Paul And The Law image

Paul And The Law

“Discussing Paul and the Law," says Andrew Errington of Moore Theological College, "is a bit like being watched while you carve a chicken. It’s fairly easy to start well, but you quickly have to make some tricky decisions about which everyone has an opinion, and it’s very easy to end up in a sticky mess with lots of bits left over that no one knows what to do with.”

If that describes your experience in any way, then you would probably benefit from listening to this outstanding lecture by Brian Rosner, an Australian New Testament scholar and author of Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. Rosner’s starting point is the well-known tension within Paul when it comes to his view of the Law. Paul says we are not under the Law (Rom 6:14), but then quotes from it to teach Christian ethics (Eph 6:1-3); he says we have died to the Law like a woman whose husband has died (Rom 7:1-3), but also that it is holy, righteous and good (7:12); and in his most obvious polarity, he says that Christ has abolished the Law (Eph 2:15), and yet that we do not abolish the Law but uphold it (Rom 3:31). This, Rosner rightly says, is a formidable challenge for the New Testament interpreter, and has implications for soteriology, anthropology, eschatology and theology, among other things.

Methodologically, Rosner argues, three things need to be done in handling Paul and the Law correctly. First, we need to look at all Pauline material, rather than (as is the scholarly fashion) being restricted to Romans and Galatians, with hints of Philippians and the Corinthian letters, and no sign at all of Ephesians, Colossians or the Pastorals. Secondly, we need to look at the issue hermeneutically: how is Paul reading and interpreting the Torah? With what framework does he understand what the Law is doing, and what it means for his generation? And thirdly, we need to see the Law as a unity. Most studies focus on specific commandments given through Moses (the laws), but although this is sometimes what Paul means (e.g. Rom 9:4), it is much more appropriate to focus on the first five books of Moses together (the Law), much of which is narrative or even poetry rather than lists of commands. Moses’ exposition of the Law in Deuteronomy, for example, begins with a lengthy recitation of Israel’s history - in other words, narrative rather than commandments - and Paul refers to the Law when quoting from narratives (e.g. Gal 4:21). As such, Rosner contends, we need to think in terms of “Paul and the Law” rather than “Paul and the laws” (or even, in the case of those who believe in pseudonymous authorship, of “Pauls and the laws”!)

How, then, does Rosner see Paul’s view of the Law? He answers using three “R"s: “Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation of the Law as law-covenant, and its replacement by other things, but a reappropriation of the Law as prophecy, with reference to the gospel, and as wisdom for Christian living.” He then explains each of these in more detail. When faced with Paul’s repudiation of the Law, for instance, we should not ask (as has been common in Reformed circles) “which bits?”, but “as what?” Saying that Paul objected to some parts of the Law and not others, splitting it into moral, ceremonial and civil categories in the process, though hermetically convenient, is both anachronistic and arbitrary, since nobody in Paul’s day would have seen it like this. Saying that Paul objected to the Law simply because it was not Christ (with Ed Sanders), or because it was a means of preserving an ethnocentric community (with James Dunn and Tom Wright), is likewise inadequate. What we need to do is to ask what it is that the Law does that Paul is concerned about (hence “the Law as what?”). Paul’s concern, for Rosner, involves his conviction that the Law is a failed path to life (Gal 3:21): the essence of the Law is of a covenant calling for something to be done in order to find life, and this has failed because of universal sinfulness. For Paul, we cannot find life by effort or ethnicity, but only by grace, and that is the sense in which the Law is repudiated. In a similar way, it is replaced in all sorts of ways - by obedience, faith, the Spirit, the law of Christ, walking in light, and so on.

It is his section on reappropriation, however, that really makes the lecture (and, I assume, the book) so compelling. For Rosner, Paul reappropriates the Law as prophecy pointing to salvation in Christ (Rom 1:2; 3:21; 3:31; 4:23-24; 16:26; etc), and also as wisdom to inform Christian ethics and conduct. His argument for the latter in particular makes sense of all sorts of things that can frequently puzzle the reader, most notably the thorny old question of why Paul cites the Law when exhorting Christians to live holy lives, even as he apparently deconstructs its ongoing place in the believer’s life. Rosner gives several examples of how this works itself out, including with respect to tithing/giving, theft, idol worship, antisocial vices, and sexual ethics, and concludes that Paul - like the Psalmists and the wisdom writers - has internalised the Law, reflected upon it for his own situation, and expanded it to apply to contemporary challenges.

Anyway: the whole thing is well worth a listen, and/or a read.

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