Paul and Torah: An Introductory Overview

Note: This overview became the basis for a much more thorough examination of the subject, the small book entitled These are two Covenants: Reconsidering Paul On the Mosaic Law (which was published as an ebook in 2010 and in paperback early in 2012).

The question of Paul's view of the Mosaic law is a complex one, and particularly in recent years, has spawned a massive flood of publications. It is not possible even for a full-time Pauline scholar to absorb all of this material; there is more "important, must have" literature being produced than there is time to read it. Particularly since the advent of the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP), every year scholars do more wrestling and more writing.

The key to any evangelical evaluation of Paul, however, requires that he gets a coherent reading. An evangelical doctrine of Scripture means that we are not to take him to be muddled or self-contradictory. For this reason, although there are numerous points at which certain scholars may help us, we cannot accept their global viewpoint on Paul (I am thinking here of such scholars as Raisanen, Hubner and Sanders). It is in any case far too convenient to suggest a writer such as Paul is hopelessly muddled and inconsistent; we must rise to the challenge of seeing how everything fits together.

What follows is a general approach to Paul that I think suffers from fewer problems than others. This is a global perspective intending to describe the general contours of Paul's theology of the law; we cannot therefore go into extensive exegetical demonstration here. I will, however, provide brief textual defenses for numerous choices I have made. I think this global perspective will stand up to careful scrutiny of the various passages, although I will not claim that I personally have done close exegesis of every relevant Pauline text. That is the labour of a lifetime.

In what follows, I will introduce this global perspective by dealing with seven issues:

1. The meaning of nomos (law) in Paul
2. The denial that Christians are under nomos (Torah)
3. Paul's fundamental critique of nomos (Torah)
4. Torah's purpose in redemptive history
5. Justification and Torah
6. Gentiles and Torah
7. Torah and fulfilling the law

1. Nomos (Law) in Paul usually means Torah (the Mosaic law)

One of the difficulties in exegesis is that we bring a lot of unseen assumptions to the text. These assumptions greatly affect our reading, not only of passages as a whole, but even individual words. This is not least the case with the term nomos. Roman Catholic exegetes, building upon a Thomistic tradition of "natural law" (not to mention "canon law") can have a natural tendency to hear a universal principle in the term nomos. Similarly, Protestant exegetes do their labours within the context of a Reformational dispute which largely took the shape of "law versus faith" or "law versus grace." This dispute had to do with the place of required obedience in the Christian life (i.e. whether it is a basis for acceptance with God etc). Nomos thus took on the sense of all required obedience. Without denying that there may well be legitimate (and even necessary) ways of approaching a secondary application of nomos to such usage, responsible handling to Paul requires ascertaining whether for him law has such a universal meaning.

I believe that it is virtually impossible to demonstrate that any one usage of nomos in Paul's writings refers to a "universal law," and if one such example could be found, it would indeed be a striking anomaly. Paul very frequently places the law into temporal contexts, showing that for him, nomos is something that is introduced into history at a particular time. I point specifically to Galatians 3.15-25, which identifies nomos as being added 430 years after Abraham, given for a specific purpose, and administered through the hand of a mediator. The apostle clearly identifies Moses and the law in Romans 5.13-14: until the law, sin was in the world, and yet death reigned from Adam to Moses.

This is not to say that every employment of nomos is identical in the Pauline epistles. We must at the very least distingish between law as Scripture and law as covenant. The former usage is standard fare both in the New Testament and extrabiblical literature, and can refer not only to the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), but indeed to the Old Testament as a whole (see Paul's citations of the Psalms in Rom 3.10-18, which he identifies in 3.19 as the law speaking). The latter meaning, law as covenant, is obviously the more difficult of the two, although the extrabiblical literature employs the term with similar frequency. (However, even by this time, there are hints that in some circles the Mosaic covenant may be beginning to merge to some degree with uninspired scribal and rabbinic interpretations/extensions of the law. I am not convinced that this usage occurs in Paul.)

2. Christians are not under Torah

Correlative to the understanding of nomos as the Torah-covenant, we must recognize that a fundamental dictum in Paul's theology of the law is that Christians are not under the Torah-covenant (see e.g. Rom 6.14). The question of Scripture once again must be kept distinct. Paul repeatedly appeals to the Old Testament as authoritative - indeed, even to texts of the law itself (see e.g. 1 Cor 9.9). The temporary character of Torah is not based upon any notion of simple dismissal.

It is precisely on this point upon which much post-Reformation exegetical confusion rests. Because nomos has been so frequently universalized into an abstract principle of commandment (or, the Mosaic laws universalized into a timeless demand), the Pauline teaching that Christians are not under Torah has come to be qualified in ways foreign to the apostle's intent. A prominent example is the notion that Christians are not under the law as a means of achieving justification, meaning: we are declared righteous, not on the basis of the merit of our own works, but by free grace.

Now, it must be understood that this observation is wholly correct as a theological datum (and can even be deduced from Paul) - but we must question whether that adequately describes precisely what Paul means when he says that Christians are not under Torah. I emphatically say that it does not. When Paul says that to those under law, he became as one under law (1 Cor 9.20), he certainly does not mean that he acted like he was attempting to achieve justification through works. He is simply saying that he was Torah-observant when he was among Jews (which is why he circumcised Timothy, who had a Jewish mother; Acts 16.1-3).

This same text underscores that Paul was no longer Torah-observant for himself. When he says he "became like a Jew" and "like one under Torah," the unmistakable presupposition is that he no longer did live as a Jew, and no longer saw himself as under Torah. Paul has moved from being under Torah to being under Christ (note his play on words in 1 Cor 9.21: he is ennomos Christou; Christ has Himself become Paul's "Torah," which is why he now is neither lawless nor uncovenanted).

For Paul, Torah is a covenant which was introduced at a particular point in history, as we noted above. And furthermore, just as it had a historical entrance point, it also had a historical exit point. It was for the period "before the faith came," a child-custodian governing until the time of Christ. After Christ has come, the child-custodian no longer governs (Gal 3.23-25).

It must be underscored that these are redemptive-historical categories, and have little to do with the precise approach to the law one may take (e.g. as a means of earning justification or not). This is not to deny that Paul's discussion of the law is integrally related to justification; such a claim would be patently false and easy to disprove. But it is to suggest that we must determine the nature of Paul's argument. Galatians 3.15-25 as a whole is within a larger context which includes justification (see e.g. 2.16; 3.6, 8), but it remains transparently true that the passage is fundamentally redemptive-historical in nature: the law belonged to a chronology, and now that Christ has come its time has passed. (On the character of Paul's argument in Galatians, see also my "What Saint Paul Should Have Said.")

Paul says something similar in Romans 10.4. Christ is the end of the law (telos nomou). There is of course a great dispute whether telos here should be translated end, as in the sense of termination, or as goal. I prefer the latter, but in connection with our present point, that matters little. If we once recognize the historical element in Paul's argument, goal implies a termination of sorts, in any case. If Christ is the goal of the law, then the arrival of Christ means that the law has fulfilled its purpose. If you travel a highway to a certain destination, that place is your goal. Having arrived at the destination, the highway has served its purpose for the journey. Thus when Paul writes that Christ is the goal of Torah, he is saying that it has served its redemptive-historical purpose.

3. Paul's critique of Torah

This then brings us to some of the most difficult issues in Pauline study, issues often further complicated by presuppositions that exegetical traditions have taught us to bring to the text, as well as by all sorts of confusing recent scholarship (some of which tends to be reductionistic). Why is Paul opposed to acceptance of the Mosaic law? What is his understanding of the role of Torah? What is the nature of his dispute with the Judaizers and unbelieving Israel?

These are all complex questions, and it is impossible to explore them fully without working through Paul's arguments throughout the various relevant epistles - hardly a task we can undertake in this context. Nonetheless, I would like to provide some suggestive lines of thought.

First of all, the point of the preceding section must be kept in mind throughout: Paul has a redemptive-historical framework in mind. This indicates that Paul does have some sort of critique for the law itself, a reason why it can no longer stand with the coming of Christ. But it must also be understood that for Paul, this obsolescence is built in: Torah was never intended to be something permanent (thus in Gal 3.21 he can deny that the law is "against the promises"). Thus it is a wrong conclusion to suggest that Paul's collision with the Judaizers and unbelieving Israel has nothing to do with a misuse of the law. Wishing to continue under Torah after Christ has come is itself a misuse of the law; that is an integral element in Paul's argument when he writes that Christ is the goal (telos) of the law. Those who wish to hang onto Torah after the coming of Christ are missing the point of Torah itself. (This lies behind the apparently mysterious appeal to Deut 30 that Paul makes in Rom 10.6-8, as he is describing the character of new covenant faith; see below.)

Having said that, it remains an open question precisely what sort of misuse of Torah Paul is engaging in his various writings. In Protestant thought, it has often been a commonplace that the misuse lies in the supposed fact that Jews were using Torah as a system of merit in order to earn salvation. While there are imbalances to be addressed in the work of E. P. Sanders, I believe that his assessment of Second Temple Judaism is much closer to the biblical picture than some traditionally-minded exegetes allow. Even those who have opposed Sanders (e.g. Carson et al, Justification and Variegated Nomism) sound remarkably unlike the self-assured certainty of recent memory, in which 1st century Judaism was consistently portrayed as a "merit theology." (I have a comparative review of Sanders and Carson et al here.)

One frequent (and just) criticism of Sanders is that in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism, he employed the extrabiblical literature in order to undercut the validity of New Testament assessments of 1st century Israel and Judaizers. He implied that (especially) the Gospel texts cannot be trusted to paint a fair portrait of Judaism, since they were biased. The only way to get a fair reading is to examine the original Jewish sources.

In this overview, we cannot detail such issues. I will simply say that my own moderate sympathy for the newer portrait of Second Temple Judaism did not arise from the examination of the extrabiblical sources to begin with. Consequently, I have not attempted to adjust biblical interpretation to evidence drawn from extrabiblical literature. I am absolutely comfortable with stating that neither Paul nor the Evangelists misrepresent their opponents. (It should be conceded, however, that this does not mean that we thoroughly understand their opponents simply by reading the New Testament. "Mirror reading" is a difficult exercise at best, and having a reasonably sound understanding of the historical background, including beliefs and belief systems that shaped the biblical milieu, is very valuable. It is certain that Second Temple Jewish texts provide better context for understanding Paul's opponents than late medieval Roman Catholic ones.)

But the fact is that it was careful reading of Galatians itself which initially convinced me that Paul's concern had a fundamentally redemptive-historical shape (interestingly, my reading strongly resembles that of an exegete who long pre-dated the NPP: Chrysostom). That careful reading convinced me, further, that the primary misuse of Torah which concerned Paul was not merit legalism, but the refusal to recognize Torah had reached its goal in Christ. This refusal may imply underlying problem issues, to be sure. And Paul will work at unearthing some of that. But the central law-related problem in the 1st century Church revolved squarely around one point: Do Gentiles need to become circumcised in order to be saved? (This is the articulation of the issue in Acts 15.1, at least; it is conceivable that some "Judaizers" were more modestly suggesting that first-class citizenship in God's new people required circumcision. Yet it is seems more likely to me that both Paul and his opponents recognized that the kingdom age, in keeping with the great prophecies of shalom, was to be characterized by closeness of fellowship between Israel and the nations. Thus in that respect it is understandable that Torah-centered Jews might assume that the arrival of the Messianic age implied Torah-observance for Gentile salvation. It is to be remembered that Jesus' ministry centered the kingdom around table fellowship, which made Torah-observance a more acute problem than it may have been otherwise.)

Do Gentiles need to become circumcised in order to be saved? Because we live in an intentionally desacralized culture, we automatically hear merit legalism in that question: "Aha! Salvation by the work of circumcision!" Be that as it may, if "circumcised" is swapped with "baptized" in the question, the apostolic answer would have been a resounding "Yes!" Yes, Gentiles and Jews need to become baptized in order to be saved (cf Acts 2.37-38). The kingdom is given to those who are born of water and Spirit (Jn 3.5).

My point is that Paul's problem with circumcision is not that it is a sacrament. Nor is his problem that a sacrament is being connected to salvation. Rather, his problem is that it is an initiatory sacrament to the wrong covenant. More than this, it is an oath-bound sacrament that commits one to that covenant in total (and permanent) fashion. And this is a fundamental issue for him, precisely because one must choose between the covenants. It is Torah or Christ.

This is why Paul writes that the one who becomes circumcised thereby becomes "a debtor to keep the whole law" (Gal 5.3). Circumcision may seem like a convenient way to escape persecution from the synagogue (Gal 6.12; cf 5.11), but it enrolls one in a covenant which demands comprehensive upholding of Torah. (Meaning, among other things: sins are ostensibly forgiven through the old covenant cultic rites.) For Paul, Torah is a closed system that Israel needed redemption from (Gal 4.5), in order to move from childhood under a child custodian to manhood in Christ (Gal 3.23-25). Those under the law are bound by curse to uphold all of it continually and perpetually (Gal 3.10, citing Dt 27.26). The only reason that Israel has been released from those curses is because Christ Himself has borne them on her behalf, and thus released her from perpetual bondage under Torah (Gal 3.13). (Given this reading of Gal 3.13, I need to underscore here that I heartily and energetically affirm that Christ's death is also and centrally redemption from sin generally, a point that can be defended from dozens of texts in Paul alone. For specific redemption/ransom language, see e.g. Eph 1.7; 1 Tim 2.6; Tit 2.14. The question here is strictly exegetical; my view is that in Gal 3.13 Paul is apparently dealing with Israel's liberation from the law for the purpose of creating a united eschatological people of God comprised of Jews and Gentiles, as also in Eph 2.14-16; Col 2.14 in context - somewhat parallel passages where the theme is generally recognized.)

Given this, for Gentiles to become circumcised is a nullifying of the work of Christ (cf Gal 2.21). They are thereby abandoning the liberation which Christ won for Israel and in turn the world, and choosing the slavery of a covenant whose time has passed. (Compare this Pauline teaching with Hebrews 6.4-6, in a book primarily concerned that Christians not fall back to Judaism: it is impossible that those who abandon the gifts of the "coming age" can renew their repentance, "since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.")

Because of this fundamental and stark antithesis (Torah or Christ), the issues of justification and righteousness come into sharper focus. It is not at all necessary to claim that the Judaizers (or Jews who did not accept Christ) were consciously advocating a merit theology in order to recognize that in Paul's system, they were necessarily cast back wholly upon their own works. While there was a time in which Torah served alongside of the Abrahamic covenant (as is implied in Gal 3.15ff), the crisis point has arrived. The Abrahamic covenant has been taken up in the coming of "the faith" (cf Gal 3.25), leaving Torah as a prison without a redeeming purpose.

Some of this works out more clearly in Hebrews, but the elements are there in Paul's attested writings, as well. Notice in particular Romans 3.25: in His forbearance, God had passed over transgressions during the period of Torah - but He did this, specifically with Christ's blood in view (cf Heb 9.15). But if the choice is now Torah versus Christ, it is self-evident that Christ's blood is no longer making such forbearance possible within the Torah-covenant. And that means that no matter what Israel or the Judaizers think, Torah now no longer provides for the forgiveness of sins. It is rather a prison house of sin.

In terms of Paul's fundamental critique of Torah, our analysis would be woefully incomplete unless we pointed out that one of Paul's primary concerns is that the eschatological people of God places Jews and Gentiles on one footing (meaning, Gentiles as Gentiles, not by way of being converted into Jews through circumcision and Torah-observance). Torah was designed to keep Israel and the nations apart; God's cosmic reconciliation in Christ at the end of the ages is to create one new man by tearing down the barrier of the law (see esp. Eph 2.11-22; Col 2.11-23). Since, however, we have a separate section dealing with Torah and Gentiles below (see heading 6), we defer further discussion of the matter here.

4. Torah's purpose in redemptive history

Paul's argument that Torah was only a temporary measure raises the question of its purpose. In fact, this is precisely the turn the argument takes in Galatians 3: immediately after arguing that Torah is not intended to be the means of receiving the promise (3.15-18), Paul asks rhetorically, "Why the Torah, then?" (3.19). Paul's answer is that it was added "for the sake of transgressions," which interpreters (rightly, I believe) now generally take to mean, "for the purpose of increasing transgressions." This corresponds closely to Romans 5.20, "Torah entered, so that the trespass might abound" (cf also 1 Cor 15.56: "the strength of sin is the law").

That this is Paul's intention here is borne out by his ensuing argument, where he stresses that "Scripture has confined all under sin," paralleling this comment with the statement, "we were kept under guard by Torah" (Gal 3.22-23).

Why would Torah be intended for such a strange function? Perhaps we receive a hint in Romans 5, in the parallel between Adam and Christ. Paul notes that "sin is not reckoned when there is no law" (5.13); the death in the world is thus due to Adam's transgression. That being so, if God will redeem the world from Adam's transgression, there needs to be a mechanism by which sin is again reckoned (i.e. so that it can be reckoned to Christ). This relates to the point repeatedly made by N. T. Wright, that by means of Torah, God "stacked up" sin in Israel, for the purpose of dealing with it in Jesus Christ. Israel's "priestly nation" status marks her out as a sin-bearing people. When Christ comes to fulfill Israel's calling, He takes that sin upon Himself, becoming a sin offering (Rom 8.3). As the last Adam dying under the law (where the Adamic commandment is renewed), He dies to sin ("once for all") and thereby puts the old aeon of sin to death (Rom 6.10).

This outline explains further why believers ought not to embrace Torah. Now that the glorious freedom of life in the Spirit has come, the liberating powers of the age to come have arrived. To revert to Torah is to return to the age of imprisonment, of being walled up under sin. This is why Paul repeatedly parallels law and flesh throughout Galatians. Torah belongs to the old aeon of the flesh which has found its termination in Christ.

5. Justification and Torah

The above analysis (sections 3 and 4) raises the question of how Paul understands the issue of justification under the law. It is frequently asserted that Paul sees Torah as a system by which God presented Israel with the theoretical possibility of being judged upon the basis of merit. (In Reformed theology, this is usually viewed as a "republication of the covenant of works" which was reputedly given originally to Adam as a means to merit life with God.) This, we are told, is why Paul places his own gospel in stark contrast to the "Do this and live!" of the law (Lev 18.5; see Rom 10.5 and Gal 3.12). Whereas the law offered life on the basis of deeds, Paul's gospel offers life by way of mere faith. (This construct can get very complicated; a recent version is that this offer was not hypothetical, but meant that Israel needed to merit maintenance in the land of Israel - but not justification - through good works.)

While this is an attractively simple solution to the texts in Romans 10.5 and Galatians 3.12, the problems are literally manifold. From an evangelical viewpoint (which presupposes the integrity of Scripture) most devastating is the simple fact that a careful study of the Pentateuch shows clearly that if Paul is claiming such a thing, he has misunderstood the law. Throughout the Mosaic books, it is stressed that God is giving the land to Israel as a grant, and indeed specifically denies that they are entering because of their own righteousness (see e.g. Deut 9.4-6). This already places the view mentioned in the awkward position of claiming that initial possession was by grace, but maintenance by merit.

The problem, however, is more acute still. For Leviticus 18.5 does not say that if the nation as a whole keeps these commandments, it will remain in the land; it says that "if a man does" Yahweh's statutes and judgments, "he shall live by them" (or, probably better, "in them"). This means that the proffered blessing has to do with individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and this makes the "remaining in the land" theory rather tenuous.

But going even beyond this, we must recall that Yahweh's "statutes and judgments" contextually included means of forgiveness, and indeed Leviticus 18 comes at the end of a long string of chapters devoted to explaining how Israel is to seek atonement. It therefore seems rather arbitrary to suggest that the "statutes and judgments" refer strictly to the so-called "moral law," which in turn cannot be kept perfectly. One could at best say that these means of atonement are now inoperative because they pointed forward to Christ (as noted above), and so in effect, after the coming of Christ, Leviticus 18.5 does indeed now throw one upon his own merits. But this once again makes the development of redemptive history the heart of the issue.

Beyond this, we must ask if the popular solution is workable from within Paul himself. We cannot ignore the fact that in Romans 10, after citing Leviticus 18.5, Paul immediately appeals to Deuteronomy 30 in order to describe the righteousness of faith. Yet Deuteronomy 30 is as much about Torah as is Leviticus 18! Indeed, in verse 10, Moses says that if Israel obeys the voice of Yahweh, "to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law," and turn to Yahweh their God with all their heart and soul, He will rejoice over them for good as He rejoiced over the patriarchs. And it is the very next verse with which Paul begins his citation. Deuteronomy 30.11- 20 says:

For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.

In brief, it appears that the passage in Deuteronomy 30 which Paul apparently opposes to Leviticus 18.5 could have been just as suitably chosen for the purpose of illustrating the law's principle of "Do this and live." That leaves us with a few options: (1) Paul is wresting Leviticus 18 out of context; (2) Paul is wresting Deuteronomy 30 out of context; or (3) we have misunderstood Paul. Frankly, I opt for the last option. As we have already seen, Leviticus in context cannot mean a merit-program. This vindicates Paul's usage of Deuteronomy 30, on that level, at least. But it leaves us with the question of Paul's intention in juxtaposing these two texts (in Gal 3, his juxtaposition is between Lev 18.5 and Hab 2.4, "the just shall live by faith"; on that, see below).

One of the first things we must observe is that outside of Paul's polemical contexts concerning Torah, he himself can say things remarkably similar to what is articulated in Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 30. In fact, in Ephesians 6.1-3, he appeals directly to the Decalogue's promise that it will go well with those who honour father and mother, and they will live long upon the earth. If Leviticus 18 is merit theology, it would seem that so is Ephesians 6. Since that, however, is unlikely (to say the least), we must understand Paul's usage of Leviticus 18.5 in another way.

What must be underscored is that in Romans 10.5, Paul has written in the very previous verse that Christ was Torah's goal for righteousness. If that is so, it hardly makes sense for him immediately to claim that Torah's righteousness was itself a merit theology; he would be undercutting his own typology. I suggest therefore, that we have been sidetracked. In 9.30-10.4, Paul has been insisting that Israel has missed Torah's own point. Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has missed not only righteousness (which is what we expect) - Israel has missed the law (9.31).

How did they fall short? They pursued the law by the works of the law, rather than by faith. That indicates that the law always intended itself to be sought by faith.

But what does it mean that Israel pursued the law "by the works of the law"? Does it mean that they tried to keep the law as a system of merit? Well, Paul actually elaborates by saying, "For they stumbled at that stumbling stone" (9.32), and the quotation of the next verse unmistakably refers to Christ Himself. Notice that Paul does not say that Israel pursued the law by the works of the law, and therefore stumbled over Christ. Rather the opposite: he says that they pursued the law by the works of the law because (for) they stumbled over Christ. The problem is not first of all a longstanding system of merit (if that is present at all). The problem is that Christ is despised and rejected of men, rather than seen as God's righteousness. Thus, in rejecting God's righteousness, Israel seeks to establish her own righteousness (10.1-3). It is here that Paul speaks of Christ being the goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (or perhaps: "Christ as righteousness" is the goal of the law). Paul is not claiming that righteousness in no sense was ever found within the law. He is saying rather that the law's righteousness was always aimed at Christ. Thus when Israel rejects Christ, she rejects God's righteousness - indeed, she rejects the law's righteousness, and thus seeks to establish her own, paradoxically, in the law (as also Phi 3.9).

I suggest, therefore, that the point of Paul's contrast in Romans 10.5ff is not primarily between "believing" and "doing." (Note: I am not suggesting that such a constrast can never be detected elsewhere in Paul. My question here is exegetical.) The constrast, rather, is locative: "The man who does those things shall live in them." During the era of Torah, Israel necessarily related to God by way of the law. Yet Torah always had Christ as its goal: He is Himself God's righteousness. So when Israel rejects Christ, she is rejecting God's righteousness, and is left with nothing but "those things" (Torah's commandments); she must live "in them," and thus fall short of living in God's righteousness and His new age in Christ.

If there were no shared typology between Torah and Paul's gospel, his appeal to Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10.6ff would be arbitrary at best, outright dishonest at worst. If Torah really were intended to be about justification by works, then Paul could hardly employ Deuteronomy 30 as he does. The fact that he cites it so extensively and freely only reflects what he has just argued: that his gospel of Christ is precisely Torah's own goal. For all Paul's criticisms of Torah as temporary, as provoking the outbreak of transgression (Rom 5.20; Gal 3.19), and as a "ministry of death" (2 Cor 3), he does not claim that the old covenant faithful were intended to live by works rather than faith.

Regarding Paul's juxtaposition of Leviticus 18.5 and Habakkuk 2.4 in Galatians 3.11-12, a similar reading can be developed, although there are minor differences due to the structure of Paul's argument. In Galatians, the contrast made seems to be more pointedly between faith as eschatological and life in Torah as immanent and therefore temporary and pre-eschatological. It is here especially that the prevalent "believing" versus "doing" notions derive, since Paul says "but the law is not from faith, but 'the one doing them shall live in them'" (Gal 3.12).

Paul's argument in Galatians 3, not least in 3.10-13, is very dense and requires careful examination and reflection. With regard to the citation of Habakkuk 2.4, we must note first of all that Paul is again appealing to a text that was written during the period of the Mosaic covenant. A reading that suggests that Leviticus 18 requires salvation by works, while Habakkuk 2 calls for salvation by faith, is simply untenable. In Paul's redemptive-historical scheme, both texts fall within the same overarching period. Habakkuk himself was "under the law."

The little prophetic book of Habakkuk, written at a time when God's people are being judged by nations much more wicked than themselves, is a meditation upon the problem of evil. How to justify God, not so much because He is judging Israel (which is deserved), but because He does so by the instrument of those who are even worse? The overall answer is that God's just one must live by faith that God will ultimately vindicate Himself and His faithful people.

Thus the faith in question in Habakkuk 2.4 has to do with the horizon; we may even say it is eschatological (n.b. the eschatological overtones of 2.14). This fits with Paul's strange language in Galatians 3.23-24, which speaks of "the faith" coming, with Christ. Perhaps he is even calling Christ Himself "the faith."

It is also to be noted that Paul introduced the Habakkuk quotation with another locative statement: "that no one is justified in [Greek en] the law is evident." This reading suggests again that for Paul justification is not "immanent" within Torah; it was provided to those under the law through Christ, Torah's goal as God's righteousness.

Stepping back to 3.11-12, then, it appears to me that the most satisfactory solution to this text is that Paul is once again focusing upon the "in them" of Leviticus 18.5. He has, after all, just warned that all those who are "of the works of the law" (by which I take him to mean, all those who are in the Torah-covenant) are under a curse to uphold all things written in the book of the law (3.10). In that case, 3.11-12 is a reminder of the critical choice that is faced: life in the law, or life in the Christ who has been now revealed to faith.

This reading is supported, I believe, by Paul's two phrases, "of the works of the law" (ex ergon nomou) and "of faith" (ek pisteos). If I am correct that the former refers to covenantal enrollment under Torah, it is natural to take the latter as covenantal membership in Christ, given the terminology of 3.23-24.

The question then becomes: am I correct to take "of the works of the law" in the way I have? Some limit those who are "of the works of the law" to those who attempt to earn salvation by works. The problem with that is that the curse attached to those who are "of the works of the law" (3.10) is resolved in 3.13 with Christ's curse-bearing death. In this context, "curse" must have one shared referent. The most natural reading of 3.13 is that all of those who were under the law were under a curse (whether we think of that curse actively, as is commonly done, or as an overhanging threat, as I have taken it earlier in this essay).

The primary accent for Paul in these passages, then, is not, "Do this and live" (doing is bad), but rather, "Do this and live" (the time of living in Torah is over).

That this is the correct focus is confirmed by Paul's emendation of the structure (but not the meaning) of the Leviticus text. Whereas both the Hebrew and the LXX have "if a man does/will do," Paul creates the participle, "the doing one." The result is a parallelism with the Habakkuk text which works as follows:

3.11 (Hab 2.4): the righteous one from faith shall live  
3.12 (Lev 18.5) the doing one these things

shall live

in them

It is readily seen that this structure is both apparently intentional and ill-suited for placing the contrast between "doing" and "faith." The participle "the doing one" corresponds, not to "from faith," but to the substantive "the righteous one." Instead, "from faith" corresponds to "these things," which refer to the commandments of Torah. The extra phrase of the second quotation, "in them," referring again to Torah's commandments, only doubles the effect. The contrast is not between generalized "doing" and generalized "faith," but between Torah's commandments and eschatological faith, in short, between Torah and Christ, between old covenant and new.

This is not to say that there is nowhere a kind of faith/deeds antithesis in Paul, however. (And this is where many radical NPP proponents err.) This distinction is clearest in Romans 4, where the justification of the "ungodly" (Rom 4.5) implies that the particular criticism of attempting to find justification within the law can be widened to include any notion that justification is upon the basis of human works. God reckons righteousness apart from works (Rom 4.6; cf also 2 Tim 1.9; Tit 3.5.). This Pauline analysis of David's psalm disproves the notion that "works" can be limited only to the so-called "boundary markers" of Torah, for there is no reason to assume that David did not maintain observance of those. The works in which David was lacking, therefore, refer more generally to works of godliness, a point confirmed by the citation in Romans 4.7-8 itself: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin." It is thus clear that in this context "apart from works" (4.6) means: in the face of lawless deeds (orig. Hebrew text in Ps 32: 'awon).

This fits within a broader argument concerning Torah as a strictly Israelite possession, to be sure. Torah is not to be universalized, as if Gentiles and Jews belong under it together. To this issue of Jews and Gentiles we must now turn.

6. Gentiles and Torah

I have above observed that Christians are not under Torah as a covenant. As my reading of Galatians 3.10, 13; 4.4 reflects, I take an aspect of Christ's redemption to include a liberation of Israel from the curses which bound her to Torah (cf also Eph 2.14-15; Col 2.14). That liberation from Torah for Israel is part of Paul's background argument concerning the position of Gentiles. They are not to be enrolled in the covenant from which Israel herself needed to be liberated.

In Jewish understanding, which was built squarely upon Old Testament norms, full membership in Israel was never a strictly ethnic issue. This becomes clear, for example, in Exodus 12.43-49. There we learn that if a non-Israelite wished to participate in Passover (thus identifying with Israel's exodus-history as his own), he needed to become circumcised with his household. The result would be that no longer any distinction would obtain between him and ethnic Israelites; "he shall be as a native of the land" (Ex 12.48). A careful reading of the Old Testament reflects this fusion; many Israelites have completely "Gentile" roots. When they became circumcised, they were incorporated into Israel and simultaneously enrolled into the Mosaic covenant. These "converts" were therefore no longer Gentiles.

It must be understood that there were always Gentiles who fell beyond this category, but nonetheless believed in Israel's God. We could cite Naaman as an example: although he clearly converted to faith in Yahweh, Elisha made no suggestion that he was required to become circumcised or observe Torah (2 Kg 5.1-19). In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles were even allowed by the law to present grain and drink offerings at the tabernacle or temple on the same footing as a full Israelite (see Num 15.14-16 in context). As well, an entire Old Testament book is devoted to a Gentile: Job.

This situation obtained into the first century, which is why we find records of Gentile "God-fearers" (e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10) who sustain various sorts of relationships to Jewish synagogues without being circumcised. Such God-fearers had become the object already of a great deal of controversy, however: some Jews had become so Torah-focused that they were insisting that proper conversion necessarily entailed circumcision and observance of Torah (see e.g. Josephus, Antiquities 20.38-45).

This "some," for whatever reason, seems to have become "many" within the context of the early Church. Perhaps this is because of a particular reading of prophetic texts concerning the Messianic era (e.g. Is 2.1-4, which speaks of the nations coming up to Jerusalem to learn the law). The Judaizers may have supposed that the Messianic era was one in which Gentiles would convert en toto to the Mosaic law. (Given our observations on 1 Cor 9.21 above, where Paul identifies himself as ennomos Christou, in-lawed to Christ, it may well be that he understood "law" in Is 2.1-4 eschatologically, as referring to Christ Himself.)

It is this controversy, then, which comes to a climax when Paul focuses upon a Gentile mission, since he is insistent that salvation is for the Gentiles as Gentiles. The dispute comes to a head in the crisis at Antioch and its fallout in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, some of the Christians who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees make the demand that it is necessary to circumcise Gentile converts, and command them to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15.5). This is probably the same group which had gone up to Antioch and is cited as asserting: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15.1).

This assertion is frequently taken to mean that this group was teaching that justification is by merit. This, however, appears to be a drastic over-reading of the text. The simplest reading is simply that this group considered salvation to belong strictly to the Jews (cf Jn 4.22), as defined by Torah. Moreover, as Rich Lusk has pointed out in his essay, "Getting the Galatian Heresy Right", if circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic law is considered meritorious in Acts 15.1, 5, then we must concede that the Jerusalem council's response views the minimal requirements (abstaining from idols, sexual immorality, things strangled, and consumption of blood: see 15.19-20, 28-29) as likewise meritorious. This absurdity indicates that we have placed the entire episode on the wrong footing. The real issue is not one of merit; the real issue is that in the judgment of the council, the Pharisee-group has imposed Israel-specific laws upon Gentiles. (It can be shown that the "minimal requirements" of the council were in fact not "Torah-lite," but a summary of items which the law itself had identified as universal and not specific to Israel, as a careful study of Lev 17-19 will bear out. Thus the council appeals to Torah itself to reject the necessity of Gentiles coming under the Torah-covenant.)

Paul's contention is that salvation is not to be found in becoming Israelite as opposed to Gentile. This lies behind his exposition of the human plight that runs from Romans 1-3. Whereas chapter 1 demonstrates that the Gentiles are under divine wrath, Paul does not find the solution to this in Torah; rather, those under Torah too are "under sin" (Rom 3.9), which is demonstrated by a catena of quotations from Israel's own Scriptures (3.10-18). These Scriptures speak "to those under the law," and therefore Israel is as guilty before God as the Gentiles; every mouth is stopped, including Israel's, since all the world is guilty (3.19).

Thus vindication in God's courtroom does not derive from the law, which of itself merely discloses sin (Rom 3.20) and even multiplies it (Rom 5.20). Acceptance with God during the old covenant period did not derive from the law itself, but from the anticipated revelation of God's righteousness in Christ's propitiating blood (3.24-26). Consequently, Israel cannot boast in her possession of the law (3.27; cf 2.17ff). If justification is to be found in Torah itself, then God would be the God of the Jews only (3.28-29), an impossible thought, since there is no God but one (cf Deut 6.4), who must therefore justify Jew and Gentile alike (3.29-30).

It can be said in summary that in Paul's view, his opponents (1) were out of step with Israel's past, in that they thought salvation could come only within the Torah-covenant; and (2) were out of step with Paul's eschatology, which posited a radical choice between Torah and Christ as God's eschatological salvation.

This leaves us with the question of how correct the NPP's reassessment of Judaism and Paul has been, as well as how seriously we need to take the damning criticisms against the NPP that have been made by traditional Protestant interpreters.

In my view, those who set traditional Protestant theology in outright opposition to the supposed implications of the NPP (whether those who posit this opposition be themselves advocates or opponents of the NPP) are not thinking through the issues clearly enough. While it is undoubtedly true that acceptance of the NPP would necessitate an exegetical rethinking of numerous passages, a sound theological evaluation even of these texts within their total framework can hardly undercut the fundamental insights of the Reformation. To be sure, such a new analysis will place a new stress (long overdue, in my mind) upon the ecclesiological dimension of Paul's doctrine of justification. But it can hardly be said that re-analysis will leave room for merit theology or justification by works. This is because, as noted above, even Paul shows implicit and even explicit repudiation of such a viewpoint (see e.g. the comments above on Romans 4.4-8). Moreover, the repudiation of Torah as the locus of justification, in favour of the revelation of Christ, implicitly and necessarily means that justification never rests in the keeping of commandments of whatever kind.

7. Torah and fulfilling the law

Having stated that justification is not based upon keeping commandments (whether commandments of Torah or otherwise), we must also affirm - with the Reformers - that Paul is no antinomian (cf Gal 5.13). He is unapologetic that those characterized by the "works of the flesh" will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5.21). There will be judgment "according to deeds," when each one will receive back in the body in correspondence to those deeds (2 Cor 5.10; cf Eph 6.8).

It is also to be noted that while Paul insists that believers are not under the Torah-covenant, they do "fulfill" the law (Rom 13.8; Gal 5.14). "Fulfill" here in a certain sense takes on an eschatological dimension, since the matter before us is no longer simply Torah-keeping. Indeed, Paul can go so far as to say that in Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumsion is anything, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters (1 Cor 7.19) - a contrast that would be completely unintelligible to a Torah-observant Jew. Both the Romans 13 and Galatians 5 texts center this "fulfillment" of the law upon the commandment of love; Paul's overarching ethical instructions and patterns indicate that this love is defined specifically in terms of Christ's self-sacrificial love upon the cross (see e.g. Phi 2.1-11; Eph 4.30-5.2). This cross is the foundation of a community in which there is "one new man" (Gal 3.28; Eph 2.11-22), and thus the solidarity of the body of Christ without regard to the natural divisions of the old era (such as Jew-Gentile, slave-free, male-female) becomes a defining feature of Paul's ethic. While Paul liberally lifts content from Torah (as in e.g. Eph 6.1-3), all of Torah is seen with new "eyeglasses," refracted through the eschatological revelation of Christ and the Spirit. (And I do mean all of Torah; the law-revelation as a whole is taken up into Paul "refracted" vision.) It may be said, somewhat paradoxically, that Torah remains normative Scripture, but not a normative covenant, and the way in which it functions ethically is determined by God's act of redemption and new creation in Christ.


We have covered a lot of material in short order. In closing, we must summarize our findings.

Paul's analysis of the law arises in the context of a polemical confrontation on two fronts: ostensibly Christian Judaizers, and unbelieving Israel. His point of concern, then, is focused upon Israel's law - Torah. Paul's position regarding Torah is determined by the eschatological revelation of Israel's Messiah, who as the climax of Israel's history and her promises, represents a self-contained covenant which will allow for no competition. Torah served to focus transgression in Israel, to the end that Christ might bear it as the Last Adam. As a result, Torah has served its redemptive-historical purpose; it has reached its goal in Christ. Christ's sin-bearing is simultaneously the liberation of Israel from the yoke of Torah, so that she might be released to live in the new age of the Spirit.

Consequently, there can be no question of allowing Gentiles to come under Torah's yoke. This would be to make them slaves in a covenant which not only was never intended for them, but further, would seal them into a covenant whose grace has been withdrawn.

Yet the result is not a free rein for lawlessness. While Torah as a covenant belongs to the old age of the flesh, this does not mean that commandments are simply done away. No, for the advent of Christ means the advent of the Spirit who writes God's law upon the heart. The reign of Christ means liberation from both the guilt and dominion of sin, and therefore God's new people will be characterized by holiness in a fashion that God's Torah-people never could have been. While the former covenant has come to its end, its content has been taken up anew and refracted through the great eschatological event of Christ and the Spirit, with the result that Gentiles who by nature do not have the law come to fulfill the law.

The foregoing is, as advertised, only a global overview. Doubtless, many exegetical and theological questions have been raised here. These are rightly the object of closer investigation, which may well force revisions on minor points. But I suggest that something after the order of the foregoing global perspective is necessary in order to arrive at a comprehensive and comprehensible position on Paul's theology of the law.

Select Reading

What follows is scarcely to be described as an adequate, much less an exhaustive bibliography on Paul and Torah. Rather, these are simply a few items you may find helpful in following up on some of the material discussed above.

Braswell, Joseph P. "'The Blessing of Abraham' Versus 'The Curse of the Law': Another Look at Gal 3:10-13." Westminster Theological Journal, 53:73-91 (1991). This is an important article arguing against a suppressed premise in Gal 3.10, opting instead to see "under a curse" as referring to being bound by the negative sanctions of an oath.

Gallant, Tim. "Covenantal Nomism? A Comparative Review of E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism and D. A. Carson et al, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1." Analyzes and evaluates two opposing heavyweight volumes in the NPP debate.

Gallant, Tim. "What Saint Paul Should Have Said." Argues that Paul's argument in Galatians is fundamentally redemptive-historical, rather than aimed at merit legalists.

Garlington, Don. Exposition of Galatians: A New Perspective/Reformational Reading. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003. Note in particular his comments ad loc cit on 3.11-12 (the eschatological shape of Paul's argument) and 5.3-4 (particularly his comment on how circumcision simultaneously becomes an entrance ritual into Torah and an exit ritual from Christ).

Lusk, Rich. "Getting the Galatian Heresy Right." A fine essay which takes further some of my observations in "What Saint Paul Should Have Said."

Moo, Douglas J. "'Law,' 'Works of the Law,' and Legalism in Paul." Westminster Theological Journal, 45:73-100 (1983). A very helpful article, particularly in connection with exploring Paul's usage of nomos.

Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 (1966). While this has become somewhat dated, since it pre-dates the entire NPP controversy, Ridderbos's opus remains a classic. Despite the prevalent references to "legalism," Ridderbos has a very sound understanding and exposition of the eschatological/redemptive-historical issues in the Pauline corpus.

Witherington, Ben III. Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. One of the best commentaries on any of the Pauline epistles, in my judgment. Powerful insight into Paul's view of redemptive-history.

Wright, N. T. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991. A number of very important articles on issues such as Paul's Adam-Christology, the fulfillment of Torah's requirements in Christ's sin-offering, etc.

Wright, N. T. Romans. New Interpreter's Bible, Vol X. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002. A significant scholarly contribution that is both well-researched, well-reasoned, and readable.

— Tim Gallant

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