Review: Brian S. Rosner. Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.

Paul and the LawFrom the Themelios website:

Brian S. Rosner. Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology 31. Downers Grove: IVP, 2013. 249 pp. £14.99/$24.00.

Few issues in NT study are as significant—or as hotly contested—as Paul’s view of the OT law. Brian Rosner’s ambitious goal in Paul and the Law is to provide a comprehensive framework which accounts for the apostle’s disparate and seemingly contradictory statements about the law, integrating the valid insights of divergent interpretative positions (Lutheran, Reformed, New Perspective). Although some questions remain about the details of his framework, Rosner’s overall approach—“a hermeneutical solution to the puzzle of Paul and the law” (p. 30, emphasis original)—is compelling, and constitutes an important contribution on this key issue.

Rosner outlines his “hermeneutical solution” in the book’s opening and closing chapters (chs. 1 and 7). The “law”, he argues, is primarily a text: the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, not just the sum of commandments (p. 27). The variety of and apparent contradiction between Paul’s statements concerning the law arise from the fact that he is “reading” or “using” this text in different ways, for different purposes, at different times. Paul reads the lawas commandments, as prophecy, as wisdom, etc. Hence Paul’s varied and strong statements about the law may stand in tact without the need to balance them or to water them down in the interests of harmonization. In particular, “Paul does three things with the law and each one must be fully heard without prejudicing the others: (1) polemical repudiation; (2) radical replacement; and (3) whole-hearted reappropriation” as both prophecy and wisdom (p. 39).

In chapters 2–3, Rosner explores Paul’s “repudiation” of the law as law-covenant. He first examines Paul’s explicitrepudiation (ch. 2), focussing on the phrase “under the law” which appears in Galatians, Romans and 1 Corinthians. Rosner also discusses Lev 18:5 (which Paul cites in Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5) and concludes, against New Perspective interpreters, that Paul’s Jewish contemporaries understood this verse not simply to be defining the present religious life of Israelites, but to be offering eternal life on the basis of “doing” the law. Paul regards this soteriological posture as the antithesis of the gospel, which offers life on the basis of “faith” in Christ (pp. 60–73). Rosner clarifies and confirms his conclusions by referring to Eph 2:15 and 1 Tim 1:8–10. He then moves on to discuss Paul’s “implicit” repudiation of the law as law-covenant (ch. 3), highlighting the many places in which Paul might have been expected to make positive statements about the law, yet fails to do so. For example, Paul says many things about Jews in Rom 2:17–29—they rely on the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth through the law, “do”, “observe”, “keep” and “transgress” the law, and have the law as a written code—yet tellingly, Paul never says these things of Christians (pp. 88–100).

In ch. 4, Rosner explores Paul’s “replacement” of the law, focusing on the “motif of substitution” (p. 111). When it comes to living and keeping God’s commandments, Paul puts alternative things in the place which otherwise would have been occupied by the law. Replacements for the law include Christ’s indwelling (Gal 2:19–20), the “law of Christ”, the “law of faith” and the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21; Rom 3:27,8:1). Paul also speaks about “fulfilling the law” through incorporation into Christ and through love (Rom 8:3–4;13:8–9; Gal 5:13–14). The Law of Moses is replaced by obedience to apostolic instruction (1 Cor 7:19), love produced by faith in Christ (Gal 5:6), the new creation (Gal 6:15), and righteousness, peace and joy in the Spirit (Rom 14:17).

Paul does not stop with repudiation and replacement, however; he also reappropriates the text of the law for believers by reading it in other ways. Firstly, Paul reappropriates the law as “prophecy” (ch. 5): that is, the law functions as a “witness” to the gospel of Christ. Rosner here admits that the subject is far too large for a comprehensive treatment in a single chapter (pp. 138–39), so he chooses instead to summarise key scholars who have explored the prophetic character of the law of Moses in more depth, and to trace the way in which Paul cites the law alongside the prophets as a testimony to the gospel of Christ in Romans (1:2; 3:21, 31; 4:23–24; chs. 9–11; 15:9–12; 16:25–26; also 10:6–9).

Second, Paul reappropriates the law “as wisdom” (ch. 6). For this reviewer, chapter 6 was the most stimulating; here Rosner’s own particular strengths and research interests (1 Corinthians, Paul’s ethics and the Jewish background to Paul’s letters, cf. p. 23) come to the fore. Rosner argues that although Paul does not treat the law as law-covenant or as command, nevertheless “[t]he law is a critical and formative source for his moral teaching on these topics. Rather than reading the law as law, Paul reads it as wisdom for living, in the sense that he has internalized the law, makes reflective and expansive applications, and takes careful notice of its basis in the order of creation and the character of God” (p. 204, emphasis original). Rosner argues that the Psalms often treat the law as wisdom in this way, that the law itself has a “wisdom” character (e.g. Deut 4:6), and that Paul may be seen as a wisdom teacher who uses the law as part of his gospel-based wisdom-teaching strategy (e.g., 1 Cor 10:11; Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:16–17). Rosner gives specific examples of Paul using the law as a resource for Christ-centred guidance in the areas of financial giving, greed, stealing, murder and sexual ethics.

Rosner’s general hermeneutical approach to solving the puzzle of Paul and the law is fairly convincing. Nonetheless, the particular schema he adopts (repudiation, replacement, reappropriation) needs further nuance and revision, since there are certain Pauline passages which do not fit obviously into the schema. Rom 3:19–20, for example, states that the law (as law-covenant!) has a divine purpose (note the term ἵνα) in holding people accountable to God and bringing the knowledge of sin as preparation for God’s grace (cf. Rom 5:20–21). Since the law here plays a real (albeit negative) divine role in relation to the gospel, “repudiation” is an insufficient term to describe Paul’s use of the law at this point. Perhaps these verses might have been integrated into the chapter on the law’s “reappropriation” as prophecy / testimony to the gospel (indeed, law-court imagery is present here, see p. 152n41)—however, the “testifying” character of the law in Rosner’s schema is of a more positive nature and would not seem to admit their inclusion. Furthermore, there are other passages in which Paul seems to take a highly negative stance towards the idea of reading the law “as wisdom”. For example, in Rom 2:17–29, Paul describes his Jewish opponent in terms reminiscent of wisdom-teaching—he is a διδάσκαλος/παιδευτής who sees the law as an embodiment of truth (Rom 2:20, but cf. pp. 186–87). In Rom 7:21, Paul even describes a Psalmist-style internalizing of the law (“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being”, cf. pp. 165–74), but claims it has initially disastrous results because of sin (Rom 7:24–25). A discussion of these more negative passages in relation to the idea of the “law as wisdom” would have been worthwhile.

How will different perspectives and traditions receive Rosner’s thesis? Those from a Lutheran perspective, who emphasise that “[t]he primary role of the law is to lead us to despair of any hope of obedience leading to God’s acceptance and to drive us to seek God’s mercy in Christ” (p. 21) will most likely welcome Rosner’s refusal to downplay Paul’s strong statements of repudiation against the law as law-covenant, but may be dissatisfied by his lack of attention to the antithetical law-gospel dynamic, especially in his chapter on the law as prophecy. Those from a Reformed perspective, who emphasise that “once saved we are under the moral law and must obey it in order to please God” (p. 21) may welcome Rosner’s view that Paul reappropriates the law for Christian living, but may find his construal of the Law “as wisdom” insufficiently robust to replace the classic “third use of the law”. “New Perspective” interpreters will probably appreciate Rosner’s attention to the Jewish background of Paul’s letters, but may be dissatisfied with his relative lack of attention to social and ecclesiological concerns.

Questions about the details of Rosner’s schema, however, should not detract from the value of his overall hermeneutical approach and the refreshing biblical-theological insights he offers. Paul and the Law is a significant contribution on a key issue of significance for all Christians, and is recommended to students and pastors for careful reading and reflection.

Lionel Windsor
St Augustine’s Anglican Church, Neutral Bay
Sydney, NSW, Australia