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