TWENTY-ONE THESES TOWARD UNDERSTANDING
PAUL’S VIEW OF THE LAW
(Watch for revisions, restatements, retractions, and recantations)
Paul uses nomos essentially as the OT and Judaism use torah. This is to say that he uses nomos with a range of possible referents even within a single context or verse. For example, Rom 3:21 says, “But not apart from the law God’s righteousness has been revealed, being testified to by the Law and the Prophets.” The former use of nomos, being the “Mosaic Covenant,” is a subcategory of the latter, “the Pentateuch.” The latter use of nomos refers to a portion of Scripture, the Five Books of Moses. Hence, nomos may refer to the “Mosaic Covenant,” “the Pentateuch,” “Scripture,” etc.
When the referent of nomos is the "Mosaic Covenant," Paul's use of nomos reflects a perspectival understanding, so that he can speak both negatively and positively of the Mosaic Law (Eph 2:11-15; Rom 3:31).
The language Paul attaches to nomos (understood as the Mosaic Torah, i.e., Covenant) reflects the fact that he recognizes the law to have a range of functions in salvation history. His Christian framework enables him to refer to the Mosaic nomos from three perspectives: (1) as scripture; (2) as Israel’s covenant with Yahweh; (3) as having a typological and predictive function foreshadowing Christ, his work, and his people.
As to the function of nomos as Scripture, Paul can appeal to discrete elements within the Law of Moses as scriptural authority, even with for Gentiles (1 Cor 9:9; Eph 6:2). However, when he does this, it becomes evident that he does not view the Mosaic Law as a binding covenant for Christians. He does not use the nomos as covenant but as Scripture in these verses.
Paul's explicit or implicit use of nomos as a reference to the Mosaic Law also reflects the fact that he conceives of the Mosaic nomos as Israel’s covenant with Yahweh, considered in itself. As such, it governed the nation Israel (Eph 2:12); it regulated even the mundane affairs of Israel’s life (Phil 3:5f); it was glorious (2 Cor 3:7-15); it kept Israel distinct from the Gentiles (Eph 2:12); it carried a promise of better things to come (Eph 2:12); it disclosed Yahweh to Israel (Rom 9:4-5); it cursed Israel as a nation for its unfaithfulness to God (Gal 3:10; Rom 3:3ff; 9:30ff); and it subjected the nation to servitude and to slavery (cf. Gal 4:1ff). As the covenant of Israel, the whole law is binding upon all its subjects (Gal 5:3). The Mosaic Law is characterized by its demand for deeds (Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5).
Paul's apocalyptic christophany removed the blinding veil from his eyes (2 Cor 3:14) so that he could at last perceive that the Law of Moses was not an end in itself but that its goal and terminus is Christ Jesus (Rom 10:4). Consequently, the Mosaic Law, itself, as a major part of the Pentateuch (cf. Matt 5:17; Rom 3:21), and Israel’s long history under the Law of Moses functions prophetically, i.e., as types and foreshadows pointing forward to the “coming one” who would inaugurate the age of salvation (Col 2:16-17; 1 Cor 10:11; Rom 15:4).
Therefore, as Paul stands in continuity with his fellow countrymen, from his Christian apocalyptic perspective, he reads the OT account of Israel’s election-sin-exile with the promise of restoration as fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Christ’s fulfillment of the Mosaic Torah is to be understood within the category of “fulfilled prophecy,” i.e., he consummated it, he made it complete. Hence, Jesus Christ brought the Torah to its divinely intended completion and end (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:19).
It is Paul's Christian interpretive perspective upon the Mosaic Law as functioning typologically and prophetically that generates his Christ/Torah, pistis/nomos, and pistis nomos polarities (Gal 2:16-4:7; Rom 3:19ff). [For development of this, see my dissertation, “The Curse of the Law and the Cross: Works of Law and Faith in Galatians 3:1-14".]
Paul's hermeneutical perspective upon the OT and particularly upon the Mosaic Law, an interpretive viewpoint epochally altered by Christ (Gal 1:12, 16) whose advent “the prophets and the law” prophesied (Matt 11:13), enables him to find in the Law itself, exegetical bases to ground his argument that the Mosaic Law has met its end in Christ (e.g., Gal 3:1-14).
It is from this perspective that Paul recognizes why God instituted the Mosaic Law 430 years after he made his “promise” to Abraham (Gal 3:15ff). The “promise” to Abraham is Christ-focused, for he is the singular “seed” to whom the promise was given (Gal 3:16). Christ is the “true Israel,” the “true seed of Abraham.” Hence, Abraham’s physical descendants under the jurisdiction of the law, i.e., the nation of Israel, served a typological role in salvation history as the “seed” that anticipated the one “seed,” the “coming one,” who is Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Paul’s negative comments concerning the Mosaic Law must be understood from within his interpretive perspective. Failure to do so wreaks havoc in our interpretation of both Paul and Moses. Paul’s answer to the question, “Why the law then?” (Gal 3:19), serves to illustrate this point. Paul answers, “It was added because of transgressions” (cf. Rom 5:20, “The law came in that transgression might increase”). This was not the purpose for which the law was professedly given to Israel at Sinai. However, it becomes evident from God’s redemptive purpose in history that the Mosaic Law plays a role that transcends its provision (i.e., temporary) quality as the governing covenant of Israel. Both the Law of Moses and Israel function typologically anticipating prophetically the advent of Messiah, “the seed,” the fulfillment of all OT types and shadows. This typological/prophetic function, inherent to the Law itself, is developed by later prophets and by the course of Israel’s history.
The sin-exile-restoration motif of Deuteronomy 27-32 is crucial in Paul's perspective. The “blessings” and “curses” are not simply presented as covenantal consequences that are open to Israel depending upon the nation’s response. Moses prophesies that Israel will in fact eventually become irremediably unfaithful to the covenant and suffer the curse of all curses–banishment and exile (Deut 28:15-29:29). However, that would not be the end of Israel’s history nor of Yahweh’s covenant with the nation. Moses prophesies that beyond the nation’s covenant failure, there is hope of covenant renewal, of restoration, of the circumcision of the heart–language that anticipates the new covenant (Deut 30:1-14; cf. Jer 31:31-34; Col 2:11; Phil 3:3; Rom 2:28-29).
Therefore, as Paul interprets Israel's history “under the law” and “under the curse of the law,” he does so in agreement with Jewish tradition. Israel’s long history of covenant unfaithfulness and incurrence of “the curse of the law” (exile) with the anticipation of restoration (redemption) does not terminate upon Israel but upon Christ (Dan 9:24ff). Paul interprets the OT sin-exile-restoration motif of Deuteronomy 27-30 from an exilic (in solidarity with Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah) and apocalyptic vantage point (altered by his christophany), so that Israel’s plight “under the curse of the law” (Gal 3:10), even “under the law” itself (Gal 4:4-5; Rom 6:14), functions typologically for the plight of all humanity “under sin” (Gal 3:22). What is true of Israel, blessed and privileged as she was (Rom 2:17ff; 3:1-8; 9:4f), is true of all humanity (Rom 1:18ff)–all are “under sin” (Rom 3:9, 19; Gal 3:22).
Therefore, Paul insists that though the Law of Moses was given to bring about life (Rom 7:10; Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5), it could not secure life (Gal 3:21) and righteousness (Gal 2:21) for Israel. Rather, the Mosaic Law brought to Israel a curse (Gal 3:10) and death (Rom 7:7-25).
The Law, then, while emphatically coming from God and therefore good (Rom 7:12), became a negative instrument in the redemptive-historical dimension. This is no fault of its own, but the fault of Israel’s unfaithfulness, which is representative of the fault of all humanity. The Mosaic Law stipulated obedience that would lead to life but could not empower humans to obey, hence Paul’s candid acknowledgment that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56; cf. Heb 8:7).
This is not to say that no one could or did obey the Mosaic Law. On the contrary, individuals did obey the Law blamelessly (e.g., 1 Kings 15:5; Luke 1:5-6). However, if we take seriously what Paul says concerning the inability of the law to secure either the obedience it demanded or the life it promised, we must affirm that both the individual Israelite’s ability to obey the Law of Moses and the attainment of life and righteousness were not intrinsic to the Law itself but extrinsic. Such ability is bound up with the gospel of Christ, the reality that the Law anticipated. Moses speaks of this when he prophesies concerning the ultimate period of restoration when, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut 30:6). The symbol is not an end in itself. It is precisely this point that gives Paul warrant to distinguish between the righteousness which is from the law; Rom 10:5; cites Lev 18:5) and the righteousness from faith/faithfulness; Rom 10:6; cites Deut 30:12-14).
The point of contrast between the Law of Moses and the Good News of Christ, then, is anticipated by Moses himself. It is not a contrast between “doing” and “believing,” nor between “works righteousness” and “faith.” Rather, it is between two distinct divine messages that characterize two distinct epochs of redemptive history (Gal 3:11-12). On the one hand, the Law stipulates righteousness by demanding, “Do these things and you will live!” (Lev 18:5), but it fails to attain its goal, in itself, because it has no intrinsic power to circumcise the hearts of its subjects so that they can obey (Deut 30:6; cf. Jer 4:4). Nevertheless, it commands its subjects to circumcise their hearts (Deut 10:16). On the other hand, the gospel intrinsically has the power to bring about faith and obedience, for it announces that Christ has secured righteousness and life for God’s people (Rom 5:18-19; Phil 3:9). Christ secured the Spirit for his people (2 Cor 4:16-18; cf. 1 Cor 15:45; Rom 8:9-11; cf. John 7:37ff); he procured the Spirit by whom circumcision of the heart which the Law’s symbolic rite anticipated and which Moses required of the people for obeying the Law (Col 2:11). It is the Good News of Christ, not the Law of Moses that procured the Spirit for Abraham’s heirs (Gal 3:1-14).
The turning point of the ages hinges upon Christ's faithfulness, Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; 3:22; Phil 3:9), his “one act of obedience” (Rom 5:18f), his death upon the cross (Gal 2:21). At the cross of Christ the Mosaic Law came to its termination, for the shadow finally ended at the feet of the one who cast it (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:13). Likewise, at the cross of Christ, the “new creation” or the “day of salvation” dawned (2 Cor 6:2) as the “Sun of Righteousness” rose upon the horizon (Mal 4:2). Christ redeemed God’s remnant by vicariously bearing the “curse of the law” for them “upon the tree” (Gal 3:13). He redeemed them from the Law by replacing the Law (Gal 4:4-5).
Because Paul understands Christ and Torah in this way, he sees them as categories that correspond to two distinct epochs and two distinct messages. So, Paul juxtaposes he pistis/ho nomos (e.g., Rom 3:21f; Gal 3:22ff); he pistis/ta erga tou nomou; e.g., Gal 2:16; 3:1-14; Rom 3:20ff); Christ/Moses; Rom 10:5ff); ho nomos he epangelia; Gal 3:15). The two elements of Paul’s contrasts are not hostile to one another (Gal 3:21); they are only enemies when their proper salvation-historical relationship is violated as by the Judaistic teachers in Galatia. The two elements of Paul’s contrasts are allied in purpose only in their salvation-historical relationship of sequential order: “before”/“now” (Gal 3:23ff); prefigurement/fulfillment; type/antitype; foreshadow/reality (Col 2:16f).
It is for this reason that Paul does not impose the Mosaic Law upon Christians and require them to “do” it. Rather, Christians who receive the promised Spirit (Gal 3:14; cf. Ezek 36:24-27; Rom 8:9-11) “fulfill” the Law of Moses (Rom 8:4; 13:8; Gal 5:14), not as its subjects nor as people who are oriented to the Law or governed by it as a covenant. The pattern and category for understanding the “fulfillment” of the Law of Moses by Christians, God’s New Covenant people, is Christ’s “fulfillment” of the Law (Matt 5:17). It is “fulfilled” in terms of eschatological realization of its anticipatory goal. What Moses prophesied (Deut 30:6) has now come to pass: “For what the law could not accomplish in that it was weakened by the flesh, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh for a sin offering God condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3-4). Christians “fulfill” the Law, then, not by following its dictates but by “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25), i.e., by producing the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22f). Christians are enabled to produce an abundant yield of this fruit because they have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24), they have become a “new creation” by virtue of Christ’s crucifixion (Gal 6:14-15), and they have the promised Spirit (Gal 3:1-14; Rom 8:9ff).
In conclusion, then, Paul's following associations are understandable.
Law of the Spirit
Spirit brings Righteousness
World/this present evil age
Law of sin and of death
Paul’s associations and contrasts are along temporal and cosmological lines. They are between two ages. They are born out of an apocalyptic framework that affirms that the new age has already dawned. Thus, the two columns above stand opposite one another. The elements of the right hand column signify all that is associated with the temporal world and with “this present evil age,” which stands in sharp contrast to the “new creation.”