In Protestant Pauline scholarship, there are three broad categories one could identify in the understanding of Paul.
Firstly, one category is the Lutheran-Reformed understanding where justification by faith contrasts with the works of the law as a legalistic, self-righteous sense of meriting God’s salvation. Here, the fundamental problem pertains to a sense of personal entitlement: what makes me worthy of God’s grace? Do I need to do good to be in God’s good graces?
Secondly, one can take on the New Perspective on Paul ushered in by James Dunn that see justification by faith contrasting with the works of the Torah as being taken as definitive of Jewish identity. While there is no real central consensus of what the NPP ultimately stands for, one might suggest one prevailing question pertains to a sense of social identity: how do we determine where a person belongs? Does doing particular works of the Torah identify me as belonging to God’s people?
The third category can be designated as apocalyptic readings. Douglas Campbell’s rereading of Romans in The Deliverance of God presents the highest example of this sort of reading, as he contrasts God’s liberating grace with a false, retributive view of God from a Jewish teacher that Paul opposes. Perhaps the best way to define the central question here: how is it that God truly makes relates to us and makes Himself known?
While I recognize this is very simplified and the scholarship cannot be reduced to the questions I presented for each, but my point is to highlight how the reading of Paul is determined by the various way we frame our readings: whether in an implicit behavioral-psychological frame, a social identity frame, or a theocentric frame, it impacts how we read Paul.
I want to propose a fourth frame that can generate a different reading from Paul: an epistemic-hermeneutic frame that asks the question: how is it that I can know that God sees me as one of the righteous? What makes it a different question is that it is not a question of how one gets saved, nor is it per se about belonging to God’s covenant people, nor is it focused on how God makes himself known to us. Rather, to change the language from righteousness to a different parlance, it relates to the question of (1) how we know God’s will for us as His people and (2) whether God sees us as persons within His will.
In E.P. Sanders seminal Paul and Palestinian Judaism, he argues that the traditional Protestant understanding of Judaism as a religion of work righteousness is false. Rather, in describing covenantal nomism, Sanders highlights that God’s mercy is a part of Israel’s understanding of its own story in that people are freely included in God’s covenant. However, their status of remaining in God’s covenant is conditioned upon their obedience to God. I do think there is more diversity of views in early Judaism and thus do not think Sanders’ interpretation of 1st century Judaism is entirely representative. Firstly, we do not have any reliable knowledge about the beliefs of the Sadducees. Secondly, if the strong sectarian view of Qumran community that view all of Israel as apostate can still be considered to holding to a form of covenantal nomism, it radically reconceives the way one graciously enters into the covenant as they considered all of Israel as apostle. Nevertheless, I do think it is certainly likely that the pattern of covenantal nomism describes the Pharisaical pattern, which the Gospels portray Jesus as primarily responding to and describes the religious pattern that Paul came from prior to trip to Damascus.
One thing we do know that also particularly describes the Pharisees is their acceptance of the oral Torah and the prophets as authoritative, as opposed to the Sadducees who accepted only the written Torah as authoritative. If as a Pharisee, one is trying to figure out how one is to obey God to be righteous in his eyes, then one’s understanding of what it means to be righteous would be tightly connected to their understanding of the oral Torah and of the prophets.
As the prophets presented visions of restoration and judgment, including ultimately an eschatological restoration and judgment in the general resurrection, the question of knowing that one is obeying God’s righteous will would be tied up to eschatological judgment. In a sense, the question of living out God’s righteousness pertains to the question of who will stand at the judgment.
The logic of such a question would start from the basic premise: if one knows what type of behaviors that God will judge, one can know one is righteous in God’s eyes if one does what God says and does. If God’s will has been fully expressed in the Torah, both the written and oral Torah, of who God judges, then presumably all one needs to know if one is righteous in God’s eyes is self-knowledge about one’s own behaviors. Thus, if one does the things of the Torah, then one can be confident that one will stand blameless at God’s judgment. In that case, being seen righteous in God’s eyes comes from an axis of interpretation and obedience: if one rightly interprets God’s Torah and what the commandments apply to, then one puts this into practice and one will be righteous in God’s eyes.
However, Jesus criticism towards the Pharisees is in part focused on the interpretive practices of the Pharisees, such as in Mark 7.6-23. Jesus criticism employs Isaiah against the very people who accepted the authority of the prophets to describe the way their interpretative traditions in the Oral Torah as authorizing them to overlook the commandments in the written Torah. Then, Jesus provides a different understanding of purity that contrasts with the Pharisaical religious program of purity. Ultimately, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to renderδιὰ. the traditions of the oral Torah and the resulting traditions around purity as void; instead Jesus offers his own understanding of purity as pertaining to moral contamination rather than physical contamination. From that one pericope, we could suggest that whereas the Pharisees consider the oral Torah and prophets authoritative, Jesus embraces the prophets but not the oral Torah. Instead, Jesus treats his own wisdom as the right interpretive framework for understanding and applying the Torah.
Paul description in Philippians 3.2-11 of his former way of life can be seen to be in reference to the similar pattern. While in his previous way of life he was confident and persuaded of his status (v. 3-6), he wants to judged by God as having God’s righteousness rather than one based upon the Torah (v. 9). There, Paul presents two specific contrasts with the Torah. The first contrast operates at the personal level of personal righteousness (ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην) that Paul rejects as coming from (ἐκ) Torah but rather is through (διὰ) faith. The shift if prepositions is probably significant, highlighting that one’s own response is instrumental but not constitutive of being see by righteous by God; in other words, I would suggest that this may be understood as the human response in faith is necessary for justification but is not sufficient on its own to being justified in God’s eyes. Something must be coming from God before faith becomes effective.
That brings me to the second contrast at the theological level: personal righteousness from (ἐκ) Torah contrasted with personal righteousness that is from (ἐκ) God’s righteousness. Here, the usage of the same proposition highlights that the contrast between the Torah and God’s righteousness pertains to the same specific function when it comes to righteousness. However, trying to specifically designate what ἐκ specifically refers is to miss Paul’s point, as the priority is the contrast between the sources that the preposition points to: for Paul the righteousness he seeks is that which God himself has rather than what is know about through Torah. I take this contrast to suggest something of a profound epistemic significance: the Torah does not actually communicate the fullness of God’s will. I will say more on this in a moment, but for now I want to posit the idea that Paul was aware of the epistemic insufficiency of the Torah to inform a person what it is that God wants.
When comparing Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisaical hermeneutics and praxis with Paul’s own criticism of his past way of life, I want to suggest there is one important similarity: having the Torah does not secure an understanding of the righteousness that God wants, either in the hearing of the Torah or in the doing of the things of Torah. What I mean by epistemic insufficiency isn’t that the Torah is somehow a false form of religion (which can emerge in the grossest caricatures of the Luthern-Reformed Protestant railing against legalism) but rather that knowing God and being seen as righteous in God’s eyes is not reducible to simply knowing and doing the Torah.
As an analogy, it is the difference between believing one knows a person through what a person communicates on social media versus knowing the person by regularly being in communication and relationship with them; even if a person’s social media account is a genuine representation of who they are, there is much more to know about the person than can be known by a narrow range of communication that might surprise you.
Herein lies what I would consider to be Paul’s principal concern with the Torah: if one evaluates one’s own status in the eyes of God based upon one’s doing of the Torah, one has become self-deceived; what one thinks is how God sees things is simply confidence in one’s own flesh. One has substituted God’s will with one’s own interpretation and understanding of specific writing which far from simply introducing an error in one’s thinking, but actually takes one far off course from God’s will. Paul considers his past way of life as a Pharisee, to represent it colorfully, as “crap” and has no real redeeming value when it comes to pursuing God’s righteousness known in Christ. Hence, Paul will elsewhere says that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3.6; cf. Rom 7.6). If one relies upon (1) the interpretation of the Torah to ascertain God’s will and (2) their obedience to that interpretation as confidence for their righteous status in the eyes of God, one is essentially dying rather than having the life that God gives. One believes oneself to know God and His will when in fact one simply knows a text. The problem isn’t the Torah is bad or evil, but (a) that it is epistemically insufficient as it conveys knowledge about personal sin (Rom. 3.20, 7.7-12) rather than knowledge of God’s righteousness which is demonstrated in Jesus (Romans 3.21-26) and (b) that sin deceives and killing a person through the commandments (Rom. 7.11-13).
To put in a general manner that isn’t specifically tied to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, it is our human sin and the self-deception that ensues that causes people to takes the things that come from God and treat our understanding of those things as a sufficient for knowing God. Faith thus represents the alternative: a reliance upon the God’s own actions and instruction to teach and guide people into what God wants. For Paul, what is important to be seen as righteous in God’s eyes is to be receptive of what God is doing and teaching in Christ and through the Spirit. For Paul, a person who has faith has a teachable spirit that is willing to learn and leads to obedience to what one learns.
While the letters of Paul do not explicitly present anything approaching a systematic view of human self-deception and sin, as he addresses more so the particular concerns that comes with following Christ in the context of Second Temple Judaism, one can infer that Paul does see those who think they are righteous in God’s eyes because of the works of the Torah are self-decieved. His usage of the word flesh (σάρξ) can function synonymously as describing people whose life is solely determined by their fleshly, embodied way of life that excludes a way of life and thinking that is influenced and determined by God’s own love and power in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. If in seeking to obey Torah and thinking this ensures God’s justification of themselves, one is fundamentally deceived at the ontological level and simply thinking and living in the flesh. So, one can imagine this idea of self-deception as being relevant to Paul’s concerns about Israel’s story and the Jewish people.
However, one can not nor should not reduce the totality of Paul’s understanding of the works of Torah to simply matters of theological self-deception. There are a host of other concerns, such as questions about God’s faithfulness in relationship to Torah in Romans and the relationship of the works of the Torah to God’s various covenants in Galatians that resist any such reductive interpretation of works of the Torah as merely being about a self-deception about one’s status in the eyes of God. In other words, that self-deception may be an apt description of Paul rejection of the works of the Torah as bringing justification doesn’t mean that is the only thing we should see Paul talking about. In fact, Paul spends more time delving into the theological and covenantal implications of his doctrine of justification in Romans and Galatians rather than explaining the “why” behind this doctrine.
So, in highlighting the explanatory frame of self-deception, I am highlighting an interpretation that I think is (1) warranted in Paul’s letters, (2) that can explain the problem with being trying to be justified by works of the Torah and (3) can theologically apply to our own understanding today as being part of God’s People. However, I do not suggest it is either the overarching interpretive question for all the theological content of Paul’s letters that excludes the specific concerns about God’s relationship to Israel.
To that end, I try to avoid the tendency of apocalyptic interpretations to treat Israel’s story and Scriptures as secondary to the person of Christ. Rather, I take Paul to thinks the Scriptures are fulfilled in Christ and thus are to be interpreted in light of Christ. However, that Jesus is revealed to be God’s righteousness points to the Pharisees, among others, having missed the boat. This necessitated a paradigm shift in an implicit theological epistemology: studying Torah and obedience to one’s interpretation did not secure one’s obedience to God when God came in the flesh. In other words, the epistemic shift operates (1) at the social level in rejecting the pattern of hermeneutics and praxis of the Pharisees and (2) limits the extent to which one can knows God and His will through Torah, but does not challenge the authoritative status of Torah nor displaces the importance of the Scriptural narrative for understanding God’s actions in their day, namely in raising Jesus Christ from the dead and in Pentecostal gifting of the Spirit.
However, this self-deception frame does not understand justification as primarily a matter of membership or identity in God’s People. While matters of social identity are historically important for the situations that do Paul address, it is possible that Paul has other concerns in mind at the same time. Thus, I do think there is an important epistemic and psychological understanding to questions about justification that the New Perspective on Paul does not readily give.
Furthermore, in light of the covenantal nomism that E.P. Sanders described, this self-deception frame does not start by address the question of how one comes into God’s grace but rather the question of how one can be confident one is seen as righteous in God’s eyes. However, I think that ultimately, Paul collapses the distinction between the two. When it comes to the role of God’s actions, there is no real fundamental difference between being chosen in grace, that is in becoming a recipient of God’s covenant promises, and being justified by grace, that is in being seen as righteous and obedient to the covenant one belongs to. Due the self-deception to think one has what is necessary to understand God and His will that can creep in after one is called by grace, it still remains God’s gracious action being recognized, received, and responded to in faith that secures one’s status as being righteous in God’s eyes.
Finally, I would say that Paul’s view of Torah can be warranted as being considered consistent with the early Church’s memory of Jesus and his criticisms of the Pharisees. As Paul’s own critique of his Pharisaical past in light of Christ can be argued as overlapping with Jesus’s own criticism of the Pharisees and His own sense of authority when it comes to Torah, I would posit that we can see this understanding to not be a radical novelty from Paul, but rather as a form of explication upon the significance of the event and teachings of Jesus ministry in relation to the Pharisaical pattern of religious interpretation and practice. However, this interpretation treats Paul’s rejection of the Pharisees as rooted in (1) their rejection of Jesus that is (2) given an ontological explanation (Paul’s appeal to the flesh) that gives a framework to suggest how they were in error and self-deceived about themselves in the eyes of God, rather than based upon a gross mischaracterization, stereotyping, and even vilifying caricature of what the Pharisees believed and taught prominent in Protestant circles (ranging from the less malevolent railing against “legalism” as the antithesis of genuine Christian faith to the more extreme and overt anti-semitism.