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Monday, April 4, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 1: Intro


There is no shortage of theological material attempting to explain in coherent terms the apostle Paul’s overall understanding of the role of the Mosaic covenant in redemptive history, its relation to the new covenant era inaugurated by Christ, and what implications there may be for the way believers today should understand the terms of their relationship to God, in Christ by faith, as over against “by works of the Law.”

In places there are remnants of a dispensationalism-derived tendency to caricature the Mosaic covenant itself as a kind of works-righteousness system of salvation (a tendency still prevalent in much of lay evangelicalism, by default if not self-consciously). There are reductionisms in some Reformed writers to the effect that Paul merely attacks a simple works-righteousness distortion or misuse of such texts as Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 27:26, in his contrasts of the teaching of the Judaizers with the true gospel.

There are also opposite reductionisms (as I see them in N. T. Wright, one of the foremost voices of the “New Perspective on Paul”) in the direction of understanding Paul’s critiques as simply a matter of eschatology and the culmination of salvation history in Christ. The emphasis in Wright, at least, is heavily on the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all nations, over against the Judaizers’ supposedly basic error of sinful ethnic and covenantal pride. Wright downplays the issues of general moral pride and works-righteousness mentalities among Jews (or Gentiles) as real targets of Paul’s polemic at all. The result is to downplay also Paul’s maintenance of the biblical necessity of absolute, strict-justice, forensic righteousness for anyone to pass muster at the final judgment (embodied most clearly in the denial of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience as a legitimate Pauline category).

The flurry of differing opinions is dizzying.

It doesn’t help anything that even within Reformed circles, differences of opinion emerge with regard to the nature of the Mosaic covenant and the degree to which it bears resemblance to, and “republishes” the demands of, the pre-Fall “covenant of works” made with Adam, in terms of an alleged “works principle” by which Israel was to maintain the typological inheritance of the land of Canaan. Perhaps, from one perspective derived from the works of Meredith Kline , Paul’s major contrast of the gospel with the “Law” (still understood as an administration of the covenant of grace, on the whole) has to do with an alleged corporate, typological “works principle” within the Law, which has now been done away with, giving way to the eschatological fulfillment in Christ of the uniquely unilateral “land grant” promises made to Abraham on the basis of an utterly separate “grace” principle. Perhaps.

Then again, perhaps, as per Dr. Lane Tipton (in lectures given at the Reformed Forum Theology Conferences of 2014 and 2015) whatever parallels we wish to draw between Adam in the garden and Israel in the land, under Moses—and there are some appropriate parallels, as we will see—we must be more careful than many neo-Klineans in ensuring that those parallels are redemptive-historically “calibrated through Abraham.” In contemplating so doing, it seems intuitively a bit short-sighted to characterize any aspect of Israel’s covenant as a mere “republication” of the “covenant of works,” the way some have. But more than intuition, there are some exceedingly difficult New Testament texts for this perspective, Pauline texts included.

But if broadly evangelical people still heavily influenced by old-school dispensationalism tend to flat-out caricature Moses, some Reformed writers undervalue the redemptive-historical emphasis in Paul, New Perspectivists undervalue Paul’s systematic concern for the “forensic” and his polemic against all forms of works-righteousness and human boasting, and neo-Klineans sometimes overdraw their analogies between Eden and Sinai…just what is the true heart of the Pauline contrast between Moses and Christ, Sinai and Zion, “the Law” and the gospel?

This essay does not claim to have the final word on that question. But a couple of texts in Paul may provide a programmatic entry point for thinking about such things in a more thorough and balanced way than has sometimes been offered, and in a way which does more justice (no pun intended) to the Mosaic covenant. This essay understands the Mosaic covenant in its essence as nothing other than an administration of the covenant of grace (by which faithful members were justified by faith alone, despite their sin…no forensic synergism to speak of), which nevertheless illustrated redemptive-historically the need for a unique kind of unilateral divine intervention on behalf of the covenant community as a whole.

The Law pointed out, in various ways, Israel’s (and the world’s) need for God Himself to bring about eschatological righteousness, in both acovenantal sense (Israel as a whole finally experiences true heart-circumcision and life in the Spirit), as well as an absolute sense (Jew and Gentile are both eternally justified by faith in Christ’s finished work, and eventually perfectly conformed to His image on the Last Day).

The corollary is that Paul’s polemic is salvation-historical, yes, but for that very reason is also deeply systematic-theological. In other words, the Judaizing error was certainly eschatological (and therefore sociological, regarding Jew-Gentile relations), but such error was really epiphenomenal of a more deeply-seated disposition of pride and tendency to works-righteousness characteristic of fallen humanity in general. The beginning of the evidence for this whole approach is found in some texts that directly connect the “Law” with the wider world outside of Israel.

One such programmatic text is Romans 3:19, in which Paul states “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.” A similar text is Galatians 3:22, which says, “But the Scripture [referring in context to the Mosaic Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” These texts assert that the Law—the Mosaic covenant, properly understood as a gracious administration of the “covenant of grace” in Reformed theology—has as one of its primary effects the indicting of human sin in general. But in both contexts, there is also reference to the specific historical liability of Israel to the judgment threatened by the Sinaitic covenant for her unfaithfulness and apostasy.

What begins to emerge, pending the vindication of further exegesis, is the possibility that Paul’s polemic against “works of the Law” as a means of justification, as well as his contrast between Mosaic texts like Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 27:26 on the one hand, with his Christological interpretation of Deut. 30:10-14 and his presentation of Christ’s death as substitutionary Deuteronomic cursing (Rom. 10:5-10; Gal. 3:10-14) on the other hand, represents an indirect critique of a “works-righteousness” mentality typical of fleshly human pride. In other words, Paul critiques common human legalism by way of his critique of the Judaizers’ deficient eschatology. This approach recognizes Paul’s deep understanding of the problem of sin in its enslaving and condemning power in general, as specifically illustrated in the history of Israel under the Law, apart from God’s eschatological intervention in Christ.

The relationship of this view to the common approaches named above would be something like the following: the caricature of the Mosaic covenant as a works-righteousness system is fully rejected, the reductionisms of (some) traditional Reformed as well as “New Perspective” approaches are both remedied, and neo-Klinean covenant theology is given some needed nuance while appreciating some of its unique insights.

To more fully flesh out this proposal, the rest of this essay will work through several key texts in Paul that deal with the relationship of the Law to the gospel of Christ. There cannot be here anything like exhaustive exegesis. We will only seek to establish several ways in which, for Paul, the Mosaic covenant illustrated redemptive-historically the need for unilateral divine intervention to bring about true righteousness or “justice” in both a covenantal and an absolute sense. In the course of such study, some important points will hopefully become clearer about Paul’s understanding of the nature of the Law, Paul’s polemic against the Judaizers, and most importantly, the unique blessing of new covenant experience in Christ.

The ways in which the Law illustrated the need of Israel—and indeed of the whole world—for God’s intervention in Christ include at least the following, for Paul:

• The Law supplies a basis for a formal, post-Adamic indictment of all human sin

• The Law exacerbates and highlights the deceitful, enslaving, and condemning power of sin in a covenant community generally uncircumcised of heart

• The Law highlights, by way of contrast, the unilateral character of the Abrahamic promises and their eschatological fulfillment, through the mediatorial character of the Law’s own administration, the qualified, redemptive-historically bilateral character of its terms, and its explicitly sub-eschatological divine purpose

• The Law anticipates through the sacrificial system the necessity of a human, curse-bearing substitute to vindicate God’s absolute justice in forgiving sins at all, and to bring about covenantal justice for the cursed and exiled covenant community

Let us attempt to establish each of these in turn.

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