Reviewed by David Morris
Focus and Approach
The relationship of the Law of Moses to the whole of Scripture and to God’s saving purpose revealed in it has been the focus of study for its readers for millennia. Lutheran, Reformed, dispensational, and covenant theologians, and others besides, have debated that relationship. The understanding of the letters of Paul in that relationship has added fuel to the fire of the debate, which has only grown hotter with the advent of the New Perspective on Paul. Brian Rosner in his book Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God has made a significant contribution in the debate. The book is a recent volume in New Studies in Biblical Theology, the monograph series edited by D. A. Carson.
As one who has studied the subject of Paul and the Law since the late 1980’s Rosner presents a threefold approach to Paul’s perspective on the Law: (1) the repudiation of the Law of Moses as covenant or code for the believer in Christ, (2) its replacement with the Law of Christ, of faith and of new life in the Spirit, and (3) the reappropriation of the Law as prophetic witness to the Gospel and as wisdom for life in Christ. Rosner marshals a broad field of exegetical evidence from Paul’s letters for this “array of complementary but quite different stances toward the Law” (as Carson summarizes the approach in his Preface, p.12). Rosner opts for a treatment of his theme that is both satisfying in his coverage of it and manageable, rather than exhaustive, in size and scope. In dealing with this critical theme he desires to maintain the balance between the two Pauline emphases on God’s free grace that brings salvation and on God’s demand and call for holiness of life. Rosner chooses not to focus solely on Romans and Galatians, the familiar polemic center of entrenched and stagnant debate. Rather his own background of study leads him to look at 1 Corinthians and the wider Pauline corpus and at Paul’s ethical use of the Law as fruitful avenues of understanding for the issue. Rosner is convinced that an honest treatment of Paul and the Law must be able to accommodate “Paul’s apparent inconsistency,” both “negative critique and positive approval of the Law” (p.24).
Paul and the Commands of God
In his first chapter Rosner investigates the text that provides both the title for the chapter and the subtitle for his book, 1 Corinthians 7:19, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God” (p.33). The comments of C. K. Barrett on the text well summarize the tension that it contains. “From the Jewish point of view this is a paradoxical, or rather an absurd, statement. A Jew would reply, Circumcision is one of God’s commandments.” The verse, “properly described by E. P. Sanders as one of the most amazing sentences Paul ever wrote” (p.33), gives an “initial sounding” which shows Paul radically rejecting what the Law clearly mandated in the light of the “new creation” and “the ‘already’ and ‘not-yet’ aspects of Christian eschatology” (pp.34,35).
Given this rejection the conclusion of the verse with its emphasis on “keeping the commandments of God” leads naturally to the question, “Which commandments?” Rosner’s response considers and rejects the traditional distinction of civil, ceremonial, and moral laws within the Mosaic legislation because, in part, all the Law’s commands were moral for Israel, and further, Paul and Jews and Christians of the first century recognized no such tripartite division. “The commandments of God,” then, for the Corinthian believers, would be “Paul’s own instructions in the letter” (p.38). Interestingly, as we apply this specifically to 1 Corinthians 7, we find Paul giving direction to believers at Corinth who had raised questions concerning celibacy, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In doing so, he expresses imperatives flowing, not from the Mosaic law, but rather from his own apostolic authority, as well as from the teaching of the Lord Jesus reflected in the Gospels. As Rosner ties the chapter to the wider context of chapters 5-7, the theme of avoiding fornication threads through them. He connects this context with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, significant especially as the verse preceding it speaks of “the commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus” (Do we have a reference to the commands of the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15:15, 28, 29?).
Paul’s Three-Fold Approach to the Law
At this point Rosner introduces the threefold approach to Paul and the Law which he articulates as “three moves”: “(1) polemical repudiation; (2) radical replacement; and (3) whole-hearted reappropriation (in two ways). These respectively correspond to treating the law as legal code, theological motif, and source for expounding the gospel and for doing ethics” (p.39). The demand incumbent upon the reader of Paul’s letters is to fully note each move and not to deny or ignore any. Rosner illustrates these moves briefly from 1 Corinthians and concludes, “Evidently, Paul does not think his utter repudiation and radical replacement of the Law of Moses entail its complete redundancy. The question to ask in these cases is not which bits of the law are still useful, but in what sense is the law valuable for Christians” (pp.40, 41).
Rosner explores the nature of Paul’s negative stance toward the law as legal code broadly in light of the phrase “[not] under the law” and of Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5. While the phrase “[not] under the law” sometimes reflects a neutral character, its use at other times carries a very negative connotation, “depicting the law as an enslaving power” (p.57). The use of the preposition “under” (Gk, hypo) otherwise in Romans and Galatians sustains this negative overtone, as it is used with “sin,” “the curse,” and “the elemental spirits of the world” as its objects. Rosner summarizes his investigation of the phrase, Paul “is not willing to live under the dominion of the law as law-covenant or legal code…. Paul’s opposition to the law as a master has to do with its alliance with sin and its obsolescence in the light of the new era of grace and the Spirit” (p.59).
Rosner’s consideration of Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 (“the one who does these things will live by them”) further defines Paul’s repudiation of the law as legal code. Though J. D. G. Dunn speaks of “‘the puzzle of Paul’s use of Lev. 18:5’… Paul takes Leviticus 18:5 to be a summary of the law as law. In its original literary context Leviticus 18:5 is a call to obey the Law of Moses with a promise of the reward of life” (p.60). The New Perspective on Paul, represented by Dunn and N. T. Wright among others, has strongly dissented from this verse as expressing such a promise, but the Lord Jesus’ words to the scribe in Luke 10:28 (“do this and you will live, ” p.61) substantiate understanding a promise of eschatological life, as do other occurrences of ‘life” in Galatians and Romans, as well as interpretations of the verse in early Judaism, interpretations connected with the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-30. Rosner fleshes out Paul’s understanding of this verse with these numerous parallels that view the law as a path to everlasting life. “Paul judges the law to have failed on all counts and finds the solution in the death of Christ” (p.66). Both nationally/corporately and individually, “the law had turned into a dead end rather than a way of life” (p.68). In addressing the related concept of “the works of the law” within Scripture Rosner demonstrates that, although the New Perspective’s view of these works as boundary markers or identity badges for the people of God is not wrong in itself, it also is not exhaustive in defining Paul’s repudiation of the law. To speak of “the works of the law” solely as sociological boundary markers ignores “that such works are ‘just as much ethical as they are ethnic’” (quoting Michael Bird, fn. 54, p.70).
The Law as Covenant
Rosner continues his consideration of Paul’s negative stance toward the law as he moves from Paul’s explicit repudiation of the law to his “Implicit repudiation of the law as law covenant” (chapter 3 subtitle, p.83). Although Jews of the first century spoke of “walking according to the law” alongside a host of other terms that reflected their absolute allegiance to the Mosaic law, such statements are totally absent as Paul speaks of believers’ conduct as well as their relationship to the law. Instead, repudiation leads to “radical replacement” as the law as a legal covenant/code is superseded by corollaries of the life of the new age that has appeared in the coming of Christ.
Having presented his case for the repudiation of the law and its replacement from Paul’s letters, Rosner then demonstrates Paul’s reappropriation of the law in a twofold way, as a witness to faith in Christ and to the Gospel and as wisdom for living the new life in Christ. In the first the prophetic nature and anticipatory character of the law as promise are the focus, with special reference to Romans. Rosner summarizes the contrast apparent in this reappropriation, “In hermeneutical terms there is a big difference in the ways legal codes and prophecy are read; if a legal code commands and decrees, prophecy forecasts and proclaims in advance (along with exhorting and encouraging).” (p.138) The second aspect of Paul’s reappropriation emphasizes the law’s value and use as wisdom for ethics for believers. Rosner surveys the law’s use for ethics in the Psalms, the law’s wisdom character, and the law’s basis in creation’s moral order to undergird Paul’s use of the law as wisdom for instruction in the practice of believers’ lives. The apostle’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16,17 well summarize the value of the law as wisdom for living.
In his final chapter, Rosner makes this conclusion concerning his approach, “The main task of this book has been to demonstrate that the hermeneutical solution to the puzzle of Paul and the law … is both exegetically compelling and comprehensive in its application across the range of material encountered in the Pauline corpus” (p. 208). I’m convinced that he has succeeded admirably in making his case for his threefold hermeneutical solution. Having given a modest look at the book‘s contents, it remains now to offer some additional observations of its strengths and, on a lesser note, its weaknesses.
At times in reading Paul and the Law, the term tour de force (in its best and highest sense) came to mind. But there is no bravado here, rather an irenic, conversational tone. Further, although Rosner’s erudition is evident, it is not worn on his sleeve; his desire is to express faithfully Paul’s understanding and that is done with communicative ease. The strength and value of Rosner’s study is enhanced by his contextual approach, not only in terms of its appeal to the entire Pauline corpus, but also in light of his consideration of the first century Jewish milieu in which the apostle wrote. The book’s biblical-theological character also reinforces the strength of his study and makes it an eminently worthy contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology.
The New Perspective
As he addresses the vital theme of Paul and the law, Rosner has interacted with the New Perspective on Paul as its latest interpreter. His positive presentation of Paul’s approach to the law exposes the inadequacies of the New Perspective and other views that fail to account for Paul’s negative stance toward the law. This is particularly seen is his handling of Leviticus 18:5. Many students of Paul have taken the teeth from his use of this text and reduced it to mere tautology: “the man that does these things will do these things” or “the man who lives these things will live these things.” Rosner honestly presents the demand for complete obedience that the words require and that Paul recognizes. Israel was not equal to that demand, nor is any fallen individual in union with Adam. Thus, while many Jews of Paul’s day viewed the Law of Moses as the acme of redemptive history which would bring the blessings of life lost through sin’s entrance, the law as covenant could only condemn sinners in union with Adam. They failed to see the condemning character of law as legal code and the anticipation of the law as prophetic witness to Messiah; “what the law could not do…” (Romans 8:3), “being witnessed by the law” (Romans 3:21).
Traditional Reformed Views
Another strong suit of the book is that its threefold approach to the law is more biblically framed than another one found in the realm of systematic theology. That approach, “dating back, in part at least, to Origen” (p.36) is the division of the Mosaic law into the three strands of civil, ceremonial, and moral categories, found commonly in covenant or Reformed theology. As Rosner deals briefly with this view in his book, he notes the moral character of the law in the words of Paul Jewett: these laws “all express the will of Yahweh for his covenant people Israel” (p.37). He cites Hermann Ridderbos that such a distinction is not to be found in Paul’s letters. Additionally, the moral, ceremonial, and civil character of the laws overlap in such a way that distinction is impractical. The most telling objection to this division is that it “ultimately proves unsuccessful in explaining the tensions in Paul’s thought on the law” (p.37). Rosner’s approach does satisfy these tensions as we’ve seen.
Rosner’s “three moves” address another aspect of the covenant or Reformed approach to the law. That view sees the law as “the rule of life for the believer,” the means or standard of sanctification in the believer’s life. This view fails in light of Rosner’s evidence for the replacement of the law with the law of Christ and other new covenant realities.
Justification, Obedience, and Faith
Apart from some apparent errata that will be left unmentioned, two paragraphs in the book left me with concerns. On page 124, these words are found, “With Paul’s teaching on the Christian fulfilment of the law we meet the basis of our justification, in Christ’s perfect obedience on our behalf, our safe position of being in union with him, and the fact that our new status leads to a new way of living, in love as the fulfilment of the law.” I trust that this “fact” merely points to the truth that our justification necessarily leads to our sanctification and that my concern is unnecessary, especially in view of the warmly, gospel-centered character of the book. In light of the New Perspective on Paul that has led to a new perspective on justification, with its ascription of something other than Christ alone as our righteousness (or in Luther’s words, the “alien righteousness of Jesus Christ”) as “the basis of our justification,” I express my concern. In his article on “Justification” in the New Dictionary of Theology (IVP, 1988), N. T. Wright stated, “The verdict issued in the present on the basis of faith (Rom. 3:21-26) correctly anticipates the verdict to be issued in the final judgment on the basis of the total life (Rom. 2:1-16) (italics his, bold mine). Finding “the basis of our justification” in part in “the fact that our new status leads to a new way of living, in love as the fulfilment of the law” seems reminiscent of Wright’s words I first encountered over twenty-five years ago and so I convey my concern.
I present one other concern from page 218, “With respect to the election of Israel, in Romans Paul opposes the notion that the Jews, Abraham’s sons, constitute the people of God.” As note was made previous to these words of the continuing division of humanity as “‘the church of God’, ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ ” (1 Cor. 10:32, p.32), I believe the apostle himself would object to the statement of page 218 as being incomplete at best; it doesn‘t say enough concerning Israel‘s place as the people of God. I acknowledge that extended discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of Rosner’s topic and of this review. Nevertheless, Paul’s words concerning Israel in Romans 11:28 (“enemies, but beloved”), words true of no other ethnic entity, in brief, militate against a dismissal of God’s continuing special regard for Israel. The wider context of the chapter shows that their present blindness is both temporary and partial. For a concise, insightful presentation of the larger case for God’s future purpose for Israel found in Romans 9-11, I would refer you to Fred G. Zaspel’s Jews, Gentiles, and the Goal of Redemptive History.
With these concerns stated, I highly and warmly commend Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God to you. It gets so very many things right on the subject of Paul and the Law. Its threefold approach provides a paradigm for viewing the Law of Moses that will inform your whole understanding of Scripture.
David B. Morris is an itinerant evangelist who lives in Knightdale, NC.
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Paul And The Law: Keeping The Commandments Of God