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Interpreting Romans 12:1 – An Interview with Simon Dürr, Winner of the Lautenschlaeger Award


The Lautenschlaeger Award is a prestigious academic prize awarded to ten doctoral or first post-doctoral works in theology and biblical studies. Each winner is awarded $10,000 and the opportunity to propose an international colloquium on a significant academic theme. I interviewed several 2022 winners and will feature these interviews on Word By Word over the coming months. 

Simon Dürr and I met during our doctoral studies (he studied at St. Andrews under N. T. Wright while I was at Durham under John Barclay). We instantly connected due to our mutual respect for the apostle Paul and a genuine curiosity about the apostle’s person and theology. I asked Simon a few questions about his background, research, and the award’s impact on his future. Below is that interview.

What is your background, and what led you to theological studies? What brought you to St. Andrews to do your PhD studies?

My father is a pastor in Switzerland, and while growing up, I had many conversations with him about theology and the New Testament. While I was doing my A-levels (we call it Gymnasium, but it has little to do with sports), I thought that I was going to study theology, so I took courses in Latin and Greek. But I became so fascinated with science and mathematics that I ended up enrolling in physics and mathematics at the University of Bern, Switzerland. I kept up my interest in ancient languages during these studies and also took classes in Hebrew (as one does). After completing my master’s degree in Theoretical Physics, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I was contemplating taking up the offer I had for a PhD in high energy physics. But I had also kept an interest in theology and was intrigued especially by N. T. Wright’s work, which I read and discussed with a group of friends. At that time, a good friend of mine, who had already begun to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, had the idea of organizing a conference with N. T. Wright on his Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So we made the trip to St. Andrews to invite him in person. (In the worst case, we would have simply made a nice trip to a lovely place and met N. T. Wright.) He was a bit surprised when he learned that my friend was still an undergrad in theology and that I had not done any formal studies in theology. But he agreed to come anyway, and the conference was a great success.

It was during this time at St. Andrews that my friend suggested that I pursue a PhD in New Testament at St. Andrews with N. T. Wright. I had to get a degree in theology first, though. So after obtaining a Master of Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, I applied to St. Andrews for a PhD in New Testament Studies. Luckily, it all worked out.

Your book has a near singular focus on the meaning of a word that is famously hard to interpret, λογικὴ λατρεία, in Romans 12:1. Why has this verse, and these words, proved so challenging for interpreters throughout history?

Romans 12:1–2 is dense, many-layered, and uses several terms that are open to a whole range of interpretations. Hence, various ancient interpreters with different viewpoints have all found in these verses a reflection of their favorite conception of Christian life. These verses occur at a major transitional point in the argument of the letter and have the function of relating the argument of Romans 1–11 to Romans 12–16, sometimes discussed as relating Paul’s “theology” to his “ethics.” They recall important aspects of the previous argument (the “body” in Romans 6, for instance) and employ metaphors (“living sacrifice”) that have been interpreted in various ways, but the words are used in a way that does not of itself seem to rule out many of the proposed interpretations.

Right at the center of this we meet the apparently simple yet surprising phrase λογικὴ λατρεία. The word λογικός is rare in the New Testament and unique in Paul. It has something to do with λόγος, of course, but λόγος means many things (word, reason, speech, account, explanation etc.). It is puzzling why Paul would use this word at such a crucial moment of his letter in a way that seems unanticipated by his previous argument.

Then there is the term λατρεία, a service to God or act of worship. So when interpreters in modern times see a combination of something to do with “reason” and something to do with “religion” (though given the modern associations and history of the terms one needs to be cautious), all kinds of questions arise—as often reason and religion are seen as in some kind of opposition.

Various interpretations have been offered, and each implies some difficulties. Is Paul defending Christ-followers’ practices as “reasonable” (but then he should have used the word εὔλογος)? Or does he mean to say that while others have “external” rituals, Christ-followers have an interior “spiritual” practice (but then he should have used πνευματική)? Or is he saying their practices are genuine and others are not (but the function of Romans 12:1–2 does not lend itself to an ad-hoc polemic, nor is the word λογικός as such used in this way)? Or is he saying that their service “speaks” to others (but this does not work with the semantics of the term)? Or is he saying that their service to God involves acts of logical thinking (but why would he be saying this at this point)?

Further requirements need to be considered for an adequate interpretation of the passage. First, syntactically the phrase τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν is an appositive, so it is a comment upon the injunction to present your bodies as living sacrifices. Interpretations that mistake the domain from which Paul’s metaphor is taken (i.e., sacrifice) for the topic turn this on their head: they see Paul asking a question about how the true cult should operate, to which he responds that genuine worship is λογικὴ λατρεία. Paul, however, uses a sacrificial metaphor to speak about an action of Christ-followers related to their bodies in language that recalls his earlier argument in Romans 6, where he uses another metaphor for actions in the body. Any plausible interpretation of the λογικὴ λατρεία must address how it is a comment upon the description of an action as related to Paul’s previous argument.

Second, the interpretation of the phrase must contribute to the overall protreptic function of Romans 12:1–2 in the letter. Romans 12:1–2 exhorts and encourages a certain kind of practice and existence. It would be very odd if Paul had intended this passage as a mere aside. But this is what theses about the “spiritualization of the cult” or its reverse (a critique of “spiritualization” with an emphasis upon “bodiliness”) or about “true religion” or “true sacrificial practice” end up with.

My own reading contributes, I think, to an interpretation that meets these requirements. It does so by contextualizing Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in particular Romans 12:1, in a wider ancient discourse on what it means to be human. To understand Paul’s use of λογικὴ λατρεία requires a form of discourse analysis.

What role does discourse analysis play in your argument?

In order to find a plausible interpretation of the λογικὴ λατρεία, it is necessary to contextualize Paul’s argument within the relevant discourse, a cultural discussion on a certain topic within the first-century world.

My book argues that the relevant discourse is the question of what it means to be human in the ancient world, the question of what the role of human beings is in the cosmos. This is discussed especially in ancient philosophical texts, but these also articulate suppositions that are more widely shared.

In this discussion, the human endowment with reason looms large. Humans are compared to and contrasted with the gods but also with other animals in the ordered cosmos. Each being has a function based on what makes it the being that it is. In the case of human beings, the standard definition ends up being that humans are mortal living beings endowed with reason (θνητὰ λογικὰ ζῷα). Based on this, humans have a given role in the cosmos: they are to discern the relation of the divine to the world, which they can understand given their reason, and they are to respond in their actions in such a way as to produce signs of that understanding. This is a structure that one finds especially in the philosophical texts.

As for my own method, I have used discourse analysis in two senses. First, I have employed discourse analysis as corpus-assisted research on the definition of human beings as a ζῷον λογικόν or rationale animal using the TLG and PHI databases. This shows that one of the important contexts of usage is in discussion on the role of human beings in the cosmos, in discussions of the human vocation, but also in discussing a normative conception of genuine humanness.

Second, in a broader sense of discourse analysis, I have complemented this by a thematic investigation of ancient discourses on what it means to be human, in conversation with previous studies of the Greco-Roman material, and hence not restricted in the sources to certain Greek or Latin terms. Here one sees a development that the features that are seen to make human beings distinct focus increasingly on the human endowment with reason—namely their social nature [and] their cultural creativity but also their worship of the gods.

Finally, and in the light of these contextualizations, I have made a detailed comparison between a text of Epictetus and Paul’s letter to Romans. The themes and motifs discovered in the contextualizations have allowed me better to argue, I think, that Romans is not just a letter about “salvation” but also a contribution to a discussion of what genuine humanness means and what the role of human beings in the cosmos is.

This is how I employ discourse analysis, but I am aware that there are very different projects under that name, such as an assessment of clause structures and connectives, for example (see PHV 14-15 n. 44).

Why is Epictetus so central to your study, and how does he inform our understanding of λογικὴ λατρεία?

In terms of a context of discovery, reading Epictetus gave the main idea for approaching the question of the λογικὴ λατρεία. One of my first assignments for my PhD research was the suggestion by N. T. Wright simply to read straight through Epictetus, the first-century Stoic philosopher. I was already interested in Paul’s use of reason language, but when I came across Epictetus, Discourses 1.16.20-21, I found it to be such a striking parallel to Romans 12:1 that I felt I had found my research thesis. In the excellent translation of Robin Hard it says:

If I were a nightingale, I would perform the work of a nightingale, and if I were a swan, that of a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being (λογικός), and I must sing (ὑμνεῖν) the praise of God (21). This is my work (ἔργον), and I accomplish it, and I will never abandon my post for as long as it is granted to me to remain in it; and I invite (παρακαλῶ) all of you to join me in this same song.

The rest of my thesis can be seen as an elaboration of the hunch that Epictetus is the best parallel for understanding Romans 12:1, an exercise in determining precisely in which way and to what extent this text can be viewed as a parallel and how this case can be argued in exegetical detail for Romans. While others had already pointed to the parallel, it has not been explored in detail and in the context of a wider ancient discourse on the role of human beings in the cosmos and what it means to be genuinely human.

To spell out the comparison briefly, Epictetus 1.16 argues that each being has a function or a vocation based on its distinct capacity. For human beings the distinct capacity is their endowment with reason, which makes them λογικός. That they have such a task in life, or “calling,” is here expressed by ἔργον (and the metaphor of a post). And to describe what this vocation consists in, Epictetus uses the “cultic” metaphor of ὑμνεῖν. I have used the language of “sign production” to try to capture what this is all about. It amounts to any kind of actions that express the truths and meanings about God in relation to the world that one has grasped. Earlier in his Discourse (1.16.17), Epictetus gives an example of such a hymn, which recognizes divine providence in giving humans—for example, the ability to use tools for tilling the ground and digest food and also to be able to understand these things and see them as divine gifts, which can then be articulated in a response of intelligent praise. But often humans do not respond in this way, and hence the philosopher needs to encourage and exhort human beings to their calling (παρακαλῶ).

As for Romans 12:1, we have a cultic metaphor of presenting (παραστῆσαι) their bodies as a living sacrifice. This describes an action to which Paul exhorts (παρακαλῶ) his hearers, and which I interpret as a sign production based on an understanding of God’s action in the Christ event (recalling his earlier argument in Romans 6, where he uses other metaphors for actions in the body). Then we also have a statement that identifies this action as the vocation (λατρεία) of human beings as rational living beings (λογικός). The adjective λογικός modifies the action noun λατρεία by pointing to the type of its subject.

You interpret Romans 12:1c as “this is your truly human calling.” What is “genuine humanness” for Paul, at least as articulated in Romans? What is the human calling for Paul in light of the Christ event?

In order to see how the argument of Romans is not merely about “salvation” but also about what it means to be genuinely human, it is important to not read Romans 5:12–21 merely as an illustration but as a statement by Paul—that there is a new humanity constituted by those who are in Christ and that they fulfill their role in the cosmos, their vocation, by displaying in their actions the truth about God such as it has become known in the Christ-event.

In this light, already Romans 1:18–32 can be seen as a negative portrait of the failure of humans to fulfill their vocation as human beings. Paul seems to combine a Greek natural theology in Romans 1:19–21 (which shares the structure of the human vocation one sees in Epictetus and others) with a Jewish critique of idolatry as a dehumanizing act and focuses on the corruption of thinking, thus stressing the corruption of the human proprium, reason, which we have identified as central to Greco-Roman reflection on what makes humans distinct and is the basis of their role in the cosmos.

Romans 6:1–11 can be seen as a description of how the conditions have changed for those who are in Christ (though Paul does not really spell out how he thinks this works), such that they are now enabled to think and act in the appropriate way so that they can fulfill the human calling. Romans 6:12–23 exhorts Christ-followers to the vocation to which they have been liberated. It uses different metaphors for the bodily actions in which this vocation consists. I interpret them as a sign production, because these actions of justice and holiness are to be “performed in such a way as to signify, embody and express the truths and meanings of the Christ event” (PHV, 184–185).

Romans 8:1–11 explains the role of the Spirit in the recovery of genuine humanness. Romans 8:18–30 presents the human vocation in a dynamical relation to the cosmos in which those liberated in Christ find themselves to be the place where, in prayer and in suffering, signs of the new creation come to birth.

Paul applies this understanding to the kind of communal life that he portrays as an ideal in Romans 12.3–15:13. Paul probably writes Romans to win Christ-followers in Rome for his missional project. The kind of community life this requires can be described as a missional existence, in which the ‎meaning of the Christ event is understood in the way Paul explains it in the letter, and this understanding is expressed and embodied in appropriate sign ‎production and a reconciled unity in worship.

Romans 12:1–2 encourages and exhorts Christ-followers in Rome to such a missional way of life that embodies the meaning of the Christ event in a faithful sign production (παραστῆσαι), and it identifies this as their vocation as human beings in the cosmos, their “truly human calling” (λογικὴ λατρεία). The structure of this vocation is similar to the one we see in ancient philosophical tradition: seeing the world in relation to God and producing signs of this understanding. For Paul, however, the Christ event is the place to see what God really is like, and the missional existence to which he encourages Christ-followers is the appropriate sign production of this understanding. For Paul, this response is based on Christ’s gift and the transformation by the Spirit, which enables a life that corresponds increasingly to Christ as the human being who shows what it means truly to be human in the pattern of his death and resurrection, which is the also the dynamical shape of the existence of Christ-followers in a cosmos in which he believes the new creation is already being inaugurated.

What impact do you hope your study will have on future scholarship and on the church?

I hope that my contribution to a historical explanation of the λογικὴ λατρεία in Romans 12.1, especially the use of an ancient philosophical concept as a factor in the discussion about the integration of Paul’s “theology” and “ethics” will prove suggestive for future research. The attempt to bring Paul into conversation with ancient philosophical reflection on what it means to be human seems promising for many further explorations in Paul, and indeed in other writings of the New Testament, such as the Johannine corpus, which I am currently researching. If my study encourages further research on these topics, just as I have been inspired by previous studies, I think it will have reached its purpose.

For some people in churches today who are interested in what Paul has to say on what it means to be human in the light of the Christ event, perhaps my suggestions for reading Romans as also engaging the cultural and philosophical aspirations of its own times on the question of being human may be helpful in encouraging them to further and fresh engagement with the text of Romans. If such fresh engagement with the texts inspires them to pursue the question of what it means to be truly human today with courage and hope, this would, I think, be in certain ways consonant with Paul’s reasons for writing Romans to Christ-followers in Rome in the first century.

Your work was selected as a winner in the Lautenschlager awards for theological promise. What does this mean for you, and how do you think it will impact your future writing projects?

I am very happy and grateful for this recognition of my work. As one of several recipients of the prize this year, I look forward to the opportunity of discussing future research with them at the University of Heidelberg, where the awards ceremony and a colloquium takes place. I think the recognition also provides encouragement to further work on the New Testament writings in their ancient contexts.

Finally, I know you just attended the awards ceremony recently. What was that experience like?

The awards ceremony took place in the Old Hall of the University of Heidelberg. It was a moment of great joy and festivity—professors from Heidelberg were presenting the works that got the award, a local string quartet filled the room with beautiful music, and Prof. Dirk Smit delivered a powerful lecture about the promise of theology and how it connects with Heidelbergs’ distinguished past. One of the wonderful things about the Lautenschlaeger is that it is a prize that is shared. This means that the surprise and joy about the award are also shared with others, and this is an opportunity to meet as equals and not as rivals— perhaps unusual for how academia is often experienced at this stage of a scholarly career. 

The winners have an opportunity to present their future research in a colloquium with the other recipients of the prize and some of the evaluators and professors from Heidelberg. I really enjoyed being able to share my work with such a broad range of colleagues. I enjoyed the many conversations about life, theology, and the stories that had brought us there. All of this took place in a beautiful setting with hosts fostering a wonderful atmosphere of conversation and friendship. I deeply cherish this experience and am enormously grateful that I could be part of it. 

Paul on the Human Vocation has been published in Open Access, and the PDF is available for free at degruyter.com.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger