Have you ever heard someone say or maybe you have said it yourself, “we live under grace, not under law.” The meaning attached to that by so-called New Testament Jesus followers, that the Old Testament, i.e., the law, doesn’t really have any meaning for us outside an occasional verse that we have grown to love. The New Testament represents the “grace of God” established through Jesus.
Where do you think this kind of language had its genesis? Who is responsible for it becoming so impregnated into our way of thinking about the Story of God? Why have we thrown out the Old Testament in favor of the New Testament? Well, this short treatise hopes to shed some light on these questions and others like them. One wonders what Paul would think about all the stuff that he wrote and how it has been interpreted! Thousands of words have been written about Paul and continue to be written. Here’s what one author has to say about this issue:
Perhaps a corner in the chutzpah hall of fame should be reserved for those of us who write about Paul. We are, after all, hardly less liable than other mortals to misconstrue the thinking of our spouses; that of our teenage offspring we have long since despaired of divining. We too contend daily with the impenetrable otherness of our contemporaries: any forgetfulness of our limitations incurs prompt and painful refutation. The study of the ancients, on the other hand, allows a good deal of scope for our pretensions and, best of all, immunity from instant rebuttal — and we have certainly milked its potential to the fullest. Given a first-century apostle a few of whose letters we have read, we make bold to distinguish what he said from what he really thought, and even to pontificate on why he thought the way we think he did. Indeed, as the assumptions that governed Paul’s thinking become more and more remote from our own, the assurance with which we pronounce on the direction and deficiencies of his reasoning seems only to increase. Isn’t America wonderful?[ref] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The Lutheran Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 214. Westerholm is a Canadian scholar and associate professor of biblical studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. [/ref]
So why write more about Paul. Our purpose here is:
To understand if Paul’s message was the “Lutheran” version of the OT story as reflected in the Lutheran reading of Paul (legalism or meritorious works could not lead to justification) or the “new Perspective on Paul,” which suggests that justification is about exclusivism and inclusivism as reflected in Tom Wright[ref] Tom Wright is a New Testament specialist. He is the Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews in Scotland who writes academic books as well as writing for a more popular readership.[/ref]the Late James D.G. Dunn,[ref]James D. G. Dunn (d. 2020) was the Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, a New Testament scholar widely known for his writing on the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul, and Jesus.[/ref] and others.
In any writing about Paul, one should remember “[h]e wrote letters, not theological treatises, designed to deal with concrete situations in contemporary Christian communities rather than as a vehicle for the ordered presentation of his thought.”[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, 164.[/ref]
A Brief Look at Paul
There is little information about Paul from his birth to his appearance in the book of Acts as the persecutor of the Church. What is known about him is mainly drawn from his self-portraits in his documents (Gal. 1.13ff.; Rom. 9.1; Phil. 3.5). His birthplace was Tarsus (Acts 16.27; 21.29; 22.25ff.). Tarsus was a commercial city and a center of learning. It was there he became acquainted with various Greek philosophies and religious cults. He was raised by his mother (Acts 22.3) and later moved to Jerusalem for the education that he received from Gamaliel (Gal. 1.13ff.).
He was a functional member of the Roman world, i.e., he was a citizen of Rome with all its rights and privileges; the Greek world, i.e., with its language, customs, and thought-forms; and the Hebrew world, i.e., with its language, customs, and thought-forms. After his conversion, Paul began the process of subverting each of these three areas that overlapped to make up the culture to which he brought the gospel.
While in Jerusalem, he was given authority to direct the persecution of this new cult of Christians. He was officially sanctioned by the Sanhedrin to go to Damascus and bring bound to Jerusalem any Christians that he found.
His conversion on the road to Damascus was a rather sudden jolt to Paul, as well as to his friends in Judaism. After three years of instructions from the Lord and teaching in the synagogue in Damascus, he made his first post-conversion trip to Jerusalem after a close escape with his life from Damascus (Acts 9.23; 2 Cor. 22.32). He had a brief stay in Jerusalem with the disciples who were in continuing fear even after three years. Some of his old friends wanted to kill him, so he was sent off to his home in Tarsus (Acts 9.26-30). It was approximately ten years before Paul was heard from again. Barnabas found Paul in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch to help teach (Acts 11.25ff.). Barnabas and Paul made a famine relief trip from Antioch to Jerusalem. They brought John Mark back with them (Acts 12.25). Acts 13 and 14 shares with us the First Church Planting Mission. Upon return from his first trip, he reported to the church at Antioch all that God had done on this mission trip. There he wrote the book of Galatians, which he sent back to the churches that he had planted, to help them take care of a problem (legalism or inclusivism) that had arisen after he left.[ref]Winn Griffin, “Guide Yourself Thru Galatians in 13 Hours” (Woodinville, WA: HarmonPress, 2003), 4.[/ref]
Lutheran and Exclusive/Inclusive Reading
Stephen Westerholm says, “Martin Luther, Reformer, is charged with misreading Paul, apostle, confusing the latter’s first-century controversies with his own idiosyncratic and sixteenth-century concerns, thereby distorting for centuries the understanding of Paul held alike by undiscerning scholars, unsuspecting preachers, and the masses that know not the law.”[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, 22.[/ref] Against this reading is the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which first appeared in the writings of N. T. Wright, following Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977,[ref]Ibid., 179.[/ref] the phrase was “christened” according to Westerholm[ref]Ibid., 183.[/ref] by James D. G. Dunn in his article “The New Perspective on Paul” found in his Jesus, Paul, and the Law.[ref]James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 201.[/ref]
What’s the Debate?
The debate centers on the Lutheran view of Paul who was believed to have taught a “legal/law and grace” or “works righteousness” theology. In simple terms, it suggests that the Old Testament Law was about working out one’s righteousness by keeping the Law. On the other side of the debate is a view that is often labeled as the “new perspective on Paul,” which believes that the issue in Paul, which is being debated, is not about gaining admission to the family of God by keeping some set of legalistic rules, but for Paul, the “works of the law” were about exclusivism to inclusivism. It was about who could set together at the table and fellowship with each other as “new human beings.”
There have been millions (who knows really) of words spilled in ink and voice about Paul’s theology. Westerholm says, “…the most industrious student of Paul finds it hard to keep abreast of the latest Pauline scholarship.”[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, 249.[/ref] With that in mind, it should be said that in this short rendering we can only skim the surface of this theological discussion. But, even then you as a reader should have a grasp of the arguments and a beginning grasp of the subject that can help you come to an informed decision about the question: Do I live under Law or Grace?
Was Paul An Early Lutheran?
The debate about Paul and his view of the OT Law has been discussed for years among biblical specialists. The folks setting in the pew from Sunday to Sunday hear little or nothing about the discussion. The following material is offered to help those who might have wondered why Paul and Luther seem so similar in the popular core of thought by seeing what the thought of seasoned biblical specialists on both sides of the issue have written.
How Did We Get Here From There?
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) perpetuated the idea that the OT Law was to be understood as a “works righteousness” motif in which one came into fellowship with God by “keeping the Law.” On the other hand, earlier Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 7 March 1274) believed that although grace supplies the ability to act virtuously and comes as a free gift from God and is not the reward of any work, the virtuous action that results can merit eternal life both for oneself and for others.[ref]Frank Thielman, Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 17-18.[/ref] Aquinas was fond of saying that the “primary role of the law…was to terrify the sinner.”[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 19.[/ref] These two theologians separated by two hundred years were thought to be in serious conflict with each other. Luther simply changed the standing view. Even today among some churches, the Aquinas view of preaching is centered on terrifying the sinner while at the same time throwing in a bit of Luther suggesting that there are certain activities/sins that one must forfeit before God will accept a person into his love and care.
In the throes of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on meritorious works, Luther and Calvin, in spite of their theological depth, made a subtle hermeneutical step. While discussing the letters of Paul, these two Reformers placed the Roman Church and its hierarchical leadership in the role of first-century Judaism. When Paul suggested that “justification by faith” came apart from the “works of the law,” they interpreted his statement to be about “the medieval system of salvation by meritorious works.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 22.[/ref] For Luther, however, the “works of the Law” (Gal. 2.16) became “a cipher for the system of merit that he found in the church’s medieval Scholastic writers.”[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 23.[/ref]
In the following centuries of Protestant development, the equation of legalism of the Roman Church and Judaism became “a standard feature of Protestant biblical scholarship.”[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 23.[/ref] Old Testament writers represented Judaism as having fallen away from its strong convictions about nationalism in which the law played a role to a single concern about an individual’s relationship with the law.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 23.[/ref] Old Testament specialists like Julius Wellhausen believed that Judaism had “an immense retrogression” while others argued that the religion of Israel spiraled downward to an obsession about the individual’s ability to earn a reward from God by keeping the law’s commandments.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 23.[/ref] Parts of the church still suffer from this misguided way of thinking. Folks in the pew still struggle with being “good enough” to be accepted by God and find all kinds of lists of things to accomplish to come into compliance with “being a good Christian” and being accepted by God.
In New Testament scholarship, the effect of Luther was even more prominent. The knowledge of Judaism was passed on through handbooks such as Ferdinand Weber’s “Jewish Theology on the Basis of the Talmud and Related Writings” where he presented a belief in “‘legalism’ by which he meant the study and fulfilling of the law,”[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 25.[/ref] as the primary goal of Israel. God was reduced to becoming a bookkeeper who daily followed each individual, keeping track of his or her merits and demerits, and then provided rewards of eternal life or punishment accordingly. While Weber’s book claimed to be a review of relatively late Jewish writings, interpreters of the New Testament used it as a summation of what Jews believed during the life of Jesus and Paul.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 23[/ref]
Luther’s error has plagued New Testament studies to the present day with an additional mixture of German Romanticism and existentialism without expending energy on comprehending the Judaism of Paul’s lifetime on its own terms. With Luther, a new way of thinking about Paul’s antithesis between law and grace was established.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 26.[/ref] It came to be believed that when Paul said that believers were not under law but under grace, it was supposed that he was saying that they had been rescued from thinking that they had a duty to follow the law if they were to find salvation.[ref]Ibid., Thielman, 26.[/ref] Because of this misguided interpretation and it’s continued popular support, many followers of Jesus still hammer away at the needlessness of the Old Testament, because it is the Law, believing that Jesus followers are under only the New Testament period of grace. Again, who hasn’t said or heard it said, “We don’t live under the law, we live under grace?”
The Lutheran Reading Protest
The protest against the misguided influence of Luther began in the mid-1800s with Claude G. Montefiore, when he concluded that “the law in rabbinic Judaism did not typically produce self-righteous Jews who could think of nothing but earning their way to heaven by means of meritorious works.” For them the law was “a benefit and a delight.”[ref]Ibid., 27.[/ref] The next round of protest came from George Foot Moore who produced a “withering critique” concluding that Weber had imported “the grid of Lutheran dogmatics onto rabbinic material.”[ref]Ibid., 28.[/ref] Even with the clarification of Moore, Protestant scholarship continued to view ancient Judaism as simply a “sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism in a different dress.”[ref]Ibid., 29.[/ref]
This Lutheran view was seriously challenged with the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion.[ref]E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977).[/ref] Sanders’ book is more about Judaism than Paul in which Sanders compared the pattern of religion in Paul’s letters with the patterns of religion in Jewish literature between 200 BC and AD 200. By “pattern of religion,” Sanders meant the way the followers of a specific religion understand “getting in” and “staying in their religion.”[ref]Thielman, Paul & the Law, 29-30.[/ref]
Two critical conclusions emerge from Sanders’ undertaking. First, he concludes that the charges against non-Jewish scholars were correct. Second, that Judaism of the period falls into a pattern he called “covenantal nomism,”[ref]Ibid., 30.[/ref] which means that one’s place in God’s plan is established because of the Covenant, and the Covenant requires as the proper response of humankind one’s obedience to its commandments while providing atonement for transgressors.
Sanders worked from a paradigm called “Solution to Plight.” While Sanders saw that at times “Paul argues from a human plight to the solution in Jesus Christ…these moments in Paul’s letters do not mean he arrived at his conviction about Christ by pondering the human dilemma.”[ref]Ibid., 34.[/ref] Traditionally, Paul’s theology started with the assumption that Paul saw humankind in a terrible plight having rejected the law even though the law was viewed as completely inadequate to help humankind out of this plight. Paul,as has been believed, found a solution to this deep-seated belief in his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, which influenced his own theology. The book of Romans is often read through these eyes. Paul starts his letter with the plight of humankind and ends with the solution, which is Christ. Sanders, however, flips this traditional interpretation on its head and works from the opposite paradigm: the solution to plight.
Who Are The Major Players?
In any argument/debate or game, there are players. Such is the case for this topic. Westerholm’s book names the following: Wrede, Schweitzer, Montefiore, Schoeps, Sanders, Kümmel, Stendahl, Bultmann, Wilckens, Drane, Hübner, Räisänen, Wright, Dunn, Donaldson, Cranfield, Schreiner, Das, Thielman, Seifrid, Laato, Thurèn, Aletti, Martyn, and Becker.[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, viii-ix.[/ref]Quiet the lineup! In addition, he suggests that four ancients: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley may also be regarded as adhering to the “Lutheran” reading of Paul.[ref]Ibid., 3-88.[/ref] As was suggested above, Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism appears to be the turning point away from the “Lutheran” reading of Paul and set the stage for the beginning of the “new perspective on Paul.”[ref]Ibid., 178.[/ref] Two contemporary British scholars, N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn are the proponents of Paul against the Lutheran reading,[ref]Ibid.[/ref] while Frank Thielman stands in the Lutheran reading along with Stephen Westerholm,[ref]Ibid., 214-215.[/ref] although each of the latter two might prefer to be listed as being in a “mediating center.”
Below, we will take a brief look at Luther, Sanders, Wright, Dunn, Thielman, and Westerholm on this subject. But first, let’s look at a summary of the “new perspective on Paul” and then at the concept of the Old Testament Covenant.
A Summary of the “New Perspective on Paul”
The Lutheran reading of Paul has traditionally been seen as rejecting Judaism of Paul’s day because it was believed that it was necessary to do the works of the law to be accepted by God. God’s acceptance was based on the merit of a person. If a person could rack up enough merits, these could outweigh his or her sin. The Jewish religion of Paul’s day was thought to be legalistic, not that God had shared the law with his children to show them how to live as his people, but rather that the law was given so that in their human performance of it, God would accept them. This view suggested that human works over grace were the order of the day for Judaism and that with such a view one could then contrast Christianity.
Beginning with E. P. Sanders, scholars have reacted against this understanding of Judaism. Sanders demonstrated that much of the literature of Judaism displayed that the Jews were accepted as the people of God on the grounds of God’s grace. God made Covenant with the Jews in which keep the stipulations of the Covenant was a response to God’s grace. Keeping Covenant stipulations was not a meritorious system by which if the Jews kept the stipulation they entered into a relationship with God. Jews kept the law to remain in the Covenant rather than keeping the law to enter the Covenant.
Such works were required for the new Gentile followers of Jesus not because they were a way to gain entrance, but because they were signs that they were in fact now in the Covenant with God. For a Gentile, to keep the law allowed him or her to be able to have table fellowship with Jewish Christians. “Works of the law” came to be defined by James D. G. Dunn as those specific things that marked Jews out publicly and acted as boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, festivals).[ref]Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law, 215-225.[/ref] Debaters find themselves trying to understand where Paul stood in this configuration. As an example, the New Testament specialist, I. Howard Marshall, suggests that one possibility has been to see Paul as mistakenly seeing Judaism as a legalistic religion that was based on merit.[ref]I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 445-446.[/ref] Marshall believes that the “traditional understanding is accordingly essentially right and the ‘new perspective’ must be regarded as flawed.”[ref]Ibid., 448.[/ref] This belief, of course, would be quite a leap based on the current understanding of Judaism in Paul’s day as you will read below.
The Old Testament Covenant
According to Delbert Hillers, an Old Testament specialist, the Mosaic Covenant was given by God to a redeemed people essentially in the form of an elaborate oath.[ref]Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), 28.[/ref] It followed the ancient pattern of a Suzerain Vassal Treaty (often called a Lord-Servant Treaty).[ref] Ibid., 29-45.[/ref] These heirs of Abraham were called to be God’s light-bearers to the ancient world. They were to have no other God. They were to worship no idols. The Covenant was a way in which these redeemed people could relate to God and to each other and demonstrate to the world what being the people of God was really like. The Covenant (Law) was not (as has been thought and taught) a way in which Israel could become God’s children. The Covenant was not about “getting in.”
Redemption/Exodus came first, then the Covenant (Law). The law was never intended to be a system of legal observances by which we could earn God’s acceptance if we obeyed them. The Commandments are the stipulations of the Covenant relationship, which are rooted in grace! They are basic statements on the quality of life that must characterize those who belong to God. All of Scripture knows only one way of salvation…the grace of God. God reveals his redemptive purpose always based on grace, not on man’s ability to obligate God to save him because he has kept the law.[ref]W.S. LaSor, D.A. Hubbard, and F.W. Allen Bush, L.C., Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 72-75.[/ref] The Covenant was about “staying in” relationship with God. The Old Testament Story beginning with the giving of the Covenant is told around the concept of Israel’s life as they attempted to live in Covenant relationship with God.
Two questions become important: Did Israel continue to understand her relationship with God in this way? And how did scholarship come to replace a “staying in” Covenant with a “getting in” Covenant? Or how did keeping the stipulations of the Covenant as loyal obedient Israelites in relationship with God change to doing the stipulations of the Covenant to “get into” a relationship with God?