The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§6)

This is the third section in the chapter, “Humankind under Indictment”. In it, we will see how the Christ-transformed Paul understood the law (nomos)—that which is most precious to any Jew. This chapter should clarify Dunn’s New Perspective on Paul further.

Here we go…

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Chapter 3: Humankind under Indictment

§ 6: The law

The law is incredibly important in Pauline theology, as evidenced by the 66 appearances of the word between Romans 2:12 and 8:7! However, Paul’s understanding of the law is difficult to discern. At times he speaks of “law” along with “sin” and “death” as a sort of wicked trinity! In contrast, he also has very positive things to say about the law, especially in Romans. Some scholars have posited a development in his theology between the writing of Galatians and Romans. Others dismiss Paul’s teaching on the law as inconsistent. This is an important issue, since it is a pillar of Reformed Theology: the dialectic between “law” and “gospel”.

Before we dive in to the nature of the law, three things need to be mentioned:

  1. Some suggest that Hebrew torah is a much broader category than Greek nomos. While this is true, there is still a lot of overlap.
  2. Does the presence of the definite article (ho nomos) have any bearing on it’s meaning? No fixed rule can be established, so we should look at the context instead.
  3. Does Paul ever use nomos in the general sense of “order” or “principle”? Since it has no bearing on the role of the law in humanity’s indictment, Dunn will examine that question more fully in a later chapter.

The first and most fundamental function of Law for Paul is expressed in three ways:

  1. Law defines sin: it classifies what is right and wrong.
  2. Law makes us aware of sin: this point was not controversial, but common in Jewish understanding.
  3. Law measures divine judgment: again, this was a common notion in Judaism—the Babylonian exile was understood as the Jewish people’s measure of judgment for torah disobedience. Since even Gentiles have some spiritual awareness of right and wrong, they’re not exempt from judgment.

It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t mention these things in Galatians—presumably they were assumed, only to be written down when he worked out a more complete theology in Romans.

For Paul, nomos primarily referred to Jewish law, specifically the torah given to Moses. Paul spends time in Romans criticizing the Jewish people for their sense of privilege over Gentiles because of their possession of the nomos. Paul here makes assumptions about the relationship between nomos and the Jewish people that were earlier fleshed out in Galatians 3:19-25. The second function of the law (as explained in Galatians) is as a guardian or protector of Israel. While many people interpret the role of the law here negatively, this is not the case:

  1. The law was added for the sake of transgressions (Galatians 3:19). This doesn’t mean that the law was given to punish, but to provide a solution via the shedding of blood in the sacrificial system.
  2. The law was ordained through angels (God’s retinue) by a mediator (Moses) (Galatians 3:19). While this is more negative than the direct handing of the promise to Abraham, it is nonetheless a glorious offer.
  3. The law held Israel in custody (Galatians 3:23). While the law did give Israel boundaries, these should be viewed as good: protective custody in a sinful world.
  4. The law is a paidagōgos. This person is a slave who brought the master’s son to and from school. Again, this is essentially a positive albeit restrictive metaphor.

Galatians, an earlier letter than Romans, makes it clear that Paul understood the law in more than negative terms.

Israel’s special relationship under the law was temporary. With the coming of Christ, the promises to Abraham were fulfilled. Abraham was promised (1) land, (2) seed, and (3) the ability to be a blessing to other nations. Paul viewed the third aspect of the promise as the fundamental one, while his Jewish contemporaries largely focused on land and law.

Beyond mere fulfillment, the coming of Christ represented an eschatological divide between two epochs. As Paul continued to understand the Moses-to-Christ epoch within the Adam-to-Christ epoch, the positive role of the law as protector of Israel dropped out of sight. It is childish to crave the security of an inferior and passé relationship to the law once the fulfillment had arrived. 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 is one of the sharpest descriptions of this contrast between epochs. Here, the gramma (letter) kills—gramma in place of but not synonymous with nomos. It is the written letter—more specifically the understanding that Israel is privileged by their relationship to this gramma—that kills. Paul used three images to describe how the law is outmoded in three different letters:

  1. The law as gramma in 2 Corinthians 3
  2. The law as Sinai in Galatians 4
  3. The law as the ally of sin in Romans 5

While people often focus on the trilogy of law, sin, and death, we must not overlook another trio: law, life, and death. Romans 7:10 makes this emphasis clear in its reference to Genesis 2-3. As in Genesis, we see in Deuteronomy 30: those who keep the law have life, while those who disobey have both physical death as well as expulsion from the land (garden). The law, with reference to these passages as well as Ezekiel 20:5-26 are then given to regulate and order the life of those chosen by God. As such, the law has a secondary role. First comes God’s choice, and the human side of that choice: faith. This, then, is the third function of the law: “to regulate and prosper life” for God’s people.

To this point, the the law is essentially a good thing: what, then, is the relationship between law and sin? Paul engages this question most clearly in chapter 7. His first metaphor is of a wife being free from her husband’s power once the husband dies. The reality: humans are free from the law once they die to sin. This is not a criticism of the law, just the reality of the epochal shift. The negative note arrives in 7:4ff. where the first marriage is paralleled to life in the flesh.

Paul asks the question: is the law sin? The following text until 8:4 is a defense of the law. The real culprit is not the law, but (1) the power of sin that is able to operate through the law, and (2) the weakness of human flesh. The law was a calculated risk on God’s part: it condemned sin to death (a good thing), but thereby condemned those determined to live in sin to death as well.

Dunn ends with a six point summary of the chapter that nicely sums up the themes he expounded on this thorny topic.

. . .

So, Dunn did what I expected. Whereas centuries of believers have used Paul’s words as a condemnation of unbridled legalism within the Jewish community, Dunn reminds us that Paul’s understanding of law was essentially a positive one. The problem was not the Jewish people enslaved by the law’s legalistic tentacles, it was their misunderstanding of the role of the law: their claim of a privileged role because of their possession of torah. That false pride is simply evidence of sin abusing the law, and working in human weakness to produce death.

< § 5: Sin and Death

§ 7: Gospel >

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