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pauline studies

Law Survey


  • Introduction
  • Luther to Schweitzer
  • Paul & First-Century Judaism
  • Paul's View of Righteousness
  • E.P. Sanders
  • Further Inquiry
  • Bibliography

  • Introduction back to top

    One of the thorny issues that is tough to sort out is trying to make sense of the Apostle Paul's view of the Law. This issue has been rather hotly debated in academic circles over the last 20-25 years, with many books and papers emerging on the subject. Given the level of activity, we thought it prudent to provide a survey of some of the more established ideas on Paul's view of the Law, albeit higher critical views, and to point the interested reader in the direction of resources where he/she might pursue matters further. Because Christians are often quick to dismiss issues raised by the critical academic community without interacting with them, we are going to present a thumb-nail sketch of some of those views. We will then refer you to sources that can help you respond to them from a more evangelical perspective. At the outset I am obliged to acknowledge my debt to Stephen Westerholm for much of the content of this survey . In the first part of his very readable book, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith, he provides a wonderful survey of scholarship on this issue. Moreover, in the second part of the book he provides an evangelical response to these views.


    Luther to Schweitzer back to top

    A good place to start our survey is with Martin Luther, the great 16th Century reformer. By and large, it is his interpretation of Paul' statements on the Law that provides the grist for New Testament scholars to interact with in subsequent writings. In Luther's lectures on Galatians (Luther 1963-64), he insists that the Law, according to Paul, requires perfect obedience. None of our efforts to keep the Law can be successful, however, and the necessity of the crucifixion of Christ bears witness to this reality. The Law serves two functions, according to Luther. First of all, civil law serves to restrain transgression in society. Second, the Law serves to condemn us as sinners, to destroy any basis for self-righteousness, and to thereby drive us to God for mercy. For Christians whose sin was atoned for on the Cross, the Law may give us some ideas of good things to do, but it is not binding for the Christian.

    In the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer introduced a different understanding of Paul's use of the Law. He argues that Paul was obsessed with eschatology. That is to say, Paul regarded the world as having entered a new aeon, the Messianic age. The end of the world as we know it was imminent, or so Paul thought. Thus, in light of these realities, the Law was no longer a relevant part of life. Instead, the mystical union with Christ that Paul is said to have spoken of indicates that the Christian has moved beyond the age of Law and into a new sphere of existence. Thus, Schweitzer agreed with Luther that the Law, according to Paul, was no longer binding on the Christian, but he did so for different reasons.


    Paul & First-Century Judaism back to top

    There are a number of scholars who believe that Paul unfairly represented 1st century Judaism and the Old Testament view of the Law in order to promote his preoccupation with justification by faith. G. C. Montefiore is representative of this view ( Montefiore 1914). A Jewish scholar, Montefiore set out to show that the Judaism which Paul spoke of was not the Rabbinical Judaism of the 1st Century. Because there is little extant material from Judaism in this time frame, he takes writings from A.D. 300-500 and tries to infer back to the time of Paul. From these writings, he argues that the Jews saw the Law as a gracious gift of God. Perfect obedience was never regarded as possible. However, the Jews did expect to grow in holiness as a result of heeding the Law. Montefiore hypothesized that Paul was interacting with a lesser Hellenistic Judaism rather than the rabbinical Judaism of Palestine.

    H. J. Schoeps, another Jewish scholar, critiqued and tried to build on Montefiore's thesis (Schoeps 1961). While he conceded that some of Paul's statements could be found in 1st century Judaism in Palestine, Paul's overall attitude that the Law resulted in death was entirely antithetical to the Jewish view that the Law led to life for those in the covenant. He speculated that maybe Paul was despised by the Jews of his day because he did not really understand their theology.


    Paul's View of Righteousness back to top

    While it is generally agreed that Paul contrasted justification by faith with the effort to be justified by good works according to the Law, scholars are not in agreement as to how Paul actually viewed righteousness according to the Law. For example, Rudolph Bultmann argued that, for Paul, "righteous" according to works of the Law was little short of an oxymoron (Bultmann 1951). Bultmann suggested that the essence of sin is a person exerting himself and his claim of independence from God, thus forgetting his dependence as a creature on the Creator. In trying to acquire righteousness according to the Law, a person is exerting his capabilities and trying to commend himself to God on the basis of his accomplishments. Thus, the very pursuit of righteousness is itself a boastful exercise in sinful human muscle-flexing. According to Bultmann, Paul's negativism towards works-based righteousness was primarily aimed at nipping human arrogance and boasting in the bud.

    Against Bultmann, Ulrich Wilckens affirmed that Paul regarded righteousness according to the Law as a virtue that was able to save (Rom. 2:13), if in fact anybody was able to keep the Law. The problem, however, was that nobody could keep the Law. Wilckens believes that Paul was trying to remind the Jews that if they were going to seek God's saving favor on the basis of fidelity to the Law, apart from the work of Christ, they needed to be far more scrupulous-absolutely scrupulous-in keeping the Law.


    E. P. Sanders back to top

    The last scholar that we'll consider in this survey has been by far the most influential in the last twenty years. His two books, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983) have set the terms of the debate and inspired a tremendous amount of scholarly discussion. First of all he argues that Paul's characterization of the Jews is false. He spends a great deal of time trying to document that 1st Century Judaism affirmed "covenantal nomism." That is to say, they believed that God had sovereignly chosen them as His people and to be in covenant with Him (an act of mercy), and that keeping the Law was part of what it was to be faithful to the covenant. Thus, election was based not on works of the Law but on God's merciful choice of Israel. The Law provided guidance in life for those who had received such mercy as God's chosen people. Moreover, the fact that there is evidence of Rabbinical debate over how a person's sins are atoned for is evidence, according to Sanders, that the necessity of atonement for sin was a Jewish belief. Thus, the evidence seems to indicate that justification by works was not the dominant Jewish belief in the 1st century.

    Beyond this Sanders also argued that for Paul, the problem with the Law wasn't that the Law condemned man. Rather, the problem was that the Law wasn't as good a savior of mankind as was Jesus. Paul was first and foremost concerned with hailing Jesus as the savior of the world. From the fact that Jesus was savior, Paul then argues that man must therefore be in need of a savior. Thus, Paul does not argue from the plight of man to the saving provision of God, but quite the opposite. He argues that because Jesus is savior of the world, the world must need saving. With this shift in the logical progression, the effort to find out what made the Law itself so negative in Paul's eyes is moot. After all, if Sanders is correct, the primary problem with the Law is merely that it is a faulty "savior." What's more, Gentiles, to whom Paul is an apostle, are not able to be saved by the Jewish Law. Thus, the main point of Romans 1-3 is not so much that humanity has fallen short of the glory of God , but that the Law has fallen short as a savior, and thus Jesus alone is able to offer salvation.


    For Further Inquiry back to top

    If you would like to interact with these views from an evangelical point of view, I would start by looking at Westerholm's book. After giving a charitable representation of these and other views, he then gives a more orthodox response to these readings of Paul and, for the most part, to defend the original view of the Law as presented by Luther. Westerholm is prepared to agree with Sanders that Luther (not Paul) misrepresents the Jewish view of the Law, but he deftly argues for a traditional reading of Paul that is akin to Luther's views. If you would like to interact with Sanders's view more specifically, I would encourage you to start with a book by Frank Thielman called, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul's View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (1989).

    I would call your attention to one important distinction, however. The Reformed tradition affirms that Paul articulated a third use of the Law which is not emphasized by Luther or his modern disciple, Westerholm. That is, for the Christian who has found saving grace based on nothing more or less than the sacrifice of Christ for our sin, the Law does provide a guide for living. If we would be holy as God is holy, and if we would love as we have been loved, the Law provides indispensable guidance. After all, it is a reflection of God's character and must therefore be taken seriously. Even in Paul's most strident attack on those who would try to commend themselves to God on the basis of fidelity to the Law - the book of Galatians - Paul urges those who have found freedom in Christ to "serve one another for the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (5:13b-14) In 1 Corinthians 7:19, Paul writes, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." Such exhortations from Paul clearly indicate a positive role for the Law in the believer's life. For a basic look at the third use of the Law, I would commend you to John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, chapter 7.12 - 7.13.



    Bibliography back to top