Paul's exhortation in Rom 12:2 is unclear, which explains why bible commentators have responded to it in different ways. Paul writes this to the Christian gathering at Rome:
Do not be shaped by this age, but be transformed by renewing the mind in order to critically determine what the will of God is—the good, acceptable, and perfect.
Paul did not establish the Jesus gathering at Rome and had never actually visited the group previously (1:10-13; 15:22-24, 28-29), but in the salutation of his letter he includes them as full partners in the gospel enterprise (1:5-7), one assumes because of the reputation of their faith "that is proclaimed in all the world" (1:8; no doubt partly an exaggeration to win a sympathetic hearing). The "letter" is heavily theological with little personal information about the gathering at Rome.
Let me unpack the exhortation: "the spirit of this age" is a condemnation of what Paul regards as the present evil age (Gal 1:4)—hence, those in the Roman gathering should not allow themselves to be shaped by the perceptions of reality pushed on them by the "spirit" of this evil age. Rather they are to be completely transformed (metamorphosed) by "the renewal of the mind" (singular)—perhaps to the end that their collective minds be unified as one (1 Cor 1:10). The goal of mind renewal is "critically to determine" (dokimazein) what God's will is, as to "the good, the acceptable, the perfect"—one assumes with regard to the character of living in this present evil age. The word "mind" (nous) relates to a human being's ability to know, understand, and judge—that is, it refers to what a person "has a will to"—i.e., what a person intends or wills. Hence, a renewal of mind, is not a relearning but a renewal of what one wills, as a matter of customary practice (Bultmann, Theology, I. 211).
At this point readers should come to a full stop, since Paul has neglected to tell his readers exactly how they should go about renewing the mind. Paul's failure to make that clear is responsible for the different responses from commentators. Strangely, none of the commentaries I checked (randomly) chide Paul for his unforgivable lack of clarity. Here are some of the ideas from the commentators about transforming the mind by renewing it:
1. Renewal of mind means being shaped by the Holy Spirit to the mind of Christ (L. T. Johnson, Reading Romans, 179-80). [and how does one do that?]
2. Paul "has in mind the basic recovery of righteousness and rationality through conversion." Compare 1 Cor 2:16, where the community "shares 'the mind of Christ'" (R. Jewett and R. D. Kotansky, Romans, 733).
3. "Paul is talking about a change in worldview…about a new or 'renewed' and Christlike way of looking at the world." Knowing what is good, pleasing, and perfect comes by means of a fallen person being transformed (B. Witherington III, Romans, 286-87).
4. "The character and personality are transformed by renewing, renovating ideas and ideals which the mind reaches by the study of spiritual truths—reading the Scriptures, religious books and papers, and by meditation" (C. B. Williams, Pauline Epistles, 301-302).
5. "This [renewal] is accomplished through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit…by controlling the mental processes of the believer" (Wuest, Romans, 208).
6. "The process [of renewing the mind] would in modern language be described rather as sanctification than regeneration," which is occasioned "by the Holy Spirit" (W. R. Nicoll, Romans, 688.
7. "Repentance is—the renewing of your mind…" (K. Barth, Romans, 436).
8. It is "the new birth, the new mind, the new man." A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 403.
Virtually all of the commentators that I consulted regard "renewing the mind" as a mystical act and relate it to repentance, conversion, or sanctification through the Holy Spirit. It appears that answers like these are incorrect if Paul actually did accept the Roman gathering as full partners in the gospel enterprise—meaning Paul would have assumed on the part of the Romans all those things the commentators suggested. Only one commentator (C. B. Williams) takes "renewal of mind" to refer to an act of natural learning that anyone could accomplish by reading and studying certain spiritual things.
As a former educator, I think that formation and transformation of character can and does take place in an atmosphere of critical learning. Religious "conversion" most often leads to a kind of "group think" from which it takes years to extricate oneself, if ever. With respect to how Paul might explain renewing the mind happening, one can only guess; my guess is that Paul would regard renewing the mind to be a work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-13), just like repentance, conversion and sanctification, and the many other things that Paul thought the Spirit did (1 Cor 12:4-11). How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
As you know, some think that chapters 9-11 represent a separate document which at some point was inserted into the essay/letter we know as Romans. If, for a moment, we assume that is true, Paul moves in chapter 8 from replacing life in the flesh with life in the spirit (vs. 1-17), hoping that even the entire creation will experience a similar freedom from bondage (vs. 18-25), reminding that “the mind of the spirit” and God are at one in the Spirit’s intercession for us (vs. 26-27), believing that everything works for good for those called by God (vs. 28-30), and affirming that no kind of hardship can separate us from the love of a God who cared enough not to even withhold his own son (from crucifixion) who now, raised, intercedes for us at His Father’s side (vs. 31-39)
to what we now know as chapter 12: “Therefore,”
give your bodies (selves) to God as the most holy offering possible, testing out your choice by renewal of the mind (vs. 1-2). Paul goes on to give examples of behavior that result from a holy renewed mind, beginning with knowing what role one can best play in serving the community (vs. 3-8) followed by: genuine love, hating evil, honoring the other, zealousness for the Lord, joy in hope, patience in suffering, perseverance in prayer, supporting the saints, hospitality to strangers, blessing persecutors, standing with the joyful and the sad, living harmoniously, associating with have-nots, rejecting one’s own importance, considering what is noble for all, living peacefully, giving vengeance over to God, giving food and drink to the enemy, overcoming evil with good (vs. 14-21).
Since we find at 8:27: “God who searches the heart knows ‘the mind of the Spirit,’ because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God,” (NRSV) I agree with you that the Spirit is the agent for mind renewal, examples of which are found in Romans 12. This seems to be another way of saying that, for Christians, the power of the Spirit has replaced the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:13-25, where we also find behavior lists)for control of human behavior.
Good afternoon Charlie,
I wasn't aware that Paul didn't establish the "Jesus gathering" in Rome. Who did establish that gathering and what was its purpose, if you know?
The "mind police" aspect of Christianity is a useless and unnecessary guilt trip imposed upon church-goers... Who can even predict what their next thought is going to be- much less control it? You can control your thoughts for a while- but they will always go back to being random. So-called "good" thoughts do not make you a "good" person.... Alternatively, so-called "bad" thoughts do not make you a bad person.... They're JUST THOUGHTS. And they are not personal. They only become personal when you identify with them, which Paul obviously did. He was tormented by the belief that a "good" person should never think any "bad" thoughts... So I see the renewal of the mind by the spirit as his way of coping with this undesirable aspect of his humanity.
Paul would have benefited greatly from The Work by Bryon Katie which teaches people to question the troubling/stressful thoughts they are tormented by. It doesn't help when we are bombarded with scriptures such as Matt. 5:21,22 which excoriate us for simply having "anger" in our hearts towards another person... To impose a commandment upon Christians that they should never be angry is beyond absurd and self-righteous to say the least. Not that Paul ever heard that or read it- I'm not sure if Jesus even said it... But the writer of that verse and the writer of the verse here in Romans 12 obviously had a serious issue with Christians thinking the wrong kind of thoughts.
Do you think that good thoughts make a person good- and bad thoughts make a person bad? I'm not talking about taking action- I'm talking about just having those thoughts period.
Many thanks as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene,
With regard to your last paragraph: you are actually agreeing with Paul as regards the spirit's role in "mind renewal." My position is that "character transformation (i.e., mind renewal)occurs in a context of critical learning. It is not brought about mystically but requires time, mental concentration, and a lot of reading.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Who founded the Jesus gathering at Rome? As far as I know, no one knows. My guess would be that it was some nameless slave (cf. Phil 4:22 and 1:13).
With respect to your last paragraph: in my view it is the general "bent" or inclination of a person's thinking that will determine the quality of one's life. One's character is not formed by single thoughts, but rather by general thought patterns; or so it seems to me. It is attributed to Jesus by Matthew, however,that Jesus made no distinction between thoughts and actions (Matt 5:27-28).
Charlie, I've seen many people whom I know personally convert to Christianity expecting to change their negative thought patterns to positive ones. Do you see Rom. 12:2 as a commandment or a promise of "help" from the Holy Spirit? Do you think that by praying for the spirit of God to renew and transform your mind (i.e., negative thought patterns), one can stop behaving negatively? Does simply praying make someone change there inner and outer character? Many preachers say that it does. Elizabeth
Sorry, I misspelled "their"... "their" inner and outer character
I meant to write, "I agree with you that 'for Paul' the Spirit is the agent of mind renewal...."
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Romans 12:2 uses the imperative forms of the verb; hence it is a command. There is a variant reading in the indicative, which Karl Barth accepts in his commentary, but the preferred reading is the imperative.
I do not think that praying about something will magically bring that "something" into reality. But I do think that if a religious leader can get people praying regularly about a thing that those who pray are more apt to involve themselves actively into helping that thing they prayed about to become a reality.
I'm sorry this is going to be so critical, Charlie, but I think you're mostly reading your own time and place and theological issues into Paul and basically failing to do anything resembling exegesis. To begin, I don't find it strange that commentators fail to "chide Paul for his unforgivable lack of clarity." Your own survey of scholarship confirms that people who read Paul carefully tend to understand him to be speaking of the Spirit's activity. Furthermore, Gene's comment is on the right track. Although hardly any interpreters now think that chaps. 9-11 are an insertion, and rightly so, Paul has certainly been talking about specific things that amount to a renewal of the mind through the power of the Spirit in chap. 8 and will continue to do so in what follows in chaps. 12-15. Indeed, mention of the contents of chaps. 5-8 more generally would be appropriate. But what would really help is if you realized that chap. 12 is the beginning of Paul's peroration, so we can expect to find references here to early passages in Paul's speech-letter. (But even commentators who don't think mainly in rhetorical ways recognize that the beginning of chap. 12 has numerous echoes of chaps. 1-3. E.g., see Dunn's commentary.) Parts of chaps. 1-3 dramatically describe the characteristics of unrenewed minds. Notice the use of the very terminology of 12:2 in 1:28. And as for the idea that Paul is simply thinking the Spirit does everything as far as teaching and motivating one and that he is, therefore, simply "mystical," I suggest reading Philippians 4:8-9 first, and then reading all of Philippians, especially chap. 2. Letting your "mind" dwell on long lists of widely recognized virtues and vices (these lists are frequent in Paul) is rather rational is it not? For Paul, one can learn what a sound mind is not only from the Jewish scriptures, rightly interpreted, not only from "nature," articulated with some success in Greco-Roman moral philosophy, but especially in hearing and internalizing the Gospel, a story that Paul finds to upend a lot of worldly ("fleshly") common sense. None of this is simply either-or for Paul. A changed heart, accomplished by having God (the HS) in one's life is crucial for Paul--as it was for Jesus and the Hebrew prophets--but, as I explain above, there are various sources that inform the conscience about what is of sound mind. The last thing I would say, however, is that the route to a changed mind you insist on, especially lots of reading, shows that you're not doing exegesis at all because you're indulging in anachronistic thinking. It's fair to say that ninety or more percent of Paul's audiences were illiterate. So the implicit criticism that he would have been a better teacher if he had encouraged lots of reading is anachronistic and, frankly, elitist. We know that some ancient philosophers thought this way--that there really is no hope of moral and mental advancement for artisans and the like because of their lack of literacy--and certainly some of the literate Jewish elite (Pharisees, scribes, etc.) thought this way, but thank God people like Jesus and Paul didn't. As you're aware, some now argue that Jesus himself was illiterate. I haven't been convinced, but, if he were, you might want to encourage him to go to school while you're at it. Maybe some scribe could straighten him out. :-)
Thanks for engaging. I will have to digest your comments and come back to them after a bit, if I have any comments.
But for now: This question is for you, now, today! How would you tell your students to transform themselves by renewing their minds?
By the holy spirit or by reading widely?
You may be correct that I am not doing "traditional" exegesis.
What I am doing is reading the Bible for existential relevance at the beginning of the twenty-first century and asking about its relevance for contemporary religious faith.
Perhaps "holy spirit" and "reading widely" is a misleading dichotomy. I suggest that holy things, maybe most often, begin with an interpersonal context. For example, as a 12yr old I heard a speaker invite young people into ministry for Christ, as a college freshman I heard a history professor say that the Israelites crossed over "the sea of reeds," as a seminary freshman I heard a NT professor retranslate the Pauline phrase "faith in Christ" to "faith of Christ." All were transforming, and both interpersonal and reading follow-up was a given. For many, to meet Jesus mystically(Psychologically?) has been transforming, but to meet Jesus fully one needs to be challenged by his specific teachings, delivered in written form or orally. I suggest that the "transformational holy" is a combination of interpersonal dynamics and the discipline of personal follow-up (study). For Paul, it seems that the holy meeting with Christ renews the mind for behaviors such as are listed in Romans 12; to behave in this way is not to be conformed to the present age.
Hi Gene (and Mark),
I understand you to be saying that our minds are "renewed" or otherwise affected by life experiences (which also includes religious experiences). I agree with that idea, although I don't think that is what Paul was urging in Rom 12:2.
I would say, however, that the character traits you mention in the rest of the chapter are a result of renewing the mind (as are all of the actions and traits in the passages that Mark listed above). Renewing the mind is not something those in the Roman gathering could accomplish on their own. Paul's view is that such an experience is brought about in the power of the Spirit. Such experiences are the "fruits of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22; Phil 1:10-11).
This brings me back to my basic question: Paul says "be transformed by renewing the mind"! Exactly how are they supposed to summon up the Spirit to engage in that mind-renewing activity"? It is strange that he is giving them such a directive in any case since he regards the Roman gathering as already being "in the Spirit" (Rom 8:9).
And if we solve that conundrum, what value does a Spirit-driven mind renewal have in a culture where "spirits" of all sorts are marginalized and are becoming increasingly meaningless in contemporary life?
Last thought: If those in the Roman gathering are already in the Spirit why do they need to renew the mind?
Good Morning Mark,
I should know better than to debate Paul with you, but there are several things in your comments that you can clarify for me.
1. You refer to Rom 1:28--the "base mind and improper conduct." Quite clearly these folk needed a mind renewal in Paul's view. But the Jesus gathering at Rome was already "in the Spirit" (Rom 8:9), so why would Paul tell them to transform by renewing the mind?
2. You say Paul is not simply mystical and refer to Phil 4:8-9 as an instance of his rational language. I agree the statement "sounds" straightforward, but he is after all addressing "Brothers" who presumably have been "transformed" by the spirit; hence they already have the spirit to aid them in the action. They are not like those reprobates in 1:28 with the base minds. Would you agree?
3. You reference the virtues and vices in Philippians chapter 2 as an indication of Paul being rational and not mystical, but at the base of their ability to achieve these virtues lies the empowerment of the spirit (Phil 2:13), does it not?
My advice to students to "read widely" as a way of renewing the mind was not intended as an interpretation of Paul's ideas but rather as a criticism of Paul's views for contemporary life. Paul assumes that at the basis of all things of value in life (under God)lies the empowerment of the spirit. My criticism of the Great Apostle went to the increasing irrelevance of his ideas in the 21st century.
I'm thinking that Paul's clear statement (Galatians 4:4-7; Romans 8:15-17) of the function of the Spirit may be important to this discussion.
He contrasts a spirit of slavery, i.e., the bondage of flesh relying on law and a similar bondage to what he calls elemental spirits, with a spirit of adoption whereby we call out “Father” as God’s adopted child and join in his son Christ’s inheritance of suffering and glory. “Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or by believing what you heard? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified (and bearing our sin)! ...formerly you were enslaved to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, how can you turn back again? For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm and do not again submit to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 3:1-2; 4:9; 5:1).
So the Spirit puts us on equal footing with Jesus as a child of God the Father. However, the Spirit does not take away our freedom to choose otherwise, “Are you so foolish, starting with the Spirit and now ending with the flesh” (Galatians 3:3). “I appeal to you…do not be conformed to this world…” (Romans 12:2). So I would say that although "the Roman gathering was in the Spirit" it did not take away their freedom.
So continue to renew your mind by allowing it to be awash in your adoption by God whereby the good, acceptable, and perfect behavioral fruit of Jesus Christ, found at Romans 12:3-21 and Gal 5:22-26, for example, (and, of course, for us it would include the Gospels, which Paul never mentions) becomes evident.
In our own time this “Father” requirement seems to be narrow and limiting. How about we say “parent” as a contribution of Jesus and Paul to understanding God/Universe in interfaith dialogue?
Charlie, after reading your comments to Gene and Mark... My question is this: What influences a person's character more, the mind or the spirit? Does Paul even see a difference between the two. I venture to say that he doesn't.
Thank you, Elizabeth
God Morning Gene,
Thanks; that is an excellent and (to me) helpful summary of Paul's position. But how might in work "in our own time" (as you put it)? Are there "actual" different competing spirit entities in the world around us, acting upon us, influencing our lives in various ways? If not, how can there be a Holy Spirit? And if we decide there is no "Holy Spirit," have we not thereby ruled Paul's views as irrelevant?
Elizabeth, you pose an excellent question for those who believe in the "existence" of spirit entities of various sorts. In Paul's case it seems that he clearly believes in spirits of various kinds that play on the human psyche. He also recognizes that human beings have a part to play in shaping their own characters. His directive to renew the mind shows that. Gene's analysis above suggests that neither the mind or the spirit has the upper hand, So for the Pauline "Christian" life is a continuing struggle.
Speaking for myself (not Paul). In the final analysis the mind is what ultimately shapes a person's character. I don't think there is a spiritual world overlapping or parallel to (in a different dimension) the physical world, and hence there are no spirit entities messing about in the human life.
I cannot myself point to any evidence for competing spiritual entities, evil or holy. I agree with you that we do have "experiences" that are open to on-going evaluation and modification. Does anyone in our time have the experience which Paul called "Spirit", i.e., the realization that one is the adopted child of Jesus' Father with the gifts and obligations attached thereto? I can't say I've ever heard anyone express their experience in exactly that way. Certainly, some in our time have come to think of themselves as "a child of the universe" with the gifts and obligations attached thereto. Even in a contemporary spirit-absent context, I'm thinking that one should certainly not ignore Paul's sense of what it meant to be a human being as we consider our options for living as a child of the universe.
Good afternoon Gene,
Your comment is very provocative, but sympathetic to my own way of thinking. Can I ask you to take it a step further with two questions asking for a bit of clarification?
1. Can you share a bit of what you think is Paul's sense of what it means to be a human being?
2. In what way would you say these two following classifications are different:
a. Child of God
b. Child of the Universe.
Human beings, as I understand Paul, cannot be counted on to do the right thing either under the direction of culture or nature. This condition is called "flesh" and the behavior results are "sin." Compared to what has gone before, the inspiration of Jesus Christ offers the opportunity to replace sin with holy fruit and hopes for after-life.
Regarding child of God and child of the universe, both seem to allow for flawed humanity and the in-spiration of Jesus, but C of U appears to take a personal deity and considerations of after-life out of the picture.
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