Paul and the Law

Article by   December 2013
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Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. NSBT 31; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2013, 249 pp. $24.00./£15.00

The apostle Peter famously said that "in all [Paul's] letters ... there are some things ... that are hard to understand" (2 Pet 3:16). These words can hardly fail to elicit a sigh of relief or even a wry smile from Paul's readers. What we have all suspected but were afraid to admit, God has said - sometimes, Paul can be difficult to grasp. 

One wishes that Peter had gone on and specified what those "some things" were. I rather suspect that high on that (theoretical) list would be something relating to Paul's teaching on the law. Paul's apparently contradictory statements about the law (compare Rom 3:31 and 6:14) have occupied interpreters for centuries. Historical-critical interpretation of Paul, at least since the days of F. C. Baur, has yielded an unending succession of unsatisfactory syntheses of Paul's statements on the law. In no small measure, the New Perspective on Paul has been an effort to reckon with Paul's view of the law from a posture of sympathy to first century Judaism. Evangelical interpretation of Paul has faced its own challenges, as recent debates about the so-called "third use of the law" in Paul attest. 

Into this academic whirlwind Brian Rosner has bravely ventured. Rosner, Principal of Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College, and an accomplished evangelical Pauline scholar, has authored a clearly articulated and argued monograph that tries to chart a way forward. He is not simply content to survey and to explain difficult passages, but to propose a "hermeneutical solution" that is "exegetically compelling" (p. 14). Although I do not find Rosner's solution to be a compelling one, I am convinced that he has produced an important work that merits close study. 

In the opening chapter, Rosner does a fine job setting forth the exegetical difficulties in Paul's statements about the law (pp.24-5). He first proceeds to define terms critical to the discussion ('Paul,' 'law,' 'believer'), stressing that Paul generally means by 'law' the first five books of the Old Testament (pp.26-31). Rosner then sketches what he will argue is Paul's posture toward the law. For Rosner, much of the discussion has taken a wrong turn in the way that it conceives Paul relating to the law. "The question is not which bits of the law Paul is referring to in a given instance of nomos, but the law as what" (p.29, italics original; cf. pp.40-1, 43). Rosner begins, then, "by acknowledging the unity of the law," and not by attempting to partition it" (p.208). Therefore, Rosner explains, when "Paul speaks positively or negatively about the law," one needs to ask "in which capacity" for Paul "the law is functioning" (p.208). 

Rosner proceeds to reject the venerable three-fold division of the law, dating back in Christian reflection at least to Thomas Aquinas and enshrined in many of the Protestant creeds and confessions. This division (moral, civil, ceremonial) is "anachronistic," "impractical," and "unsuccessful" (pp.36,37). It is this third point that holds particular weight for Rosner. Such partitioning of the law, Rosner argues, fails to reckon with the root-and-branch character of Paul's critique of the Mosaic law. What Paul has in view is nothing less than wholesale "replace[ment of] the law" (p.37). 

Positively, Rosner summarizes Paul's understanding of the law along three alliteratively titled lines - repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation. It is these three "moves" that occupy the remainder of the book (p.39). Rosner not only discusses them in relation to particular passages in Paul, but helpfully provides visual charts situating important Pauline passages under columns corresponding to these three moves (see pp.41, 210-6). 

Chapters 2 and 3 address the way in which Paul is said to have repudiated the law. Their focus, understandably, is Paul's negative statements about the law (p.45). Chapter 2 addresses "explicit" statements to that effect, while the chapter 3 explores lines of evidence in Paul that Rosner understands to constitute "implicit repudiation" of the law (p.83). No small part of the survey of the explicit statements centers upon Paul's phrase "not under the law" (pp.47-59).  For Paul, Jews are properly "under the law," that is, "bound by [its] demands" and "subject to its sanctions" (p.48). Gentiles, however, "are not and never were 'under the law'" (p.48). Paul can also use the phrase "under the law" to refer to being "under the power and penalty of sin" (p.48), a condition in which, by definition, only Jews may find themselves. Paul also understood the law, Rosner further argues, to be a "failed path to life" (p.59), highlighting Paul's handling of Lev 18 in Gal 3 and Rom 10 (pp.60-73). Where did Paul derive such a view of the law, Rosner queries? From the Old Testament itself, particularly the prophets Jeremiah (31:31-33), Ezekiel (36:22-32), and Daniel (9:9-16a) (pp.79-81). 

Paul's implicit repudiation of the law is evident, Rosner continues, from at least two forms of the "argument from absence," namely omission and reversal (pp.83, 84). To give but two examples, Paul never says that believers "walk according to the law" - even though this is a common Old Testament phrase (p.85). Furthermore, while Paul says that Christians "fulfill" the law, he never says that they "keep" or "obey" the law (p.88). Rather, we "obey the gospel" (p.88.)

Chapter 4 addresses the ways in which Paul is said to have replaced the law. Rosner proposes several lines of Paul's teaching in support of this claim. For Paul, according to Rosner, the obligation to keep the Mosaic law has been replaced by Christ, the gospel, and "apostolic instruction" (p.113). Such passages as Gal 2:19-20 and Phil 3:4-14 show, for Rosner, that "Christ took the place of the Torah" (p.115). The phrases "law of Christ," "law of faith," and "law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21; Rom 3:27, 8:1) are overlapping though not synonymous expressions that collectively comprise a "substitute for the Law of Moses" (pp.120-1). Believers do not keep the law, because through love they "fulfill" the law (Rom 8:4, 13:8) (p.124). Believers are said to walk, variously, "in newness of life," "in the light," "in the Spirit," and "according to the truth of the gospel," expressions that denote "replace[ment of] life under the law" (p.127). For Rosner, Paul's use of the term "new" frequently denotes "replacement of the old covenant of the law" (p.127). Finally, Rosner argues that the parallel statements at 1 Cor 7:19, Gal 5:6, Gal 6:15 not only repudiate the law ("neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything") but also replace it with something else ("keeping God's commands," 1 Cor 7:19) (128, cf. 33-39). 

What, then, replaces the Mosaic Law as a norm for Christian practice? According to Rosner, there is "obedience to apostolic instruction" (1 Cor 7:19). There is also "love produced by faith in Christ" (Gal 5:5-6), which Paul specifies in Gal 5:13-6:10. Finally, there is "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17), that is to say, "ethics arising from the gospel" (p.132). 

Chapters 5 and 6 address the way in which Paul is said to have reappropriated the law. Reappropriation is Rosner's category for those passages in which Paul constructively and positively brings the law to bear on the lives of Christians. The law, in brief, "has ongoing value and validity" (p.136). This positive dimension to the law in Paul's writings, according to Rosner, is two-fold. First, Paul is said to reappropriate the law as "prophecy," that is, the law as it "forecasts and proclaims in advance" (p.138). This dimension of the law in Paul's thought is especially evident in Romans, a letter replete with Old Testament citations and references that Paul understood to prophesy "key features of the gospel" (p.148). Second, Paul is said simultaneously to reappropriate the law as "wisdom." While "the law as law-covenant has been abolished, the law is still of value for Christian conduct as Scripture and as wisdom" (p.160, italics original). Such an approach to the law, Rosner argues, is hardly unique to Paul. It has precedent in the Psalms (pp.165-74), and is faithful to the law's own understanding of itself (pp.174-181). Paul's moral teaching evidences not only formal links with the wisdom tradition, but also material indebtedness - in both "precept" and "practice" (pp.183, 188). That is to say, "Paul does indeed read the law as what may be described as wisdom for living" (p.188). How does this kind of reading differ from reading "law as law" (p.204)? Reading the law as "wisdom for living" means that Paul "has internalized the law, makes reflective and expansive applications, and takes careful notice of its basis in the order of creation and the character of God" (p.204). 

In a concluding chapter, Rosner underscores that what he has proposed is a "hermeneutical solution ... to the puzzle of Paul and the law" (p.208). The three moves within this hermeneutical solution are "what would be expected of a new movement in Judaism," and, therefore, meet the test of historical contextuality (p.217). Where, then, does that put the Christian and the Mosaic Law? We do not observe the laws of the Torah - we do not "read the law as law-covenant" (p.218). Rather, we "retain ... the Law of Moses," that is, we reappropriate it as both prophecy and wisdom (p.218). 

Rosner has proposed an exegetically-detailed and hermeneutically-sensitive way of addressing Paul's teaching on the law. He has done so with admirable clarity. Paul and the Law, in fact, is a model of how a book should be written. No one can put this book down without a firm grasp of Rosner's thesis. Pedagogically useful concluding chapter summaries, lucidly outlined chapters, and effective introductory and concluding chapters assist and guide the reader from the book's beginning to its end. Rosner has shown that clarity and simplicity need not be foes of academic prose. 

What, then, of Rosner's proposal and arguments? Paul and the Law strikes three salutary notes. First, Rosner underscores the way in which Paul conceives the law as a "whole" or "unity" (p.28). Paul most frequently speaks of the law either as the written books we call the Pentateuch or as the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai. Many interpretative difficulties with Paul's statements on the law stem from a failure to appreciate these basal definitions. Paul's statements about the law are generally not with reference to "law" in the abstract - a generic, catch-all phrase for "rule" or "command." Paul most often speaks of the law in the concrete - a discrete and historically particular entity. 

This observation, in turn, occasions a second, and perhaps the most beneficial, component of Paul and the Law. It does well in explaining Paul's critique of the law. Against some recent interpreters who understand Paul's critique of the law to be hopelessly convoluted, Rosner argues that Paul's critique of the law is coherent and consistent. And to others who understand Paul's criticisms in predominantly sociological terms, Rosner, while appreciating this observation, pleas for understanding Paul's critique in soteriological terms as well (pp.69, cf. 59-73). The law is incapable of giving life to a sinner. Paul can frequently speak of being "under the law" in terms of being "under the penalty and power of sin" (p.48). The law has no resources to deliver a person under sin's dominion from that dominion. This deliverance, Paul argues, is something that only Christ can do. 

A third valuable feature of Rosner's work is the way in which he highlights Paul's prophetic reading of the law, that is, his reading of the law as finding its telos in Jesus Christ (pp.135-158). That Paul does so is not only beyond dispute, but is also central to understanding Paul's posture towards the law, especially with reference to Christian practice. One wishes, however, that Rosner had devoted more space to explaining the sense of the term "reappropriation." Rosner is surely correct to say that Christians do not heed the law as "law-covenant," but "read it as witnessing to faith in Christ" (p.138). This understanding of the law is a "major presupposition of New Testament thought" (p.138.). But, according to Jesus and the apostles, it is equally a major presupposition of Old Testament thought. The New Testament writers claim to be reading the law as it was originally read and how it was always meant to be read. This may in fact be Rosner's view. Fuller discussion on this point would have clarified the matter.

Rosner has proposed a comprehensive hermeneutical solution to the problem of Paul and the law. While Rosner's work does strike salutary notes, I am not persuaded that his solution of repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation adequately resolves the problem. While Rosner correctly sees Paul predominantly speaking of the "law" in terms of its unity, Paul employs crucial distinctions that compel nuancing this definition. In Rom 2:14-15, a passage to which Rosner devotes surprisingly little attention, Paul says twice that the Gentiles "do not have the law" before declaring that "by nature [they] do what the law requires." That the Gentiles so "do what the law requires" indicates that "the work of the law is written on their hearts." The Gentiles' "conscience" furthermore "bears witness," and "their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them."

Paul, then, recognizes a relationship between Gentiles and the law. The Gentiles "do not have the law," that is the Mosaic legislation. They nevertheless have the "work of the law ... written on their hearts." The phrase "the work of the law" is not synonymous with "the law," but neither is it unrelated to "the law." "The work of the law" must refer to the moral core of the Mosaic law. This understanding underlies Paul's argument in Rom 1:18-32, a fundamentally moral indictment of Gentile humanity. The conscience of every human being gives voice to the moral commands that were also written on two tables of stone and comprised the heart of the Mosaic legislation. 

Paul, then, is quite willing to recognize within the Mosaic law a body of moral commands that comprises the heart of the Mosaic law. In doing so, Paul is simply restating the teaching of Jesus, who spoke along these lines of "weightier matters" in the Mosaic law (Matt 23:23), and who affirmed that on "two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets," that is, love of God and love of neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). The apostle furthermore declares that this moral core is known to and obliges even non-Jewish persons. Gentiles may not possess and be obliged to the law in its Mosaic form, but they are not absolutely lawless. Importantly for Paul's understanding of the law, Paul has chosen to use the word "law" in connection with these universal moral standards (Rom 2:14-15). 

It is this overlap between the law in the form possessed by the Gentiles and the law in the form possessed by the Jews that helps to explain some difficult passages in Paul. The situations of the Jew and of the Gentile, then, are formally but not materially different. Both stand under "law" in some form, are violators of this "law," and therefore stand accountable to its sanctions and penalties. Recognizing this state of affairs goes a considerable distance to explaining places where Paul speaks of Gentile Christians once having been under the law (cf. Gal 3:10-13, Rom 6:14).

Recognizing this dimension of Paul's argument also raises the possibility that there is some place in Paul's thought for the ongoing validity of the moral core of the Mosaic law. If Paul recognizes the standards of this moral core to be universal human standards, then might Paul understand the law's moral core to be perpetually binding, valid for all people, Christians included? Might this not be true even if Paul also argues for the abrogation of the law in its Mosaic form?

Paul, in fact, gives indication that he understands the Decalogue to continue to bind human beings under the New Covenant. Paul quotes the fifth command at Eph 6:2, and the seventh, sixth, eighth, and tenth commands at Rom 13:9, summarized in the citation at Rom 13:9 from Lev 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (he also quotes Lev 19:18 at Gal 5:14). What is striking is not simply that Paul quotes these commands, but that he quotes them in their Decalogal form. The moral core of the law does not simply furnish raw materials for Paul's independent moral reflection. It provides the concrete standard by which Paul expects believers to order their lives. It is puzzling, then, to see Rosner claim that Paul in Eph 6:2 "does not appeal to the commandment to obey one's parents as law ..., but as advice concerning how to walk in wisdom (cf. Eph 5:15)" (p.208). In fact, Paul takes pains to affirm what Rosner understands him to deny - the ongoing validity of the Decalogue. 

In Gal 5:14 and Rom 13:8, Paul stresses that "the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,'" and "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (cf. 13:10, "love is the fulfilling of the law"). Rosner argues that the verb "fulfill" here means "bringing the obligation to keep the law to completion" (p.123). Citing Rom 8:4, Rosner claims that it is Christ who "fulfills the law, and in him, believers also fulfill the law" (p.123, quoting Douglas Moo). Therefore, Paul is said to claim in Gal 5:14 and Rom 13:8 two things. First, Christ has fulfilled the demands of the law for believers. Second, united to Christ, believers undertake a life of love, a life lived "according to the values of the 'new age'" (p.124, quoting Douglas Moo). Thus, "the fulfillment of the law through love is effectively the law's replacement" (p.124). Love "brings the law to completion and effectively replaces it as law with something better" (p.195). 

Rosner's reasoning rends asunder what Paul has joined together - the law and love. Rosner claims that Paul, after quoting four of the ten commandments in Rom 13, does not say that "Christians must 'keep' the laws listed" (p.193). But Paul mentions these laws precisely because he does expect Christians to keep them. Love indeed fulfills the law. But what is love? Paul concretely defines love precisely in terms of the keeping of the ten commandments. If one were to love one's neighbor by perfectly keeping the second table of the law, then he would thereby "fulfill the law." Paul's point is not that Christians perfectly keep this standard in this life. His point is that perfect obedience to the moral law remains the standard to which Christians are to aspire. Anything less is, literally, unloving. 

Rosner, of course, states repeatedly that Christians are bound to moral absolutes. He reprobates moral license. Where then do Christians find moral guidance in Paul? For Rosner, moral direction comes from reappropriating the law as wisdom (pp.159-205). The law proves for Paul to be "a critical and formative source for his moral teaching on these topics" (p.204). But its value for Paul is not as a body of commands. Its value is as it can be read for "wisdom for living, in the sense that he has internalized the law, makes reflective and expansive applications, and takes careful notice of its basis in the order of creation and the character of God" (p.204). Rosner suggests multiple examples of this reading from across Paul's letters. But these examples raise certain difficulties for Rosner's proposal. Paul appears to have carried certain matters straightforwardly from the Mosaic law to the present era. These matters include theft, murder, and sexual integrity (cf. pp.192-204). Others, however, are less straightforward. Rosner correctly notes that Paul never enforces the Mosaic "law of tithing" in his congregations (p.191). Instead, Paul gives commands regarding systematic and proportioned giving, commands that indicate that Paul has been "instructed by the law" (p.191). A "third use" hermeneutic explains why Paul would enforce the one set of Mosaic commands and not the other. Theft, murder, and sexual ethics are among the universal, human norms enshrined in the Decalogue. The law of the tithe occupies a place in the Mosaic legislation that indicates that these laws are uniquely for Israel under the Old Covenant. I do not see, however, how Rosner's wisdom hermeneutic has the same explanatory power. How can this hermeneutic come to the law and reliably yield concrete, objective, unchanging precepts for all Christians in all times and places? To the Christian seeking moral guidance from the law, I am doubtful that reappropriating the law as wisdom would be all that useful. 

If Paul understands the moral core of the law to continue to bind believers under the New Covenant, then how are we to understand such phrases as "the law of Christ" (1 Cor 9:21, Gal 6:2), and "the commandments of God" (1 Cor 7:19)? Rosner sees both such phrases as indications that Paul has indeed replaced the Mosaic law with a "substitute," namely "the law of Christ/faith/the Spirit" (p.120; cf. p.42). But surely the fact that Paul has retained the term "law" should give us pause. Paul's point is not that one body of legislation has been replaced with another standard, whether following "Christ's example" (p.117) or "living under Christ's lordship" (p.119). Paul's point is that the law, in its concrete Mosaic form, has undergone redemptive-historical transformation in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Ridderbos addresses the point most comprehensively. 
[I]f one asks himself what the material content is of the expression 'bound to the law of Christ' (1 Cor 9:21), the answer will lie in the fact that Christ suo modo represents the law of God and thus the law of Moses. Not only does Christ by his Spirit bring about a new bond to the law in the hearts of believers, whereby the law retains its force as the expression of the will of God in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), but Christ also represents the new standard of judgment as to what "has had its day" in the law and what has abiding validity (Col. 2:17). Finally, one should point out the interpretation of the law given by Christ, to which Paul appeals in more than one place (cf. 1 Cor 7:10ff.), which determines the expression of Galatians 6:2 as well ... There can thus be no doubt whatever that the category of the law has not been abrogated with Christ's advent, but rather has been maintained and interpreted in its radical sense ("fulfill"; Matt. 5:17); on the other hand, that the church no longer has to do with the law in any other way that in Christ and thus is ennomos Christou (Paul, p.285). 
Even in its Mosaic form, the law, Paul says, is "spiritual," that is, of or from the Holy Spirit (Rom 7:14). Under the New Covenant, the "law of Christ" also properly belongs in the domain of "Spirit." The parallel that Rosner notes among 1 Cor 7:19, Gal 5:6, and Gal 6:15, far from relating the law and the new creation antithetically, in fact juxtaposes them. The "commandments of God" are none other than the law in its New Covenant form. Observing them is an indispensable part of life in the new creation.  
In conclusion, Paul and the Law has pointed the way forward to the solution of the problem of Paul and the law, even if this book has not landed on the solution itself. Paul's statements on the law must be read redemptive-historically, and are incomprehensible apart from the fundamental proposition that Christ is the one to whom the law points. Paul repeatedly highlights the law's failure to give to sinners what it commands, namely eternal life. Only through faith in Christ may the sinner find life. But this failing of the law (really, a failing of the sinner) and this antithesis between the law and Christ is hardly the whole story for Paul. Having undergone redemptive-historical modification, the law very much has a home in the New Covenant. The law continues to provide the moral standard that binds all people, not just Christians. It is this understanding of the law that helps us to grasp what the prophet meant when he looked to the day when God would "put his law" in his people and "write it on their hearts" (Jer 31:33). It is this understanding of the law that allows us to see what our Lord meant when he declared that he came not "to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 5:17). And it is this understanding of the law that ultimately does justice to numerous places in Paul where Christians are sent to the moral law for practical direction and guidance. All told, Paul's teaching on the law is neither easy nor for the faint of heart. We may therefore be grateful that Paul and the Law helps us to engage it constructively and thoughtfully. 

Dr. Guy Waters is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. His most recent book is How Jesus Runs the Church (P&R Publishing, 2011).



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