It has almost become something of a cliche within Biblical Studies: the Lutheran reading of Paul as rejecting the works of the Torah as an act of self-salvation is a seriously caricatured one, both of Paul and of Judaism. While E.P. Sanders decisively argued that the modern Lutheran readings of Judaism were way off the mark, it has become axiomatic within larger portions of Biblical scholarship over the decades since. While many evangelical circles still try to hold on to something of the traditional Protestant view (although some are more amenable than others to the critiques of the New Perspective), the trajectory of the Biblical scholarship has steadily and increasingly moved away from the early Protestant understanding of justification. However, it is also increasingly becoming common to also observe, to the point of it also becoming a cliche, that the New Perspective on Paul hasn’t developed a consensus on what exactly Paul is saying about Torah.
However, talking about the disagreement between the traditional and newer reading of Paul and between the various newer readings can give the intimation that there is little we can say about Paul’s view of the Torah. That, however, is decisively false. There is much we can say about Paul’s view about the Torah. We have some statements that Paul makes in epistles that provide a clear description on some matters. What the scholarship lacks more so is a satisfactory explanation for Paul’s view on the Torah. For instance, how critical is Paul of Judaism? Is he an opponent of Judaism or is he basically a Jew who accepted the Messiah? Or, is Paul’s statements about the Torah more ad hoc for the specific circumstance he is addressing, even to the point that Paul is being incoherent about the Torah? Or, does Paul have a coherent, somewhat systematic account undergirding his understanding of the Torah?
My own answers are that Paul considers himself to be opposed to a prevailing form of Judaism that has become ‘nationalistic’ and ethnocentric, at the risk of anachronism by using terms that are primarily used to describe modern social phenomenon. My present research on Paul’s epistle to the Romans leads me to the conclusion that Paul sees the Christ-movement as being true to the Scriptural narrative, particularly to the story of Abraham, that the prevailing ‘orthodoxy’ of that day had grievously misinterpreted.1 Furthermore, I believe Paul’s understanding of the Torah can be integrated into a larger understood by (a) Paul redefining in his mind what God’s purposes for the Torah were (b) as a result of his understanding of God’s agency through the Spirit that (c) manifests His power through transformation people into the image of Christ. God never intended the Torah to be the means by which human righteousness spreads, as human obedience to it is incapable of dealing with the fundamental cause of sin, death. This doesn’t mean Paul thinks the Torah was a mistake, full of errors, or that doing the works of the Torah is an attempt at self-salvation. It is simply to recognize that apart from God’s Spirit, human interpretation of the Torah and obedience to it is incapable of bringing humans into God’s glory.
However, what I have provided above is a coherent explanation of Paul’s view of the Torah, but this explanation is simply an explanation and not a substitute for what Paul actually said. It is here where much of the reading of Paul has gone astray and has impacted the church: Paul doesn’t say abandon the Torah as a source of knowledge about God and His will. In fact, Paul will use the Torah on occasions as a source of instruction in righteousness. In Galatians, Paul simply warns the Gentiles that trying to change their course by being circumcised and seeking to do all the works of the Torah is to go move away from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Romans, Paul argues that the obedience to the Torah isn’t what distinguishes the righteous from the unrighteous, but it is those redeemed by Christ through the Spirit who are righteous, whether Jew or Gentile. All attempts to try to systematize Paul’s views of the Torah into some overarching soteriological program, including most notably the Luthern paradigm, misses the point. While there may be more overarching reasons behind Paul’s instructions, Paul doesn’t think it necessary to give a more overarching explanation. Romans is the closest we get to a presentation of a systematic view of the Torah, and even it doesn’t provide that.
Why? Because it is death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that saves people through their faith. Paul is not trying to address some overarching theological errors. Rather, he addresses specific problems that function as a roadblock to their live out their faith. Paul isn’t warning against self-righteousness as it is is the ever-pervasive threat to the Christian life. He is warning against the impact of trying to add obedience to the Torah for the purpose of being righteous before God that will (a) cut oneself off from Christ (Galatians) and (b) create a division between Jewish an antagonism Gentile believers (Romans). The popular Protestant fear of self-righteousness is another concern insofar as it cuts against the life of faith, but it isn’t the all-pervasive existential threat lurking in every corner. Nor is it what Paul was addressing.
A persistent problem with Christian theology since the Reformation has been that faith has been principally defined by whatever theological boogeyman we construct to read as the problem with “works” and “the works of law.” While Luther was right to see that his own neurotic fears about his condemnation if he didn’t do enough was a roadblock to Scriptural faith, along with many of the other criticism of the Roman Catholic church at the time, Luther’s was in an (understandable) error to think refer to this sense of self-righteousness. And later Protestant theology compounds the error when it thinks the primary enemy of faith is this sense of self-righteousness and the idea that people think they have to earn God’s love and favor. Yes, some people do think that, and yes it can be a barrier to life-giving faith that the Gospel brings. But that isn’t the problem Paul addresses, nor is it the only issues that stymies faith.
For Paul, the primary roadblocks in a life lived before God isn’t self-righteousness. Nor is it even the Torah, though he mentions it. It is the flesh; it is the powers of sin and death that inhabit the flesh; it is the unredeemed human body prior to the eschatological redemption of the body. Christ didn’t come primarily to redeem us from our own efforts to save ourselves. Christ didn’t come to discard the Torah. For Paul, Christ came to redeem us from sin and death. The roadblocks that the flesh provides are manifold, but the power of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit has a creative power that brings order out of the manifold chaos. Obedience to the Torah reduces living to matters of the flesh; self-righteousness relies on human, fleshy strength. But it is the flesh that is the ultimate source of hostility to God and His redemption.
When we get locked into specific, monolithic theories that explain how our lives fail to reach the idealized state of Christian faith and righteousness, we risk falling prey to the common social phenomenon of the self-fulfilling ‘prophecy.’2 By assuming people’s struggles is a problem of “self-righteousness,” “legalism,” etc. without there being actual confirmation of the problem, we can unintentionally direct people to actually act in that way. By directing people to imagine themselves having a problem they don’t otherwise have, we often subtly cause them to actually be tempted to think and act that way. Meanwhile, any other struggles they may be having are distracted from.
For Paul, his comments about the Torah is made within the particular setting of the Gentiles relation to Israel’s story and way of life. For instance, principally in response to E.P. Sanders’ description of covenantal nomism in Second Temple Judaism, Francis Watson argues that “the concept of ‘covenantal nomism’ is used to highlight the irreducible particularity of Pauline polemic.”3 Paul’s discussion of the Torah was not intended to provide an overarching anthropological/existential dilemma to his audiences.
In fact, I would say to generalize Paul’s comments about Torah to something more general is to actually go against Paul’s own way of presenting and framing the issue in Romans and Galatians. I contend that Paul’s understanding of the Torah is a specific application of Paul’s antithesis between God’s Spirit and human flesh to the ethical dividing line between Israel and the Gentiles. I think it is more suitable to consider Paul’s hermeneutical approach to understanding the Torah is in part dependent on a philosophy-like understanding of the Spirit and flesh, in addition to a closer reading of Israel’s Scriptures and history, especially the Abrahamic narrative.
If this explanation for the origin of Paul’s understanding of the Torah is correct, it would suggest that theological concerns to apply Paul’s letters to the Church in the modern age should focus less on the antithesis between faith and works and more on Paul’s theological anthropology expressed in the antithesis between Spirit and flesh. Instead, the dichotomy between faith and works can be regarded as a specific case study of Paul’s overarching theological anthropology. This is part of the reason that Barth’s reading of Romans and the later apocalyptic interpretation of Paul seems rather compelling in comparison to traditional Protestant-Lutheran readings: Barth’s theology of revelation and the apocalyptic school’s epistemological approach to understanding Paul do a better job touching base with Paul’s theological anthropology. For instance, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God provides an almost compelling alternative to the traditional justification theory’s interpretation of Paul.4 While I feel that Barth, Campbell, and others do fall short of getting at the center of Paul’s theological anthropology that is evident in Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians, they are touching base on something that has more potential to provide a coherent account of Paul. Meanwhile, the traditional Protestant understanding of Paul’s comments about justification are incapable of providing this coherence without engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics and interpreting Paul’s particular discourses into expressions of more general ideas that are not directly expressed anywhere else.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean the concerns about self-righteousness and saving oneself are not legitimate theological and spiritual concerns. It is only to state that Paul’s letters do not directly express these concerns and that for the purpose of theological and ethical thinking, it is important that we don’t take Paul to be expressing a proto-Lutheran/Protestant theology.
- For a brief piece of evidence, compare the portrayal of Abraham in 1 Maccabees 2.51-52 with Paul in Romans 4.
- I use scare quotes on the word prophecy to distinguish the specific social phenomenon from actual prophecy.
- Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007). EPUB Edition, introduction, section 2.
- To note personally, I find multiple weaknesses to Campbell’s suggestion of Romans as being written in response to a hostile, countermissionary Teacher. While I think his reading of Romans 1-4 ultimately falls short, I think he sniffed something important to Paul’s argument that the common justification theory could not make an adequate account for. What I think is ultimately there is the subject of a hopeful PhD proposal in the near future.