The following is a brief section from my forthcoming two volume work on NT Theology and Ethics, entitled The Indelible Image. This portion of course is a subsection of the chapter on Paul.
The ‘New Perspective’ on Paul
There is something of a small war going on in Pauline circles on the issue of ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ which actually also involves ‘the New Perspective on Early Judaism’. This sometimes heated debate was set in motion by the work of Ed Sanders beginning in 1977 with Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and followed in subsequent years by a series of equally influential studies such as Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, and Jesus and Judaism. One of the great concerns or burdens of Sanders work was to demonstrate that the old, sometimes even anti-Semitic contrast between Christianity as a religion of grace and Judaism as a religion of works, including salvation by works, involves a caricature of early Judaism. He set in opposition to this notion the idea of covenantal nomism, that is that the obedience one reads about in the OT and early Jewish religion was not obedience in order to obtain right-standing with God, but obedience in response to the divine initiative which was prior. Sanders was particularly unhappy with older German Lutheran scholarship, that in his view perpetuated such stereotypes, and it was on the basis and back of his work that ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ was launched as well.
One of the flash points in the debate was of course Paul’s use of the phrase ‘works of the Law’. Did this refer to all works of the Mosaic Law, or was perhaps Paul only critiquing the ‘badges of membership’—circumcision, Sabbath keeping, ritual laws about food and the like, in his phrase ‘works of the Law’? Just how sectarian was Paul, and is it a caricature of Paul to suggest that he was an advocate of a new religion called Christianity? Does Paul presuppose or even indeed help precipitate the parting of the ways between Judaism and the Jesus movement, or did that transpire after Paul’s time? Was the debate between Paul and Judaism, like the debate between Paul and the Judaizers, purely an intramural debate, or not? No one has done more to further the new Perspective since Sanders than J.D.G. Dunn in a huge number of essays and studies, collected and edited in a new edition by Dunn himself. It is fair to say that he is the strongest advocate of this viewpoint in its most thorough-going form.
With the rise of ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ came in due course the rebuttal to the new perspective, mainly by conservative Evangelical scholars of a quite Reformed point of view, in two studies entitled Justification and Variegated Nomism. In the first of these volumes they were able to demonstrate that indeed Sanders had overplayed his hand, that there was not some monolithic covenantal nomistic view in early Judaism that characterized all early Jews thinking about the Law. Using Sanders own language, Law-keeping was not just about staying in, in some cases it was also about getting in, in the first place. Not merely in 4 Ezra but also 2 Enoch it seems clear enough that we have what could be called a works righteousness based on law-keeping such that there is a post-mortem judgment based on the deeds done in this life—resulting in rewards and punishments. Interestingly in Jubilees while ‘getting in’ may well be on the basis of election, staying in and final salvation is said to be on the basis of obedience to the Law. In 2 Baruch God bestows mercy on those who keep the Law, the ones called the righteous. In these same sources when God’s righteousness is discussed it is not a cipher for God’s covenantal faithfulness, but rather has to do with his just judging or ruling.
Of more concern for our purposes is the fact that: 1) the material that Tom Wright has used to support his version of the New Perspective, including especially the idea that Israel saw itself as still in exile even after they returned to the Holy Land has been misconstrued. Ezra-Nehemiah is not about a belief that God’s people are still in exile but rather about disappointment that full restoration has not transpired and the post-Biblical sources Wright uses to support his argument reflect the post-70A.D. thinking of Jews, which cannot be said to be representative of the thinking of the era leading up to A.D. 70 and 2) Final judgment on the basis of works permeates large portions of the literature of early Judaism, even when ‘getting in’ is seen to be a matter of election or grace, or both; 3) what this same large corpus of literature, including the Qumran literature does indeed demonstrate is that initial entrance into and membership in the people of God, and final salvation are seen as distinguishable things by many of these writers, and furthermore when they speak about God’s righteousness or even human righteousness they do not tend to use the language in either forensic, or purely covenantal kinds of ways; most importantly, 4) in the second volume on Justification and Variegated Nomism, there is an extended demonstration that when Paul refers to ‘works of the Law’ he refers to them all, including the ten commandments. In Paul’s letters, neither justification nor salvation is said to be contingent upon or requiring obedience to the Mosaic Law, whereas at least in regard to final salvation this is repeatedly the view found in early Jewish literature. What these essays however do not in fact demonstrate is that when Paul talks about salvation, even final salvation apart from works of the Law, Paul is not merely referring to Mosaic Law, but even to the Law of Christ as well. That is, Paul does think that keeping the Law of Christ has something to do with working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. Paul is not an antinomian, and the only Law he is critiquing in the phrase ‘works of the Law’ is the Mosaic one.
Holding something of a mediating position on the ‘New Perspective’ is Francis Watson, who has continued to refine his insights on this matter and would like to get beyond the deadlock between the two schools of thought just mentioned. On the one hand Watson wants to insist against some New Perspective proponents that Paul’s problem cannot be reduced to the fact that he objected to Judaism’s exclusive attitude towards Gentiles, in contrast to his own welcoming of Gentiles into the people of God. Furthermore, after having examined Phil. 3.4-6 Watson points out that there is no suggestion here that Saul the Pharisee believed that he had been saved by means of circumcision and so on the basis of the ‘covenant-making’ rather than on the basis of his own law-observance. “If ‘righteousness’ is a prerequisite for salvation, it is notable that Paul connects it not to his circumcision or membership of the people of Israel but to his own law-observance ‘…as regards righteousness under the law, blameless’ (v.6).This law-observance has its context and presupposition in the covenant, but it is the law observance and not the covenant per se that is said to constitute Paul’s righteousness.” Watson goes on to stress, having evaluated
Watson goes on to demonstrate at some length that by the term ‘works’ Paul simply means works of the Mosaic law, and that both the term ‘works’ which really only occurs in Romans and more expansively ‘works of the Law’ Paul does not merely mean a limited number of covenantal practices such as circumcision or Sabbath keeping, the so-called boundary markers or badges of membership. Further, Watson is able to show from a close reading of texts like
It is interesting to reflect for a moment on the contrast in Gal. 2.16. Here, we are told quite specifically that righteousness is obtained not through works of the Law, but rather through ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’. Here a very strong case can be made that what Paul is doing is contrasting the work of Christ himself on the cross, dubbed in short form ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’ with human striving for righteousness through Law obedience. In other words, two objective means of obtaining righteousness are contrasted here, not the believer’s subjective faith in Christ as opposed to someone’s doing the works of the Law. The saving work of Christ on the cross made ‘works of the Law’ unnecessary and indeed obsolete as a means of righteousness or obtaining final salvation. It did not make obsolete or unnecessary the obedience that flows forth from Christian faith. A bit more needs to be said about Paul’s handling of the Law at this juncture as we prepare to dive into his ethicizing in more detail.
Gal. 3-4, despite evasions to the contrary, tells us that Paul saw the Mosaic Law as having a temporary function in the life of God’s people, a function that was completed when Christ came and fulfilled the Law, thereby bringing it to an end. This is why Paul uses the analogy between the slave guardian of a child, until he comes of age, and the Mosaic Law. Paul’s handling of the Mosaic Law is that it is a good thing, given to keep God’s people in line and alive until God sent forth his Son. What the Law could accomplish was telling God’s people what rectitude looked like. What the Law could not accomplish was enabling people to do it. Understanding the Law, in Paul’s thought world, is a matter of understanding where it comes in the story of God’s people, and what, or in this case who eclipses it, in that Grand Narrative. Did this view turn Paul into an anti-nomian? Well, no.
In fact Paul thinks that Law still plays an important part in the life of a follower of Christ, but it is a different Law, the Law of Christ which seems to involve the following components: 1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles; 2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments); 3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles. Paul’s answer to the question as to how Christ’s followers should live is not ‘adopt Christ’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law and follow it’ but rather ‘whilst walking in the Spirit, follow and be fashioned by the Law (or rule) of Christ’. Paul is happy to sum up the essence of this Law of Christ, for example in the form ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2).
Frank Thielman is quite correct in his assessment that in Gal. 6.2 Paul is certainly not reaffirming some commandment of Moses, but rather speaks of a different law, the eschatological Law of Christ which is part and parcel of the new covenant, with Gal. 6.2 probably being a paraphrase of a saying of Jesus himself Thielman, focusing on Gal. 2.18, correctly points out that Paul speaks of being a transgressor of some Law if he withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles! Now clearly, this cannot refer to transgressing the Mosaic Law which sets up such boundaries when it comes to eating with Gentiles in the first place. Thielman also rightly points to 1 Cor. 9.19-23 where Paul both distinguishes the Law of Christ from the Law of Moses, and then identifies the former with the Law of God.
Paul is offering a new definition of sin and transgression for followers of Jesus, and it does not simply involve some subset of sins listed in the Law of Moses. There is a necessity of obedience to Christ involved in the new covenant, and as we have seen salvation is not just a matter of justification by grace through initial faith in and conversion to Christ for Paul. There is also the matter of final salvation, and on this score, obedience, normally, has something to do with this, such that Paul in Rom. 1 can talk about ‘the obedience of faith’, meaning the obedience that naturally follows from faith.This is why the stringent warnings we noted about those Christians who could be excluded from the Dominion of God at the end for persisting in a certain course of disobedience such that they could be characterized as adulterers, thieves and the like, must be taken absolutely seriously. Final salvation, while it cannot be said to be caused by works of any Law in Paul’s thinking, can indeed be negatively affected in the end by persisting in sin such that a moral apostasy (or some other sort of apostasy) is committed, according to several key Pauline texts. All of this helps us to understand the ethical seriousness of Paul’s moral remarks and why he so often offers up such strong imperatives to his converts.
 The first was originally published in
 J.D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, rvsd. Ed.(
 eds. D.A. Carson et al.(
 See the article by R.B. Bauckham, on “Apocalypses” in Justification and Variegated Nomism Vol. One, pp. 135-187
 See the discussion by
 See now Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, (
 The quotation is from his Theta Phi Lecture “Once Again: Beyond the ‘New Perspective on Paul” delivered at Asbury Theological Seminary March 6, 2008, based on his recent book from Eerdmans.
 “Once Again: Beyond the New Perspective”.
 F. Thielman, Paul and the Law, (Downers Grive; IV Press, 1994).
 I say normally because of course a deathbed conversion to Christ does occasionally happen, and proves of course that salvation is of course a divine gift from God.
I think Sanders was right to raise the anti-Semitic issue. We are sometimes guilty of caricaturing Judaism.
I think it's hard to restrict "works of the law" to simplyu ritual badges of membership. Nothing in Galatians 2:16 or Rom 3:20 suggest this to me. Modern bifurcations of ceremonial law and moral law were foreign to the Jews.
Your concerns with Wright are right! I should say that Ezra/Nehemiah does present a partial, tiny fulfillment of the post exilic promises of Isaiah 40-55.
I think Doug Moo is very good on this whole issue of the role of the law in the christian life. he says that we are not under the law of Moses but under the law of Christ, and it sounds that you are hinting at the same thing. The law of Christ includes some, but not all of the Old legislation.
Watson's evaluation of Rom 9:4, 30-10:5 sounds right to me, as does his contention that works of the law means more than just ceremonial law.
Your treatment of Galatians 3-4 is right on!
You wrote: "In fact Paul thinks that Law still plays an important part in the life of a follower of Christ, but it is a different Law, the Law of Christ which seems to involve the following components: 1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles; 2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments); 3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles."
This hits the nail on the head!!!
Sanders is right to caution us about making false caricatures of Judaism. And yet the evidence is clear that Paul is repudiating a form of Pharisaic Judaism which regards works as a way of entry into the covenant as well as a way to stay in the covenant.
Obedience naturally follows from faith (Rom 1:6), but the real question for the believer is whether or not our obedience is decisive as to whether or not we experience final salvation. Galatians 5:18-25, the book of Hebrews, and many other texts suggest yes. Works are an automatic and expected by-product of saving faith in Christ.
But if we are truly expected to remain in Him or be thrown into the fire (John 15:1-6), then how can we also maintain that salvation is by grace through faith plus nothing? Perhaps our works represent our partnership with God, we are working out what God is working within (Phil 2:13). That "works" for me :)
I agree that Sanders was right to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, but what he put in its place misrepresented early Judaism, and to some extent Paul. I mostly agree with Moo and Thielman on the Law of Christ, and I find Watson's critique of the new Perspective crew right on target.
The key here Marc I think is the definition of faith. I like to say real faith works. Its not a question of faith or works, but faith which impels works. I do not think James is at odds with Paul at all on this front. But that's a story for another excerpt from the Indelible Image much later.
Should be a great book. What an opportunity to synthesize and cull together a lifetime of work into a fresh, systematic approach! If this section is an accurate preview of coming attractions, then the book must fall into the category of must buy!
I read Dunn's theology of Paul. Boy, was that tough reading! I also read Jesus Remembered, which was a little more fun for me. I too, am not convinced by the NP, and that Sanders has misrepresented early Judaism.
Moo is what I would call a humble Calvinist. He acknowledges that the redemptive historical approach to Romans 9 is not out of the question, even though he clearly adopts the Calvinist/Augustinian reading.
I'm reading Levine's The Misunderstood Jew. I like to tell my wife that I'm a misunderstood Jew!
I'm not sure I'm on board with everything she says about the Lord's Prayer, but on the whole, it's a good book, and she has an interesting upbringing. She reminds me of my mom - she likes Jesus, but won't worship the messenger. I'll pray for her like I do mom.
I would add that Wright's use of Jewish sources is entirely one-sided. He does not reckon with Diaspora Jewish literature, at least as John Collins and John Barclay (also Erich Gruen) have presented it. These studies on Diaspora Judaism seem to pose a problem to his argument that all Second Temple Judaism had an exile mentailty. He is liable only for dealing with Collins, since the other two had not yet published their books. But, Collins' book does not even show up in his bibliography. In fact, the concept of Diaspora Judaism does not even exist for Wright. This is not to re-enter the Judaism/Hellenism dichotomy. But, there is difference in the ways Jews viewed themselves in their environments.
I have an article if you are interested.
Kyle I would be happy to see your paper. You can email it to Ben_Witherington@asburyseminary.edu.
I tell you what Marc, this project has been the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. I have had about ten scholars read the drafts and critique, and so it hopefully will be better for that.
When is it coming out?
Well if the mss. is submitted in May, then it will surely be a year after that.
It will be interesting to see what new backing Wright will have. He has claimed to be currently working on his "big book on Paul."
You said, "What the Law could accomplish was telling God’s people what rectitude looked like. What the Law could not accomplish was enabling people to do it."
I agree with this statement. What confuses me is this: If the law of Moses showed God's people what rectitude looked like, i.e. it was the normative standard of righteousness for God's people, why would it cease to be so at the coming of Christ? What need is there for a new law, the law of Christ as you put it?
Law, in the Biblical world is a function and facet of covenant. When a covenant is either completed, or annulled or abolished after being irrevocably broken, then the law that is a part of that covenant no longer is binding on its recipients. The Law as revealed to God's people under Moses was partial, and even more to the point as Jesus said, its concessions were given due to the hardness of heart. When Jesus came and inaugurated a new covenant, this required a new law, and as Jesus says, a standard of righteousness higher than that of the Pharisees and the old law. There is of course overlap between the law connected to the Mosaic covenant, and the law connected to the new covenant, not surprisingly since they come from the same God. They are not identical for the very good reason that God's people are in a new and different situation since Christ came, died, and rose again. Now the eschatological situation presents us with eschatological realities, including the new birth and the law written on the hearts as Jer. 31 predicted. To whom more is given, more is required.
Ben, you write:
Did this view turn Paul into an anti-nomian? Well, no. In fact Paul thinks that Law still plays an important part in the life of a follower of Christ, but it is a different Law, the Law of Christ which seems to involve the following components: 1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles; 2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments); 3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles. Paul’s answer to the question as to how Christ’s followers should live is not ‘adopt Christ’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law and follow it’ but rather ‘whilst walking in the Spirit, follow and be fashioned by the Law (or rule) of Christ’. Paul is happy to sum up the essence of this Law of Christ, for example in the form ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2).
That's an interesting way of putting it. But I don't think we should be fooled by Paul's daring rhetoric in Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2. "Christ's law" and "the law of the spirit" are metaphorical inversions which drive a nail in the law's coffin period. They imply that the actual law has been superseded, not redefined, extended, or reinvented in a "new fashion".
Philip Esler has it right that Paul's point in Gal 6:2, Rom 8:2 is that the very best the law could provide, love of one's neighbor, is now available by an entirely different route -- the spirit:
"To say that the law is fulfilled by love does not affect this conclusion. Fulfillment, in this sense, means that the moral demands of the law no longer have any role for Christians... Someone who has faith in Christ is able to obtain the best that the law promised, although never delivered, by an entirely different route." (Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 334-335)
Some of what you say seems to get at this, but your second component -- "the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments)" -- is problematic. Paul would have viewed any of those commandments you have in mind as fulfilled on the avenue of the spirit while maintaining the believer is not actually subjected to them as "commandments". This may seem like splitting hairs, but these are important hairs in the New Perspective debate. What do you think of Esler's position?
Philip Esler and I are friends, but Philip is simply wrong about this. Paul is perfectly happy to give various exhortations and imperatives and he expects them to be fulfilled, quite literally in the behavior of the believers. The Spirit enables this but the Spirit does not do it for them, nor does it do all the heavy lifting. Check out 1 Cor. 4-6 where Paul reaudiences and reuses various materials from Leviticus amongst other sources. It will not do to suggest that when Paul says what he does about those who will not enter the Kingdom of God if they behave like murderers, adulterers etc. that what he really means is just let the Spirit prompt you to be more loving, or the like. No, he really means his prohibitions quite literally. What he believes however is that since the Spirit enables such behavior, and since the essence of this new law is written on the heart there is the internal impetus and ability to obey.
I too am really looking forward to your book. I am sure that there is a reappraisal of the New Perpsctive going on of which your work is clearly a part. I am with you most of the way, but I am just a bit hesitant in concluding that there is a sense in which we earn our salvation, and I don't see how that conclusion can be escaped if our works are a factor for final salvation at the judgement.
Doesn't Paul want to rule out any grounds for human boasting? If I contribute even a little, haven't I some ground for boasting when compared to those who don't manage anything? Isn't this Paul's point in Romans 4 especially:
'Now to the one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.' (4:4)
Here Paul must surely mean any human works, mustn't he? If he is only arguing that works aren't needed for initial salvation, but they are for final salvation, doesn't he undermine his own argument?
I ask this as a genuine question not to make a point!
I think there is indeed a way beyond what you are suggesting. Mr. Wesley, your Anglican forebear put it this way. The works of piety and charity are certainly not the cause of final salvation, but they are a condition of it, where there is time and opportunity to do them. The fact that there are death bed conversions without time for such deeds shows that salvation is a gift of God's grace.
When you say that such works are a condition of final salvation this is like saying that a condition of my giving lectures in Hong Kong is my having the entry passport and Visa to do so. The actual cause of my entry is the passport and Visa. The cause and the condition are related but not the same thing. God has required of us both the cause and the conditions for final approval.
Paul thinks that Law still plays an important part in the life of a follower of Christ, but it is a different Law, the Law of Christ which seems to involve the following components: 1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles; 2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments); 3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles.
I responded that we shouldn't be fooled by Paul's daring rhetoric in Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2, that "Christ's law" and "the law of the spirit" are metaphorical inversions which drive a nail in the law's coffin once and for all. They imply that the law has been entirely superseded, not redefined, extended, truncated, or reinvented in a "new fashion". As Philip Esler says, Paul's point is that the very best the law could provide, love of one's neighbor, is now available by an entirely different route -- the spirit.
Ben responded to me:
Philip is simply wrong about this. Paul is perfectly happy to give various exhortations and imperatives and he expects them to be fulfilled, quite literally in the behavior of the believers. The Spirit enables this but the Spirit does not do it for them, nor does it do all the heavy lifting. Check out 1 Cor. 4-6 where Paul reaudiences and reuses various materials from Leviticus amongst other sources.
Actually, if you want to cite I Corinthians, you couldn't do better than I Cor 7:19, where Paul says that "keeping God's commandments is what counts" -- in the context of circumcision/uncircumcision being irrelevant. But Paul later revised this in Galatians (5:6,6:15) by saying that "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love", again in the context of circumcision/uncircumcision. (Galatians is difficult to date, but I'm convinced it comes in between I & II Corinthians, per Mark Goodacre.)
In any case, Paul's frame of mind on the subject of "keeping commandments" when he wrote Galatians and Romans is clear: Judean Christians have died to the law in its entirety (Rom 7:4-6), for being under the Torah reenacts the Edenic tragedy (Rom 7:7-13). (I can't believe so many exegetes resist seeing the "I" figure of vv 7-13 as Adam; Francis Watson shows clearly that Adam is in view.) Being under any commandment results in the victory of sin, because that's precisely how sin succeeds -- using any commandment against the holy purposes for which God intended it. Christ, in Paul's view, came to liberate humanity (though the Judean people in particular) from this mess (Rom 7:24-25).
It seriously misrepresents the Paul of Galatians and Romans to claim that he thought believers in Christ were subject to the commandments of any law -- Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2 notwithstanding. These are metaphorical inversions at best. For if Paul really believes that a "law" is still operative for Christians, as you claim, then he has so redefined the concept of "law" that the term is really useless.
You're uneasy, Ben, with the idea that for Paul "the spirit does all the work or heavy-lifting for the believer", but that seems to be the case -- however difficult that makes Paul. For better or worse he thought that God moved within Christians so thoroughly (Philip 2:13) that there would not even be a judgment for the elect (Rom 8:33-34). As Esler says (Conflict and Identity, p 266) a judgment requires a charge, and Rom 8:33-34 implies that no such charge will be levelled against believers; the righteous are simply waived through after giving an account of themselves and receiving a reward. The judgment of Rom 2 (and II Cor 5:10) would thus only apply to the wicked.
Paul thought the spirit made superheroes out of believers, and I don't think we should be soft-playing this for sake of modern consumption.
Thanks for the dialogue, Ben.
You wrote in the last paragraph, "This is why the stringent warnings we noted about those Christians who could be excluded from the Dominion of God at the end for persisting in a certain course of disobedience such that they could be characterized as adulterers, thieves and the like, must be taken absolutely seriously."
Are these passages discussed in a section you didn't post, or did I miss them in this post? I'm very interested in what passages you are referring to. Thanks.
I find the critiques of Wright's view of the continuing exile of Israel to be interesting, since I think it's one of the most solid points (and others have backed this up, see Craig Evans).
Dr Witherington said, "Ezra-Nehemiah is not about a belief that God’s people are still in exile but rather about disappointment that full restoration has not transpired." Actually, I think that is Wright's point. He frequently says that the Jewish people saw themselves in exile "in some sense." So, he'll grant that they are "home" and worshipping in the Temple, but because of their continuing oppression under Roman rule, their full "return" (restoration) of exile has yet to come.
I'm not sure if the remark about Wright's lack of interaction with Diaspora Judaism is about the exile theme in Jesus' ministry or not. If it is, then I'd say it doesn't matter a whole lot within his study of the historical Jesus. After all, Jesus didn't go out to Jews within the Diaspora. He proclaimed the kingdom of God to the Jews in the land, so why would the point of view of Jews throughout the Roman Empire play into that? If your concern is more about Paul and Diaspora Judaism, then you may have a point.
Dear Dr.Witherington: I've read this excerpt about a dozen times, but I can hardly figure out what it is exactly getting at. I understand it is a review of the issue and literature, but can the controversy be distilled somehow?
I've been taught by Walther's "Law and Gospel" and my Old Testament Professor Dr. Russ Nelson, that in both the Old and New Testaments Law and Gospel are at work in the believer.
The Israelites, too, are saved by God's mercy, (as they did not keep the law exactly very well), via the sacrificial system, which in fact foreshadows Christ's work. The law only shows what is good and clarifies to us how we are sinning. Only God's mercy enables us to love him and his commands.
In the New, the law again is not able to get us to do the right thing. But the believer in God, always, moved by God's mercy and Spirit, will joyfully, gadly, willingly, want to do the right thing. Of course, we fail, often enough, (unwillingly) and we know it because we know the law (on tablets and on hearts), and we repent again and receive mercy again.
"Simul justus et peccator", which we debated before, also shows that we are, indeed, still working with the law (but not for salvation), because we know it and we need to obey it and want to obey it (in faithful, loving, spiritfilled ways), but we know we fail to love God and neighbor well enough, in many different ways. The law still checks us, makes us flee back to Christ's mercy, receiving from him. In renewed love we try again.
I am not sure where your controvesy fits or does not fit here. I think you might respond to me: no, you should be keeping "Christ's law" and not fail at it.
"Christ's law" if we have to call anything that, can never be a written code, like before, with innumerable rules and ceremonies. It would only be the law of love, which is in essence not law, but spirit, as love cannot really be legislated.
God wants our hearts more than anything.
For tonight, Brigitte.
Try reading the Sermon on the Mount. There is plenty of Law in there for which you should be grateful-- Laws like , 'thou shalt not commit adultery'. That's a bit more than a general edict to love.
I totally see where Brigitte is coming from. Actually, Jesus said something like:
Forget all this talk about adultery being the ultimate sexual sin. Just seeing a woman and wanting to go to bed with her sends you to hell.
Given that the NT generally says that adultery alone is grounds for not entering the Dominion of God, this is very scary.
Maybe this is why (secretly) I hope Luther rather than Wright is right!
I appreciate your remarks in response to my last comment regarding the relationship of law to covenant. However, there are just a few more difficulties that stick out to me:
If the law revealed to Moses was partial, and allowed certain sinful actions due to hardness of heart, how then can it be said that this law showed the people what rectitude looks like? And if the people had an incomplete (and flawed, as in the case of these concessions) picture of what righteousness looks like, how were they supposed to recognize the perfect righteousness of Messiah?
So you see the conundrum. If the law is perfect, then there is no need for a new one. If the law is not perfect, then it cannot serve its proposed purpose of detailing righteousness to God's people and revealing sin.
The law serves two purpose (among others). It reveals the sinfulness of the people and it reveals the righteousness of Messiah. It can do neither if it is incomplete or concedes to sin. If Jesus were to contradict, abolish, or change any of the commandments (something which he emphatically denies doing in Matthew 5), the people would be right to condemn him as a false prophet. And of course, some did, but only because they were measuring him according to their own traditions rather than the law itself.
Jeremiah 31 states that the law will be written on the hearts of the people, not that there will be a new law. In fact, there does not appear to be any such expectation anywhere in the OT. So how would we expect a faithful Jew to respond to such a claim by Jesus or by any of his apostles?
Dear Dr. Witherington: I suspect we would not necessarily differ on the content of a law of love for these days.
The moral law of the 10 commandments is a good summary and always stands. Even the heathen knows a good part of it. There is no discussion, here.
We should, however, realize, that we are NOT keeping even the short list of the 10 commandmeds, at least in our minds (which is a serious matter, as Ross reminds us).
The Sermon on the Mount, on the other hand, is no such list of do's and don'ts. Meekness, mercy, hunger for righteousness, peacmakeing, etc. is not in opposition to anything I've written (and one might actually call it also "vague").
It is the way the commands are presented and preached to Christian consciences and experience, that is different.
Dear Ross: thanks for your comment!
What does your Christian experience in conjunction with the word and your theological training tell you is right? It does not matter WHO is right, but whether people realize the joy of their salvation in Christ, knowing why he died (and rose...).
Brigitte: Obedience is of course an important part of Christian faith. But obedience to what? Obedience to the numerous commandments God has given us in Christ, which is much more than just a reiteration of either the law of love or some of the ten commandments. It isn't optional, and furthermore it is crucial to our witness to the world as we attempt to glorify God.
Mike, the issue is not was the Ot law imperfect. The issue was it was given to imperfect people who did not have the Holy Spirit to enable them to do it. Thus the Mosaic law was in some ways more lenient and took into account human fallenness. It for instance tried to limit revenge with the eye for an eye legislation, not license it, but the ten commandments showed God's highest and best--- no murdering, period. The same applies to the laws about marriage etc. God is gracious and he relates to us where we are.
Hello again: I was up very late last night reading the "Book of Concord" (Lutheran confessions), trying to see if there is any context in which the "LAW OF CHRIST" is mentioned.
On page 481, I finally found something in the Formula of Concord, published in 1580. This document was worked on for years, trying to clear up controversies among Luth. theologians after Luther's death, surely also in the context of reformed theology, antinomianism, etc..
Even today, we debate something we call "the third use of the law".
I will copy of and quote the whole section. You can decide for yourself if it adds to the discussion or not.
Here we quote:
FORMULA OF CONCORD, VI, THE THIRD FUNCTION OF THE LAW.
THE CHIEF QUESTION AT ISSUE IN THE CONTROVERSY:
The law has been given to men for three reasons: 1. to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men, 2. to lead men to a knowledge of their sin, 3. after they are reborn, and although the flesh still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life. It is concerning the third function of the law that a controversy has arisen among a few theologians. The question therefore is whether or not the law is to be urged upon reborn Christians. One party said Yes, the other says No.
The correct Christian Teaching in this Controversy:
1. We believe, teach, and confess that although people who genuinely believe and whom God has truly converted are freed through Christ from the curse and the coercion of the law, they are not on that account without the law; on the contrary, they have been redeemed by the Son of God precisely that they should exercise themselves day and night in the law (Ps. 199:1). In the same way our first parents even before the Fall did not live without the law, for the law of God was written into their hearts when they were created in the image of God.
2. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the law is to be diligently applied not only to unbelievers and the impenitent but also to people who are genuinely believing, truly converted, regenerated, and justified through faith.
3. For although they are indeed reborn and have been renewed in the spirit of their mind, such regeneration and renewal is incomplete in the world. In fact, it has only begun, and in the spirit of their mind the believers are in a constant war against their flesh (that is, their corrupt nature and kind), which clings to them until death. On account of their Old Adam, who inheres in people's intellect, will, and all their powers, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way lest in their merely human devotion they undertake self-decreed and self-chosen acts of serving God. This is further necessary lest the Old Adam go his own self-willed way. He must be coerced against his own will not only by the admonitions and threats of the law, but also by its punishments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and surrender himself a captive. I Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12; Gal 6:14; Ps. 199:1, Heb. 13:21
4. Concerning the distinctions between works of the law and fruits of the Spirit we believe, teach and confess that works done according to the law are, and are called, works of the law as long as they are exorted from people only under the coercion of punishments and the threat of Gods wrath.
5. Fruits of the Spirit, however, are those works which the Spirit of God, who dwells in the believers, works through the regenerated, and which the regenerated perform in so far as they are reborn and do them as spontaneously as if they know of no command, threat, or reward. In this sense the children of God live in the law and walk according to the law of God. In his epistles St. Paul calls it the LAW OF CHRIST (my bolding) and the law of the mind. Thus God's children are "not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 7:23; 8:1, 14).
6. Therefore both for penitent and impenitent, for regenerated and unregenerated people the law is and remains one and the same law, namely, the unchangeable will of God. The difference, as far as obedience is concerned, rests exclusively with man, for the unregererated man--must like the regenerated according to the flesh--does what is demanded of him by the law under coercion and unwillingly. But the believer without any coercion and with a willing spirit, in so far as he is reborn, does what no threat of the law could ever have wrung from him.
1. Accordingly we condemn as dangerous and subversive of Christian discipline and true piety the erroneous teaching that the law is not to be urged, in the manner and measure above described, upon Christians and genuine believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Chrstians, and the impenitent.
END OF QUOTE.
I have met people who say there is no third use of the law because LEX SEMPER ACCUSAT. The law always accuses and that's what is for.
In my personal relationships, I find I have the most joyful, happy, friendly, relationships where there is no need to admonish. The freedom of the Spirit is this lack of need of coercion (the law of Christ). Yet, the peccator needs to be reminded.
Sections IV and V deal with Good Works and Law and Gospel controversies.
So you draw a distinction between the ten commandments and the rest of the law?
I would be in agreement that there are certain laws that would simply not have to be given if there were no sin (for example, guidelines for the carrying out of justice as you mention). And it is true that the ten commandments do not contain the sort of "deed-consequence" wording that many other commandments do. However, there are many other commandments outside the decalogue which are given just as succinctly and without explanation or qualification. The ten commandments stand out in the narrative, and clearly carry a special place, being stored in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. However, to make the leap to the assertion that they represent a standard of law apart from and higher than the rest of the Torah seems to be more than the text allows, especially when that implies that God is making contradictions. Your assertion makes God out to be saying something along these lines: "Do not murder. But since I know you're going to anyway, just don't take someone's life unless they've taken someone else's" Or am I reading you wrong?
Here is my big difficulty: This new law, of which you argue the existence, the Law of Christ, was not given to perfect people either.
Yes, we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do it, but so did the saints of the Old Testament, the righteous men and women whom we are taught to set up as examples for us. The "cloud of witnesses" of the book of Hebrews, etc. If they did not have the Holy Spirit, how is it that they could have been obedient to God (if we assert that one needs the Holy Spirit to be keep God's commands)? And what law would they have been keeping by the Spirit?
If we are in an entirely new covenant arrangement and we are still imperfect, do we not still need to know how God deals with our sin? If so, doesn't this new law need to still have "deep-consequence" language?
I have some thoughts on all of this, but I am not ready to tip my hand just yet. I am simply exposing the apparent problems and seeing how you deal with them.
To mike b.: I'm not sure if you are talking to me or Ben or both.
What seems relevant to me here is that there are different parts to the Old Testament laws. This is what I was taught and subscribe to:
There is a portion that is simply moral law, which does not change, summarized by love your neighbor and your God, spelled out more specifically in the 10 commandments and supplemented in other places. The ten commandments is what we teach in the catechism for the children to remember and recite along with explanations of what to do and not to do. (There are some newer additions to the catechism that tackle additional problems such as abortion, and more modern problems etc.)
In addition, we have in the OT laws that govern the nation of Israel. Those don't apply unless they are simply moral, since we don't live in that ancient nation state.
Further, there are regulations re: worship and sacrifices, that are also done with since Christ.
What remains constant is anything to do with morality and loving relationships, ie. commandments such as the 10 commandments.
In the NT we have some new rules that relate sometimes to living in the Roman environment and some that are morality for all times. Paul advises some flexibility, governed by concern for the brother (sister).
So much for content. To truly love God and follow in the letter and the spirit of the law and with a cheerful heart, as he wants, one needs to be a believer in a trusting relationship.
Anyhow, I'm not sure you're talking to me? :)
"Forget all this talk about adultery being the ultimate sexual sin. Just seeing a woman and wanting to go to bed with her sends you to hell.
Given that the NT generally says that adultery alone is grounds for not entering the Dominion of God, this is very scary."
Jesus is not saying that temptation itself, which must be felt to be temptation, by the way, is a sin. He's saying that to look at a woman lustfully, that is, to commit an ACT of adultery in your heart by entertaining fantasies and the like, is just as much a sin as to actually physically go through with the act. To have the intention of lusting in your heart is the sin.
With the Spirit, we put to death this old fleshly nature. It need not, and must now, overcome our will, ever.
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