“Civil Authority," a look at S.C. Mott's Interpretation

In his article entitled “Civil Authority,” S.C. Mott (Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. 1993). discusses the presentation in the New Testament of the role of government, with special regards to Paul’s letter to the Romans. The article explains that although Paul’s teaching regarding civil authority is not comprehensive, it comes in the context of correcting misunderstandings of the freedom of the gospel (p. 141). Below, this author will give his analyst and critique of the article, as he deems this article both of interest and of valuable quality concerning its perspective on the occasion for Paul’s mention of civil authority in Romans 13:1-7, which is of the current study.

The article’s strengths mainly rested in its interpretation of Paul’s perspectives

and viewpoints of civil authorities within Romans 13:1-7, but this author believes that the article’s weakness is found in overemphasizing Paul’s exploitation of the juridical status that his citizenship conferred. The article’s assertion that Paul’s use of the concept “that subordination to civil government is an act of the call to spiritual worship” came from a Hellenistic-Jewish and OT conception of the ruler as a pastoral and paternal character (p.142), is valid. In fact, this discovery adds to the interpreting work of Romans. The mode of representation that originated in the case of David and the respect, partly, for civil authorities comes from the natural life from which he was taken: pastoral. (1)

Furthermore, it was David under the OT that reminded his successors in office of the “paternal character of the administration which they were called to exercise in Israel.” (2) Along the same lines of the Jewish viewpoint of Paul, a strength can be found in the article’s petition for readers not to assume that every time Paul’s employs the terms “principalities and powers” that he is referring to only civil authorities or angelic, cosmic powers (p.142). It is true that although “principalities and powers” commonly are used for human political powers, the terms have multiple meanings and should be determined by their use in context. The terms “principalities and powers” have seven historically used meanings, two of these meanings are closely associated and used together: 1) an authority figure who initiates activity or process, ruler, authority, and 2) the sphere of one’s official activity, rule office. Both meanings are also of angelic or transcendent powers since they were thought of having a political organization and angelic domain. (3)

While it is true that the picture of Roman citizenship in Acts and its symbolic representation in Romans is compatible with our knowledge of the mid-century (which Paul’s audience in Rome would have been privy to experiencing the effects of), the article places too much importance on how Paul’s exploitation of the juridical status that his citizenship conferred. The article alludes to how Paul’s exploitation allowed the moulding of his viewpoint on civil authorities (see page 141). Peter Garnsey relays in his publication Roman Citizenship and Roman Law in the Late Empire, that “The general function of citizenship was, and always had been as, an enabling mechanism” in which “only a minority are likely to have exploited... and even fewer the potential for social and political advancement that it possessed.” (4)

The overall value of the article is found in how its contents are directly related to New Testament ethics, and it aids interpretation of Paul’s letters, specifically Romans 13:1-7. In the article, it is affirmed that Romans addresses the recurring problems faced by Paul in his missionary journey. Also, Romans should be interpreted less as a personalized letter than an article of instruction with a general aim to solve problems (e.g., issues in social relationships, labor and slavery, and civic duties) occurring in the

global church. The more particular value the article possesses for New Testament studies is in how it gives interpreters a general understanding of how NT ethics, primary those in the pages of Paul’s letters, reflect OT and Hellenistic-Jewish conceptions. That being said, interpreters of the content of the NT should consider interpreting Christianity and its writings not as new concepts birthed from any engagement in a polemic against Judaism (to do so would distort an accurate interpretation of the writings).


Works Cited:

(1) Patrick Fairbairn, Ezekiel and the Book of His Prophecy: An Exposition, (Los Angeles, CA: Hardpress Publishing, 2012), 368-369.

(2) Changwon Song, Reading Romans as a Diatribe (Studies in Biblical Literature), (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2004).1.

(3) Arndt, W.F.; Gingrich, W.; Danker, F.W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 138.

(4) Peter Garnsey, "Roman Citizenship and Roman Law in the Late Empire," Approaching Late Antiquity, January 25, 2006, accessed March 26, 2018, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199297375.003.0006.

Article found within:

Hawthorne, Gerald F.; Martin, Ralph P.; Reid, Daniel G., eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. 1993.

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