Thursday, March 13, 2008

What did Paul Mean by Fulfilling the Law? (II)

After two days of polling, it looks like most people favored Esler's answer: Christians weren't under any law at all, according to Paul, for the best the law promised but never delivered was now available by a different route -- the spirit. Tne Torah was fulfilled in the sense that "law" no longer had any force. Commandments and moral imperatives were irrelevant to the moral dimensions of faith. I agree with Esler too. Let's see why he's right.

According to C.F.D. Moule ("Fulfilment Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse", NTS 14: 293-320) pleroma (fulfilment) refers to the consummation of the will and plan of God. Fulfilling the law thus points to the total realization of what God intended with it, though it doesn't follow that performing the law in some way is part of that realization. It could mean that, but not necessarily.

Most scholars, especially in the wake of the New Perspective, believe that performing the law (in some way) is what Paul had in mind. (1) Mark Nanos (6 votes) thinks nothing changed for the Judean people, that the Torah remained in force, even if Gentiles were exempt from ethnic requirements. (2) James Dunn and Tom Wright (5 votes) are stronger on this point, claiming that the racial/ethnic aspects of the Torah were obsolete, that all believers fulfilled the Torah by following its ethical kernel. (3) Ben Witherington (7 votes) takes it to the next level, saying that the Torah was completely finished, fulfilled by adhering to a new law ("Christ's law", "the law of the spirit") which was about imitating Christ, keeping certain commandments from the past and new ones from the present. In all three cases, the Torah is understood to be fulfilled by performing it, a part of it, or a new model of it in the new age.

Back in the '90s I leaned towards variants of options (1) and (2), because I was so into the New Perspective and wanted to believe in an historically "Jewish-friendly" Paul. I still consider myself a New Perspective advocate, but a moderate one. I suppose I'm a double-agent like Francis Watson, who sees that "Gentile rights" were only part of Paul's battle. Sanders had it right all along: "it was the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul's soteriology which dethrone the law" -- and the latter is just as important as the former. This despite Dunn, who complains that Sanders has replaced the Lutheran Paul with "an idiosyncratic Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the glory and greatness of of Judaism's covenant theology and abandons Judaism simply because it is not Christianity". But sectarian converts are often this way -- unattractive and hostile about their previous allegiances (Philip 3:4b-11) -- and we shouldn't be trying to mainstream their mindset.

Let's give the New Perspective its due: Judaism didn't make difficult demands, and the interpretations of Nanos or Dunn apply well enough in places like Rom 3:21-4:17 where Paul clearly has the scope of God's salvation -- "pagans as much as Jews" (Rom 3:28-30) -- in view. But they fail miserably in contexts like Rom 5:1-8:17, where Paul speaks against the entire law (and the term "works" is nowhere to be found). If Paul were only trying to defend Gentiles and hold to an ethical kernel of the Torah, he would have left well enough alone at Rom 4. But he went beyond this, insisting that Jews die to the law in its entirety, as much as to the reign of Adam and sin. All of the law's commandments (not just "Jewish works") facilitate the victory of sin (Rom 7:7-25), and Moses even foretold that the Torah would be a dead-end project (Rom 9:30-10:13; though admittedly the Gentile issue comes into play as well in this passage). We can't pound the round peg of Rom 5-8 into the square hole of the New Perspective. I tried doing this for years, but in the end found that scholars like Nanos and Dunn were limiting Paul's perspective. For better or worse, the apostle thought the Torah was done with. As a sectarian convert he looked back on the era of the Jewish covenant as a dark age -- even though he had actually found it personally rewarding -- and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come.

What about option (3)? Ben Witherington argues that Paul thought the Torah was fulfilled by performing a new law, the messianic successor to the old. This would be "Christ's law" (Gal 6:2) or the "law of the spirit" (Rom 8:2) -- the "new covenant" (I Cor 11:25, II Cor 3:6) -- which consists of:
(1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles

(2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments)

(3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles.
I think this is plausible as an expression of Paul's view before the Galatian crisis, for I Corinthians admittedly presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force. Paul recycles material from Leviticus, and in the context of circumcision being irrelevant even declares that "keeping God's commandments is what counts" (I Cor 7:19). No getting around that statement.

But Paul later revised it by saying that "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Gal 5:6) -- again in the exact same context of circumcision. Galatians is difficult to date, but I've become increasingly convinced that it comes in between I & II Corinthians, per Mark Goodacre.

Paul's frame of mind on the subject of "keeping commandments" when he wrote Galatians and Romans is clear: it just can't be done. That's why Judean Christians have died to the law in its entirety (Rom 7:1-6). Being under the Torah reenacts the Edenic tragedy (Rom 7:7-13), which means that being under any commandment results in the victory of sin, because that's precisely how sin succeeds -- using any commandment against the holy purposes for which God intended it. Christ, in Paul's view, came to liberate humanity (though the Judean people in particular) from this mess (Rom 7:24-25).

So it seriously misrepresents the Paul of Galatians and Romans (that is, the post-I Corinthians Paul) to claim that he thought believers in Christ were subject to the commandments of any law or that moral imperatives were relevant to the dimension of Christian faith -- Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2 notwithstanding. What then do we make of Paul's occasional references to "the law of Christ", "the law of the spirit", and the "new covenant"?

(4) Philip Esler (12 votes), answers the question. Paul was saying that Christians had a metaphorical equivalent of the Torah, through the spirit. It's worth citing him at length:
"The best the law can provide is love of one's neighbor, but such love is available through an entirely different source -- the spirit. In fact, agape is the first fruit of the spirit. The law and spirit are stark alternatives: 'If you are led by the spirit, you are not under law' (Gal 5:18). Paul is speaking of the replacement of the law by the spirit, not the continuance of the ethical aspect of the law in the new dispensation of Christ." (Galatians, p 203)

"The law of Christ does not mean the Mosaic law redefined by Jesus, since this view is based on a failure to appreciate that Gal 5:13 envisions the total substitution of the law with an alternative path to agape. Nor does it mean a body of ethical tradition derived from the historical Jesus, since this plays no part in Galatians and is excluded by Paul's derivation of moral behavior from the spirit. Rather, Paul uses the phrase as a striking metaphor for the way in which love, the first fruit of the spirit, becomes the guiding force in the life of those who are in Christ... The 'law of Christ' represents Paul's most daring inversion... the final nail hammered into his argument that the Mosaic law is quite irrelevant in the new dispensation. Suggesting that the members of his congregations also have a law further serves in his ascription to them of a fictive ethnic identity. Not only do they have Abraham as an ancestor, they also have their own equivalent to the law, albeit only metaphorically." (Ibid, pp 231-232; emphasis mine)
Unlike other NT authors (Matthew and Hebrews most notably), Paul does not believe in a literal new law or covenant. By the time of Galatians at least, he'd consigned law and covenant to the dustbin. The Torah was fulfilled on an entirely different avenue -- the spirit.

8 Comments:

Blogger paulf said...

Seriously, how is anybody supposed to get any of this? More to the point -- does God expect anybody to figure these distinctions in order to be good followers?

Any theology that can only be gleaned by years of exhaustive exegesis by definition has absolutely no usefulness.

I have no idea exactly what Paul intended, if any or some or all of these books were written by "Paul." If Paul's beliefs weren't consistent, and he wrote the scripture, which version can we trust as the right portion of scripture to believe?

Are we to assume he got better as the years went by and thus his end point was the best one? Why would that be? Didn't he get his views directly in a conversation with the ghostly Jesus?

Maybe his first beliefs were more in line with the teachings of Jesus and then he got ideas of his own. Unless Jesus visited him again with new ideas that he modified.

I think it is great to read the texts and try to figure out when they were written, why and how they changed over time. But to then argue that one of these positions is closer to the correct or Godly position becomes somewhat of a farce.

3/13/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Paul wrote:

I think it is great to read the texts and try to figure out when they were written, why and how they changed over time. But to then argue that one of these positions is closer to the correct or Godly position becomes somewhat of a farce.

Since I'm not a Christian I'm certainly not making any assumptions about which position is more "correct or Godly". The issue is Paul's understanding of fulfilment of the law, and so which view best represents Paul as we know him by the time of Galatians and Romans. That's all.

Whether or not Paul's view is a good one, or that he evolved for the better, is another question entirely... maybe for a future blogpost.

3/13/2008  
Blogger Paul said...

You allude to this question in your final paragraph, but I want to ask you more directly if you think there is a radical disconnect between Matthean and Pauline christianity (or theology, if you like).

We've been studying Matthew in our Bible study at our home lately (just finished ch 6), so the sermon on the mount is fresh in my mind.

I'm ok with a bit of multi-perspectivalism with the NT, but I also think that it is right and good to try to see how the different NT writers might agree with each other since I think they all drew on the same source material, i.e. the words of Jesus.

All of that to say that for christians, the real question here is: what was Jesus' teaching on the law. Hopefully we have enough material in the NT to get a workable answer.

3/13/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Paul (a different Paul from the first) asked:

You allude to this question in your final paragraph, but I want to ask you more directly if you think there is a radical disconnect between Matthean and Pauline christianity (or theology, if you like).

They're very different. The Matthean community was Jewish and the law was salvifically important. Most of Paul's converts were Gentile and the law (by the time of Galatians) was 100% obsolete.

The law was important to Luke too, but in a more sectarian way. Matthew and Luke are actually the most conservative examples of Christianity in the NT. Both were addressed to Jewish communities, though Luke's included Gentile God-fearers. The Matthean Christians adhered to the Torah (in the context of a messianic renewal) and were able to retain ties to the synagogue because of it. The Lukan Christians respected the Torah (far more than Paul and Mark) -- the God-fearers as much as the Jews -- but allowed for its transcendence in certain ways which ultimately alienated them from wider Judaism.

I'm ok with a bit of multi-perspectivalism with the NT, but I also think that it is right and good to try to see how the different NT writers might agree with each other since I think they all drew on the same source material, i.e. the words of Jesus.

I think Paul is closer to Jesus than Matthew and Luke are, which sounds strange, but maybe not so given that Paul is closer in time than later synoptic writer. Scot McKnight's Jesus and His Death shows that covenant ideas don't trace back to the historical Jesus, having entered the eucharist tradition after Pentecost. Paul began following the formula (I Cor 11:25), though for him the "new covenant" soon became as metaphorical as the "new law".

As McKnight points out, Jesus based his vision on "kingdom" rather than covenant: "Kingdom is the term Jesus chose to build his dream on; one doesn’t surrender one’s dream terms easily." (Jesus and His Death, p 309)

Similarly, Dale Allison has also argued (against Ed Sanders) that Jesus followed the Baptist in completely rejecting covenantal hope. The two prophets believed that one must be "born again", that deliverance came not by belonging to the Judean people or having the law, but through a radical turning around -- a radical repentance producing good fruit.

All of that to say that for christians, the real question here is: what was Jesus' teaching on the law. Hopefully we have enough material in the NT to get a workable answer.

It's still one of the murkiest subjects in NT studies, but I think we can say a few things with confidence. As a sectarian prophet, Jesus just wasn't into the covenant. Most millenarians break hallowed traditions left and right (so Allison) and Jesus was no exception. He never, as far as we know, used the term covenant in his publc ministry. (Again, the use of it at the synoptic last supper probably isn't historical.)

At the same time, and again like many millenarians, Jesus intensified parts of the law as he ignored others. He replaced Mosaic commandments with Edenic ones. Sometimes he thought Moses wasn't strict enough in light of the end (as in the case of divorce), and other times he thought Moses had had his day. It's no doubt this ambiguity which made possible later controversies between the apostles over the law, especially when James tried mainstreaming the Christian movemement around 49 CE.

So in my view, neither Jesus nor Paul were covenantists, though there was a lot of ambiguity about Jesus' "real" position on the law. For Paul, in the end, there was no ambiguity: on the field of battle for his Gentiles, he drove a nail in the law's coffin once and for all. But other Christians went different ways -- especially James, Matthew, Luke, and the author of Hebrews. For them covenant-faithfulness was a fair way of representing Jesus.

3/14/2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loren, I wonder if the result of your poll would be similar if it were conducted elsewhere on the web. I suspect many of us who read your blog faithfully are your fans. (I'm one.) You often persuade us, or at least you articulate many points of view with which we're already inclined to agree. Do you know of any fellow biblioblogger who hasn't already staked out a position on Paul & the Law and who might replicate your poll for a somewhat different audience?

Peter Milloy

3/15/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Peter,

I'm sure you're right. Frankly I was suprised that Esler got the most votes, but as you say, I've done a lot with Esler on this blog in the past which has evidently persuaded others. If the same poll were run on Mike Bird's Euangelion, for instance, I think either Dunn/Wright or Witherington may have won.

Also bear mind that not many readers bothered to vote: 30 votes in one and a half days (or 300+ blog visits). Must have been a lot of Tolkien and movie readers those days. :)

3/15/2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gave my vote for Esler. One thing gives me pause, however. In Galatians, Paul is adamant that every man who becomes circumcised must keep the whole law (5:2). If the law is no longer valid, what's the big deal whether one is circumcised or not? The verse makes better sense if the law is effective in some sense. Loren, what do you make of it? It seems as though the law remains in force at least for the Jews.

3/22/2008  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Anonymous wrote:

I gave my vote for Esler. One thing gives me pause, however. In Galatians, Paul is adamant that every man who becomes circumcised must keep the whole law (5:2). If the law is no longer valid, what's the big deal whether one is circumcised or not? The verse makes better sense if the law is effective in some sense.

Paul is warning his Gentile converts that proselyte conversion entails adherence to the entire Torah. But that doesn't mean he thinks the law is still in force -- for anyone. He's just reminding the Gentiles that trying to fulfil the law in the way urged by his rivals (the Galatian influencers) would be futile.

3/22/2008  

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