Rosner on Paul and the law

Here’s a brief summary of the central argument in Brian Rosner’s very helpful book on the law in Pauline theology.

Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, Apollos/InterVarsity, 2013 (available here from and thinkivp).

Paul and the law is a complex issue because Paul makes apparently contradictory statements about the law: sometimes involving negative critique or suggesting the law is abolished (e.g. Ephesians 2:15) and sometimes involving positive approval (either implicitly as in Ephesians 6:1-2 or explicitly as in Romans 3:31).

The three main positions are:

The Lutheran View: Christ abolished the law and the law is the counterpoint to the gospel, showing us our need and driving us to Christ.

The Reformed View: We are saved by grace, not by obeying the law, but once saved we obey the moral law to please God.

The New Perspective: Paul opposes the use of the law to exclude Gentiles from the people of God.

Part of the problem is that Paul uses the term ‘law’ in more than one sense. He clearly uses it to mean the legal system or legal material of the Pentateuch. But he also uses it to refer to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (including the narrative passages).

So, following Donald Hagner, Rosner distinguishes between ‘law as commandments’ and ‘law as Scripture’.

In Galatians 4:21, for example, Paul uses law both negatively and positively: ‘Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?’ This is best understand as follows: ‘you who want to be under the law-as-commandments, are you not aware of what the law-as-Scripture says?’

Rosner then considers 1 Corinthians 7:19: ‘Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.’ ‘Keeping God’s commands’ cannot means keeping the law of Moses because Paul has just said the Mosaic law of circumcision is nothing. The tripartite division of the Mosaic law into civil, ceremonial and moral law (the latter of which is said to continue for Christians) is not a solution. First, it is an anachronistic imposition that would not be recognized in the law’s original context of a theocratic state. Second, many laws defy such classification. Third, it does not do justice to Paul’s unqualified statements about the end of the law (in other words, he never says Christ abolishes the law except the moral portions). So ‘keeping God’s commands’ must refer to something else. This is born out in other passages where a repudiation of circumcision is matched by the substitution of an alternative (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). 1 Corinthians 7:19 is not a paradox, but a polemic. Instead of obeying the law of Moses, what matters is keeping the commandments of God which are implicit in the gospel as laid out in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 14:37) and elsewhere.

Paul does three things with the law and each one must be fully heard without prejudicing the others: (1) polemical repudiation; (2) radical replacements; and (3) whole-hearted reappropriation (in two ways). These respectively correspond to treating the law as legal code, theological motif and source for expounding the gospel and for doing ethics. (39)

In 1 Corinthians 7:19 the law as legal code is repudiated (‘circumcision is nothing’) and replaced by the commands of God, that is, apostolic instruction (‘keeping God’s commands’). We see the same pattern in 1 Corinthians 9:21: ‘To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.’ We also see reappropriation as prophecy in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 and reappropriation as wisdom in 1 Corinthians 5:13 and 9:24.

Evidently, Paul does not think his utter repudiation and radical replacement of the Law of Moses entails its complete redundancy. The question to ask in these cases is not which bits of the law are still useful, but in what sense is the law valuable for Christians. In short, Christians are instructed by the law, but not as Jewish law. Instead, Paul models reading the Law of Moses as prophecy and as wisdom. (40-41)

In his letter Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation and rejection of the law as ‘law-covenant’ and its replacements by other things, but also a reappropriation of the law ‘as prophecy’ and ‘as wisdom’. (44)

In summary Paul’s approach to the law of Moses includes:

  • repudiation
  • replacement
  • reappropriation as prophecy
  • reappropriation as wisdom

Paul and the Law is available here from and thinkivp.

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