“Promise, Law, Faith” by T. David Gordon

Levi Bakerink
Thursday, August 6th 2020

One of the most contentious debates in recent years has been between the proponents of the so called New Perspective on Paul, and those within the more traditional view.[1] And understandably so, considering the Christian doctrines at stake in the discussion, not least of which is justification by faith alone. Is there any way to reconcile these seemingly incongruous sides? Is there a reading of Paul that appreciates the strong foundation built by the sixteenth century reformers while also incorporating appropriate correctives from modern scholarship on our understanding of first century society; a third perspective on Paul, as it were? T. David Gordon’s answer, at least within the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is yes.

In his new book, Promise, Law, Faith, Dr. Gordon proposes a “third perspective” on Paul, based on his decades-long study and teaching of Galatians. This perspective attempts not to read between the lines of the text (as both the dominant Protestant approach and the NPP tend to do), but rather read the lines of the text themselves (50). In doing so, one finds that Paul’s argument, rather than being distinctly theological (dominant Protestant view) or primarily sociological (NPP), is covenantal and historical, hence the subtitle: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians. Though Paul addresses doctrinal, theological, and social concerns, according to Gordon, his main concern is correcting “implicit errors of a historia testamentorum nature, (whether Israel’s Messiah has brought blessings only to the members of the Sinai covenant community or also to individuals from all nations; and what this means for observing the stipulations especially the segregating/marking stipulations, of the Sinai covenant)” (6). If we are to fully understand Paul’s argument, we must read it through the covenant-historical lens which Paul uses.

So what conclusions does a closer reading of Paul’s argument in Galatians reveal? Gordon delineates three controlling factors in his reading of Galatians. First, Paul generally uses the words promise, law, and faith as short-hand (synecdoche) to refer to the specific, historical and successive covenant administrations respectively. “So then,” Gordon writes, “ordinarily when Paul speaks in Galatians of promise, law, and faith, he means the Abrahamic covenant (characterized by promise-giving), the Sinai covenant (characterized by law-giving), and the new covenant (characterized by faith in the dying-and-rising Christ)” (11). This statement does not negate the existence of an overarching covenant of grace for Gordon; he is not suggesting the people of the nation of Israel, governed by the Sinai covenant, were justified in their keeping of the law in any eschatological sense.[2] What he is hoping to show, however, is a tendency to “(mistakingly) hear him [Paul] speak of general theological categories/realities of God’s pledges, God’s moral demands, and our faith in such a God” (11, italics original). This approach then, for Gordon, actively pushes back against this traditional misconception.

His second controlling factor follows from the first, that because of his ubiquitous use of covenantal terms combined with temporal language throughout, Paul’s argument is covenant-historical in nature. And third, that “Paul argues from justification by faith (as a settled doctrine), not for justification by faith (as though it were a disputed doctrine)” (28). After addressing these three factors, and a brief overview of the current state of Pauline studies, Gordon begins a chronological discussion of Galatians, utilizing these three factors as they appear in the text. This review will look at these three in order, with commentary throughout.

Many students of the Bible have heard the phrase “context is king,”[3] a pithy statement to emphasize the importance of letting the original context of any given passage guide our understanding. Gordon appeals to this basic hermeneutic principle to Galatians 3:17, “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.”[4] In this verse the reader finds a clear example of synecdoche. What else could Paul be referring to by the law which comes 430 years after the promise, other than the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant respectively? This understanding is vital to Gordon’s argument, as he acknowledges: “Both lexically and rhetorically, my reading of Galatians is profoundly influenced by this portion thereof.”[5] Thus he argues, if words only have certain meanings within any given context, and if the context in which Paul writes 3:17 is the same context which governs the entire argumentative section of the letter (chapters 3 and 4), then would not context guide us to understand Paul’s normal and primary use of “law” to be synecdoche for the Sinai covenant? Certainly there are exceptions.[6] Words can be polyvalent, Gordon admits, yet words cannot carry or switch between multiple meanings in a given context. Thus, Gordon asserts, “the real question is whether Paul, when in mid-argument about the law somewhere, can simply change his meaning ‘on the fly,’ with any hope that his audience could possibly know that he is doing so” (34). In short, if law refers to the Sinai covenant administration in 3:17, then it must refer to the same throughout the letter, unless context proves otherwise.

By understanding Paul’s language correctly, we can see the overall covenant-historical nature of his argument, Gordon’s second controlling factor. “The underlying covenant-historical structure to Paul’s reasoning is, I suggest, promise-law-faith. Three covenants appear at different moments in history, all tending toward the same ultimate goal of reversing the Adamic curse but each having distinctive proximate purposes” (155). This is the structure of Paul’s argument. He does not argue theologically per se, but rather appeals to the historical nature of the Sinai covenant (and what came before and after). Why does Paul argue vehemently that requiring circumcision is an abandonment of the gospel? Because the Sinai covenant, and all its stipulations, was always meant to be temporary, a guardian (4:2) until Christ came and fulfilled the promise given to Abraham, that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The historical nature of Paul’s argument is further demonstrated by the temporal language used throughout the letter: “the law, which came 430 years afterward… a covenant previously ratified” (3:17). “Now before faith came… until the coming faith would be revealed” (3:23). “When we were children… But when the fullness of time had come” (4:3-4), as just a handful of examples. Certainly, Gordon asserts, Paul is making theological and doctrinal points, but the structure of his argument is overtly covenant-historical. Thus, we must read him as such and let him speak for himself.

The final controlling factor Gordon lists is his judgment that, in this letter, Paul is not arguing for justification by faith alone as much as he is arguing from it as a settled doctrine. His reading of Paul in this regard hinges on the translation (or mis-translation) of the word ‘yet’ in Galatians 2:15-16: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know…” Gordon suggests ‘yet’ is a difficult translation to make from the Greek text, and prefers a translation simply without it (90ff.) Such a translation, then, would imply that Paul is appealing to a known truth, namely, that Paul and his fellow Jewish brethren understood correctly that a person is not justified by works of the law. Such a reading, Gordon continues, is also more consistent with the language and rhetoric Paul employs not just here but throughout his writings. This reading of Paul shows his emphasis was not so much on the theological or doctrinal errors made by the Judaizers, but rather on their behavioral errors, specifically the insistence on requiring circumcision and following the Jewish calendar and dietary laws. On this matter, Gordon’s exegesis is compelling, and at the very least warrants reconsideration of one’s current translation and interpretation of Galatians 2:15-16.

At first glance, however, Gordon’s arguments overall, and especially on justification, will seem misguided to some and at times too congenial with the New Perspective on Paul. In his concluding chapter, Gordon attempts to answer many of these objections beforehand. Regarding justification specifically, he writes, “Although in my judgment he argues from the doctrine of justification rather than for the doctrine, he does believe and affirm the doctrine, and he regards it as true from Abraham’s day until Christ returns (and after)” (227). In addition, he also helpfully discusses antinomian concerns (in which he affirms that law-free does not mean obedience free in the Christian’s life), areas for continuing Jewish-Christian dialogue, and further questions for both the New Perspective and traditional views on Paul. He also includes three excurses at the end of the book that, though not central to his thesis, will nonetheless prove helpful to students and teachers of Paul alike.

Not all will find Gordon’s reading of Paul satisfactory or appealing, and many will object to some of his conclusions. In the broader Reformed community, I suspect there to be push back against this reading that suggests Paul is arguing covenant-historically in order to correct behavioral errors, rather than arguing theologically in order to correct doctrinal errors (though, as Gordon points out, both options are true; the primary question is how does Paul structure his argument). There will also be pushback against some of the conclusions drawn from this reading, e.g. the temporary nature of the Decalogue in its covenantal context. Nevertheless, this monograph is a masterwork of exegesis from the Greek text, with insights that one can only attain after years of attentive study. Whether Gordon succeeds in his goal of providing a third perspective on Paul will continue to be a matter of debate. He does, however, push the conversation forward, perhaps at times to uncomfortable places for some, but does so with earnest conviction, pronounced skill, and a refreshing dry wit to boot. Students, teachers, pastors, and anyone studying Galatians will benefit from T. David Gordon’s work. It is a must read.

Levi Bakerink (MDiv) is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the PCA. He is currently serving as pastoral intern at All Saints Reformed Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA.

[1] Throughout his book, Gordon uses the term “dominant Protestant approach” to refer to this view, loosely representing much of the prevailing Reformed and Lutheran interpretation of Paul.

[2] It should also be noted that neither does Gordon assert or advocate for any form of substantial republication of the covenant of works. In fact, the discussion of republication does not come up in Gordon’s analysis of Galatians. This exclusion is understandable, given that it is not central to his thesis. A brief discussion on the matter, however, could have been helpful, given the current debate on the topic, especially in Reformed circles. It is clear, however, that Gordon neither proposes nor implies any such substantial republication. Insofar as his exegesis of Galatians can help inform the republication debate is left up to the reader.

[3] Or if you were in a Dr. Douglas Stuart’s exegesis class at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, you would have heard the phrase: Context is queen, because Jesus is King.

[4] Scripture quotations in this review, and used in Promise, Law, Faith are from the ESV.

[5] Gordon, 137.

[6] Such as the “law of Christ” (6:2), which obviously cannot mean the “Sinai covenant of Christ.” Gordon discusses this exceptional use of “law” in Galatians on pages 194-196.

Thursday, August 6th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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