Did the Apostle Paul have one view of Law observance or did it differ with each new situation?

Andrew Wilson wrote a helpful short article yesterday titled “The New Perspective: A Duffer’s Guide” wherein he examines four major “new perspectives” on Second Temple Judaism as well as the corresponding “new perspectives” on the Apostle Paul. I recommend you read it, though I want to summarize it here.

First, he presents the “old perspective” where the Jews sought to relate to God through rules and regulations. Judaism was a proto-Pelagianism or something like the Roman Catholicism that Martin Luther protested. While there are very few scholars who affirm this view it remains popular. Paul is understood as someone who proposed “grace” against the moralism of Judaism. He preached “faith” against Judaism’s “works.” Again, while this is popular from pulpits it is rejected by most of academia.

Second, there is the view popularized by E.P. Sanders known as “covenantal nomism” which is the view that God elected Israel in his mercy, and that the Law is a response to the grace of God, not an attempt to earn it. Many who affirm this view seem to think that Paul misunderstood Judaism (quite odd for a Pharisee) or he intentionally misrepresented it to his audiences.

Third, there is a similar view that says Paul understood and correctly represented Judaism, but he had contention with particular “works of the Law” such as circumcision, Sabbath observation, dietary laws, and so forth. These “works” were not moralistic, but identity forming. These “works” prevented Gentile inclusion into the Kingdom of God making the early church ethnocentric rather that welcoming to everyone. In this view Paul attacked those who sought to make Gentiles into Jews rather than allowing them to enter on their own terms.

Fourth, there is a group that acknowledges that covenantal nomism existed, but that there were other understandings of how Law observance impacted one’s eschatological standing before God. This particular view argues for a “variegated nomism” (see David Stark’s helpful review of Justification and Variegated Nomism) or a diverse understanding of the function of Law obedience among Jews. This view seems to explain why in Paul’s writings there are places where he seems to address what we’d call “covenantal nomism” while there are others where he does seem to “principalize” things a bit bringing Paul’s language closer to the older view when Paul addresses views of Law observance that seem to place final justification before God on the shoulders of the Law observer, rather than the crucified and risen Messiah.

I admit that I tend to fluctuate between points three and four in Wilson’s article, which I guess makes me more like four though not quite willing to allow for a full-blown Lutheranism. Oddly enough, I do wrestle with this through the lens of my own religious history. As a child and a teen I was in Oneness Pentecostal circles. They had very strict “holiness standards” like not wearing a beard (because of the hippies in the 60’s), not wearing shorts, not going to the movie theater or watching television (this was before iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu threw a wrench in their legalism), and then there were various degrees of strictness about other things like sleeve length and whether one could watch VHS at home.

For women it was much worse. They were not allowed to wear pants, they couldn’t cut their hair or wear make-up and jewelry, their skirts had to be below the knee, and so forth and so on.

Luther would call this legalism. I agree. Is this what Second Temple Jews did though?

Well, when Oneness Pentecostal pastors preach these “holiness standards” they are cautious about calling them “salvific” (usually). Often I heard the line, “You can’t earn your salvation but you can lose it.” Likewise, they saw themselves as receiving “revelation” that other misguided Christian groups had not received (which sounds a bit gnostic) and this seemed to me like “election” of sorts. So it wasn’t that you saved yourself, but rather that you were brought into the Kingdom by the grace of God, but then it was your responsibility to be obedient in order to maintain your standing. You could repent, of course, but you couldn’t live in “rebellion” lest you be removed or shunned from the community which essentially equates with being “lost” of “backslidden.”

I wonder what it was like for some Jews who lived in these communities. When I read 1Q, The Community Rule Scroll from Qumran I see something not quite Pelagian, but something that makes me lean toward variegated nomism. If Qumran is a remnant, and they are true the people of God, and someone does one of the things that expels them from the community, do we have room to speak of this as “losing their salvation” or not? If so, then their deeds revoked them from the remnant and they will be judged.

Of course, one could argue that the same is true of the Pauline churches, like Corinth where the man having sex with his father’s wife is excommunicated. Yet there is a major difference in the type of offenses allowed at Qumran and in the Pauline churches. In other words, the Pauline churches seem more graceful to me (e.g. see my “Ways to be Expelled from the Qumran Community”). Again, I read my own religious experience side-by-side with this discussion. As an evangelical I do see principles in Scripture that argue that there are things that seem to disqualify the claim that one is a Christian. Whether one is lost or not is hard to know, but if a church excommunicated someone who was sleeping with his father’s wife I would find it justifiable. Most people would see this as a moral offense of some sort. Yet I find it disturbing that a woman could be removed from her church for cutting her hair. Did Paul feel this way about Qumran? Did Jesus feel this way about the Pharisees refusal to engage in table fellowship with “sinners”? I don’t know, but it is something worth pondering. If Paul did feel this way about how his fellow Jews interpreted Law observance then there is a “variegated nomism” of sorts and it is hard to accept E.P. Sanders somewhat black-and-white “Paul misrepresented” position. I know Oneness Pentecostals who would think I misrepresent their “holiness standards” when I call it “legalism”, but that is subjective, no? If Paul disagreed with his fellow Jews on what allows for fellowship it could be similar.