Wednesday, April 16, 2008

15. Life in the Spirit: The Remaining Problem of the Law

It's been a bit of a funny week for me so far. Over the weekend I hurt my ankle without really knowing how. Of course, I had no alternative but to stand on it on Sunday so it was rather sore by Monday. I have since been trying not to walk or stand on it to give it a rest. So far so good. Fortunately, I have been able to rearrange most of the things that required me to use it!

This next post has taken quite a time to write. I am conscious that while Paul's view of the Law may be hard to understand, books and articles about it are often even harder. Sometimes, I think, writers just go out of their way to be difficult to understand! Anyway, I apologize if this is not as clear as it should be, but I can promise that I have at least tried!

15. Life in the Spirit: The Remaining Problem of the Law

As we saw at the end of the last post, Paul writes in Romans 8:4 about the righteous requirement of the Law being fulfilled in us. Paul has made other seemingly enigmatic statements about the Law previously in Romans. In Romans 2, for example, he writes of Gentiles who do not possess the Law ‘doing instinctively what the law requires’ (Romans 2:14). He goes on to say that they show that the Law is ‘written on their hearts’ (2:15). Again, later in the chapter, Paul says that for the uncircumcised who ‘keep the Law’, their uncircumcision will be regarded as circumcision (2:26) and that Gentiles who ‘keep the Law’ will condemn Jews who do not (2:27). These statements have caused endless debates between scholars and commentators on the Epistle. Is it any wonder when Paul in just the following chapter says this:

‘For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.’ (3:20)

Paul’s whole point is that no-one can keep the Law because of sin. What on earth then does he mean when he talks about Gentiles ‘who keep the Law’? I will return to this later.

There are other puzzling comments. In chapter 3, Paul says the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, but that it is ‘attested to’ by the Law and prophets (3:21) It is faith, not Law, he argues, that righteouses (justifies), but he then says:

‘Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.’ (3:31)

Some of you may remember Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame. Bishop Robinson was also a New Testament scholar who worked on the original New English Bible translation. Working with him on this was anther scholar called C H Dodd. Bishop Robinson, in his short book on Romans, tells how when they reached this verse in their work, C H Dodd exclaimed, ‘What rubbish!’ I think this is a wonderful quote. How can Paul of all people claim to be upholding the Law? Other scholars, more recently, have argued that Paul is simply inconsistent in what he says about the Law.

Certainly, we can imagine Paul’s opponents also saying, ‘What rubbish!’ Indeed, when Paul arrives in Jerusalem not long after writing this letter, he meets with James and the elders who say to him:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 20:20-21)

Paul’s reputation was as one who preached against the Law. The advice that James and the elders give Paul is that he should prove this isn’t true by publicly going through the Jewish rite of purification with four men. It convinces no-one, however, and, ironically, this advice leads to Paul’s arrest and subsequent trip to Rome! How then can Paul say he upholds the Law and keep a straight face?

One of the excuses made for Paul’s apparent lack of clarity on the Law is that his letters are ‘circumstantial and situational’, that is to say, he is not writing an essay on the Law or any other subject, but dealing with specific issues that have arisen in his congregations. Now it is, of course, true that all Paul’s letters, Romans included, are circumstantial and situational. But the circumstance and situation of the letter to the Romans is precisely a circumstance and situation related to the issue of the Law. Frankly, if Paul is inconsistent in the course of this one letter, a letter in which the issue of the Law is so central, then his letter must be judged a failure.

Before reaching this negative conclusion, however, it might be worth seeing if Paul is more consistent than he is sometimes given credit for being. I have been interested in what Paul has to say about the Law for many years now, and have read much on the subject. I have read the accounts that see him as unclear and inconsistent. However, I just don’t see the inconsistency and lack of clarity. I think that Paul is perfectly clear when you listen to him on his own terms. Doubtless there is more we would like to know and questions that we would like to ask about the implications of what he says, but what he says, I am going to suggest, is clear enough. The statements that jump out, and which I have highlighted in this post, do actually all hang together, I believe, very well.

I’ll try to show how in the next post!

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