"What Are They Saying About Paul and the Law?" by Veronica Koperski

Frank Thielman
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

Paul's comments on the Mosaic law have generated controversy from his day to ours. In Paul's time, two questions were prominent: (1) Did Paul's claim that "We have now been discharged from the law" (Rom. 7:6) imply that "We should continue in sin" (Rom. 6:1)? (2) Since the law in this case is the Jewish law, did Paul's claim imply that the Jews were no longer the people of God?

Luther understood Paul's claim that we are discharged from the law to mean that God justifies people not because of the good works they do but only on the basis of their faith in Christ. This reading produced intense con-troversy not unlike what Paul had faced: Does the exclusion of works from salvation mean that a Christian's behavior does not matter? Does it mean that salvation is possible outside the political structures of the Church?

More recently, Paul's comments have generated controversy because some scholars have claimed that Luther imposed his own search for peace with God and his own struggle with Roman Catholic soteriology onto Paul. Luther, they say, made Paul after his own image and Paul's Jewish opponents after the image of Roman Catholic Scholasticism.

Koperski surveys this debate, particularly as it has raged in scholarly journals and monographs over the last twenty-five years. She correctly locates the eye of the storm in the 1977 publication of E. P. Sanders's volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders claimed that Protestant scholarship, epitomized in Rudolf Bultmann, had imposed Luther's understanding of Paul on the Apostle's letters with the disastrous result that Judaism was portrayed as a prideful and legalistic religion, the lowest point in human striving against the grace of God. Sanders himself believes that Paul rejected his former way of life in Judaism not because anything was intrinsically wrong with it but because it made no room for Christ-and Paul's experience with Christ had shown him that Christ was the world's savior.

Organizing her survey into five chapters, Koperski takes Sanders as her reference point. The first chapter describes Luther's and Bultmann's position and the second chapter Sanders's position. Chapter 3 gives J. D. G. Dunn's position. Dunn thinks Paul was reacting not to Judaism as a religion of human effort but to Jewish nationalism. Chapter 4, titled "Luther/Bultmann Redivivus," reviews the growing number of scholars who agree with Sanders that Judaism has been misrepresented in the past, but who nevertheless think that Luther's reading of Paul was basically correct. Chapter 5 discusses scholars who have tackled the question, raised by Sanders and others, of whether Paul's statements about the law are logically coherent.

The final chapter ponders whether justification by faith alone apart from works of the law is the center of Paul's theology, as the Lutheran consensus has traditionally claimed. Koperski's sympathies lie with those who part with historic Protestantism on this point. She opts with many other Catholic scholars for the view that Christ is the center around which all of Paul's theology turns.

This is an accurate and overall evenhanded introduction to the recent scholarship. All but the last chapter is descriptive rather than evaluative in nature. Its descriptions are based on a faithful and intelligent reading of the enormous body of literature that has appeared on Paul and the law in the last twenty-five years.

Her survey goes astray in three ways. First, she does not sufficiently emphasize the differences between Luther and Bultmann. Luther is innocent of the existentialism that informs Bultmann's reading of Paul. Second, she gives short shrift to Stephen Westerholm's brilliant defense of the classic Lutheran reading of Paul (Israel's Law and the Church's Faith, Eerdmans, 1988). Third, she fails to take account of Mark Seifrid's important Justification by Faith (Brill, 1992). Seifrid compares Paul's teaching on justification by faith apart from works of the law with Jewish texts of Paul's own era and shows that some Jews in Paul's time believed salvation resulted from a combination of God's grace and human effort. This, Seifrid argues, is precisely what Paul resists in his letters.

Still, anyone who has been confused by recent questioning of the reformers' understanding of Paul will find this volume a useful introduction to the debate.

Thursday, June 7th 2007

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

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