Re: present indicative in Rom 6:14-24

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Apr 12 1999 - 08:06:07 EDT

At 4:18 PM -0400 4/7/99, Bryan Rocine wrote:
>Dear B-Greeks,
>Do the present indicative verbs used in Rom 7:14-24 refer to the past,
>perhaps a repetitive or habitual past? Is the use of present indicative
>here idiomatic or "rhetorical" or "idiosyncratic" because they refer to
>something entirely past? Or does Paul mean it just as he says it
>Perhaps it is obvious why I would ask. If these present indicative
>verbs do not refer to the past, I would have a hard time reconciling
>them with Paul's imperatives in 6:11-14 or the discourse in 8:1ff.

Isn't your header wrong? Am I misunderstanding what it is that you're asking?

It looks like nobody has responded to this one: I wonder why? ;-) My guess
is that quite a bit of ink must have been shed and perhaps squandered on it
and you'd probably best look at the bibliography or raise the question on
the new Corpus Paulinum list about the most relevant bibliography; that
would also be a much more appropriate forum for discussion of this
question, since your question really only indirectly concerns the present
tense in these verses. There are numerous aspects to this very complex
question. I'll make just a couple observations:

(1) I think this is another question like Clay's yesterday about Lk 7:29-30
that requires examination that doesn't have much to do with the Greek text
as Greek text, although I think there must be quite a bit of ancient
literary and rhetorical models that could illuminate the question.

(2) I think personally--but I wouldn't set this opinion forward as having
any authority whatsoever--that the use of the present here IS rhetorical,
although probably not essentially different from the use of the present
tense in narrative of past events--the so-called historical present--to
make vivid the action. I think you should note the imperfect and aorist
within this sequence which really begins with 7:7.

(3) I also think personally that it is a mistake to look for pure logical
consistency in Paul, not because I don't think he thinks clearly but rather
because I think he tends to write in response to challenges as they arise
and thinks his way through problems in terms of assumptions about the
congregation to which he is currently writing. But here, of course, the
passages asked about are within the same letter. More generally, I think
Paul is very conscious of paradoxes; in particular my own view is that he
is very conscious both of divine initiative and human response as
ingredients in the redemptive process of transformation of selfhood--and I
think that he may underscore one of these two factors more than the other
in one particular text without really being in contradiction with his
conviction that the other factor is just as important: someone who, I
think, understood Paul pretty well, formulated the advice to sinners
wanting to be redeemed: "Pray like it all depends on God and work like it
all depends on yourself." But that is, of course, a rather dangerous
formulation and all too readily misinterpreted--funny, isn't it, that Paul
doesn't seem to be as anxious about being misinterpreted as we might feel
he should be--although he is certainly not ignorant of that problem, as is
attested by the recurrent MH GENOIO in Romans following upon rhetorical
questions suggesting misinterpretations he expects to be drawn from what he

(4) My own understanding of Paul's conception of the process of personal
redemption is that it is indeed a process that takes place within the
eschatological tension between overlapping eras: (a) this perishing
world-age, and (b) the dawning age-to-come that is to culminate with the
return of Christ. In personal life one who has responded to God's
initiative and committed to Christ is simultaneously in the flesh and in
the spirit, simultaneously subject to the undertow of one's past
inclinations and to the "upward call" of the Spirit assisting one's
transformation into the true self one hopes to have become by the
consummation. As concerns the relationship of chapters 7 and 8 to each
other, therefore, I think there are two perspectives, both of which are
right partially: (a) 7:7ff. do describe one's prior unredeemed existence
while chapter 8 describes one's redeemed existence, so that chapter 7
refers more essentially to one's past while chapter 8 refers more
essentially to one's future--BUT--in fact we live in a present wherein both
past and future are factors in our inner selves, so that chapter 7 does in
part describe our experience even as believers, as does also chapter 8. I
personally think that we discern the validity of both descriptions as
applying to what believers now are.

That's my own view of the significance of the present indicatives of Rom
7:14-24. I think those indicatives and the imperatives of chapter 6 that
you referred to have to be set within a context of a larger view of
eschatological time and an understanding of the process of redemption that
is considerably more complex than a straightforward linear conception of
time would allow.

In conclusion, let me reiterate again that this is just one way of looking
at the problem of these present tenses, and I think there must be a vast
scholarly literature devoted to this question and all those that ramify
from it.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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