This the first post of the “Sundays With St. Paul” series I started last Sunday. Today’s post is still being finished up.

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is titled “Paul and the Law” and deals with precisely those two things: Paul and the Torah (“law,” “teaching,” or “instruction” in Hebrew). After only two weeks of the class, I’ve read so much that I’ve felt the need to write some thoughts down to help process. Thus we arrive to “Sundays With  St. Paul.”

Years ago, here at Near Emmaus, there once was a blog series titled, “Wednesdays With Wright,” which walked through various passages from some of N.T. Wright’s work and simply stirred the pot of discussion within the blogging community (this is slightly over-simplifying their discussions – well worth the read). My goal with this series is essentially the same: to stir the pot of discussion regarding the apostle Paul, his letters, the Torah, and the world from which he arose.

With as much as I would like to give an exhaustive account about Paul, I think I would be overbooking myself given the amount of reading, writing, and research I have this semester. No doubt, such background knowledge is crucial to understanding Paul. But I sense such background information will arise when and where it is needed. Instead, I’d like to share some things I’ve read and discuss the ideas represented within – both in matters pertaining to faith and biblical scholarship (despite what might be said, the two worlds of faith and scholarship are compatible).

To begin, then, I’d like to introduce a few names we’ve read in the past two weeks who have had a significant impact on the study of Paul. Since I’m barely dipping my toes into this particular study, anyone who has read the original works of these scholars is welcome to provide insights, push back, and/or offer clarification where needed. The texts we’ve been reading for class are Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics and Frank Thielman’s Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach.

Sanders

E.P. Sanders is the first name I’d like to discuss primarily because he focuses on the backdrop to Paul’s world. As Westerholm states, “In comparing Paul with Palestinian Judaism, Sanders examines not individual motifs common to both, but the ‘patterns of religion’ they represent,” (129). Sanders defines these “patterns” as “how getting in and staying in are understood,” (as quoted in Westerholm, 129).

One pattern that Sanders finds within every Judaic witness of this time he describes as “covenantal nomism,” which is “the notion that a Jew’s standing before God is secured by God’s election of Israel as his covenant people […] and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace,” (Westerholm, 129; his emphasis). Another way of talking about this notion is that it wasn’t a “works-based” process wherein devout Jews would earn their standing with God. Rather, obeying the law was an act in “response” to grace already given from God.

We may ask at this point, why did Paul seem so opposed to the law, then? If Sanders’ suggestion is true, then what’s Paul real peeve with the law? As Frank Thielman points out, Sanders thinks Paul’s real issue is that Judaism “is not Christianity,” (Thielman, 36). However, this is where I’d like to introduce another scholar: Krister Stendahl.

Stendahl

In the discussion of what was Paul’s problem with the law, Stendahl thinks it wasn’t an “inner struggle with sin,” but instead the ramifications of trying to uphold the law. Paul seemed more concerned about what sticking to the law might mean for the Gentile believers: “[Paul] wrestled with the problem of Israel’s law, not because his conscience was tormented by a failure to keep its commands, but because it appeared to bar the access of Gentiles to the people of God,” (Westerholm, 147). To understand Stendahl’s stance another way, Paul was speaking more to the Jewish-Gentile separation than to any matter of conscience.

What Stendahl finds when we treat Paul’s struggle with the law as a matter of his own internal conscience is that we make it our own. “Here the (redefined) law is understood as given ‘to make man see his desperate need for a Savior,’” (Westerholm, 148). Once one sees their need for a savior, then they’ve followed the path of Paul and can embrace the grace of Christ. Not only is “the age of the law” rekindled when it shouldn’t be, but it’s rekindled in a way it was never meant to, which, as Stendahl argues, then distorts our understanding of the Mosaic law and especially of how Paul is actually defending the law in Romans 7 (Westerholm, 149).

What I find interesting about Stendahl’s focus is that it hints at what Paul was really concerned with. Yet where Stendahl seems to hint at, another scholar, and the final one I’ll discuss for this post, James D. G. Dunn, hits the nail on the head.

Dunn

According to Frank Thielman’s summary, Dunn agreed “heartily with Sanders […] that the old Protestant picture of Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness must be abandoned, and he endorses the description of Judaism as ‘covenantal nomism,’” (41). Yet he takes this a step further and targets the “social function” of the law; that even while it was an indicator of Israel’s unique relationship with God, it was being used “as a racial barrier to exclude Gentiles from entrance into the people of God,” (42). As discussed earlier, Stendahl mentioned this, but yet focused on the “introspective conscience” aspect and how it was blotting out Paul’s context. Dunn places his focus on this social function and argues this is what Paul was opposed to: an elitism that kept people out when Christ is inviting people in.

Again, this is a very brief overview of what I’ve been reading, which is also a brief overview of the entire study revolving around Paul. But these scholars bring up things I might have never thought about while reading Paul’s letters – especially how he wasn’t, as these scholars suggest, targeting a “works-based” Judaism (that may not have even existed in Paul’s time!).

In future posts I hope to focus a little more on only one or two scholars, especially as I dive deeper and deeper into my research topic. For now, though, I think this is sufficient to get the ball rolling and hopefully create some nuance in our dialogue about Paul.

What do you think of Paul’s apparent negativity toward the law? Is there a negative tone? And what do you think all this means for modern day Christians and our understanding of what Paul is actually trying to say?

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