Friday, January 15, 2010

Paul and the Law in Redemptive-History

Over at Berith Road, Steven Coxhead has an interesting post on Justification by Works of Law in Pauline Perspective. I enjoyed teaching on this subject since I find that most undergraduate students have a default understanding of the law that is quasi-Marcionite. I often set an exam question, "According to Paul, is the law a bad thing that has been done away with, or a good thing that has been fulfilled?" I categorically reject the idea that the Mosaic law is a republication of a covenant of works and it has to be related positively to the Abrahamic covenant (as Coxhead notes). In my view, the purpose of the law was to be a temporary administration of God's grace to govern God's people until the promised seed of Abraham came, to cocoon God's promises around Israel and to protract Israel's capacity to worship God, to point out the reality of sin and the holiness of God, and to intimate the ministries of the Christ. Thus the law was guardian to lead God's people until Christ and to lead them to Christ. Still, Paul can also identify the law as part of an unholy triad comprising of law-sin-death. The law is also bound up with the old age that is passing away and is not the instrument that will ultimately realize the fulfllment of the Abrahamic promises.


Nicholas P. Mitchell said...


Thanks for this post. I have a question about works of the law in Romans. In your view is Paul arguing against the idea that Jews can work their way to God through the law? or is it more the idea that God's people are no longer defined by works of the law? Are these mutually exclusive in your view? Sorry for all the questions. I was just thinking about it a bit. I tend to lean more towards the idea that Paul was arguing more against the mindset that said God's people were defined by works of the law. However, this attitude can also contain hints of "legalism" when one begins to feel as though God owes you something because we have and obey the law.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike,
I like the summary you offer - it def gets the disucssion moving in the right direction, for as you said most people begin from a "the law is a bad thing" standpoint. I'd only wish to offer one nuiance to what you said above...I find it helpful to differentiate between the law as covenant and the law as teaching, for the express purpose of grapling with how the law relates to NT believers. The covenantal arrangement has changed w/ Jesus (so has some of the teachingm, granted - i.e. sacrificial), but that doesn't stop the Apostles from drawing upon the law (torah, teaching) for ethical, moral and spiritual edification. So...I retain a place (albeit modified) for the Law as Torah, but not as a covenantal arrangement, since we are under the NC.

John Thomson said...


I write as an ordinary person who enjoys Scripture and dabbles a little in theological reading. You write as a scholar and I respect and have learned from what youy write. All this naturally has a 'but' and the 'but' is I cannot see how you can read Galatians and Romans and avoid coming to the conclusion the law is a covenant of works. That is not to say there is nothing gracious within it. Nor is it to say that no promise is found in the OC and revealed during the era of the OC. Nor is it to deny that the law has a positive/gracious intention (to act as a pedagogue)a bit like what we call 'natural law' but none of this changes the basic point: the law is law. It is a covenant based on the principle of this do and live; it is not of faith; it demands works but gives no power.

We do not read of the 'faith of the law' but the 'works of the law'and paul says by the works of the law no-one will be justified in God's sight.

The question,

"According to Paul, is the law a bad thing that has been done away with, or a good thing that has been fulfilled?"

is to my mind a false anthesis. The law is both. It is fulfilled in Christ and it was 'good' as an expression of God's will for his people but it was also a bad thing because man is a sinner and for sinners the law condemns; it creates slaves; and it kills.

It was 'a burden to heavy for the people to bear'(Acts 15:10)and in fact daringly, gentile believers in Galatia are told to return to it is equivalent to returning to the weak and beggarly elements of pagan religions. Gal 4:9

Paul's contrast is not a redemptive-historical contrast between law-faith and gospel-faith but a redemptive-historical contrast between works and faith.

Yes there is continuity of caterpillar and butterfly/shadow and substance but there is the discontinuity of slavery and freedom/works and faith/condemnation and justification.

The OT also recognises the negative effects of law on people in the flesh. Exodus ends with the Mediator of the Law barred from the Promised Land. Sunsequent books show that only two who left Egypt enter the Promised Land. This, the direct judgement of breaking the covenant. The weakness of the covenant and the judgement it brings is written on virtually every book; its ultimate effect being exile.

'All this we will do' was tragically misplaced confidence as Moses himself knew. The covenant was hardly drawn before it demanded the death of the destruction of the nation. Moses is under no illusions, he recognises that the covenant will lead to exile and will require a new and better covenant.

None of this sounds to me like a covenant of grace. The covenant, I believe, was a covenant of works given to Israel for a variety of reasons. Principal among these is that Israel represents (like Adam) man (all nations) in the flesh and proves beyond doubt the bankruptcy of flesh - even with God-given religion. In the words of Romans:

Rom 3:19 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

Taido said...

I like the "cocoon" metaphor. It (both cocoon and law) serves a purpose. But once that purpose is fulfilled, then not only is it no longer needed, but to continue to lug it around is detrimental to the butterfly with the probable outcome being its untimely death.

Michael F. Bird said...

Nicholas: This is exactly the point I made in SROG. In his remarks on the law Paul is answering two questions: What must I do to be saved? And, Who are the people of God? Ultimately, Paul rejects the view that one must become a Jew in order to become a Christian!

Sean: I agree. In some places nomos should be translated as law/covenant.

John T: I'm with you if you nuance it slightly. I think there is grace in the OC (e.g. Deut 9) but you are right, the law is based on do this and live principle! But Paul's "thing" about the law cannot be reduced to doing vs believing (though he does touch on that in Rom. 4.4-5 and Gal 3.1-5). He regards the law a good thing unfortunately bound up with the old age, an age pervaded by flesh, sin, death, etc. It cannot solve the problem of Adamic humanity because it was never intended to. It was more like a holding pattern (i.e., temporary), a way to comatose sin, but always risked killing the patient in that effort. If we make the statement in Galatians that "The law is not of faith" our leitmotif we'll end up as Marcionites. Paul can also say, in Rom 3, that faith upholds the law. Paul affirms the positive place of the law in redemptive-history, even as he censures those who seek to find their status and identity in. Because they are returning to a defunct and deadly system.

Nicholas P. Mitchell said...

Thanks Mike!

John Thomson said...


Thanks for response. I agree with what you say. I simply want to keep the law is not of faith as an important part of Paul's treatment of Law. Continuity and discontinuity must be held in tension.

I have just started reading 'The End of the Law' by Meyer. It looks as if it will be helpful.

What I find hard to understand and see little literature on is how we should understand the spiritual experience of OT believers. It seems as if regeneration and Spirit enabling are new covenant gifts yet it is impossible (certainly for a calvinist like me) to understand how OT believers had faith, never mind faithfulness without the operations of the Spirit in NC ways. I know the Holy Spirit operated and (as with the disciples) was with them but would be in them. Yet their experience fell short of NC blessing and considerably so.

Reading Ps 119 it is as if the law is 'written on the heart' of the psalmist, yet such seems a NC blessing.

Any thoughts. Any books to recommend? Do you have books in Australia?

sujomo said...

Hi Mike,

following up the comment re Jason Meyer's Book "The End of the Law" I suspect that careful study of his dissertation "Paul, Mosaic covenant and Redemptive History" (dissertation South Western Theological Seminary 2007) will prove to be very stimulating and thought provoking.

cheers, sujomo