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.

3 comments:

John Thomson said...

Steven

Does the OT preach the gospel.I would certainly say it does. I am not sure who would say it doesn't. Do not most reformed folks (and beyond) believe that it was through faith in this gospel preached/promised 'beforehand' that OT believers were justified? Is not OT promise equivalent to Gospel? Or more accurately, is not OT promise an anticipation of gospel, gospel being the realisation of promise?

Specifically, at least in terms of Roms 1;1,2 what was this 'gospel promised beforehand'?

The text says,

Rom 1:1-4 (ESV)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.'

It is OT promise 'concerning God's son' who was the messianic King (seed of David) who would be publicly enthroned by God (declared to be ...).

According to Roms 1:1,2 where the OT points to God's son, Messiah, in humiliation and exaltation it is proclaiming gospel.

In 3:19-22 this text is expanded.

Rom 3:19-22 (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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.'

Here Paul is showing that the OT relationship to the NT is one of both continuity and discontinuity or contrast.

The gospel here is 'the righteousness of God'. That is the eschatological righteousness that God will accomplish. It is the new era, the 'Age to Come' righteousness accomplished by God. This 'righteousness of God' is promise in the OT (law and prophets). We are back again to gospel; that which God will accomplish. This end time righteousness has arrived in Messiah. This is continuity.

However, there is discontinuity. There is contrast. This is signalled in a number of ways. The 'But now'signals contrast. It is a contrast of two eras and this contrast is defined in terms of 'righteousness'. The new era is righteousness of God unveiled, that is distinct from/separate from/apart from Law.

His contrast is between the old era of Law,human righteousness, works, condemnation,death and wrath (for law brings wrath 4:15)and Grace(v24),God's righteousness, faith,justification and life.

I understand your desire to stress continuity but simply underline we must not forget contrast and discontinuity.

Cont below.

John Thomson said...

Steven, you write,

'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.'

These texts seem to me to argue, like Paul, for continuity and discontinuity. It is true that all the Law desired (righteousness) is what the Gospel supplies (both forensically and morally). Yet this very need for a NC is because they recognised the weakness of the OC. The Law in their experience as a nation living in the flesh, exposed and excited sin, condemned and brought wrath. The story of every narrative book in the OT and every prophet is the failure of the people.They desperately needed 'circumcised hearts' a function of gospel (and promise). That a remnant had circumcised hearts was the result of the grace of election and believing the promise (Roms 9-11).

'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.'

With this I agree although I don't think it is an either/or. Surely the context dictates whether a changed heart and obedience is part of the discussion or not. Where the danger is legalism (and I do think that Romans is about legalism, whether palagian or semi-palagian), a works-founded confidence before God, or antinomianism, where how we live is irrelevant. Yes the gospel is a whole and can be viewed holistically but it also has components and can be viewd atomistically. Clarification and pastoral application often demands the latter.

'the common Protestant understanding that Paul’s teaching regarding justification by faith involves a definition of faith that is exclusive of works?'

Steven, it seems to me impossible to read Romans and Galatians and avoid this antithesis.

Rom 11:6 (ESV)
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.'

Rom 3:28 (ESV)
'For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.'

It seems to me your contention here is with Paul not the Protestants. The plain reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans juxtaposes faith and works in the matter of justification.

Of course, as you know well, neither Paul nor any biblically informed Protestant will deny that 'works' are important in the life of faith. However, here 'works' is used in a different sense. Here 'works' are not an attempt to get right with God or even stay right with God but as an expression of new creation life. I have read a number of attempts to express the faith - obedience (works) balance and so far have found none that does so better than a traditional Protestant way of expressing it; works are gratitude for grace and the evidence of it. Faith without works is antinomian in tendency; faith and works is legalistic in tendency whereas faith resulting in works seems to better keep the balance.

Regards

John

PS At least I give you a framework for future articles.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for those insightful comments, John.

I've responded to your comments in the post The Apostle Paul's Law versus Gospel Contrast: A Response to John Thomson.