Wright on the Identity of the Gentile Law-Keepers in Romans 2:14-15

In Romans 2:14-15, St. Paul speaks of, “Gentiles, who do not possess the law,” yet, who do “what the law requires.” Even though they, unlike Israel, do not possess the Torah,[1] they “are a law to themselves.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (NRSV).  So who are these Gentiles?   Are they the so-called “righteous” pagans in the line of Vergil or Socrates, or Aristotle?  According to Wright (and I find his argument compelling exegetically), the people in view in Rom 2:14-15 are Christian Gentiles.  As Wright explains,

Paul’s view, to anticipate the later argument, is that those who are in Christ, who are indwelt by the Spirit, do in fact ‘do the law,’ even though, in the case of Gentiles, they have never heard it.  The law, in Paul’s view, pointed to that fullness of life and obedience to God which comes about in the Messiah; those who attain that fullness of life and obedience are therefore ‘doing the Torah’ in the senses that, to Paul, really matter (p. 441).[2]

Though on the surface it has a paradoxical ring, Paul’s view carefully avoids, on the one hand, implying that the Torah was something bad and thus to be discarded-rather he upholds the holiness of the Torah-and, on the other, suggesting that “Gentile Christians are second-class citizens in the kingdom of the Messiah.”  In effect, Paul has his cake and eats it too:  Gentiles Christians “are not under the Torah, but at the same time they are essentially doing what the Torah really wanted” (p. 441).

Wright’s exegesis takes into account the important cultural-historical (not to mention theological) issue of the early Church:  what is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and are uncircumcised, non Torah-trained Gentiles to be received as full members of the Church?  Paul’s emphatic answer is, “yes, because in Christ circumcision is no longer the badge marking out God’s people; rather, faith in the faithful obedience of God’s Messiah is the indicator of God’s people.”

Wright also spends some time dealing with objections to his position.  The primary objection centers on the word, φύσει, physei, both in terms of its meaning and grammatical function.   Some scholars see physei functioning adverbially and modifying the verb “do.”  However, as Wright points out, physei is found in the middle of the clause, ὅταν γὰρ ἔθνη τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα φύσει τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν; consequently, physei, could modify either “do” or “having the law” (pp. 441-42).  Wright opts for the latter, as it makes sense of the present passage, harmonizes well with the larger section through 5:21, and is in agreement with Paul’s usage of physei in 2:27.  In other words, physei in Rom 2:14 refers to “origin” or “parentage.”  “Gentiles do not, by nature-that is, by origin or parentage-possess the Torah.”  Likewise, in Rom 2:27, ἡ ἐκ φύσεως ἀκροβυστία τὸν νόμον τελοῦσα, φύσεως (“the by-nature uncircumcision that fulfills the Torah”) “cannot here refer to something that is common, innate, to all humans.  Jews, too, are born uncircumcised; that is, in that sense, the ‘natural’ state.  It must refer to Gentile humanity as opposed to Jewish (cf. Gal 2:15)” (p. 442).

Additional support for Wright’s interpretation is found in 2:15a, where we read, “[t]hey show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (NRSV).  This language of the law “written on the heart” is New Covenant language, of which Jeremiah (Jer 31:33) and Ezekiel (Ezek 36:26, cf. the “new heart”) speak.  “Paul clearly believed, and elaborated this at various points, that the covenant had been renewed, according to this promise, through Jesus, and that this renewal was being implemented by the Spirit in those who were ‘in Christ'” (p. 442).


[1] “Though not having the law, they are a law to themselves” (Rom 2:14b, NRSV).

[2] N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in Vol. X of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002): 395-770.

One thought on “Wright on the Identity of the Gentile Law-Keepers in Romans 2:14-15”

  1. Great summary. Adopting this position really helped me to solidify the theme running through this section in my own mind. It makes a lot of sense to me.

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