Today we resume our series on the New Perspective on Paul. The third basic premise is this:
Paul’s problem with Judaism and the Mosaic Law is not legalism, but something else.
In the so-called traditional Reformation understanding of Paul, his problem with Judaism and the Mosaic Law is that it was used as a means of earning favor before God. But in light of the NPP’s contention that first-century Judaism was not legalistic, they conclude that Paul’s problem with the Mosaic Law and Judaism must rest somewhere else. But that is where the agreement ends, for in determining what that “something else” is the various NPP advocates part ways. E.P. Sanders, for example, argues that
What is wrong with the law, and thus with Judaism, is that it does not provide for God’s ultimate purpose, that of saving the entire world through faith in Christ, and without the privilege accorded to the Jews through the promises, the covenants, and the law (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 155)
In other words, the problem is simply that “Judaism is not Christianity.” James D.G. Dunn takes a different view:
The classic Protestant understanding of justification … has missed or downplayed what was probably the most important aspect of the doctrine for Paul himself … the fundamental critique of Israel’s tendency to nationalist presumption, not to say racial pride.” (“The Justice of God,” 14)
So for Dunn the issue is the fact that the Mosaic Law excludes non-Jews from its righteousness.
1. The work of NPP scholars has forced a necessary reevaluation of the complex issue of Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law. Although none of the NPP proposals are satisfactory, they have brought necessary correction to overly simplistic presentations of Paul’s problem with the Mosaic Law.
2. Paul’s “problem” with the Mosaic Law in my view is multi-faceted; it involves at least the following components. (a) The Law was not given to provide life but rather to reveal and confine sin. Thus any attempt to use the Law to experience eschatological life is doomed to fail (Gal 3:19-22). (b) The Law’s requirement of perfection (Gal 3:10-12) and man’s inability to achieve that results in a curse. (c) The Law was given to serve the Abrahamic promise until Christ the promised seed came; once he came the Law was set aside as the means by which God’s people interact with Him (Gal 3:15-18).