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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


THIS EPISTLE, although written at a period subsequent to the date of some of the other writings of St. Paul, is still placed at the head of his Epistles in the Bible, either on account of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church, “The mother and mistress of all Churches”—on whose Chief Pastor “was conferred, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the universal Church” (Council of Florence), or, on account of the comprehensive and sublime nature of its contents, embracing, as it does, in a general way, the entire economy of Redemption; and treating fully of the mysteries of divine grace, considered in their eternal decrees, in their present effects here, and in their consequences, as regards the elect and reprobate, hereafter.

LANGUAGE OF.—It is maintained by some few critics, Salmeron, Harduin, &c., that it was written in Latin, the language of those for whose instruction it was directly, and in the first instance, intended. This opinion is, however, generally rejected as improbable; for it was not to the people of Rome, but to all the faithful residing there (1:3), both Jews and Gentiles, whether inhabitants of the city, or foreigners flocking thither from every quarter of the Empire, to many of whom, doubtless, the Latin was an unknown tongue, that this Epistle was addressed. The common opinion is, that it was written in Greek, the language in which the Apostle was most conversant from his infancy—a language, too, generally understood and cultivated at the time by all classes, at Rome, as we are informed by Juvenal (Satire 6), and by Cicero (pro Archia), and, being most generally in use throughout the East and West after the period of the Grecian conquests under Alexander the Great, was, therefore, the most befitting vehicle for conveying to every description of persons all over the globe, the important instructions contained in this Epistle. This latter opinion derives further confirmation from the many Grecisms with which the Latin version of the Epistle abounds. It is to the Greek also, that in the case of difference of opinion respecting the reading of any particular passage, Commentators generally, whether Greek or Latin, refer as the language originally employed in this Epistle by the Apostle.

OBJECT AND OCCASION OF.—The principal object which the Apostle had in view in writing this Epistle, as far as can be gleaned from the writings of Commentators, ancient and modern, as also from the subject-matter of the Epistle itself, was to settle a grave and dangerous dispute by which the Church of Rome, composed of converted Jews and Gentiles, was troubled, regarding the relative claims of these respective parties to the grace of the Gospel. It is not unlikely, that the difference of practice with respect to certain legal observances (chap. 14) permitted to the Jews, from which the Gentiles justly claimed perfect exemption, contributed to keep alive these dissensions, to which both parties were instigated by certain false teachers, who at that period were busily engaged in the unholy attempt to unsettle the faith of the early converts (16:16, 17, 18). The Jews, elated by their descent, and the many exalted favours and privileges specially conferred on their nation, claimed the spiritual inheritance of justification as their birthright, in virtue of the many promises repeatedly made to their Fathers, and also as the reward of their observance of the Law of Moses; while, in the case of the idolatrous Gentiles, they contended that the call of the latter to the Gospel was a mere act of grace and favour on the part of God. The Gentiles, whom the Apostle calls “Greeks,” were, on the other hand, not slow in asserting their claims to a share in the Gospel privileges. They might boast of the science of their Philosophers, who, unaided by the light of Revelation, knew God from the visible works of creation—of the wisdom of their Legislators—of the heroism and exalted natural virtues of many among them—of their strict observance of the natural law, unassisted by the many helps conferred on the Jews. It is not unlikely, that, retorting upon the Jews, they reproached them with their grievous violations of the Law of Moses, in punishment of which, so few of them, comparatively, were called to the faith (11:18); with their repeated acts of ingratitude and rebellion against God, of which their own inspired Scriptures, containing the denunciations of their Prophets, might be adduced in evidence; with their abuse of the signal and special favours, which formed the subject of their boasting; with their persecution of the Prophets, whom the Almighty sent repeatedly to warn them; and finally, with having filled up the measure of their iniquity, by the murder of his Eternal Son.

The news of these dissensions reached St. Paul at Corinth, when preparing to be the bearer of the alms collected throughout Greece and Macedon, for the relief of the distressed and persecuted poor of Jerusalem; and, as Apostle of nations, on whom devolved “the solicitude of all the Churches,” he undertakes at once, in the temporary absence of St. Peter from Rome, to remedy this evil, and correct the fundamental error from which it sprang.

After laying down the great theme and leading proposition of the Epistle—viz., that justification is derived neither from the works of the natural law, nor from the moral portion of the law of Moses, as the Gentile and Jewish converts respectively imagined, but from faith, animated and upheld by patient endurance and good works, he proceeds to show, that both Jews and Gentiles, far from having any claim to the Gospel on the ground of their good works, were, on the contrary, deserving of the heaviest chastisements for their multiplied transgressions. This he proves in reference to the Gentiles in chapter 1, and the same he shows to be equally true of the Jews, in chapter 2.

Then, after proving from several testimonies of Scripture, that all mankind, embracing Jews and Gentiles, were under sin, and as such, fit objects for the exercise of divine mercy, he concludes that justification is gratuitously bestowed through faith, without any reference to the works of either the Mosaic law, or the law of nature (chapter 3)

He confirms this doctrine of justification through faith, irrespective of the works in question, by the example of Abraham, the history of whose justification was recorded for the purpose of pointing out the mode in which all his spiritual children were to be justified (chap. 4)

In the next place, the Apostle points out the fruits of justification both here and hereafter; and after commending the great charity of Christ, who died for us when we were his enemies, he points out the necessity of reconciliation through him, by tracing matters back to the root of all evil, and propounding the mysterious doctrine of original sin. He draws a parallel between Christ and Adam, as opposite principles of life and death; and he shows that the gift of justice bestowed by the former was more beneficial in its results, than the evils introduced by the latter were detrimental (chap. 5)

In reply to an objection, to which this doctrine might give occasion, he shows from the mystical signification of the rite of Baptism, as it was then conferred, that having died to sin, we should persevere in a life of grace after the model of Christ’s Resurrection, to which our resuscitation from the grave of sin should be assimilated (chap. 6)

In the next place, he shows, that after having contracted a new marriage engagement with an exalted spouse, Jesus Christ, we are bound to bring forth the fruits of grace and sanctity; and, in order to set forth in a clearer light, the inutility of the Mosaic law for justification, he shows, that it was the occasion of multiplying transgressions, owing to the corruption of human nature. These transgressions were not, however, imputable to the law, since even under the law of grace, the most just, whom the Apostle represents in his own person, have much to endure in battling against the evil of concupiscence. He describes the nature of this spiritual struggle, and the best means for achieving the victory (chap. 7)

He then describes the corruption of man by sin, and exhorts us, after having been freed in the New Law from the tyrannical dominion of concupiscence, to lead a new life of grace. In order to give us an idea of the magnitude of the rewards in store for the glorified sons of God, which they are to attain after passing through the saving ordeal of suffering, he employs the boldest figure of speech, and represents inanimate creation yearning, like a mother in the throes of child-birth groaning for her delivery, to be rescued from the present servitude of corruption, and to be transmuted into a state of incorruption suited to the glorified children of God, for whose service “the new heavens and the new earth” are destined. After having explained the economy of Divine Providence in bringing man to final glory, he adduces the motives for confidence in God (chap. 8)

The Apostle employs the three following chapters in treating of a subject closely connected with the main design of the Epistle—viz., the reprobation and rejection of the Jews from the grace of the Gospel, and the vocation of the Gentiles to the same. This saddening topic, so calculated to wound the feelings of his Jewish brethren, he handles with the nicest delicacy; and after announcing, or rather insinuating, the unwelcome truth regarding the rejection of the Jews, which he shows to be no way inconsistent with the promises repeatedly made by God to Abraham, nor opposed to the divine attributes, and, moreover, to have been predicted in the SS. Scripture (chap. 9, 10), he consoles the Jews by the assurance, that their fall was neither universal nor irreparable; that, at a future day, God would be reconciled to his people, and would admit them once more to the divine favour.

The Apostle concludes the dogmatic part of the Epistle, as he began it, by pointing out the sinful state of both Jews and Gentiles left to themselves. Unable to fathom the mysterious providence of God, permitting all classes of men to be shut up successively in the common prison of sin and infidelity, in order to manifest the Divine mercy in their regard, and being almost oppressed with the majesty of glory, the Apostle recoils from the further consideration of the subject, and bursts into the exclamation: “Oh! the depth of the wisdom,” &c. (chap. 11)

The remainder of the Epistle is devoted to subjects of morality. Among these are contained exhortations to lead a new life, devoted exclusively to God’s service; to exercise the spiritual gifts, in a manner that may prove of advantage to the body of the faithful, and to practise fraternal charity in its several branches (chap. 12)

The Apostle next inculcates the duty of obedience to secular authority. This he enjoins in the most solemn manner, on the grounds of conscientious obligation, and under pain of eternal damnation (chap. 13)

He treats of a case of ceremonial observance, regarding the use of certain meats prohibited by the Mosaic law, which was the practical cause of difference between Jews and Gentiles; and points out the duty of each party in the matter (chap. 14)

He exhorts them to bear with each other’s infirmities, having been, both Jews and Gentiles, called to a share in the same heavenly inheritance (chap. 15)

He, finally, closes with the salutations, peculiar to the time (chap. 16). The simplest idea, perhaps, that could be formed of this Epistle would be, to regard it as a dissertation, the main scope and object of which is, to prove that justification is derived neither from the precepts of the law of Moses, nor from those of the natural law, but gratuitously from faith, as contradistinguished from both—faith upheld and animated by patient endurance and good works. To this main object everything in the Epistle, whether in the form of principles directly laid down, or of objections, or of inferences, is to be referred.

WHERE AND WHEN WRITTEN.—The common opinion of Interpreters of SS. Scripture is, that this Epistle was written about the year 57 of our æra, at Corinth, on the occasion of the Apostle’s second visit to that city, and shortly before he set out from Greece to be the bearer of the alms collected at Macedon and Achaia, for the relief of the distressed Churches of Judea (15:25). There is also abundant intrinsic evidence to prove that it was written from Corinth. In the first place, the bearer of it was Phebe, a deaconess of Cenchreæ, which was one of the ports of Corinth, on the Asiatic side. Again, in it are conveyed the salutations of Caius and Erastus (16:23), both of whom were inhabitants of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14; 2 Tim. 4:20). That it was written on the occasion of his second, rather than of his first visit, seems equally incontestable. For in it are conveyed the salutations of Timothy and Sosipater (16:21). Now, it was on the occasion of his leaving Corinth a second time, to be the bearer of the collected alms to the afflicted poor of Jerusalem, that these accompanied him (Acts, 20). Again, when the Apostle first came to Corinth, he found there Aquila and Priscilla, after they had been banished from Rome by the decree of the Emperor Claudius (Acts, 18); whereas, they had returned to Rome when this Epistle was written; for, he prays the Romans to salute them in his name (16:3).

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