Hermeneutics or Ethics? Westerholm's Reading
Some modern interpreters contrast their interpretations of the end of Romans 2 with that current among earlier interpreters as ethical versus hermeneutical. Objections have been raised to the hermeneutical interpretation which I am espousing here. In a recent article, Stephen Westerholm has argued very cogently that the opposition of “spirit” and “letter” is an ethical one for Paul. His interpretation of Romans 2 runs as follows. Paul's target in Romans 2 is hypocrisy, and “in 2.17 he names his imaginary interlocutor a Jew, and notes the things of which the Jew boasts: he possesses the law of God, which embodies knowledge and truth; instructed in its precepts, he can play the role of leader for the blind, of light for those in darkness (vv. 17–20)” (Westerholm 1984, 233). At this point, according to Westerholm, Paul argues (similarly to the interpretation that I have proposed above) that Jews who do not keep the Law will be judged according to the Law. We now come to the crux of the interpretation, verses 27–29. Westerholm convincingly argues that διὰ γράμματος καὶ περιτομῆς in verse 27 does not indicate that the letter (written code) and circumcision are liabilities; they are not indices of a perverted understanding of the commands of God, but they are simply not sufficient in themselves. I am in complete agreement with this interpretation thus far; however, at this point I part from Westerholm.
Westerholm himself remarks:
Perhaps it takes a rabbinic Jew to sense the oddity—from our perspective—of this sentence, which simply repeats the oddity of Paul's formulation itself. Everything makes sense until the very last clause, but keeping the Law while being uncircumcised is simply an oxymoron from the perspective of rabbinic Judaism, because being circumcised is part of the Law! On the one hand, rabbinic Judaism was to develop (and perhaps the Pharisees already had) a doctrine whereby gentiles do not need to keep the Law at all in order to be justified. There is a separate Law for them: the seven commandments given to Noah. On the other hand, “the” Law can only mean one thing: the aggregate of all of the commandments both ritual—between humanity and God—and ethical—between humans and other humans. To be sure, there is a disagreement between Paul and “most Jews” as to whether gentiles need to be circumcised in order to become part of the People of God, but even more to the point, there is a fundamental gap in the definition of the Law. For prophet or Pharisee, it is possible to preach: “What good is keeping this ceremonial part of the Law, if you do not keep that ethical part of the Law?”  For Paul alone is it possible to generalize the one part as the Law tout court. For Paul, Law has come to mean something new, vis-à-vis Pharisaic Judaism; it has come to mean “the law of faith working through love,” in which “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Now whether he has crossed the line or not into true allegory, and I believe he has, in any case, once this new law of faith is defined as being that which is “in the spirit; not in the written,” ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι, we already have a hermeneutical moment, a moment of interpretation. Furthermore, the written is particular, the spiritual universal in Paul's scheme of things, a point to be further supported below. One of the best examples of Paul's allegorical readings of the commandments—in addition, of course, to his reading of circumcision—is found in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8, where the commandment to purge the house of leaven for Passover is reinterpreted ecclesiologically to mean that one must purge the Christian communities of the old leaven of the puffing up of pride (verse 2), as well as the leaven of “vice and wickedness.” Paul's reading here is very similar indeed to that of Philo in the Special Laws, where leaven is also interpreted as pride (Philo 1937, 193). The historical rite of a particular tribe has been transformed into an ahistorical, abstract, and universal human “truth,” the very essence of allegory.
When in v. 26, Paul writes that the “uncircumcision” of a Gentile who keeps the law will be counted as circumcision, his argument is admittedly one which most Jews of this time would have rejected, believing that literal circumcision was a prerequisite for a Gentile's admission to the people of God. Still, Paul evidently feels that he is simply pressing the logic of the situation to its conclusion: just as the (physical) circumcision of the Jew will be disregarded if he transgresses the law, so the (physical) uncircumcision of the Gentile will be disregarded if he keeps it. (Westerholm 1984, 235)
Westerholm's own conclusions regarding the usage of “letter” and “spirit” in Romans 2 brings this point out clearly. Westerholm adheres to the view that “‘Letter’ in Rom. 2.27 does not refer to a particular interpretation of the Old Testament law, but to the possession of God's commands in written form.” Paul is then preaching against a view that mere possession of the written text is sufficient for divine approval, whereas in truth only observance will win such approval. So far, so good—that is, the same as I wish to interpret. In the next paragraph of Westerholm's text, however, the enormous difference appears, for there he argues, “Similarly, circumcision which is (ἐν) γράμματι in v. 29 does not refer to a particular interpretation of circumcision, but simply to circumcision in a physical, external form.…Physical circumcision is contrasted with circumcision ἐν πνεύματι, which may or may not be meant to refer to the mark of the new age. In any case, it speaks of an inner reality which is not content with external forms, whatever limited legitimacy the latter may possess” (Westerholm 1984, 236). This very opposition, however, between a circumcision which is physical and one which is an inner reality is in its very essence a “particular interpretation of circumcision”! What else can it possibly be, especially if Paul argues that this inner reality is more important than and supersedes the physical observance? This does not preclude the ethical interpretation of “in the spirit” which Westerholm argues for; Paul is protesting an ethical defect in Romans 2—whether hypocrisy, as Westerholm would have it, or excessive reliance on ethnic privilege, as I interpret it. But there is no contradiction between an ethical reading of the opposition and a hermeneutical one. They go together and are homologous with each other.