Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Paul's View of the Law: Where Should the Study Begin?

When considering the question of Paul's view of the Law one is immediately confronted with a host of preliminary issues and questions. One such issue, for example, is the question of the referent of the term nomos: Does nomos refer to the Mosaic legislation, to the Mosaic Covenant, to a generic principle, to all the above and more?
One question however that is not often considered adequately in my view is the question of where such a study should begin. This question is not insignificant since where one begins has a large influence on what one concludes.
As I approach the subject I have been surprised that very few if any interpreters begin with Paul's view of the end. What I mean is few begin with a discussion of the function of the Law for end-time judgment/salvation. In Romans 2:5-16 Paul asserts the abiding function of the Law for eschatological judgment ("the doers of the Law will be justified"). If Paul maintains that the Law continues to function as the criteria for judgment at the end of the age, should that not affect one's interpretation of Paul's view of its validity in the present? Would not beginning here preclude or at the very least significantly nuance interpretations which present Paul's theology as a fundamental antithesis between works and faith?


James F. McGrath said...

I agree with you completely - and I suspect that Romans 2 is the part of the letter I've cited most frequently in recent discussions. It is common to suggest that Paul is speaking hypothetically in the passage in question - but Paul uses this axiom of both Judaism and early Christianity to support his over-arching point about divine impartiality.

I've been enjoying following your series on Paul and the Law and look forward to reading your further treatment of Romans 2!

Eric Rowe said...

When you say, "Paul asserts the abiding function of the Law for eschatological judgment," why do you include the word "abiding?" It's not from the text, at least not in on the surface of the text, as one might expect for something that is to be the starting point of the study. It seems to me that if you approach Romans 2 with the preconception that it's talking about an "abiding function" trucked in, then it really isn't a starting point at all, except rhetorically.

Anonymous said...


To me the idea of "abiding" is implied by the fact that at the end of the age the Law will function as criteria for judgment. "Abiding" means that it has not be aborgated or changed or completed or whatever adjective one wishes to use. The Law continues to function in the lives of the people of God in the present on the basis of the fact that it will do so at the end of the age.

Daniel Doleys said...

I certainly agree that Paul's eschatology must be considered when we see how we understand Paul and the Law. However, doe the statement Paul makes in 2.13-14 "the doers of the Law will be justified" seem like he is trying to assert a theology about that law, so that the law is a requirement for justification, or is he just making a statement of reality, so that the people who correctly due the law (in faith) are the ones who will be justified. One of my goo friends is writing his thesis on this and would love to hear your ideas. I think the later. It seems to me that Paul in this section where he is talking about the differences between hearers and doers is just saying that those who do the law (almost as content of belief) will be justifed...what do you think

Anonymous said...


Forgive me, but I am not sure I understand the distinction you are making. What is different about the assertion that future justification is based on law keeping (mine) and the assertion that people who correctly do the law are the ones who are justified (yours)? Is it the "in faith"?

I think the idea of the passage is that obedience to God's Law is the basis of eschatological judgment for both Jew and Gentile, albeit different for both. (1) judgment of Gentiles (2:12a-b) and (2)judgment of Jews (2:12c-16). The latter point includes the criteia of judgment (according to deeds), a contrast with Jews in the form of observant Gentiles (this is in light of Paul's comments in 1:18-32)and the occassion of God's judgment of the deeds by the Law which is "according to my Gospel".

Luke Britt said...


I appreciate the post and am interested in what your interpretation of Rom 2 will be. I tend to think along the lines of Schreiner but have been reading Dunn's Theology and am still working through this issue.

Anyways, in regards to your interpretation of future justification according to law keeping, to what extent are we to keep it in order to be justified? In Galatians 5, Paul seems to think that the law is completed in loving your neighbor; in Romans 8, Paul seems to think that we keep the law through the Holy Spirit. In short, what does Paul mean by 'doers of the Law'? What does it mean to 'keep the law'?

p.s. Go Red Sox!!

Eric Rowe said...

Yes, I understand that you mean "that at the end of the age the Law will function as criteria for judgment," that "it has not be abrogated or changed or completed or whatever adjective one wishes to use." But that's my problem. Those assertions are all conclusions one must reach after due diligence in exegesis. They certainly aren't givens in the passage. So it's hard for me to see how that should be the starting point, when there is a whole string of points that must come prior to that assertion of the law's "abiding."

Anonymous said...


We must be criss crossing each other on this because I am simply saying that the first place to start a study of Paul's view of the Law is here in Romans 2 since he seems to boldly be asserting that the keeping of the Law will be the criteria for future judgment. This theme of law keeping is continued in 2:25-29. Thus, "diligent exegesis" reveals that Paul thinks, with his Jewish contemporaries, vindication by God at "the final judgment will be on the basis of a wholehearted obedience to the law" (Gathercole). This is argue should be the launching off point of a discussion of Paul's view of the Law.

Geoff Hudson said...
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Eric Rowe said...
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Eric Rowe said...

I really don't draw the same conclusions you do from that passage, though, Joel. And, while Gathercole is good company to keep, I think a lot of others don't either. Yes, it's true that Paul teaches that those who will face judgment for the purpose of the righteousness they attained in God's sight by the Law will do so on the basis of their obedience of that Law. But Paul doesn't provide much hope that any people whose hope of justification is the kind that comes from obeying the Law will ever attain it. The very people who might expect to have a law-based justification are shown to be law breakers. The whole context of his argument at that point is to reveal the condemnation that Jews and Gentiles alike face. But there is another righteousness that is apart from the Law, which Paul introduces in Romans 3:20 which is not attained by that means. So, when you use an all-purpose phrase like "people of God" to apply Romans 2 to anyone who is justified, that's where I think you go wrong. And, while I don't expect to change your mind, it's because of the possibility of different readings of Romans that I see a problem with making the starting point of such a large synthetic study be the presumption of a particular view in one of the very bones of contention with which the study should wrestle.

Anonymous said...


If your point is that I have suggested to begin at a controverisal place for such a study, than we are in agreement as I think every inch of space in the discussion of Paul and the Law is contested space. There is no safe place to begin erecting a view. Still, I think that very few people begin here and allow the conclusions here to influence readings elsewhere. I would say that the interpretation you offered, classic as it is, is exactly the point I am trying to make since you do agree that Paul asserts here that law keeping is the criteria for future judgment, although you have restricted the scope of judgment:

"it's true that Paul teaches that THOSE WHO WILL FACE JUDGMENT FOR THE PURPSOE OF THE RIGHTEOUSNESS they attained in God's sight by the Law will do so on the basis of their obedience of that Law" (emphasis added).

I am aware that there is a long tradition of reading this text the way you have suggested, namely with a hypothetical nuance, so you are indeed in good company.

So we will call a truce and move on I suspect.

Eric Rowe said...

Sounds good.

Geoff Hudson said...

It's called cut and run. I'll leave you in your comfort zone.

sujomo said...

Thanks for the stimulating comments.

Just a question: can nomos in Paul ever mean 'legalism'? Also, why is nomos in Romans sometimes arthrous and, at other times, anarthrous? Is this just stylistic?

I think we might pay more attention to Christ being the telos of nomos (10:4)and link this with Matthew 17:5 and Deuteronomy 18:14-18 - an argument can be made that Christ came to bring the new torah and, maybe, this is what Romans 2 is referring to at the end of the age?

anyway, it is just a thought

Sujomo (I'm Mike Bird's friend)

Steven Coxhead said...

May I suggest the solution to the problem. Nomos in Romans means either the law of Moses (in every instance except those mentioned in the next set of brackets) or eschatological law (i.e., Rom 2:14-15, 26-27; 3:27; 8:2, 4). There may also be instances in which nomos combines both the previous senses in one general concept of law where Paul has in mind the totality of God’s old and new covenant revelations, or where at least he is not concerned to distinguish between the two. The phrase the works of the law (back then as today) is simply standard Jewish terminology for adherence to the Mosaic covenant, whereas works may mean the works of the law (e.g,. Rom 3:27; 4:2, 6; Eph 2:9) or simply obedience in general (e.g., Rom 2:6), depending on the context. Basically, Paul’s view is that with the coming of the new covenant in Christ, adherence to the Mosaic covenant (which was required by God and Moses during the old covenant age) has been superseded by adherence to Christ. As Sujomo wrote, Deut 18:15-19 speaks of an eschatological revelation that would supersede the revelation delivered to Israel by Moses. Moses himself knew that Mosaic torah would be superseded by a greater torah in the future, the torah of the Messiah. Isaiah 2:1-4; 42:4; 51:4-5 all teach that eschatological law will be Gentile friendly. Messianic torah, therefore, will open up the possibility of law keeping (i.e., a positive response to God’s word) and hence righteousness to the Gentiles. The Gentiles in Rom 2 who don’t have the law but who keep it, don’t have the Mosaic law, because they aren’t Jews; but through their acceptance of the gospel, Paul understands that they are adherents of eschatological law, thanks to the fact that the Spirit has written the law on the their heart as per Jer 31:33 (note the wording of Rom 2:15), and in fulfillment of the torah prophecies of Isaiah. Looking at the bigger picture, eschatological law is simply the revelation of Christ, who is the Word or Torah of God incarnate. Paul calls eschatological law simply the law of faith (Rom 3:27), the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2), the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21), or simply the law (Rom 2:26). Eschatological law is the gospel (Rom 10:8), or the standard of teaching to which you were committed (Rom 6:17). On the day of judgment, God does take into account each individual’s response to the revelation of God that they were given. This is the judgment of works talked about in Rom 2. Those who are considered by God to have responded positively (albeit imperfectly) to whatever revelation it was that they were given will be declared as belonging to the assembly of the righteous and thereby receive the right to inherit the promised blessings, the greatest of which is the blessing of having one’s sins covered by the righteousness of Christ. The OT doctrine of obedience rather than sacrifice helps us here. The point of that doctrine is not to say that sacrifice or atonement is not necessary. Rather, sacrifice without obedience renders sacrifice inefficacious. Note Heb 10:26: “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” In other words, the OT teaches us that the benefits of the covenant sacrifices only apply to the (covenantally) righteous, to those committed to God’s revelation (or covenant). The same thing applies on the day of judgment. Thus, there is no contradiction between the (covenant) righteousness of individuals and the righteousness of Christ. Possessing the former is the condition for enjoying the latter. The OT teaches that, and the NT follows the same pattern (note Matt 5:20; 7:21; Heb 12:14). In other words, on the day of judgment God graciously forgives the sins of those in whom he has already graciously chosen to draw to himself through an obedient response to his word.