Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Apostle Paul's Law versus Gospel Contrast: A Response to John Thomson

This is a response to comments made by John Thomson to my post entitled “The Gospel of Paul and the Old Testament Prophets.”

Thanks, John. Very good comments.

“Does the OT preach the gospel?” Yes, definitely, and most Reformed folks do believe that it was through faith in this gospel promised beforehand that Old Testament believers were justified. I’m not suggesting that they don’t believe that. We need to keep in mind though that the Old Testament gospel was communicated to the Old Testament saints through the torah of Moses and the prophets. As the saints of old oriented themselves positively with respect to torah, they were positively oriented to the gospel promised in torah.

Yes, you are right to point out that the gospel for Paul, as evidenced from Rom 1:3-4, centers on the enthronement of Jesus as the Christ. I don’t think, however, that Paul is limiting the gospel to just the humiliation and exaltation of the Messiah. I think that in his view the humiliation and exaltation of the Messiah lies at the heart of the gospel prophesied in the Old Testament; but at the same time I find it hard to believe that Paul would not have accepted the full Old Testament view of the gospel, which includes the consequences of the work of the Messiah for God’s people and the world as an important part of the gospel.

I agree that the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is one of both continuity and discontinuity. Indeed, I am suggesting to my Presbyterian and Reformed brothers that we need to think more about the discontinuity that exists between the Old and New Testaments. I’m actually saying that Paul was arguing about the discontinuity between the old covenant in Moses and the new covenant in Christ. But I do not find the discontinuity in an anthropological distinction of law/works versus gospel/faith, but in the difference of the medium and the content of old covenant versus new covenant revelation.

I agree wholeheartedly that the gospel is the divinely-authorized message that proclaims the righteousness of God, which is the eschatological righteousness that God would accomplish through the Messiah. Your comments regarding the righteousness of God are very good in my view.

I agree wholeheartedly that there is discontinuity with the coming of the righteousness of God. The nuni de of Rom 3:21 is definitely an eschatological but now. With the resurrection of Christ, the age of the new covenant has begun. It is possible, therefore, to talk about the old covenant age as one of law, and the new covenant age as one of gospel. So I liked most of your list of contrasts: the old age contrasts with the new age, law with gospel, condemnation with justification, death with life. However, I would not contrast human righteousness with God’s righteousness, but rather human unrighteousness with God's righteousness. I would also not contrast works with faith in an anthropological way, but rather (the) works (of the Mosaic law) with faith (in Christ) in a salvation-historical, covenantal way.

But in saying that there is a law versus gospel contrast, we need to understand that that the Old Testament concept of eschatological torah is fulfilled in the gospel. From the Old Testament perspective, the law continues into the new covenant age, and the righteousness of God involves Christ pouring out his Spirit to bring God’s people back to a true keeping of torah. Paul understood this, as Rom 2:14-15, 26-29; 6:17-18; 7:6; 8:2-8 show. The righteousness of God is not just what God did in Christ in isolation from what Christ is doing in his people. From the Old Testament perspective, what God has done and is doing in Christ includes the circumcision of the heart of his people and the new obedience that follows as a result.

Paul’s contrast, therefore, is a covenantal contrast, not an anthropological one. The works of the law versus faith contrast in Paul is old covenant (un)righteousness defined in terms of faithfulness to Moses versus new covenant righteousness defined in terms of faithfulness to Messiah. To say that Paul is introducing an anthropological distinction between faith and works (which is a distinction that is foreign to the Old Testament) ends up making him contradict the Old Testament. Furthermore, the historical issue of the day was not legalism, but a zeal for the law of Moses that did not recognize the lordship of Jesus, which brought the age of the Mosaic law to an end (Rom 10:2-4), i.e., the historical issue of the day was the orthodox Jewish and Christian Judaizers' zeal for the Mosaic covenant instead of the new covenant in Christ.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Gospel of Paul and the Old Testament Prophets

The Apostle Paul claims in Rom 1:1 that he had been called by the Messiah to be an apostle of the “the gospel of God.” Then in Rom 1:2 he says that this gospel that he had been called to proclaim was the gospel “which [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” In other words, Paul claimed that the gospel which he preached was the same gospel as the gospel foreshadowed by the Old Testament prophets in Scripture.

These verses stand at the beginning of the epistle of Romans as a great, flashing hermeneutical beacon, warning us that we need to have the Old Testament understanding of the gospel in mind as we seek to understand Paul’s teaching regarding the gospel. The hermeneutical significance of Rom 1:1-2 is that Paul’s teaching regarding the gospel and God’s plan of salvation needs to be understood in the light of the gospel that was prophesied beforehand in the Old Testament, and also that the gospel that Paul preached must be understood in a way that is consistent with what had previously been revealed through the Old Testament prophets.

There are three questions that emerge from the hermeneutical significance of Rom 1:1-2.

Firstly, how many of us are actually aware of the gospel that was prophesied by the Old Testament prophets when we read Galatians or Romans? I get the feeling that much interpretation of Paul is done by people who are more familiar with the New Testament than the Old. The common division in biblical scholarship between Old Testament studies and New Testament studies has tended to exacerbate this problem.

Secondly, how many of us have studied the Old Testament prophets in sufficient depth so as to be crystal clear about what the Old Testament gospel is? As someone who has taught the Old Testament prophets since 2002 (although not this year for political reasons), I say with sadness that the gospel preached by many today seems narrow and anemic in comparison with the gospel of the Old Testament prophets.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. How often do we hear Christians speaking of the law as something negative, something from which we need to be freed? The Old Testament prophets, however, viewed the heart of the new covenant as involving the inscription of God’s law on human hearts (Deut 30:6, 14; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-27). For them, the law was something that was ultimately positive; and yet many of us continue to interpret Paul as if he did not believe this Old Testament teaching.

And how many times today are we told that the obedience of God’s people is not part of the gospel, that the fruit of the gospel must not be mixed with the root which is Christ and his obedience? Sure, Christ’s obedience can and should be distinguished from that of his people, but the Old Testament prophets viewed the eschatological obedience of Israel and the nations as an integral part of the gospel (Deut 30:1-14; Isa 2:2-3; 40:9-11; 42:1-4; 49:6; 61:11; Ezek 36:26-27; 37:23-24; Hos 2:16-17, 19-20). To say that the obedience that Christ works in us through the power of his Spirit is not part of the gospel contradicts the gospel that was “promised beforehand” by God through the Old Testament prophets.

The third question that arises from the hermeneutical significance of Rom 1:1-2 involves Paul’s doctrine of justification. I agree that justification was a core component of the gospel preached by the Apostle Paul. It makes sense, therefore, in the light of Rom 1:1-2, to hold that Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith was something about which the Old Testament prophets must also have prophesied.

The question is, therefore: How does the Old Testament prophetic teaching concerning justification match up with the common Protestant understanding that Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith involves a definition of faith that is exclusive of works? Given the common view which says that Paul was at pains to argue for faith as the sole instrument of justification rather than works, you would think that such a distinction would also have been a clear concern of the Old Testament prophets. But is it? I invite people who hold to the traditional Protestant view to show me from the Old Testament where Moses or the prophets taught that the eschatological salvation that they looked forward to would be experienced by means of a faith that excludes faithfulness or obedience as part of its meaning. This is an honest invitation. Please show me where the Old Testament speaks of this distinction.

The gospel that Paul preached was “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:1-2). I hope that the gospel that you preach is consistent with the gospel that was promised beforehand by the Old Testament prophets.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Perspicuity of Pauline Scripture

I get the impression that for Protestant theology generally, the epistles of Paul come very close to functioning like a canon within the canon. The Protestant Reformation was built for a large part on a fresh understanding of Paul, and ever since then this understanding has functioned as the hermeneutical and theological grid through which we understand the rest of Scripture.

But I wonder if we have created problems for ourselves in this. For it seems to me that so often when we read Paul, we do so with Protestant tradition about what Paul is saying in mind more than the teaching of the rest of Scripture. We Protestants are so quick to criticize the Roman church for following the traditions of men rather than the teaching of Scripture, but how guilty are we of doing the same thing? How guilty are we of simply following the traditions of men when reading the Apostle Paul?

So often it seems to me that Paul has been understood in isolation from the rest of Scripture, and especially Old Testament theology and prophecy. I believe that this is dangerous (theologically speaking), because the epistles of Paul should not be the controlling grid through which we understand the rest of Scripture. The epistles of Paul should not be a canon within the canon. The whole counsel of God (including the Old Testament) is the canon, and every part must be allowed to speak.

Now I imagine that that last comment may upset those who regard Paul’s letters as being the place in the Scriptures where the gospel is most clearly presented. Our assumption in all of this has been that Paul speaks with a greater clarity and gets to the heart of the gospel in a way that other authors of Scripture do not.

It is not my intention to call into question the perspicuity of Pauline Scripture, but I would like to draw attention to the advice of Scripture itself regarding the clarity of some parts of Paul’s teaching. The following words come from the Apostle Peter:
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:14-18).
According to the Apostle Peter, as we wait for the unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth, we are to be diligent to pursue sanctification in our lives so as to be found by God on the day of judgment as people who are “without spot or blemish” (i.e., as people who have kept covenant with God). We may have to wait a while until the new creation begins in its fullness, but this time spent waiting is actually God’s patience towards those who are perishing. He is giving people time to repent (2 Pet 3:9). According to Peter, the Apostle Paul also wrote about these things. Paul did so with the wisdom that God had given him. But despite his wisdom (and the inspiration of the Spirit), “there are some things in [his letters] that are hard to understand” (v. 16)—and that’s the Apostle Peter speaking! Furthermore, because some aspects of Paul’s letters are difficult to understand, it is relatively easy for people to “twist” his teaching. Therefore, Peter says, knowing that Paul is difficult at times to understand, we need to be careful not to follow those who have distorted the true teaching of Paul. Peter’s mention of “the error of lawless people” in v. 17 strongly suggests that there were people in his day who had taken Paul’s teaching in an antinomian direction. Are you suggesting, Peter, that Paul’s teaching regarding the law is difficult to understand? Seems to me, that is exactly what he is suggesting; and perhaps we can take the last few decades of Protestant wrangling over the meaning of Galatians and Romans as confirmation of the veracity of Peter’s opinion.

But how does Peter’s warning fit with our Protestant methodology which is based so firmly upon the teaching of Paul as our hermeneutical foundation? To quote the Westminster Confession on the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of Scripture: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (WCF 1.9). If “difficult” Paul has become our canon within the canon, it seems to me that perhaps we have put the cart before the horse, and ignored the principle of the analogy of Scripture.

But for those of you who think you already understand Paul—and I’d like to include myself within that circle—please think seriously about the implications of Peter’s warning. There's a divine reason why 2 Pet 3:16-17 is part of Scripture. Perhaps Paul is not as easy to understand as some would lead you to believe!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Imputation of Faith as Righteousness in Genesis 15:6

Imputation has been vigorously discussed by evangelicals in more recent years. The debate between Robert Gundry, John Piper, and Don Garlington, regarding imputation in Paul comes to mind. But something needs to be said for Gen 15:6 in the Hebrew.

The verb ויחשבה in Gen 15:6 contains a feminine singular pronominal suffix. So the second clause in Gen 15:6 literally reads: and he counted her to him as righteousness. The question is: what is the feminine pronoun referring to, and why is it feminine?

There are two options. Perhaps the pronoun is feminine because it refers to the Hebrew word for faith (אמונה), which is a feminine noun. Even though this noun does not appear in the immediate context, it could possibly be implied from Abraham's act of believing, which is recorded in the first clause in Gen 15:6.

The second option is that the feminine pronoun is being used in an abstract way to refer to a concept that has been mentioned in the preceding context. In other words, the her refers to the act of believing in the previous clause.

The difference between the two options is not great. According to option 1 the referent of the pronoun is Abraham’s faith. According to option 2 the referent is Abraham’s act of believing. But despite this, I think that linguistically speaking option 2 is the way to go.

Option 2 is to be preferred on the basis of a similarity with Ps 106:31, which also speaks of the imputation of righteousness. Verses 30–31 recount Phinehas’s zeal in spearing to death an Israelite man and his Midianite wife (see Num 25:6–8 for the gruesome details), and God’s approbation of this act. Verses 30–31 read as follows:
“Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.”
The interesting point regarding the Hebrew of v. 31 is that the verb ותחשב is a third person feminine singular verb, literally, and she was counted. Why is the verb in the feminine? Presumably because the feminine singular subject pronoun implied within the verb is being used abstractly to refer to a concept that has been mentioned in the preceding context. The use of the implied feminine singular pronoun in Ps 106:31 to refer to Phinehas’s intervention thus serves as a linguistic precedent for taking the feminine singular pronoun in Gen 15:6 as an example of an abstract use of the feminine singular pronoun in a similar context.

But either way, the Hebrew of Gen 15:6 is saying that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. That is to say, when Abraham responded positively in accepting God’s word, this was considered by God to be the right response in the context of God’s relationship with Abraham. Responding to God rightly, Abraham was considered by God to be righteous. Genesis 15:6 is talking about the imputation of Abraham's faith as Abraham’s righteousness before God.

The obvious question for the issue of imputation in Paul is: Was Paul aware of the meaning of the Hebrew of Gen 15:6? Trained as he was as a Jewish rabbi, I would find it hard to believe that he was not aware of the meaning of Gen 15:6 in the Hebrew. This obviously has implications for the current debate over the meaning of imputation in Paul.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Law of Life in Psalm 119

It was suggested in the course of discussions on my post entitled “The Goodness of the Law” that Ps 119 needs to be read through the lens of Rom 7, and that when we do so, this psalm is not nearly as positive about the law of Moses as I suggested in my blog. But we need to allow Ps 119 to speak without running it through the grid of Rom 7 in a non-discerning way. A positive attitude to the law dominates the psalm as a whole. The positive statements in the psalm about the law are not just aspirational, but real. The law in the heart could and did bring life to the righteous in the old covenant age in a genuine but limited sense.

In Rom 7 Paul is speaking about the effect of the law of Moses on carnal Israel (see Rom 7:14). But the author of Ps 119 (although sinful) is not carnal in the biblical sense, because he had the word of God in his heart. The biblical idea of being carnal or fleshly describes the person whose heart is devoid of the word of God, and therefore not animated by it. But the psalmist had the word of God in his heart, and claimed to have been a keeper of torah.

The verse that proves that the author of Ps 119 had the law in his heart is v. 11:
I have stored up your word in my heart.
And there are many verses that prove that the psalmist was a keeper of torah:
I have kept your testimonies (v. 22);
I do not turn away from your law (v .51);
I … keep your law (v. 55);
This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts (v. 56);
I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments (v. 60);
I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts (v. 63);
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word (v. 67);
... with my whole heart I keep your precepts (v. 69);
I have not forgotten your statutes (v. 83);
I have not forsaken your precepts (v .87);
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts (v. 100);
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me (v. 102);
I do not forget your law (v. 109);
I do not stray from your precepts (v. 110);
I have done what is just and right (v. 121);
Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them (v. 129);
I do not forget your precepts (v. 141);
I do not swerve from your testimonies (v. 157);
I do your commandments (v. 166);
My soul keeps your testimonies (v. 167);
I keep your precepts and testimonies (v. 168);
I do not forget your commandments (v. 176).
We Protestants are so quick to say that no one (apart from Christ) can keep the law, but the author of Ps 119 clearly claimed to have kept God’s law. Either the author of Ps 119 was wrong, or we have to nuance our view of Paul in some way.

But if the psalmist truly kept God’s law, how was this possible? He was able to keep the law because God had taught him (v. 102). The psalmist acknowledged that it was only as God enlarged his heart that he would be able to run in the way of torah (v. 32). He prayed that God would incline his heart more and more to torah (v. 36). In other words, the psalmist kept the law (in the context of covenant grace) because the law had been written in his heart. But how did it get there? The only way that God’s law can ever get into a person’s heart is through the operation of the Holy Spirit writing it there as per the principle reflected in Ezek 36:26-27.

When a person has the word of God in their heart, they will live. This is a basic biblical truth (1 Pet 1:23). The word of God that the psalmist knew was the teaching (i.e., the torah) of Moses and the prophets. The word of God that was in his heart was the law of Moses. Therefore, the law of Moses made him live. This is not just my opinion, but also that of the psalmist:
I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life (v. 93).
The psalmist believed that he had received life through the law of Moses. This is why the law was his comfort (v. 52). The law to him was not just command, but also promise and grace; therefore, it was able to give life.

Taking God at his promise that those who (through the grace of God) keep covenant with God will be blessed, the psalmist also prayed that God would be gracious to him and save him on the basis of the fact that he was a keeper of torah (unlike the wicked):
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight (v. 77);
I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts (v. 94);
Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name (v. 132);
Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law (v. 153);
Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek your statutes (v. 155).
So I think it is wrong to say that Rom 7 applies to the author of Ps 119 in a straightforward way. Romans 7 only applies to the psalmist in an indirect way, in the sense that the curses of the covenant came down upon everyone in Israel, upon the spiritual as well as the carnal, meaning that the torah of Moses was not able to bring the fullness of blessing and eternal life in a realized sense to anyone.

But the law did give life to the psalmist in some sense. Surely we have to acknowledge that, otherwise we are ignoring the plain content of the psalm. But at the same time, in the bigger picture of Scripture, we have to say that the law of Moses was only able to bring life and blessing to the psalmist in two ways: (1) in a limited way he was blessed to some extent during his lifetime, because he was in a positive covenant relationship with God; but (2) the fullness of life was experienced by the psalmist through the law only in a promissory sense, since the fullness of salvation could only come through Christ and the new covenant (as per Heb 11:39-40).

We need to be able to admit that the law of Moses could bring life, albeit in a limited and promissory sense, during the old covenant age for those who had it written on their hearts. If we can’t admit this, then it seems to me that our understanding of Paul will lack the necessary nuance that reading him in the context of the whole of Scripture provides.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Faith and Justification in the Old Testament

The following is in response to comments 3-5 from John Thomson to my post entitled “Justification by the Works of the Law in Pauline Perspective.” Because of the length of the response, it is placed here as a post.

Thanks, John. You are definitely thinking a lot about his. Keep up the good work to honor God in your understanding of Scripture, and thank you for your challenge for me to do the same.

Maybe where we differ is that you seem to limit faith to belief in promise. You do so on the basis of a certain understanding of Paul, but my suggestion has been that Paul’s faith/promise distinction is not a linguistic or literary generic distinction, but primarily a salvation-historical one. We need to explore that further over time.

I feel strongly that the evidence from the Old Testament itself leads to the conclusion that the Old Testament concept of faith is not limited merely to promise. It is directed to the totality of whatever it is that God reveals. Faith is not a matter of picking and choosing what part of God’s revelation that you will accept; it is accepting the whole counsel of God. This is a key point. This means that the faith of the Old Testament saints was not directed solely to the Messiah as if he stood independent of the rest of old covenant revelation. How did Israel know about the Messiah? He was revealed to them through Moses and the prophets, and with greater clarity over time. The prophecies concerning the Messiah and the new covenant that are present in the Old Testament are part of the torah of Moses and prophets. In other words, the gospel was revealed to Israel through the law and the prophets. Therefore, the gospel in prophetic form was actually a subset of old covenant law. Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 30:1-14 are classic examples of this. This means that Israel’s faith in torah included faith in the gospel. Faith in the Old Testament cannot be limited solely to faith in the gospel. Consider the author of Ps 119. He says in v. 66: “I believe in your commandments.” His faith was clearly directed to torah. Torah functioned for him as a proleptic gospel as he responded to it in faith, and this faith in torah also included faith in the full substance of the gospel that would come in Christ as revealed to him through torah by way of prophecy.

This seems to be consistent with Paul's understanding when he says: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it" (Rom 3:21; note also 1:16-17). The gospel was mediated to old covenant Israel through torah (i.e., Old Testament torah testified to the saving righteousness of God in Christ); but once the Messiah has come, law and gospel can be spoken of as being distinct revelations (i.e., the saving righteousness of God in Christ is revealed apart from the law of Moses).

I agree that we need to have an Old Testament study on the nature of faith. That will help to solve this issue. My doctorate is concerned with this, so hopefully I’ll be able to contribute more to this in the future, but I’ll seek to post things every so often as they are relevant and as I have time. The key, I believe, is studying the idea of faith in the Abraham narrative.

You also keep saying that no one back then could keep covenant with God. This is not consistent with the Old Testament presentation of the matter. We can explore this further in my next post on Ps 119.

I would argue that Rom 9:33, which is a quotation of Isa 28:16 merged with Isa 8:14, is an eschatological text. You are taking it as if it were applicable throughout salvation history. But Isa 28:16 occurs in an eschatological context, and I would argue that this is exactly how Paul has taken it, as a prophecy of his own day and the Gentile period of the new covenant age. The laying of the stumbling stone in Zion is a prophecy about how the Israelites would reject the Messiah when he came to them in person.

In suggesting that Paul was talking about the fullness of justification, I am not saying that justification by the works of the law was less than 100% justification as far as being a judgment that an individual Israelite had met his or her covenant obligation before God. But justification under the Mosaic covenant was not full justification in the sense that full vindication and blessing could not come for the Old Testament saints during the old covenant age. In the end, the eschatological justification of the individual goes together with the justification of the whole people of God. The finger cannot be fully justified in a realized eschatological sense without the justification of the whole body of which it is a part. Furthermore, being limited to Israel, justification by the works of the law was not a justification that all flesh could participate in. As individual believers we are justified in Christ, who is the body. Maybe I need to talk of old covenant justification by the works of the law as being non-eschatological, and Paul’s concept of justification by faith as being primarily eschatological. I do admit that finding language to describe these things is difficult at times.

Having the law in the heart is not solely a new covenant privilege. I believe it is wrong to interpret Jer 31:33 as if it were saying that. The Holy Spirit was also at work in the old covenant age, but his work was limited to the faithful remnant. What Jeremiah is saying (when read in the context of the rest of the Old Testament) is that this work which was limited during the Mosaic age will become much more comprehensive under the new covenant as the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

I agree with the perspective of Heb 7:18, looking at the law of Moses from the vantage point of the new covenant; but Heb 7:18 still needs to read in such a way that it is consistent with Ps 119. The author of Ps 119 viewed the law of Moses (the “former commandment”) as primarily positive. The question is: How do we reconcile Ps 119 with Hebrews? Keep an eye out for my next post on Ps 119.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Justification by the Works of the Law in Pauline Perspective

A number of times commentators on this blog have raised the question of how Paul’s negative view of works of the law fits in with my suggestion that a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law existed as part of the Mosaic covenant.

Upon the established of the covenant at Sinai, the Abrahamic promise regarding blessing for Israel was channeled through the Mosaic covenant. In this way, Israel’s response to the Mosaic covenant would not only be her response to the word of God as revealed through Moses, but would also constitute her response to the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

As Israel responded positively to the Mosaic covenant, she would be judged by God as acting rightly under the terms of the covenant. Acting rightly for Israel was faith, an acceptance of the word of God; but because the word of God revealed to Israel dealt with all sorts of things, Israel’s faith was by definition holistic in nature. Hence, the typical Mosaic description of Israel’s covenant obligation as being that of obeying God’s voice and keeping his covenant (Exod 19:5). Furthermore, as Israel responded rightly, God's judgment that she had been acting rightly would result in her being declared righteous under the terms of the covenant (Deut 6:25). In other words, a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law applied to Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Being adjudged by God to be covenantally righteous on the basis of this holistic faith (i.e., through a positive response to the law of Moses), all the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, would follow as a consequence of God’s promise of blessing to the righteous.

The idea that there was a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law during the old covenant age obviously contradicts the common Protestant interpretation of Paul which says that no one (apart from Christ) can ever be justified by the works of the law. But this common understanding of Paul is the result of reading Paul in isolation from the theology of the Old Testament, for the Old Testament teaches that justification by the works of the law was a reality during the old covenant age. Contrary to the common Protestant assumption that no one (apart from Christ) can keep the law or keep covenant with God, the Old Testament teaches that the law could be kept, and that it was indeed kept by some Israelites. This is evident in the Old Testament teaching that a righteous minority in Israel had the law written on their hearts (Ps 37:31; 119:11, 69), and in the claim of a number of godly Israelites that they had kept covenant with God (Ps 44:17-18; 119:56). Those Israelites who had the law of Moses written on their heart and who consequently kept covenant with God were the faithful remnant. By God’s grace, David was an example of such a person (1 Kgs 14:8; Ps 18:20-24). That the law could be kept, and was kept by a faithful minority in Israel, is due to the fact that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant. Keeping the law was not a matter of absolute perfection, but being committed to the covenant in the context of grace.

Now if a doctrine of justification by the works of the law applied to old covenant Israel, how did they go? Ever since the establishment of the Sinaitic covenant, the Old Testament has been interested in this issue. So how did Israel go in her covenant relationship with God? Terribly is the answer. But it is not as if all were as equally as bad as each other. To be precise, the Old Testament teaches that the faithful minority kept covenant with God, but the disobedient majority broke covenant with God. And here is the important point: because the majority of Israel broke covenant with God, the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation as a whole (see Ps 44:4-22). In other words, even though the faithful remnant were covenantally righteous, the blessings that God had promised to the righteous could not be realized for them in full under the Mosaic covenant. Even after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, sin was still a problem in Israel. Thus, the Old Testament record of the constant problem of covenant disobedience in Israel leads to the conclusion that the Mosaic covenant was not able to bring in righteousness and the fullness of blessing for the nation. Justification by the works of the law was not able to bring the fullness of justification or blessing to Israel, let alone to all the families of the earth, the other nations being excluded from membership in the Mosaic covenant by definition.

This impotency of the Mosaic covenant to achieve full justification and blessing led the Old Testament prophets to look forward to a new covenant, which would be characterized by a more powerful work of God in the hearts of his people (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26), which would move them to covenant obedience (Deut 30:14; Ezek 36:27), in order that the promised blessings might finally be realized (Deut 30:1-10; Ezek 36:28-30). The failure of the Mosaic covenant also led the faithful remnant to place their hope in the righteousness of God that would be revealed in the future (Ps 98:1-3; Isa 51:4-6; 59:15b-20), when God would act to bring in the fullness of salvation and the realization of all that he had promised. This righteousness of God would be revealed in the sight of the nations (Ps 98:2), and torah observance, and hence covenant righteousness, would be opened up to the nations as a result (Isa 2:1-4; 42:1-4; 49:6).

Hence Paul’s reading of the Old Testament is correct: justification by the works of the law was not and is not able to bring the fullness of justification and the blessing of Abraham to all flesh. This would only be achieved through the eschatological revelation of the righteousness of God apart from the law of Moses (Rom 3:21) in the person and work of the Messiah, to which all people (regardless of nationality; Rom 3:29-30) can respond positively, by faith in the Messiah and his message, the gospel (Rom 3:22). Hence the new covenant doctrine of justification by faith in Christ (Rom 3:28), and Paul’s polemic that it was a wrong for the orthodox Jews and Christian Judaizers of his day to think that adherence to the Mosaic covenant could solve the problem of human sin.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Goodness of the Law of Moses

The impression is often given in Protestant circles that the law is something negative. Sure it may reflect God’s moral standard, but it cannot do us any good in the sense of bringing us life. But would the Old Testament writers agree with this opinion?

There is a lot in the Old Testament which would suggest that the Old Testament writers would not agree with this opinion, because the teaching of the Old Testament regarding the law of Moses is primarily positive!

Moses considered the law that he had received from God to be a wonderful source of wisdom and righteousness, the envy of the peoples of the world: “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:5-8).

Indeed, the law of Moses was so precious that it was to fill the hearts of the people of Israel, be the key subject of a child’s education, and the main topic of discussion through the day and even at night. In fact, the law of Moses was so precious that torah graffiti was a recommended practice: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9).

As far as Moses was concerned, the law of Moses was the key to life: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it” (Deut 30:15-16).

In fact, from the Old Testament perspective, the law of Moses is so wonderful that the longest chapter of the Old Testament (or even the Bible for that matter), namely, Ps 119, is a song of praise to God because of the wonders of his law.

The author of Ps 119 delighted in God’s commandments (v. 47). In fact, he absolutely loved God’s law (vv. 47-48, 97), even more than fine gold (v. 127)! The law of Moses was to him “better … than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v. 72). The law was “sweeter than honey to [his] mouth” (v. 103). It was “a lamp to [his] feet and a light to [his] path” (v. 105). So wonderful that the psalmist could proclaim: “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (vv. 111-112)!

Reading Ps 119, you get the impression that the best thing that could have happened in that guy’s life was having the opportunity to know the law of Moses! It brought him life and salvation (vv. 155-156)!

But then we Protestants stand up and assuredly proclaim: “It was a misunderstanding of the law that led the Jews to believe mistakenly that life could ever be found through the law of Moses.”

Really? I wonder what Moses and the author of Ps 119 would say to that?

P. S.: I do believe that the law of Moses has been eclipsed by a greater revelation in Christ, but surely there was more to the law of Moses for those who had it written on their hearts (in the old covenant age) than many of us have given credit.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Biblical Distinction of Law and Gospel

It is common in Protestant circles to contrast law with gospel, where law is understood as equating to God's commandments, and gospel refers to God's promises. But dividing the word of God into two parts is problematic from a biblical theological point of view.

Law or torah in the Old Testament is a co-relative term for the word of God, i.e., the law of God has the same referent as the word of God but describes this referent in a different way. The book of Deuteronomy teaches us this. The revelation that God delivered to Moses to pass on to the people of Israel was simply "the commandment" (e.g., Deut 1:3; 5:31) or "the law" (e.g., Deut 1:5; 4:44).

Psalm 119 also teaches us this. In v. 16, God's word parallels God's statutes. In v. 160, God's word parallels God's judgments. In v. 172, God's word parallels God's commandments. In fact, in Ps 119 God's word is co-relative with God's law, God's testimonies, God's precepts, God's decrees, God's commandments, and God's judgments. That looks like seven different terms altogether, all co-relative.

In a similar way, the law of God and the word of Yahweh are paralleled in Isa 1:10. According to Isa 2:3, the eschatological law that will emanate from Jerusalem and bring peace to the nations is the word of Yahweh.

Law is simply divine revelation. Whatever the King says is law. From a biblical theological perspective, therefore, the law is simply another name for the word of God.

Having established the above point, the biblical teaching concerning law is simple. When God's law is in your heart, you will live; but if the law merely remains an external revelation, not internalized in the heart, then you will die. If the law remains merely externalized, it is a dead letter; but when the law is internalized in the heart, it is the source of life, and effectively gospel. Therefore, the key to life, according to the Bible, is having God's law/word in your heart. Hence Moses' call in Deut 6:6, and hence the supreme importance of the new covenant prophecy of Jer 31:33. The law mortifies or vivifies, depending on its location outside or inside the heart.

The history of Old Testament Israel illustrates this very principle. The revelation given to Israel through Moses came from God. It was an external revelation. The external nature of Mosaic torah was symbolized by the Ten Commandments written on the tablets of stone. What Israel needed was for this external revelation to become internalized on the tablet of their hearts. But despite the prophetic call for Israel to internalize torah, the majority of the people did not respond in a positive way; and so the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation.

In the light of the story of old covenant Israel, the negative function of the law for Paul is simply the idea that the corpus of revelation delivered to Israel through Moses and the prophets brought death to old covenant Israel, because the majority of the people were carnal, not spiritual. In other words, the majority of old covenant Israel did not have the law of Moses in their hearts. Instead of having the Spirit of God guiding them in the way of God's word, they were left to their own devices. Without the Spirit, they were merely flesh.

But God's ultimate purpose for his law is primarily positive, not negative. Thus, a key part of the new covenant is the eschatological writing of torah in the hearts of God's people (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26-27). Through Christ's work and the outpouring of the Spirit, torah would be written on the hearts of God's people. Through Christ and the Spirit, the Mosaic law of sin and death would be transformed into the Christian law of life. Through Christ and the Spirit, law would be transformed into gospel in the fullest sense of the word.

This, by the way, is what Paul means when he says: "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). The law external to human hearts brings death, but the law written on the heart by the Spirit of God gives life.

The word of God, therefore, should not be divided into two parts, because it comes to us as a package deal. It comes with promises, warnings, and commandments all mixed together. The issue is not what part must be believed, and what part obeyed. The issue is whether this holistic word of God finds reception in our hearts. The biblical distinction of law from gospel is not a distinction of literary form or genre. It is primarily a cardiac distinction, a matter of the relation of the heart to the word of God.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Obedience of Faith in Romans 16:26

Sujomo has asked me about how I understand the expression the obedience of faith in Rom 16:26.

In Rom 16:26 I prefer the interpretation the obedience which is faith, i.e., faith is an epexegetic or appositional genitive.

I prefer this interpretation on the basis that Paul in Rom 16:25-26 is reflecting on God's plan of salvation as revealed through the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets saw the new covenant as being a time of the circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6), when the law would be written on the heart in a comprehensive way (Jer 31:33), a time when the Spirit would move Israel and the nations to keep torah (Isa 2:1-4; Ezek 36:26-27). In sum, the Old Testament prophets looked forward to the new covenant as being a betrothal of Israel (and the nations) in faith to God (Hos 3:20), i.e., a time when God would work through Christ and the Spirit to bring about the renewal of covenant faithfulness (as per Hab 2:4), not only on the part of Israel, but also the nations.

So the epexegetic genitive makes most sense as being consistent with this Old Testament vision. I also think that that is how the same phrase in Rom 1:5 should be interpreted. This interpretation is also consistent with Paul's language in Rom 15:18 where he talks about his mission as bringing the Gentiles to obedience.

The obedience of faith contrasts with the obedience of the works of the law (i.e., Jewish obedience to the law of Moses), which Gentiles cannot participate in (at least not without giving up their Gentile citizenship). So the phrase the obedience of faith has a polemic edge to it in the historical context of Paul's day. It is new covenant obedience: the obedience of submission to the lordship of Christ.