean denying Luther’s insight that a Christian is the person he or she is through the righteousness of God. Within the status Christians receive as a divine gift, however, we have not yet finished the race. Gilbert Meilaender puts it this way:

… God is committed to transforming people who are partly

saint and partly sinner into people who are saints simpliciter–who

are substantively what they are in relation to

him. The narrative of the Christian story which provides the

contours for Christian living envisions a day when these several

evaluations of our character meet, are reconciled, and

no longer stand in tension. Until that day, however, we live

within the constraints of a temporal narrative–adding

virtues piecemeal, shaping being by doing, unable to see ourselves

whole [122].

Let that be the last word.

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Philip F. Esler (D. Phil., Oxford) is Professor of Biblical Criticism in the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK, where he has been on the faculty since 1992, having previously been a barrister in Sydney, Australia. He would like to register his gratitude to the Leverhulme Trust in the UK for having funded a year’s research leave which allowed him to conduct the research on which this article is based. Dr. Esler is the author of GALATIANS (London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge, 1998) and CONFLICT AND IDENTITY IN ROMANS (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003 [forthcoming]), and the editor of THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WORLD (two volumes, London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge, 2000). His e-mail address is pfe@st-andrews.ac.uk.

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