The Apostle Paul and the Internal Self


Last blog post I followed Bruce Malina and shared how, to our disappointment, Scripture does not describe the inner life or psychological motivations for its characters. This was the case in a culture that ascribed motivation to the external world of culture. In other words, they believed that a given person made a choice because he is a Jew and that is how Jews behave.

If one was looking for evidence that the internal self is indeed discussed in Scripture, then you might turn to Romans 7:21-25. This passage has traditionally been interpreted as a classic commentary on Paul’s internal conflict between his desires and his will to act.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (NRSV)

The letter to the Romans is addressed to a mostly gentile audience who has converted to Christianity. Paul opens his letter by introducing himself as a “Slave of Christ Jesus.” He continues with the image of slave, asking: “Don't you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.” (6:16, NLT) This passage reintroduces the theme of slavery and we know that Paul has been following that theme all along given that the theme is taken up again in 7:25 (see above).

Therefore, Paul is not speaking of his own internal struggle, but the internal struggle of a slave to Christ[1]Paul is using a classic “speech in character” device used in classical rhetorical training that would have been familiar to an educated first century audience.

It is important to remember that Paul is addressing Gentile converts to Jewish Christianity in his letter to the Romans. A slave’s life was characterized by the transfer of enslavement from one master to another. In the case of Gentile conversion to Christianity addressed in Romans, these slaves are converted from slaves to flesh under paganism to slaves to Christ. Now they are being called to internalize the will of the master so as to leave their conflicted life behind.

The passage is dealing with an internal conflict, but it is that of a slave. A good slave merely followed the wishes of his master. The internal struggle Paul describes is only taking place because the slave in question is caught between pagan and Christian cultures. Paul is not describing his internal world in this dialogue. Instead, he is giving us a window into the conflict of one caught in between to two cultures. Paul is speaking of one who is “caught between two cultures, torn between the passions of an idolater and the law of the one true God.”[2]Unfortunately, for modern readers concerned with psychological questions, seeking to find a sketch of the inner human world in Scripture, they will find only veiled references to the self in a passage that is generally thought to be our best portrayal of the internal self. As I outlined in my last post, this is due to a dyadic personality, which derives its information from outside the self. It is not that human persons were thought to have no internal world, but the stimuli for that internal world came exclusively from the outside world. Therefore, the ancient writers attended to this external world.

We find here, not an autonomous self caught between two sets of desires, but a slave caught between two cultures, with two social norms. Paul is calling these Gentile slaves to embody the will of their true master. This will undoubtedly involve a psychologically violent uprooting from one’s current social embeddedness and a transplant to another. This would have been a special challenge in their collectivist culture.

In the final analysis, one of the most famous passages in Scripture generally thought to be the Apostle Paul giving us a window into his inner world, is actually another case study in the highly externalized conception of self found in the first century Mediterranean world. Thus far, the way we think of personal identity as comprised primarily of an inner life seems foreign to Scripture, leaving us with little sense of how to correlate Scripture and our contemporary conception of personality. However, a surprising and interesting connection between the Enneagram and Scripture awaits in the next and final blog post.

[1]J. Albert Harrill, “Paul and the Slave Self”, Religion and the Self in Antiquity,(Indiana University: Bloomingon, IN), 2005, 54.

[2]ibid, 55.