Friday, November 26, 2010

The Apostle Paul's Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Law

I believe that the key to understanding Paul’s teaching on law and gospel is actually found in the Old Testament. In particular, what does the Old Testament say about the role of old covenant law, eschatological law, and the gospel? Sadly, these questions have not been asked by the majority of those who have sought to interpret Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans. The key to understanding the debate concerning justification by the works of the law in the early church actually lies in understanding that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant in which present and future grace was conditional upon works, i.e., upon obedience to the covenant performed in the context of grace. In other words, the Mosaic covenant is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of works.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the Old Testament view of the law:

“While it is definitely true that Christ is the only person who has kept God’s law perfectly and that his perfect righteousness must cover a person’s iniquity in order that he or she might be able to live in the presence of the most holy God, it is to overlook the gracious nature of the Mosaic law to keep on talking of the Mosaic law as if it required the absolute perfection of the people of Israel per se and to ignore the Old Testament concept of covenant righteousness. Rather, the truth of the matter is that it is precisely because no ordinary Israelite could keep God’s requirements absolutely that God in his grace provided a means of atonement for the people through the sacrificial system, which was an integral part of the Mosaic law. Significantly, the fact that the grace of the forgiveness of sins was built into the Mosaic law is the very thing that made it possible for some Israelites to keep the Mosaic law in the divinely intended covenantal sense” (p. 124).

“Understanding the gracious nature of the Mosaic law and how this establishes a valid doctrine of justification by the works of the Mosaic law is also the key to understanding the dual function that the Mosaic law had under the old covenant. To summarize this dual function, the Mosaic law had, on the one hand, a justifying and vivifying function, and on the other hand, a condemnatory and mortifying function. The law justified and vivified those who covenantally kept the law (Deut 6:25; 30:15-16, 19-20; Ps 19:7; 119:93, 156), but it condemned and mortified those who did not keep it in the required covenantal sense (Deut 30:15, 18-19)” (pp. 125–6).

“It will be argued below that Paul understood this dual function of covenant law in the Old Testament, and that his teaching in Galatians and Romans reflects this dual function of torah. Paul’s teaching in these epistles should not be interpreted in a way that makes him contradict the Old Testament teaching on the justifying and vivifying function of the Mosaic law for those among old covenant Israel who had the law of God written on their hearts by his Spirit” (p. 126).

It is to be noted that I am arguing in a manner consistent with orthodox Judaism that justification by covenantal obedience to the Mosaic law (what Paul and his Jewish opponents called justification by the works of the law) is a legitimate Mosaic (or Old Testament) doctrine as Deut 6:25 clearly posits:
“and righteousness will be ours, if we observe to do all this commandment before Yahweh our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut 6:25).
To quote from John Davies’s study on Deut 6: “It is inescapable from a reading of Deuteronomy 6 that central to God’s covenant with Israel is the call to love him unreservedly, with all that this entails. Without such love, Israel cannot expect to be ‘right’ with God, or to enjoy any of the previously promised blessings. To put it bluntly, salvation necessitates loving obedience as its sine qua non” (John Davies, “Love for God—A Neglected Theological Locus,” in An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell [Reformed Theological Review Supplement Series 4; eds. John A. Davies and Allan Harman; Doncaster: Reformed Theological Review, 2010], 151).

In the light of Deut 6:25, the question is: does the Old Testament record anyone as having kept torah, and in particular the torah of Moses?

“The Old Testament speaks of God’s torah as something that was indeed kept, albeit by only a small number of people in the Old Testament age. This fact needs to be acknowledged and integrated into our Protestant systematic theologies. Abraham, for example, is described by God as being a person who ‘obeyed [Yahweh’s] voice and kept [his] charge, [his] commandments … statutes … and … laws’ (Gen 26:5). David is also acknowledged by God in 1 Kings 14:8 as being someone ‘who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes.’ From the Old Testament perspective, therefore, torah is doable. Both Abraham and David were keepers of torah” (Coxhead, "Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm," 123), although it should be noted that the torah kept by Abraham was not the torah of Moses.

But the fact that Mosaic torah was doable means that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant. Furthermore, if Mosaic torah is actually doable, then it logically follows that justification by the works of the law is a legitimate Old Testament concept. But it was legitimate only for a time. As Paul will argue, justification by the works of the Mosaic law is a doctrine (1) that excludes the Gentiles, (2) that “failed” (according to God’s plan) to bring justification to Israel as a whole, and (3) that does not apply in the new covenant age.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Jewish Context of the Theology of the Apostle Paul

In section one of my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell I look at the Jewish context of Paul’s theology in Galatians and Romans.

The Jewish context of Paul’s theology is very important for understanding the nature of the problem that Paul was addressing in Galatians and Romans, but overall this dimension is something that has frequently been mishandled or overlooked in the history of the interpretation of these epistles.

“The Jewish context of Paul’s theology has two main aspects: firstly, the theological context of the Old Testament; and secondly, the nature of the Jewish opposition that Paul had to face during his ministry” (p. 121).

“When it comes to the theological context in which Paul operated, the most important element is the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) and the theological ideas communicated therein. There are two important aspects to the Old Testament that impact upon Paul’s theology: the Old Testament view of the law, and the Old Testament view of the gospel” (p. 121).

“The second aspect of Paul’s Jewish context is the identity of Paul’s Jewish opponents” (p. 130).

In my next post I will provide some quotes from the sub-section that deals with the Old Testament view of the law.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm

I thought that I should give you a brief taste of the content of my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell.

"Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm" has the following sections:

1. Introduction;
2. The Jewish Context of Paul’s Theology;
   i. Paul’s Old Testament Theological Context;
     a. The Old Testament View of the Law;
     b. The Old Testament View of the Gospel;
   ii. Paul’s Jewish Opponents;
3. Understanding Paul in His Historical Context;
   i. The Christian Gospel as the Fulfilment of the of the Old Testament Hope;
   ii. Paul’s Teaching on the Law;
4. A Balanced Protestant Biblical Hermeneutic on Law and Gospel;
5. Conclusion.

Now for some quotes from the Introduction:

“The task of building a new covenant paradigm is predicated on the idea that one of the greatest aids in understanding the theology of Paul is nothing other than the Old Testament Scriptures. It is regrettable that the Old Testament’s teaching on the new covenant has often been overlooked in scholarly discussions on Paul’s theology of grace and law” (p. 119);

The content of 2 Tim 3:15 and Rom 1:1–2 “means that to understand the Pauline gospel, the Old Testament Scriptures and Old Testament prophecy must not be left out of the picture” (p. 120);

“Consistent with Dumbrell’s basic approach, I will argue in this essay that the Old Testament prophetic perspective on the new covenant was important to Paul and provided the basic paradigm for his understanding of God’s work as revealed through Christ Jesus” (p. 120).

I will give you a taste of the remaining sections over the next few posts.

For anyone who is interested, the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell is available from:

Reformed Theological Review
PO Box 635
VIC 3108

The cost is AU$35 plus AU$3 postage within Australia, AU$8.80 to Asia, and AU$13 to elsewhere.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Festschrift for William J. Dumbrell

Last Friday I was present at a dinner organized by the Reformed Theological Review for the purpose of presenting a Festschrift of essays written in honor of Dr William Dumbrell (on the left in the photo above), entitled An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell, edited by John A. Davies and Allan M. Harman, and published by the Reformed Theological Review.

Bill is the author of Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants and The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament, and many other books and articles. John Davies has written this about Bill in the Introduction to the book: “Bill has a fertile and creative mind, able from his vast reading to evaluate and take on board the best of traditional and contemporary scholarship, while being prepared to rock the boat somewhat with ideas that go against the grain of some cherished notions.” I would also like to put on the public record here my appreciation for Bill’s support for me personally and also for his encouragement for me to continue my involvement in the work of theological education in whatever capacity possible.

As one of the contributors to the Festschrift, I am probably a little biased when I say that this book is packed full with interesting and thought-provoking essays interacting with aspects of the theme of covenant in Scripture, but I think that that description is not too wide of the mark. Here's an outline of the contents:

“Fathers and Sons in the Books of Samuel” by Gregory Goswell, pp. 1-28;

“For the Sins of the Fathers: Generational Recompense in the Old Covenant and Its Implication for Infants in the New Covenant” by Mark Glanville, pp. 29-51;

“Psalm 2” by Bruce Waltke, pp. 53-81;

“The Abrahamic Covenant in the Psalter” by Allan M. Harman, pp. 83-99;

“Jesus and His Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane” by Don West, pp. 101-117;

“Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” by Steven Coxhead, pp. 119-44;

“Love for God—A Neglected Theological Locus” by John Davies, pp. 145-64;

“Of Covenant and Creation: A Conversation between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology” by John McClean, pp. 165-99;

and “The One and Eternal Covenant of God” by Joe Mock (which looks at the theme of covenant in Bullinger), pp. 201-233.

The Festschrift is available from:

Reformed Theological Review
PO Box 635
VIC 3108

It costs AU$35 plus $3 postage within Australia, $8.80 to Asia, and $13 to elsewhere.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Theme of Judgment in the Gospel of John

The theme of judgment is a theme of medium priority in John’s Gospel overall, but the amount of space devoted to the theme of judgment is surprisingly large all the same. Of greatest polemical significance is the idea that Jesus has a special role to play in God’s work of judgment. Even though the Father is both King and Judge, he has “given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). This corresponds to Paul’s teaching that on the day of judgment each person will be called to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of what they have done (2 Cor 5:10).

According to John 5:27, Jesus has received this “authority to execute judgment” from the Father, because he is the Son of Man in fulfillment of Dan 7:13–14. This judging function would not, however, be taken up in earnest until the day of judgment. Before this time, Jesus’ role is to bring salvation more than judgment per se. Thus, John’s Gospel teaches that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:18). Jesus himself teaches that he “did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47). Even though Jesus’ primary purpose for coming into the world was not that of judgment, nevertheless Jesus also taught that he had come into the world “for judgment … that those who do not see may see and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). In other words, even though Jesus primary purpose in his first coming was that of salvation rather than judgment, because judgment is the flipside of salvation, we can say that Jesus also came “for judgment.” Jesus denied that he would judge the person who heard his sayings yet did not keep them, but at the same time this person will be judged “on the last day” in relation to the words of revelation that Jesus had spoken while in the world (John 12:47–48). Jesus also taught that through his death and glorification “the judgment of this world” had already come (John 12:31).

Also of polemical significance in the historical context of John’s day is the idea presented forcefully in the Gospel that a person’s faith in Jesus determines whether or not he or she will be condemned in the day of judgment. The person “who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned,” but “he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). Those who reject Jesus will be judged for loving darkness rather than the light of Christ (John 3:19). Jesus taught that “he who he hears my word and believes him who sent me … does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Such people will participate in “the resurrection of life” rather than “the resurrection of judgment” that is reserved for “those who have done evil” rather than “good” (John 5:29).

The theme of judgment also applies in John’s Gospel to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which was a matter of serious debate between Jesus and his Jewish opponents. Jesus occasionally talked of his witness about himself as being his “judgment” (John 5:30). Jesus made the claim that “[his] judgment is just” in his opinion about himself, for he was only following his Father’s will in so judging (John 5:30). Jesus said to the Pharisees that he had “much to say about [them] and much to judge” (John 8:26). On another occasion, when debating with the Pharisees, Jesus said that he “judge[s] no one” (John 8:15). At the same time, however, Jesus’ judgment is not his alone but also the judgment of the Father who sent him (John 8:16). Thus, Jesus’ judgment or opinion about himself is not ultimately his but his Father’s.

John’s Gospel is also concerned with the issue of right judgment. Jesus accused his opponents of judging “by appearances” (John 7:24) and “according to the flesh” (John 8:15) rather than “with right judgment” (John 7:24). Jesus was judged by the Jews according to the Mosaic law but unfairly so (John 7:51; 18:31). Pilate adjudged Jesus to be innocent of crime (John 18:38; 19:4, 6), but he nevertheless delivered Jesus over to be crucified (John 19:16).

John’s Gospel also speaks of a role for the Holy Spirit in the work of judgment. The Spirit would “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). This is best understood as a kind of argument based on the order of events in salvation history. The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost implies the fact of Jesus’ ascension, which in turn proves the truthfulness of Jesus’ claims about himself. This argument is similar to Peter’s salvation-historical logic in Acts 2 (see especially Acts 2:32–33, 36). In this way, the coming of the Spirit would convict the world of the sinfulness of rejecting Jesus Christ (John 16:9), vindicate Christ by proving his righteousness in all that he said and did (John 16:10), and prove that through Jesus’ death and resurrection “the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11) and “cast out” (John 12:31–32).

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Eucharist in the Gospel of John

Even though John’s Gospel provides an account of the Last Supper in chs. 13–14, it is somewhat surprising that there is no account of the actual institution of the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel, unlike the situation that is found in the Synoptics. This detail has led some scholars to speculate that John’s Gospel was written in part to de-emphasize a sacramental theology in the early church that had elevated the sacraments to a point where the reality of Christ behind the sacramental signs was in danger of being obscured.

It has also been argued that Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that he is the bread of life also functions to de-emphasize such an overly elevated view of the eucharist. It is argued from John 6:35 in particular that the language of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood is merely to be understood as a combined metaphor for coming to Jesus and believing in him. In addition to this, the teaching in John 6:63 that “it is the Spirit who gives life” and that “the flesh is of no avail” has been taken as a possible critique of the view which emphasizes the physical dimension of the eucharist to the detriment of the spiritual reality to which the physical signs are supposed to point.

Opposing this view of an anti-sacramental theology in John’s Gospel, the majority of modern day scholarship has seen a positive link between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper. Raymond Brown is of the opinion that there are “secondary, eucharistic undertones” in John 6:35–50, and an explicit allusion to the Lord’s Supper in vv. 51–58 (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII: Introduction, Translation, and Notes [AB 29; Wimbledon: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971], 274). Rudolf Bultmann commenting on John 6:27–59 says that the concepts of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood “refer without any doubt to the sacramental meal of the Eucharist” (Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1971], 218).

C. K. Barrett also sees an allusion to the eucharist in John 6:51–58. He takes the addition of the words “drink his blood” in John 6:53 as pointing “unmistakably … to the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 299). At the same time, however, he makes the point that an allusion to the eucharist “does not in itself determine what John’s eucharistic theology was” (ibid., 297). He disputes that John 6:51–58 presents “the bread and wine to be a kind of medicine, conferring immortality by quasi-magical means” (ibid.). The “removal of the eucharistic allusion from the last supper” to the narrative in John 6 shows that John’s “intention” was “to set the eucharist in the context of the work of Jesus as a whole and to give it a strictly personal interpretation” (ibid.). Somewhat similar to Barrett, Leon Morris prefers the view that takes the teaching of Jesus in John 6:27–58 as being “primarily ... about spiritual realities” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John [Rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 313). At the same time, however, he “does not deny that there may be a secondary reference to the sacrament” (ibid.).

In all of this discussion, we should keep in mind that the immediate significance of the metaphors of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood in the context of Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd is definitely related to the need to become united with Jesus through faith so as to participate in the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. That is, the metaphors used by Jesus at this point speak of the need for faith in Jesus as the condition for eternal life. This is also the primary significance of the teaching in John 6:25–59 for readers of John’s Gospel today. Nevertheless, given that the New Testament testifies that the early church regularly participated in the Lord’s Supper whenever they met together (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:33), and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is itself a pledge of personal faith in the context of a covenant renewal ceremony—participation in the Lord’s Supper is meant to be viewed as involving a public confession of faith confirming the confession of faith made at baptism—it is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ knew and intended that these provocative metaphors would allow links to be drawn in the minds of the early Christians between his teaching in John 6 with the familiar practice of the Lord’s Supper. If this is true, then John 6:25–58 also speaks in a secondary way of the significance of what we do when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. When we come to Jesus in the Lord’s Supper with faith in our hearts, we are assured that the power of his lifeblood is at work in us. Given the anti-Baptist and particularly anti-Judaistic orientation of John’s Gospel, it is also reasonable to assume that the function of John 6:25–58 in the polemical contect of the day would have implied an assertion of the efficacy and necessity of the Lord’s Supper (by which the gospel is formally sealed to believers) over against the rites of the communities with which the John’s Christian community was in competition (i.e., the followers of John the Baptist, and the orthodox Jewish community).

Attention has also been drawn to John 15:1–11 as being another allusion to the eucharist. Given that John 15:1–16:33 seems to record the teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples on the way to the Kidron Valley just after the conclusion of the Last Supper, we are obviously meant to understand Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 in the context of the Passover meal that had just been celebrated. Furthermore, given that this Passover meal provided the model for the Lord’s Supper, it seems that Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 also functions as a reflection on the deeper significance of the Lord’s Supper. As we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we renew our faith union with Jesus, and commit ourselves to his service to bear fruit for him, and to the bond of love which Jesus would have us maintain with our Christian brothers and sisters. It is quite possible that the tradition of calling the Lord’s Supper a “love feast” (Jude 12) stems from this teaching of the Lord. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is not only meant to be a communion in the death and life of the Lord Jesus, but also a communion of love of Christians with one another.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Baptism in the Gospel of John

Even though there is no specific command in John’s Gospel concerning the need for baptism, it is significant that John’s Gospel is the only gospel which records that baptism was an important part of Jesus’ public ministry. In John 3:22, the author records that Jesus “baptized” a large number of people, so much so that his ministry of baptism began to eclipse the widely popular ministry of John the Baptist. Even though this verse records that Jesus “baptized,” John 4:2 records that Jesus did not actually baptize anyone himself; rather he authorized his disciples to perform baptism on his behalf. But even though Jesus did not personally conduct baptisms, it is clear from the Gospel of John that baptism in water was important in the ministry of Jesus. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry is something that we do not see in the Synoptics.

The meaning given to baptism in John’s Gospel is also worthy of consideration. Baptism is linked to discipleship in the sense that submission to Jesus’ baptism was the initial formal step by which a person became a disciple of Jesus. This is clear from the wording of John 4:1, which says that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples and John.” This link between baptism and discipleship is echoed in the theology of the Great Commission in Matt 28:19, where it is taught that disciples are formally “made” through baptism. Having been baptized, the disciple is then obligated to learn from his or her master, to follow his example (John 13:14–15), by keeping the master’s teaching (John 17:6), and obeying his commandments (Matt 28:20; John 15:10). By keeping the master’s commandments, the disciple remains in the master’s love (John 15:10).

There has been a great deal of debate over whether or not Jesus’ teaching concerning rebirth “by water and spirit” in John 3:5 is a reference to Christian baptism. It is best to take these words spoken by Jesus in his dialogue with Nicodemus as teaching about the need for conversion by the Holy Spirit, with water (as is usual in John’s Gospel) being a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. At the same time, however, this metaphor lends itself to seeing a close connection between physical water and the Holy Spirit. The practice of Gentile proselyte baptism, in which Gentile converts to Judaism were considered to become like newborn children makes it quite likely that the word water would have conveyed the idea of baptism, or at least some kind of ceremonial washing, to a Jewish audience. Ezekiel 36:24–27 also connects the future work of the Spirit with the image of water sprinkled upon Israel in order to cleanse her from her uncleanness.

Since conversion or baptism by the Holy Spirit is paralleled in John 3:15–16, 18 with believing in Jesus, the obvious conclusion that must be drawn is that the new birth (i.e., baptism in the Holy Spirit) begins (for the adult convert) when one confesses faith in Jesus Christ. For the early church, the Christian confession of faith consisted of a public confession of belief in Jesus as Messiah using the formula (in a Jewish context) I believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:31), or I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Acts 8:37), which became in a Gentile context the confession that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). The practice of the early church was that a person’s confession of faith in Jesus would be formally sealed in the act of baptism, which was performed immediately upon confession of faith. The book of Acts records no less than nine instances of converts being baptized immediately (or “at once” according to Acts 16:33) upon confession of faith. These are: the 3,000 converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:38,41); the Samaritans (8:12); the Ethiopian eunuch (8:37–38); the Apostle Paul (9:18; 22:16); the first Gentile converts (10:47–48); Lydia (16:14–15); the Philippian jailer (16:31–33); the Corinthians (18:8); and the twelve disciples of John the Baptist (19:3–5). This indicates that the early church thought of baptism as an integral part of conversion (hence, Peter could teach in 1 Pet 3:21 that “baptism … saves you”). Furthermore, it was the belief of the early church that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit was ordinarily received through Christian baptism (Acts 2:38, 41; 5:32; 19:2; 1 Cor 12:13; Tit 3:5), following the model of Jesus’ baptism, in which there was a conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). Exceptions to the rule of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism only happened at special stages in God’s plan of salvation, such as at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4) and upon the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17) and the first Gentiles (Acts 10:44–48).

Because this concept of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism was prevalent in the early church, it is most likely that John’s Christian audience, and non-Christians acquainted with Christian religious practices, would have understood the phrase of water and spirit as having some kind of link with Christian baptism. Thus, Jesus’ teaching in John 3:5 can be understood as an implied call for non-believers to convert to Christianity, i.e., to be baptized and to become disciples of Jesus Christ, similar to the teaching of the early church that is recorded in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

In sum, it is best to take the primary reference of the words of water and spirit on the lips of Jesus as referring to conversion by the Spirit, but at the same time this implies the necessity of Christian baptism, because baptism in water and the Spirit were ordinarily viewed in the early church as happening together as part of the process of conversion.