Romans 13 – Countering O’Donovan (part 1)

I know that was a bit boring and technical, but our exegetical examination now allows us to engage with O’Donovan. O’Donovan’s position is based on the conclusion that the treatment of the role of government in Romans 13 is so positive that ‘the sphere of public judgment constitutes a carefully circumscribed and specially privileged exception to a general prohibition of judgment.’ (WOJ 99) However, our exegetical examination has raised some important issues that question O’Donovan’s ability to make such a strong conclusion.

Firstly, as we have seen, there are various ways of understanding the structure of this passage which can result in very different conclusions about Paul’s writing. Though Dunn does not go as far as Furnish, both he and Witherington recognise the importance of the taxation issue in Pauls instructions. If Paul’s primary purpose for writing this passage is to rebuke a specific resistance to Roman taxes, then there are serious questions about how general he intended his comments on authority and the sword to be.

Secondly, assuming that Paul is intending a more general instruction, the imperative-indicative structure of this passage indicates that his descriptions of government are there to support his commands. That is, the indicatives are subordinate to the imperatives. This passage ‘is not a dogmatic treatise on the government and the State, but a demand for loyal conduct’ (Marxsen, Introduction, 100). We cannot expect Paul to have laid down all the issues involved in considering what the state is, and how Christians are to participate in it, because that is not the question that Paul is answering. The indicative-imperative pattern shows that Paul is simply giving the information that we need to consider the questions of whether or not a Christian should submit to government. Thus we cannot use the indicatives of this passage to draw definitive conclusions about participation in a government’s role of judgment.

In the same way, this passage does not initially lend itself to making generic conclusions about what a government should do. In this grammatical context, there is only one possible meanings for the indicative εἰμί (ἐστιν, εἰσὶν), which is the declarative indicative (Wallace 449 ff).  This presents a ‘non-contingent (or unqualified) statement.’ (Wallace 449). That is, it describes what currently is, not what should be. Similarly, as Moo highlights, ‘the term αἱ … οὖσαι [v1] shows that he is not talking hypothetically or generically, but describing the authorities that existed at the time of writing.’ (Moo 798) These authorities – regardless of their paganism, high taxes, and religious oppression – are God’s tools for justice. This raises some questions about O’Donovan’s later conclusions that a government can be determined to have failed the requirement of judgment, and thus can be resisted. Whereas, in this text, it appears that Paul is counselling the exact opposite. Regardless of the failings of the government, the fact that God is in control of this universe shows that he is using them for his good purposes.


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