The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Callan’s Commentary on Romans 13

Posted by Dim Bulb on June 25, 2016

 A Summary of Romans 13:1-7

We find here no special introduction to the subject which the Apostle begins to discuss. The connection, however, with what precedes is this, that after having given certain counsels regarding the private life of Christians, he now turns to consider their duties to the civil authority. Aside from a desire for completeness in indicating the duties of Christians, there seems to have been no special reason why St. Paul took up this question of civil obedience. The treatment is general, and does not appear to have been occasioned by any pressing need in Rome. Of course in those early days the Christians were generally regarded as a Jewish sect, or at least as having sprung from the Jews, and there was perhaps reason to fear lest, for some causes, the punishments which were frequently inflicted by the Roman authority on the latter might at times be visited on the former. At any rate, the Christian communities throughout the Empire were becoming more and more numerous, and there was an ever-increasing need, for the sake of private duty as well as public peace and safety, of clear and explicit views regarding the Christian’s attitude and obligations toward lawful civil authority. Therefore, the Apostle enjoins that the faithful be obedient to their civil rulers; for to resist their lawful superiors is to resist God, from whom all authority is derived. Civil superiors are divinely empowered for the promotion of good and the repression of evil. Hence it is needful to be obedient for the sake of one’s conscience. The Apostle confirms his doctrine by the fact that the faithful pay their taxes to civil magistrates as if to the ministers of God. Let each one, therefore, render to all men their dues.

Rom 13:1. Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.

Every soul, i.e., every human being. There is no question here of animals or things inanimate.

Be subject, i.e., be respectful and obedient, saving, of course, the rights of God and of conscience. St. Paul is supposing the authority to be just and lawful, and to be rightly exercised.

To higher powers, i.e., to the State, to those that have lawful authority in any degree. Those who have authority are said to be higher powers (υπερεχουσαις = hyperechousais) , or to possess higher powers by reason of the superiority which is theirs with respect to those under them. Hence the meaning is that all lawful superiors are to be obeyed, whether those superiors are personally good or bad, or are in places of higher or lower dignity. And the reason for this is that all power is from God. God is the Creator and supreme Regulator of all things, and consequently all power to administer affairs, or to rule under God, comes radically from Him alone.

Those that are, i.e., the superiors that now possess authority are ordained, i.e., have been constituted by God, and should therefore be obeyed in all things that come within the limits of their authority.

Rom 13:2. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.

Since all authority is from God, it follows that he who resisteth power or authority, i.e., he who will not be subject to authority, opposes the divine ordinance which God has established. To rebel, therefore, against authority is to sin against God and against man; and they who act thus purchase, better, “shall purchase,” to themselves damnation, i.e., they shall become liable to temporal punishment here and to eternal punishment hereafter. As said before, St. Paul is supposing the civil power to be exercised within its proper limits, and consequently not to encroach upon the rights of God. Habet autem hoc divina ordinatio, ut potestati inferiori non obediatur contra superiorem = “But the divine order requires that a lower power not be obeyed in opposition to a higher one” (St. Thomas).  The quote is taken from Aquinas’ Lectures on Romans 13, #1028: “But contrary to this is the fact that the Apostles and Martyrs appear to have resisted potentates and authorities and did no receive damnation from God as a result, but rather, a reward. The response is that the Apostle is now speaking of one who resists a lower power as established by God. But the divine order requires that a lower power not be obeyed in oppostion to a higher one, as a duke is not obeyed against God, as in Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men.'”

In the Vulgate acquirunt should be future, to agree with the Greek. As indicated above, purchase should read in the future tense, shall purchase.

Rom 13:3. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same.

The civil authority has been ordained by God and holds its power from God, in order to promote good and to curb evil.

Princes, i.e., rulers (αρχοντες = archontes) are not objects of fear to those who do good, but to those who do evil. Those who do good, far from fearing, have a right to expect praise from those in authority. Cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-14.

The boni operis, sed mali of the Vulgate should be bono operi, sed malo, according to many MSS.

Rom 13:4. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

He, i.e., civil authority, or the one possessing it, has been constituted by God and ordained for good, i.e., for the benefit of all the members of society. The first object of authority, then, is to promote the welfare of its subjects; the second is to repress and punish evil as a menace to the good to which the members of society are entitled. The sword is the symbol or emblem of the right to inflict capital punishment for crimes committed against the social and civil power.

Rom 13:5. Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.

As a result of the fact that authority is from God, and the possessor of authority is God’s minister, it follows that we should be subject to our lawful superiors by the very nature of the case. Not that our liberty is taken away, but only that there is need to be subject (αναγκη υποτασσεσθαι = ananke hypotassesthai) , and this for two reasons: for wrath, i.e., out of fear of the punishment which disobedience merits, and for conscience’ sake, i.e., for the peace of our conscience, which dictates submission to those who represent God. From this it is clear that legitimate human law and authority oblige in conscience, so that those who transgress them are liable to temporal punishment and are guilty of sin and deserve punishment from God.

Rom 13:6. For therefore also you pay tribute. For they are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose.

For therefore (δια τουτο γαρ = dia touto gar) . St. Paul appeals to the ordinary practice of the Christians to prove their duty of obedience to the civil authority. They pay tribute, because they recognize that they are held in conscience to obey the law, and further because they look upon the revenue officers as ministers of God (λειτουργοι θεου = leitourgoi theou), i.e., as taking care of the public interest and providing for the public welfare—functions committed to them by God. Civil rulers who fulfil their charge faithfully are truly ministering to God, they are “God’s ministers” in temporal and profane affairs; as, in a higher and more sacred sense, they who serve God in spiritual and eternal matters are His ministers.

The servientes of the Vulgate should be assidue incumbentes (Cornely), or perseverantes (St. Aug.).

Rom 13:7. Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom : fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour.

Making some practical applications of his doctrine the Apostle, in conformity with the teaching of our Lord (Matt. 22:21), says to render to every superior, high or low, the obedience which is due him according to his office. Tribute is tax on land or on persons, land-tax or poll-tax. Custom is tax on exports and imports. Fear means the respect and reverence that are due to lawful superiors.

The ergo of the Vulgate is not represented in the Greek; hence therefore should be omitted.

A Summary of
Romans 13:8-14

 That which is fundamental to all our duties to all men, whether superiors or equals, is charity, the distinctive mark of the Christian. In it are summed up all the precepts of the Decalogue. There is special need for us to practice this virtue, since our lives are drawing to a close. 

Rom 13:8. Owe no man anything, but to love one another. For he that loveth his neighbour, hath fulfilled the law. 

Owe no man anything, etc., i.e., have no debt to any man, except the debt of love or charity. All other debts besides this latter can be paid finally and completely, so as no longer to exist; but the debt of charity, however constantly paid, is ever due, because it rests on God’s abiding precept and upon the relations of nature and of grace that we have in common with our neighbor. Semper autem debeo caritatem quae sola etiam reddita definet redditorem (St. Aug.). St. Thomas gives the reasons why we can never pay our debt of charity to our neighbor: “First, because we owe our neighbor love for the sake of God, whom we can never sufficiently recompense (1 John 4:21); secondly, because the motive of love always remains, being likeness in nature and grace (Ecclus 13:19) ; thirdly, because charity does not diminish, but increases by love (Phil 1:9).” 

He that loveth his neighbour, hath fulfilled the law, because the love of one’s neighbor is founded on the love of God (John 15:17), and the love of God implies the fulfillment of all the precepts of “the law” of Moses. Cf. Matt 22:35 ff.; Gal 5:14; 1 John 4:20, 21. 

Rom 13:9. For Thou shalt not commit adultery: Thou shalt not kill: Thou shalt not steal: Thou shalt not bear false witness: Thou shalt not covet: and if there be any other commandment, it is comprised in this word, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

This verse proves that “law” of the preceding verse meant the Law of Moses, of which only certain precepts are here cited. St. Paul does not recite the whole Decalogue, but only those precepts of it regarding the neighbor which one might fail to see were involved in the general precept of charity. That he did not wish the other Commandments regarding God and the neighbor to be omitted is evident from the words, “and if there be any other commandment,” etc. The order here differs from the Hebrew text in Exod 20:13 ff.; Deut 5:17 ff.; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20. 

Thou shalt not bear false witness. These words are omitted in the best Greek copies, but they are included in the statement, and if there be any other commandment, etc.

Thou shalt love thy neighbour, etc. These words are taken from Lev 19:18, and signify that we should love all men with the same kind of love with which we love ourselves.

The instauratur of the Vulgate would better be recapitulatur (St. Jer., St. Aug.). 

Rom 13:10. The love of our neighbour worketh no evil. Love therefore is the fulfilling of the law.

Summing up what he has said about charity the Apostle observes that love of our neighbour worketh no evil to the neighbour, as it is in the Greek. That over and above this negative good it works positive good to the neighbor is clear from what follows in the verse, which is a repetition of the end of verse 8. To love perfectly is to fulfil the law, because, as said above, the love of the neighbor is based on the love of God, and this, when perfect, means the fulfilling of all the precepts of the law.

In the Vulgate dilectio proximi should be dilectio proximo, according to the Greek.

Rom 13:11. And that knowing the season; that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed.

Another reason for practicing charity is drawn from the special circumstances of time in which the Romans found themselves. The Apostle admonishes them that it is now needful that they should rise from sleep, i.e., from the state of tepidity and negligence into which some may have fallen since their conversion. The reason is because time is growing shorter for them. 

Our salvation, i.e., our final deliverance from earth is nearer than when we believed, i.e., than when we were converted to the faith, consequently we should lose no time, but should stimulate all our energies and increase our fervor. Every day that passes brings us nearer to death and to our eternal reward. This was certainly true of individuals, and of the whole generation whom St. Paul was addressing, but we must not thence gather that the Apostle meant to teach anything about the nearness of the Second Coming of Christ for all; he had not forgotten his teaching (11:25) regarding the conversions of the nations and of Israel, which were surely far off”. The “salvation” of the Christians began with their conversion, and its final glorious consummation is drawing nearer every day. This fact the Apostle makes use of here to rouse the faithful from tepidity and negligence, and to stimulate them to vigorous and spiritual effort. Beyond this his argument at present does not go. 

Rom 13:12. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. 

The night is passed, i.e., our course in this world of darkness and sin is far advanced (προεκοψεν). The night began with the sin of Adam, but the day of salvation dawned with the death of Christ. This day, already shedding its light over the world, and cheering the Christians in particular, will reach its meridian later on in the final glorification of our souls and bodies (5:9; 2 Tim 4:18). Since, therefore, we are living in the daylight of redemption, we should conduct ourselves as children of light and put aside all sins, because these are works of darkness (5:13; John 3:20; Eph 6:12) and lead to eternal night; we should put on the armour of light, i.e., the armor of Christian virtues, and war against evil (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:11 ff.; 2 Cor 10:4 ff.). 

Rom 13:13. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy:

In this verse the Apostle is showing how different should be the conduct of Christians from the practices of pagans. The vices he enumerates were those commonly practiced by the pagan Romans during the night at their feasts and banquets. The Christians, then, who are living in the bright day of redemption, should be adorned with all virtues and should live and act as becomes children of light, and not according to the immoral standards of paganism.

The first two vices here mentioned pertain to gluttony and debauchery (Gal 5:21); the second two refer to sins of luxury (Gal 5:19); and the remaining were sins against charity and one’s neighbor (1 Cor 3:3; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20). 

Chambering means all kinds of acts of impurity. 

Rom 13:14. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.

Not only should the Christian put away and shun the works of darkness, but he must go further and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., he must clothe himself with the virtues, the spirit, and the grace of Christ. Already in Baptism Christians are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27), but it is their duty thereafter to cooperate with grace and thus increase their likeness to our Lord by constantly imitating the virtues which shone in Him. 

Make not provision, etc., i.e., cease to provide for the flesh in the way of exciting and satisfying its unclean and perverse desires and tendencies; all necessary provision and care for the body is not here in question, except in so far as the needs of the body must not be the dominant motives in the Christian’s life.

It is well known that St. Augustine was converted by the reading of the last two verses of this chapter {Confess., viii. 12, 22).

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