Posted On June 7, 2016

Paul and the Law

by | Jun 7, 2016 | Theology, Featured

The law. Few words arguably create more of a firestorm of opinions than these two words. Add to that the seemingly perennial question of whether the Apostle Paul gave the green light for Christians to jettison the various laws noted in the front of Scripture and you have even more fuel for the fires of argumentation and debate. We are to be told throughout Scripture to be obedient to what God says. The question remains for many as to what exactly God said we are supposed to be obedient and faithful to in our walk with Him. Are we to maintain a connection to what is termed the Law of Moses or did Jesus come to set us free from that construct and to implement something completely different from what he observed and what His Father set forth as the norm? Furthermore, is the Apostle Paul setting forth different laws and commandments for different people (i.e. Jews and Gentiles)? These are all questions that have been long debated and rightfully so with a plethora of answers being provided through the centuries.

Brian Rosner in his book Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, attempts to submit his thoughts on this often thorny and confusing subject. Dr. Rosner is no stranger to the topic of Pauline studies having written books on Paul such as Paul, Scripture, and Ethics as well as being the co-author of the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series volume on 1 Corinthians among other contributions to Pauline studies.

The difficulty and variety of thought on the issue of Paul and the Law is aptly noted by Rosner in the introductory chapter of this book. There is no shortage of positions on the matter, but three are chosen by Rosner as a representative in his opinion of the major approaches, the Lutheran, Reformed, and New Perspective perspectives on Paul. I do think there is at least one other major viewpoint that could have been included and that is what is often termed as the Torah observant position, a construct largely found in the Messianic Jewish movement. It would have been helpful at various junctures in this book for that position to have been included in the mix.

Rosner perspective on this issue is that the law is a covenantal construct changed to such a degree that much of its relevance for the church today. Instead, the law resides in being a source of wisdom and a prelude to the gospel in a prophetic sense. Ultimately, the focus of discussion is on how the Mosaic Law has been repudiated by Paul and reappropriated to serve a different function in the life of the New Testament era, post-cross believer. Things such as observing the Feast Days of the Lord, the Sabbath, and dietary laws are presented by Rosner as specifically being officially off the observation table for the Christian.

I did appreciate Rosner noting the textual and exegetical difficulties in presenting the Mosaic Law as having three distinct elements, namely that of being able to be divided into moral, ceremonial, and civil law. This is an approach taken by many who attempt, as Rosner does in this book, to deal with the place of the law in the life of the follower of Christ. This threefold division is often seen as a means by which to continue to embrace laws such as the Ten Commandments. Often times we are not quite sure what to do with in our day or if they even remain valid. There is an inherent difficulty with such an approach and Rosner provides some salient insight from scholars in this regard in his book.

What I found difficult to embrace throughout this book is the perspective that Paul fully repudiates the entirety of the law (or Mosaic Law as it is described throughout). Instead, the author argues that the law is reappropriated as a source of prophecy (meaning a declaration of the need for the gospel) and a source of wisdom.

While I certainly do believe and fully embrace that the keeping of the law does not gain one justification before God, a point Paul and all the biblical authors for that matter reiterate, to present the law as only being a prelude to the gospel and a source of wisdom overlooks the continued commands by Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament authors that if we love God, we will keep His commands. Thus, can it be said that Paul is truly providing a different set of commands? Is the law of Christ noted by Jesus and Paul different from the law of God? Can it be said there is really a new set of commands being given or furthermore, a set of commands for Jews to obey and a completely different standard of behavior for non-Jews (i.e. Gentiles)?

Rosner definitely attempts to answer those questions. In doing so, he does an admirable job of presenting some points to consider within the Pauline text, and on a number of occasions, how the Pauline text relates to the rest of Scripture. The issue I had with his approach is his rejection of the law as a continued covenant between God and His people.

Perhaps this is rooted in the understanding that the law was just for the Jews and that for Christians, given Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles and most believers are Gentiles, the law as the covenant is not binding in its entirety for those classified as Gentiles. If the law is wisdom (which it is), then it should be viewed as relevant in our lives and prescriptive for behavior and as a defining element of what holy living looks like in action. Rosner aptly notes the law as a source of moral education. It is indeed paideia (instruction) but it is that because these commands are given by God, not as a means by which to obtain salvation, but to live in a manner that is pleasing to God and that is set apart from the pagan ideals of the world around us. God’s commands are the light and lamp to the feet and path of the righteous in a world drowning in darkness.

I see quite often the declaration that we are not under the law but under the law of Christ meaning, we are bound by the two commands of loving God and others. Rosner follows this approach, noting in the concluding chapter, “We do not keep the law, but fulfill the law in Christ and through love. We do not seek to walk according to the law, but according to the truth of the gospel, in Christ, in newness of resurrection life, by faith, in the light and in step with the Spirit.” These are all great declarations but my question is, “What is at the heart of the gospel message and what is meant by this newness of life?”

The gospel is a declaration of no longer being under the penalty of the law which is death. Because of our sinful nature, we are unable on our own to fully obey God’s law, thus the need for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Does God’s commands for righteous living somehow go away once we respond to the gospel message? I submit they do not. Paul in his epistles and certainly the rest of Scripture does not declare such an idea. The law of Christ (loving God and others) is noted by Jesus as rooted in what is stated in the law and prophets. In fact, Jesus stated that upon those two commands (loving God and others) hinge the entire front of the Bible. Is this a repudiation of those commands and reappropriation of them as a great source of wisdom that we recognize but are not to keep or is something different being stated by Jesus, Paul, the NT authors, and Scripture as a whole? That is a question I think Rosner does not fully answer given his thesis is rooted in the law being wisdom but not something we should strive to keep. There definitely needs to be a balance that notes the reality of grace and the response to God’s grace which is obedience to God’s commands for holy living. This balance was somewhat struck at times by Rosner, but ultimately, the balance teetered a bit too much for me on finding ways to suggest there is the law of God/Moses and an entirely new set of laws with the two never meeting.

There is much to like about this book. I do believe Rosner makes a number of valuable points throughout and food for thought. In my humble opinion, the thesis of the law being repudiated in its entirety and reappropriated does not fully answer the repeated Scriptures that call the believer, both Jew, and Gentile, to love God and to show that love by obeying His commands.

If we are to be faithful, the question of what our faithfulness should be rooted in must be answered. If indeed God’s commands are a marriage covenant with His people, I have difficulty believing there are two vastly different marriage vows taken by God’s people which seems to be the perspective of Rosner if the law-covenant is no longer a covenant under which the New Testament believer abides. I give this book 3.5 stars out of five as it addresses an important topic yet falls a bit short for me regarding the aforementioned issues.

I received this book for free from IVP Academic and the opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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