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.

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