The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§23)

We’re closing in on the end. There are only two sections left before the epilogue. In these chapters (Motivating principles & Ethics in practice), I suspect we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty about how Paul’s theology should influence our day-to-day lives. As a preacher (not to mention a Christian), I suspect this to be among the most important elements of Paul’s theology. So without further ado …

. . .

Chapter 8: How Should Believers Live?

§ 23: Motivating principles

Many have noted a divide in Paul’s letters between the theological and the practical (e.g. Romans 12:1). This is misleading because all of Paul’s theological material is practical theology. He is able to move frequently between theology and corresponding ethics. The more practical side of Paul’s theology has been troublesome to theologians for various reasons. Some view Jesus as a moral teacher and Paul as the theologizer who transformed Jesus’ ethic into a religion. This mistaken view undercuts Paul’s ability to speak ethically. Others have noted the common threads between Paul’s ethics and his surrounding culture, assuming he just baptized conventional knowledge. This view deeply misunderstands the relationship between the indicative and imperative in Paul. Paul’s indicative had two key moments:

  1. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection
  2. Believer’s salvation (justification by faith, participation in Christ, and the gift of the Spirit)

So too, the imperative has two corresponding emphases:

  1. The sanctification of God in the believer’s life
  2. Human responsibility

The eschatological tension makes it difficult to work out theology. Principled compromise is “an unavoidable feature of ethical decisions for those living between the ages” (630). Still, when we view the imperative as an outworking of the indicative in Paul, it’s possible to understand how Paul went about crafting his theological ethic.

As we approach Paul’s ethics we’re again confronted with the problem of Torah. Torah in Judaism is the equivalent of Paul’s paraenesis, so is there a place for law? Reformed theology stressed the law/gospel dialectic so heavily, answers from that perspective are a resounding “no!” We’ve seen with the new perspective on Paul, that Paul’s critique of law is more tightly focused on how the law was abused by sin and the idea that it offered a distinctive favored position to the Jewish people. Are the other functions of the law (defining sin, condemning transgression) still relevant for believers? Paul forces the issue by using three phrases:

  1. The law of faith (Romans 3:27)
  2. The law of the Spirit (Romans 8:2)
  3. The law of Christ (Galatians 6:2)

Some recoil at the though that nomos should even be translated as “law” in these cases. Räisänen went so far as to argue that nomos here is a play on words and should be translated as “order”. It’s likely that these three categories correspond to the three elements of the beginning of salvation:

  1. Justification by faith – the law of faith
  2. Participation in Christ – the law of Christ
  3. Gift of the Spirit – the law of the Spirit

The Law of Faith. Faith for Paul is an ethical concept as well as a soteriological concept, proven by the fact that the first and then the final (threefold) reference to faith in Romans is ethical in nature (Romans 1:5; 14:22-23). In a sense, just as covenant righteousness had a horizontal and vertical dimension, so does faith. It’s important to remember that Paul is not totally rejecting the law, only the law of works. Law of faith, in contrast, actually establishes the law. The law is still a measurement of righteousness, but that measure can only be attained through faith. This point deserves to be wrapped up in Dunn’s own words:

In short, faith in God (in and through Christ) was for Paul as much the basis for and means to right living as it was for and to being “righteoused” (justified). This creaturely trust in and reliance on God could be expressed as “the law of faith” in that it is only living out this trust which produces the quality of living before God and for others which the law was originally intended to promote. To require more than that trust, to insist on a particular outworking of that faith, would repeat the old failure with regard to the law, to transpose the law of faith into the law of works. It is the naked faith of Abraham which both receives the promise and sustains the daily outworking of self-disinterested love.

The Law of the Spirit. One of Paul’s most far-reaching ethical statements is the call to walk by the Spirit. The metaphor of life as a daily “walk” is Jewish, not Greek in origin. We remember that the Old Testament already had a moral concern with truly fulfilling the law (i.e. circumcising the heart). For Paul, the gift of the Spirit is the means by which we can truly fulfill the purpose of the law (Romans 2:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:3, 6). Law fulfilled by the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death. The Spirit enables us to perceive on-the-go what God’s will is. The Spirit enables obedience.

The Law of Christ. It’s easy to question whether Jesus’ ethical teaching influenced Paul’s. Paul’s ethics seem to stem more from a response to Jesus’ death and resurrection than from his ethical teaching. That being said, there are a few well-documented similarities between Paul and Jesus’ ethics:

  1. Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14; Luke 6:27-28; Matthew 5:44).
  2. Nothing from outside defiles a person (Romans 14:14; Mark 7:15).
  3. Faith moves mountains (1 Corinthians 13:2; Matthew 17:20).
  4. The day of the Lord comes like a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; Matthew 24:43).
  5. Live at peace (1 Thessalonians 5:13; Mark 9:50).

You might think Paul would have bolstered his authority by directly quoting Jesus. In reality, the force of an allusion comes when it doesn’t have to be explained.

Paul only used the phrase “law of Christ” in two places (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:20-21). He is not referring to Torah. Paul’s understanding of the law of Christ is twofold:

  1. Jesus’ teaching on the two great commandments (love God, love your neighbour).
  2. Jesus own example of living that command.

This means that Paul didn’t think the law should be abandoned—it should be fulfilled through love of God and neighbour. Indeed, this is the summary of the whole law. When we understand this, apparent contradictions (i.e. Galatians 5:3 v. Galatians 5:14) in Paul’s treatment of the law become clear.

The eschatological tension is alive and well in Paul’s paraenesis. This tension becomes evident in the pull between liberty and love. On a spectrum between license and legalism, we find Christian freedom. This freedom is always conditioned by love for neighbour which operates in community. Christian freedom is always threatened by gospel-plus ideology (legalism) and the desire to cut away all good and praiseworthy tradition (license).

We must stress that Paul did not invent a new morality. He relied on traditional Jewish wisdom teaching as well as Greek thought. His virtue and vice lists share a common morality, albeit with distinct emphases. For example, Paul left happiness off his virtue lists, when it was highly prized in his world. Finally, the lists of household rules (e.g. Colossians 3:18-4:1) are standard in Paul’s day.

In the end, Paul’s ethics can be understood as the balance between internal motivation (the leading of the Spirit) and external norms (traditional wisdom). Without internal motivation, the Christian life degenerates into legalism. Without external norms, the Christian life degenerates into guru-led antinomianism.

. . .

Okay, so the nitty-gritty is in next chapter. Dunn provided an excellent theological grounding for Paul’s ethics here. I have to question whether Dunn didn’t give Paul too much credit for being influenced by Jesus’ ethical teaching. You can only read, “popular scholarship believes x, but when you look closer at it, it’s really y,” so many times before a little cynicism encroaches.

< § 22: The Lord’s Supper

§ 24: Ethics in practice >

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