J. Angus Harley

“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves” (Rom.2:14).

All bible verses are from the NASB unless stated otherwise.

The standard reading of this verse, and those around it, is that the Gentiles spoken of are pagans, not Christian converts. I do not agree with this interpretation and will list reasons over time why this is so. The argument I wish to address in this post is the NASB’s interpretation, “do instinctively the things of the Law”. I doubt that this is the correct reading, even though the majority of versions do support something similar, as does BDAG. 

The greek text reads: ὅταν γὰρ ἔθνη τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα φύσει τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν, οὗτοι νόμον μὴ ἔχοντες ἑαυτοῖς εἰσιν νόμος· (hotan gar ethnay may nomon echonta phusei ta tou nomou poiosin houtoi nomon may echontes heautois eisin nomos). 

The discussion revolves around the phrase phusei (‘by nature’). It is placed in-between two clauses and could align with either the first or the second. Does it qualify “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law”? Or, as with the NASB, does it qualify “do the things of the Law”? The first view is saying that those who are Gentiles by nature do not have the Law of Moses, almost as if to say ‘by birth’ they do not have the Law. Some commentators do support this reading of phusei: Cranfield, Achtemeier, Jewett, Gathercole, Schreiner, Kruse, Toews, and the lexicon by Abbott-Smith, for example. The second view is saying that the pagan Gentiles naturally (instinctively) do the things of the Mosaic Law. This is the majority view. Theologically, there is no doubt in my mind that this position is false, but I will pursue this at another date. My concern here is the grammatical argument. 

Seemingly favoring the majority view, phusei comes at the end of the first clause- hotan gar ethnay may nomon echonta phusei– suggesting that it is better suited to the succeeding clause.  However, as useful as word order is, it is common to Greek that the order is constantly broken in order to stress an emphasis; so, sometimes a word is placed near the beginning, or at the end, of a clause, to give it emphasis.

Phusei in Paul

Phusei is a dative noun, feminine, singular. The exact same form is used by Paul elsewhere:

Galatians 2:15, “We are Jews by nature [phusei] and not sinners from among the Gentiles”.

There is little doubt that phusei, here, is denoting an ethnic difference between the ‘sinful’ Gentiles and those who are ‘by nature’ Jews. It is not a question of the Jews, here, doing their ‘Jewish thing’, but merely that they are in status, or identity, Jews and not sinner Gentiles. 

Galatians 4:8, “However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature [phuseiare no gods.” 

Once again, the issue is not ‘doing’ but status. The Galatians were formerly enslaved to those who were not truly gods. This was the gods’ natural identity or status. 

Ephesians 2:3, “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature [phuseichildren of wrath, even as the rest.”

Once more, Paul is referring to the natural condition or state, identity, status, of Christians before their conversion: they were by nature children of wrath. The emphasis is not on doing, but status.

In sum, phusei is used to refer to an identity, or status, or condition, not to an action as such. In the case of Romans 2:14, the Gentiles spoke of are, by nature, Law-less, they do not have the Mosaic Law. This is their status. In other words, phusei is acting like an adjective or simple noun, not as an adverb.

Phusis in Paul

Similarly, the noun phusis, of which phusei is form, also functions in Paul as an adjective or simple noun:

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural” (Rom.1:26).

There is a natural function and unnatural one, a natural condition as opposed to an unnatural one. It is to be a woman over against an ‘un-woman’.

“and shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the law?” (Rom.2:27, ASV).

This could mean that the Gentiles are by nature/birth the uncircumcision, and that is their status; or it could indicate that the Gentiles are uncircumcised physically, in their nature or body. Either way, a status, condition, or identity is implied, not action.

“for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either” (Rom.11:21).

The status or identity, again.

“For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Rom.11:24).

As before, status and identity.

“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him” (1 Cor.11:14).

The state of nature itself.

Phusis elsewhere

Similarly, the use of phusis outside of Paul relates identity or status:

“For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race” (James 3:7).

Species and race, not action.

“For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Pet.1:4).

A nature, not an action.


Given that phusis and phusei refer to a status, identity, or condition, and not an action, and that, syntactically, it is quite reasonable to put phusei at the end of a clause, the evidence strongly favors that phusei in Romans 2:14 should be read with the first clause, “For whenever Gentiles, who by nature do not have the Law ….”