The Law (Torah) and the Gospel, 2 of 6

In the previous essay I observed that, according to N.T. Wright, the significance of the doctrine of justification by faith has to do with the basic requirements for Christian table fellowship. Wright’s claim is based on a particular understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ and St. Paul’s day. Within Protestant circles Judaism was historically considered a works religion. It didn’t matter to Protestant scholars that Jewish rabbis and scholars disputed this claim. The claim fit within the Protestant theological presuppositions and the Protestant version of salvation, so this particular interpretation of Judaism was (and continues to be) very persistent.

But in the 70s E.P. Sanders proposed – with extensive evidence – that “Second Temple Judaism” (that is, the Judaism during the period of Herod’s temple, the Judaism of Jesus and the first Christians) believed that salvation came as purely a divine gift and the Mosaic Law (that is, the covenant) was a thankful response to this divine gift of salvation. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism” to describe this view of Judaism. Far from believing that the Law could save them, the Rabbis (and certainly Jewish scripture) taught that God graciously chose Israel and that not only had they done nothing to deserve it, they repeatedly and consistently broke the covenant that God made with them. In spite of Israel’s failure, God continued forgiving and continued to graciously draw his people back to himself. (In other words, salvation, even in its Old Testament and Second Temple context, is by pure grace.) The Mosaic Law was not the means of salvation, but rather the people’s response to God’s grace.

This ought to sound very familiar. Both the Orthodox and the Reformed Protestants have the same stance toward what Christians would call the Old Testament Law. Presbyterians often refer to this as the dynamic of “grace and gratitude.” It is this sensibility that underlies both the Orthodox sense of “the Tradition” and what has come to be known in the West as the “Protestant work ethic” (which grew specifically out of the Reformed churches – it might be more accurately described as the Presbyterian work ethic). Lutherans (and Roman Catholics) have a darker view of the Law; it is a taskmaster. Orthodox and Presbyterian/Reformed have a much more positive view of the Law, as a happy (or in Latin “felix”) response to God’s grace.

But the Mosaic Law in relation to Judaism isn’t quite that simple. While it is God-given (and it is certainly God-given), over time it became organic and specific to the Jewish people. The Law has passed through major developmental stages. The first stage was the Mosaic Law given to the wandering herdsmen fleeing Egypt and looking for the Promised Land. This was the Law in its most dynamic form. In gratitude the people responded to God’s grace by following this new way of life to which God had called them. In this synergistic effort, the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, was born.

Eventually these wanderers settled down, rejected God’s leadership style, demanded a king, and got down to the business of being a nation like all the other nations around them. In this Davidic period the Law adapted nicely to this new circumstance, but the emphasis shifted toward the support of the bureaucracy. The Law entered its social phase, where it not only shaped the people’s response to God, but began to govern every aspect of their life, especially in relation to their king.

Of course the nation fell away from God to the point that the officials apparently forgot the very existence of the Law. But in Josiah’s reign the scrolls were found and there was a great spiritual reform. The actual history is far more complicated than this, but this deuteronomic (literally “second law”) period, this second discovery of the Law, resulted in many more social developments which provided the foundation for the unique Jewish self-understanding they took into captivity.

By the time the Jews had returned from their exile, the Law had become the all-embracing definition of who they were as a people. Originally the Law was understood to be a God-given set of disciplines and requirements through which the people could both demonstrate their gratitude and transform their lives into what God desired. But when we get into this Second Temple phase of Judaism (from Ezra to the destruction of the Temple in the Christian era) the Law became far more than a response to God. It is what gave the Jewish people their identity and kept them distinct from all other people. While observing the Law continued to be a response of gratitude to God, it also became a wall of separation that kept outside forces (usually considered malevolent) at bay.

In Galatians it is this secondary characteristic of the Law, or Torah, which had become the primary characteristic – this Torah-as-wall-of-separation – that Paul is reacting to. The first Christians were all Jews (and in their self-understanding, God’s chosen people), and it seemed obvious to them that anyone wanting to become Christian would also become one of God’s chosen, that is, a Jew. But God gave Peter a vision about clean and unclean, informing him that this distinction – even though seemingly rooted in the Mosaic Law – was not the divine intent (Acts 10). God also revealed directly to Paul his gospel, distinct from the Torah, which emphasized God’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles (Gal. 1).

Of course this seemed a radical change to the Jews and it took many years for the full implications of all this to sink in. The Jerusalem church, under the leadership of James the brother of Jesus, was the slowest to change (which makes sense, they were an overwhelmingly Jewish church) and most of the problems (the Judaizers) emanated from that church. The church in Antioch, on the other hand, was the first to embrace the full implications of life in Christ as demonstrated by God’s gracious gift of the Spirit.

To Paul, who understood the radical-ness of grace, this “Jerusalem” effort to put Gentiles under the yoke of Torah-as-wall-of-separation undermined the very grace that God was offering. These “works of the law” (a phrase used by Paul four times in Galatians and again in Romans) were not intrinsic to the grace offered in a Gentile context. Requiring the “works of the law” implied that God’s grace was inadequate and that this grace was only available to those who went to the effort to get inside the wall of separation. It got the cart before the horse.

So it is that the church ultimately became a separate community, neither Gentile nor Jew, but a new reality that reflected life in Christ as experienced by those who had received the Spirit. Nothing more was required. This new community was under obligation, not to the old Mosaic Law, but to a new law of love (Gal. 5:14).