Friday, March 12, 2010

The Law Is Not of Faith: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation

I’ve been asked to explain (in the light of my previous post) what Paul meant when he said that “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12). To do that I need to offer an explanation for Gal 3:11: “But it is clear that by the law no one is justified before God, because the righteous will live by faith.”

The law in question in Gal 3:11 is not law in general but specifically the law of Moses. When Paul says by the law no one is justified before God, I do not take this as being a temporally universal statement. The timeframe of the present tense of the verb translated as is justified must be determined from the context in which it is found; and in this particular context the timeframe of the verbal action is delimited by Paul’s eschatological understanding of Hab 2:4, which is quoted at the end of the verse.

Paul’s use of Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11 is the same as in Rom 1:17. I have argued previously (see “Paul's Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: The Righteous Will Live by Faith”) that Paul understood Hab 2:4 as being a prophecy of the new covenant, which would be a time when righteousness would be defined in terms of a positive response to the eschatological revelation of the gospel instead of by means of a positive response to the Mosaic revelation (which is how righteousness was defined under the Mosaic covenant).

In other words, Paul is saying in Gal 3:11 that it is clear from Hab 2:4, which prophesied that covenant righteousness in the eschatological age would be defined in terms of faith, that in the new covenant age no one is able to be justified by a covenantal commitment or adherence to the law of Moses. In other words, Hab 2:4 effectively prophesied that a doctrine of justification by faith would apply in the new covenant age (on analogy with how righteousness was defined for Gentile Abraham).

This then leads us to Gal 3:12: “But the law is not of faith, but the one who has done these things will live by them.” Both clauses of this verse contrast with the content of Hab 2:4. Paul wants to contrast the eschatological faith spoken of in Hab 2:4 with the holistic faith response (i.e., the works of the law) required under the Mosaic covenant.

Now we need to say at this point that there is evidence that the law of Moses did require faith (see my previous post “The Paradox of Faith and Law: Is the Law of Faith or Not?”), but we also need to say that the faith that applied with respect to Mosaic torah was a Mosaic type of faith. The faith that Paul has in mind in Gal 3:12 is the faith that is defined in Hab 2:4, i.e., an eschatological type of faith. By saying that the law is not of faith, Paul is saying that the positive response to God’s revelation that was required under the Mosaic covenant was the response of saying amen to the whole of Mosaic torah, and this contrasts with the new covenant response of saying amen to eschatological, Messianic revelation, which is the gospel. As noted above, saying amen to the law of Moses is faith (in terms of how the ancient Hebrews thought of it); but being a holistic idea, this faith was characteristically talked about using the language of obedience. Paul’s quotation of Lev 18:5 shows this. Leviticus 18:5, properly understood, is simply saying that a commitment to obeying Mosaic torah was the way of blessing and eternal life for Israel according to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. The typical orthodox (Old Testament) Hebrew way of thinking was that Israel’s covenant obligation was that of obedience to the law, which was an obedience that could be performed if the law was written on the heart. This Mosaic way of thinking is encapsulated in Lev 18:5. Paul is quoting Lev 18:5 in a perfectly valid Jewish manner. Both he and his Jewish opponents accepted that covenantal obedience to torah was the way of righteousness and life under the Mosaic covenant (see also Rom 10:5).

So, by saying that the law is not of faith Paul is really trying to distinguish the required response to old covenant revelation from the required response to new covenant revelation. Old covenant revelation was the law of Moses; new covenant revelation is the gospel. The law of Moses is not the gospel. The law of Moses testifies to the gospel (Rom 3:21); but the gospel per se, and faith in this gospel, could only be proclaimed once the Messiah had been revealed to Israel (hence Paul’s reasoning in Gal 3:23-25). The gospel as the revelation of the righteousness of God is apart from the law (Rom 3:21). The law and the gospel are two interrelated, mutually consistent, but distinct revelations. Strictly speaking, the gospel could not be proclaimed until the Son of God had been revealed (Heb 1:1-2), and the Messianic victory won.

In other words, Paul’s point in Gal 3:12 is that the law of Moses and its required response of obedience is not the eschatological revelation that requires faith, about which Habakkuk prophesied. The law of Moses required obedience (a Mosaic type faith). It did not require an eschatological (Abrahamic) type faith. In effect, in Gal 3:12 Paul proves from the Hebrew Scriptures that his Jewish opponents’ teaching that the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations were still normative for salvation (even after the resurrection of Christ) is out of step with the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, who foresaw, upon the coming of Christ, a new covenant based on a new revelation, which necessarily requires a new definition of what constitutes faith or covenant obedience. The law of Moses prophesied about the Messiah, but it did not proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, for in the Mosaic age Jesus of Nazareth had not yet been born or revealed to Israel. The law of Moses is not eschatological revelation. The law of Moses is not the (eschatological) gospel. In this sense, therefore, the law is not of faith.


John Thomson said...


You tempt me into responding. I really should resist.

You know I disagree with your view that Paul is only signalling a difference in era and not making qualitative judgements on the efficacy of the two eras. You believe that whereas once people were 'saved' by the works of the law they are now justified by faith or faithfulness; really a change of husband is all that is in view.

Yet Paul speaks of the previous husband as 'bringing fruits to death' (Roms 7). He describes it as a pedagogue treating us as children rather than adult sons and from which God's people should be glad to be free(Gals 3,4). Indeed it is an administration of death, of the letter which kills (2 Cor 3). From the very beginning of its administration it involved a veiling of glory and a darkening of the mind (2 Cor 3). These were its characteristics even during its era of authority. I find your insistence that Paul is merely signalling a change of era and not also contrasting the saving power of one with the damning powerlessness of the other difficult to understand.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, for your comment; but I think you haven't fully understood my position.

I am not saying that Paul was simply talking about a difference in era. I also believe that the old era was unable to bring the fullness of blessing and life. It was unable to bring about justification on the scale of “all flesh” (Rom 3:20).

Paul definitely makes qualitative judgments about the efficacy of the two eras. 2 Corinthians 3 is a classic case in point! If I had had Gal 3:10 in view in my post (which I didn’t), then perhaps you would have heard me say something along the lines of how the Mosaic covenant brought the curses of the covenant down upon old covenant Israel, upon the wicked as well as the righteous, meaning that the Mosaic covenant was unable to achieve the fullness of salvation for Israel (let alone the nations).

The faithful remnant were saved by the works of the law in the sense that their faith, directed as it was to the (Mosaic) revelation that they had received, was the means by which they received some measure in the present of the promised blessing of life, as well as being the means by which they received the promise of the fullness of blessing to be given to them by God in the eschatological future. You yourself have acknowledged that often there is not a clear distinction made between faith and faithfulness in the Old Testament. Because Moses did not distinguish clearly between faith and faithfulness, they typically thought of (faith)fulness (i.e., according to their idiom, doing the works of the law) as the way of life. So, I hold that they were saved by faith, albeit a fuzzy concept of faith according to their way of thinking. But even that faith of obedience was not able to bring them the fullness of salvation in their own lifetime (Heb 11:39-40). So a new covenant was definitely necessary.

There is definitely a qualitative difference between the old covenant and the new covenant! That is surely part of Paul's point elsewhere in his letters. It's there in Gal 3:10 and 3:13, but not in Gal 3:11-12.

John Thomson said...


Thanks for comments. I was aware I should have nuanced my comment a little further for I know that you do allow for a degree of difference between the eras. I really like your comment below.

The faithful remnant were saved by the works of the law in the sense that their faith, directed as it was to the (Mosaic) revelation that they had received, was the means by which they received some measure in the present of the promised blessing of life, as well as being the means by which they received the promise of the fullness of blessing to be given to them by God in the eschatological future.

I can live with that. I do believe that the faith of the remnant was expressed within the revelatory shape of the OC and with the anticipation of the eschatological.

I guess the point is the source and nature of that faith that committed itself to law-obedience. I would answer to that a faith in Yahweh based on a combination of his promises to the patriarchs and his great acts of salvation for his people, principally redemption from Egypt but also the various powerful saving signs that followed in her history that witnessed (through the prophets) to eschatological hope.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John. I agree with you on all of that, especially your last paragraph, although even there I would be tempted to say that the main vehicle for Israel knowing about the promises to the patriarchs (at least in later generations) was probably none other than Moses himself. At the least the way it has been enscripturated, that is how things stand.

But yes, the name YHWH spoke to the Israelites of God’s faithfulness as revealed through the great exodus redemption. The Great I Am: “I am who I am”; what I have promised, I so keep.

The amazing thing is that we who live this side of Christ's resurrection have even more cause to trust in God’s faithfulness. The exodus and the cross: it’s YHWH x 2!

Anonymous said...

"The law is not of faith" -- here Paul proves himself to be a total imbecile. Its the law that is the beginning of faith in God, without which Paulinism would not even have a chance of gaining acceptance, nor does anyone trust in the law as a means of salvation without faith in God who gave the law and the law's divine origin -- therefore, the law IS of faith. Further the argument "the law is not of faith because it has requirements" can be used against Paul's doctrine: "Paul's doctrine is not of faith because it has requirements" which shows that Paul's childish attempt at logic is a dismal failure and everyone living their lives by this man's rantings is spiritually and intellectually dumber than dirt.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello beowulf2k8,

It depends on what you mean by faith. Following your definition of faith, I’m fairly sure that Paul would agree with you. But if Paul was simply meaning to argue that the law of Moses and the Christian gospel are two “different” revelations from God, then that is a different use of the word faith in this context. We need to understand Paul first before condemning him.

As to your opinion about Paul, Paul himself would probably say: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court … It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3–4). Christ himself will decide whether or not Paul is “a total imbecile,” and whether or not you are right in suggesting that millions of Christians have been deceived into following the ravings of a lunatic.

Anonymous said...

I do perceive that by "faith" Paul tends to mean "faith in Jesus' death as a mystery-cult-type godman sacrifice" -- even when he speaks of Abraham having faith he seems to mean this by 'faith' -- Paul is therefore simply dealing in fiction because Abraham knew nothing of this concept. Remember Paul interprets "in you all nations will be blessed" as meaning that God preached "the gospel" (i.e. the mystery-cult godman sacrifice of Jesus) to Abraham ahead of time. This is of coruse because Paul imagines that this mystery-cult sacrifice is how God would bless all nations. But in reality its obvious that from the OT perspective the meaning of "though you I will bless all nations" is that through Abraham's descendants God would give the Torah which would bless all nations with its moral guidance.