Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God – A Review

Occasionally – all too occasionally – I post reviews of books I have been reading and found influential. My reading frequently accompanies my studies and preparations for the classes I am teaching here at the Bible college in Brazil. However, there are several subjects to which I return whenever I have ‘free’ time (and even when I don’t). One of these subjects is the theology of Paul, and more specifically the study of Paul’s theology of the Law. Many essays and monographs have been published on the subject, considering the question from every angle conceivable.

Much of this question turns on one’s understanding of the overall metanarrative of Scripture, or the structure of the whole-Bible Biblical Theology. Historically, there have been two main positions: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. In recent times several mediating positions have arisen: Kaiser’s “Promise Theology,” Progressive Dispensationalism, New Covenant Theology, and more recently Progressive Covenantalism.

A few years ago Jason Meyer published a monograph in the NAC Studies in Bible & Theology series entitled “The End of the Law.” Meyer’s work was a very interesting work, and made many insightful exegetical observations. But it seemed to lack a concluding orientation on how the reader of Scripture ought to understand Paul’s use of the Law, and more importantly how the Christian ought to use the Law.

In 1993 Doug Moo contributed to a “Five Views” volume entitled “The Law, The Gospel, and the Modern Christian” with an essay entitled The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View. Moo’s contribution in this essay was to emphasize the temporal nature of the Law and to demonstrate that the “Law vs. Grace” contrast should be understood temporally. When Paul says that we are not under law but under grace he is thinking mainly in temporal categories, and not in terms of ‘spheres’ or dominions. More could be said, but this essay is very beneficial.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading a contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series entitled “Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God” by Brian Rosner. Rosner contributed to a well-known commentary on 1 Corinthians with Roy Ciampa, the commentary in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series. I confess to having pretty low expectations coming into this volume. I mentioned two essays which have been helpful in my studies, but I have come across many others which have been less significant and helpful along the way. I had come to wonder if we would really come to a coherent understanding of Paul’s theology of the Law.

Rosner’s presentation of Paul and the Law was very logical and straightforward. In the first chapter he presents the general problem and the state of Pauline studies today. He also briefly presents his solution: “In his letters Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation and rejection of the law as ‘law-covenant’ (chapters 2 and 3) and its replacement by other things (chapter 4), but also a reappropriation of the law ‘as prophecy’ (with reference to the gospel; chapter 5) and ‘as wisdom’ (for Christian living; chapter 6)” (Rosner, 43-44).

The book follows this very clear outline: 1) The Law repudiated and Rejected; 2) The Law Replaced; 3) The Law Reappropriated as prophecy and as wisdom. Each chapter defends an aspect of this progression, when many clear examples given from the Pauline literature. It is a position defended not just by one or two texts, but defended by the whole Pauline corpus.

The final, summarizing chapter includes a chart which demonstrates Paul’s use of the law in each of these categories in each of his books, with a couple of exceptions. In other words, Rosner strives at a Pauline theology of the Law, not merely selectively treating certain texts.

I found Rosner’s treatment quite satisfactory. Many questions or apparent inconsistencies were handled well by Rosner. His writing was easy to read and follow. He repeated himself frequently enough to keep the reader following the argument, but not so frequently that it became annoying. And he worked hard at presenting a comprehensive Pauline theology, and not merely picking out examples from ‘easy’ passages.

I did not find much to complain about with this volume. One thing which Rosner does not consider or treat is the possible chronological development of Paul’s theology of the Law. Rosner treats the Pauline literature in its canonical order, without raising the question of whether Paul’s understanding of the Law shows progression or refinement between Galatians (49 AD) and 1 & 2 Timothy (62-63 AD). But this is a minor quibble.

If you have interest in this subject but have not done too much reading on it, I recommend this treatment as an excellent starting point. It is a little technical, but still accessible.