Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People

by E.P. Sanders

I didn’t find his project to be as radical as many of his critics and followers think it is. More often that not, Sanders hedges his bets and only gives “tentative” proposals. Many of his conclusions will be familiar to those who have wrestled with the NPP:

1) Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness.
2) Paul was a coherent thinker, if not an organized and systematic one.
3) The tensions in Paul’s theology arise from sets of convictions: He does not view Christianity as a different religion than Judaism, yet notes that it is quite different in focusing around Jesus of Nazareth and a loosening of Torah.
3a) Paul gives numerous treatments of the Law which are not easily systematized.


Per 1) I disagree with him, but any answer to this question is tricky. I certainly agree that the Law God gave to his people was not intended to be works-righteousness (otherwise God is a tricksy fellow). That is an entirely different claim than saying 1st century rabbis saw it as such. I think Sanders is guilty of conflating two issues into one. I can agree with him that the average Jew didn’t go around in a crude medieval Catholic fashion worrying about how many Hail Marys he said that day. On the other hand, and even the NPP project hints toward this, many did associate at least one level of salvation with who they were as Jews. Contrary to both critics and advocates of NPP, it really isn’t that wide a gap between salvation based on my good works and salvation based on my ethnic identity.

Per 2) This might be tough to say, but we all think it: in one sentence what did Paul really teach about the Law? You simply cannot answer it in one sentence. In some places he says its good; others its bad. Romans 2 almost reads it in soteriological terms, yet that is the exact opposite of Paul’s larger theology. Surprisingly, Sanders doesn’t opt for either easy route: he doesn’t say “Paul’s view is consistent” nor does he say “Paul is simply incoherent.” Rather, he says that Paul is operating around certain parameters from which he does budge. When faced with different ethical situations, it seems like there are different conclusions.

Per 3) This conclusion would have been easier to say pre-70 AD. While the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, its doubtful they gave themselves that name. They would have saw themselves as good Israelites reconstituted around Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. This creates a real tension that isn’t easily solved until the Temple’s (and hence, Judaism’s identity) is destroyed.

i) It goes without saying that Jewish converts to “The Way” would not have to give up their identity (Paul certainly acts like a good Jew from time to time).
ii) Yet, Gentile converts would not have to embrace Jewish identity markers.

SO far both points are unremarkable. The real problem come with the next one:

iii) Jew and Gentile have to worship together as “one body.”

Sanders doesn’t really point to a conclusion so much as to highlight the problem.

Narrativing the Law of God

I am on my second reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations.  It is very hard but extremely worthwhile. I have found David Field’s outline on this book extremely helpful.

The Revelation of God’s Kingship (36-41)

Isaiah 33:22:   Yhwh is our king; Yhwh is our judge; Yhwh is our lawgiver.  He will save us.”  Ideas are connected.  Kingship implies judgment, law-giving, and salvation.


The early Hebrews saw this element in the Psalms.   While it included salvation from sin, the term is often used to show God’s victories of his people’s enemies.   What is the purpose of these victories? (Ps. 13:5; 85:7).   They show God’s hesed, his enduring commitment to those in his covenant.  Hesed often stands in parallel to the Hebrew word for faithfulness (Psalm 98.3).

These victories also show God’s tsedeq, righteousness.  In the Psalms God’s righteousness is a public thing.   When he shows his right hand and holy arm, the nations will know (98.2). This is an important point in later Israelite history.   You are an Israelite living in Babylon.   While you are the chosen people of God, you have been publicly shamed by a pagan power (and presumably, so has your God).  Therefore, when God acts to show his righteousness, it must be public:  Is. 45.5; 46.13;51.5-8;56.1;61.10; 62.1).


The Hebrew root words relating to God’s righteousness often appear in connection with his shpt, judgment.  This illustrates the problem with ancient Israel’s existence.  They were God’s chosen people yet they often worshipped idols.  If it is true that God vindicates his name among the pagans because he is a just God, how much more true will he vindicate his name among his people?

What do we mean by the words “judgment” and “justice?”  The Hebrew word for “judgment” is mishpat.  When it is used in the Bible it is seen as a judicial performance.  When true “judgment” is present it is not a state of affairs but an activity that is carried out.  The prophet Amos calls for mishpat to roll on like a river.  Isaiah says that the citizens of Jerusalem should seek mishpat by giving judgment in the cause of the fatherless and widow (1:17).  Isaiah even goes on to say that Zion will even be redeemed by mishpat (1:26ff).

The judgments of Yahweh have lasting validity because all of his acts have lasting validity.  This leads into what the Israelites believed about…


If you look at the Old Testament law code, it is strange.   But maybe it shouldn’t be.   For us Westerners there is a sharp distinction between history and law.    This was not so for the Hebrew.  For Israel “history” is the telling of God’s acts to future generations.  Law was the telling of his judgments (mishpatim).  Psalm 119 is a case in point.  There are several terms of importance.   Testimony and decree. Interestingly enough, other Psalmists use the words in connection with a word we have just seen:  judgment.  See Psalm 81:4-5.

When the kingdom of Judah had its reforming moments, it is evident that “testimony” and “law” were in the foreground.  2 Kgs 22:8-13.  Jer. 26:1ff.  In both cases we see that “law” is simply more than a “code.”  It is attesting that God will live out his judgments in Israel’s history.  Look at how Psalm 96:10 unfolds:  the nations are to be told that Yhwh is king, that he established the world on firm foundations, and that he will judge the peoples with equity.


Without the consciousness of something possessed and handed on, there could never be a political theology, since it could never be clear how the judgments of God could give order and sustain a community (48ff).  In other words, something needs to be possessed and handed down.  This traditional possession was not always identified with “The Law.”  Originally, the existence of Israel was mediated through the Land.  Possessing the land was a matter of observing the order of life which was established by Yahweh’s judgments (Psalm 37:29ff).

Land                 =     material cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

judgments             =     formal cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

Victories            =    efficient cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

Mediators of Yahweh’s Rule

Yahweh’s authority is image-less, like Yahweh himself.   However, Yahweh is immediately present in conquest, judgment, and law.  Israel still had a problem in its history:  it could never consolidate.  It had land, judgment, and victories (though never absolutely), but it had no stable means of passing it down.  Even acknowledging the sacred writer’s criticism of monarchy (1 Sam. 8), it must be acknowledged that monarchy exercised a stabilizing influence when contrasted with the Judges period.  Most importantly, monarchy allowed the passing down of the tradition (Land, Judgments, Victories).

Rushdoony: Enemy of Statism

RJ Rushdoony: Enemy of Statism

RJ Rushdoony: Enemy of Statism

That which says the most about a people or a nation is its source of law-the source to which that person or society looks to find out the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. The god of any society is its source of law…Any society that divorces itself from God’s law is like a fish out of water–violently active but quickly destined to die (Institutes of Biblical Law). Most Christians, perceptive ones anyway, have seen the vicious bloodlust inherent in totalitarian regimes, but have missed the more important issues. It is one thing to point out the obvious and cry over what liberals and wanna-be Marxists are doing to our country in various political policies. It is another thing to attack the worldview upon which it hinges. That worldview is statism. Statism is the attempt of a political party to play god, to be the messiah to the masses, and to bring in a golden age of peace. In other words, it believes in salvation by legislation, and if that were bad enough, it enforces this salvation by military force. It is a bloodthirsty form of universalism. I will try to point out in this essay the anti-biblical presuppositions of statism, the valiant and heroic insights of Rushdoony in opposing, and hopefully–God willing–some practical pointers in our modern-day struggle against the state’s attempt to play God.

If Man is Inherently Good, Wherein Lies the Problem?

Simply put: Deny man’s sinfulness and you must then find a new means of salvation. Every worldview has to answer these basic questions: Where did I come from?  Who am I?  What is Wrong with Me?  What is the solution?  Biblical Christianity maintains that Man is sinful by nature and cannot do right. His problem can only be fixed by divine action. But deny man’s sinfulness and maintain that he is good, one must still locate the source of his evil and then posit a new solution. If man is inherently good, then how do we explain the evil that he does? Well, the problem is, so says the statist, his environment. Therefore, to save him, we must change his environment. We must pass laws to make him better. He needs to be educated. If only he had the right facts, he would do well. The statist, then, believes in salvation by education and legislation. But what about those who maintain the antithesis and say that man can only be saved by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by law? Well if the statist is to be consistent, then those people must be neutralized by any means possible.

Liberty or License?

Older dictionaries define two types of liberty–natural and civil. Natural liberty is what man is able to do if he is not impeded by law, society, or cultural norms. Civil liberty is man’s ability to live his life under law. If man is allowed to run wild and no restraints are placed upon him, then liberty is lost. Liberty is lost because every man is doing right in his own eyes and the State becomes unable to protect the liberties of its citizens. Therefore, the State enacts laws. The embarrassing question is “who’s law?” God’s or Man’s? Here is where people really react to what I am saying. The will say to me, “The Bible doesn’t regulate how civil government ought to be run.” Okay, I can quote Romans 13 (which is prescriptive and destroys the above argument; the State‘s primarily role is to terrorize evildoers, not be a Savior to man), but in case they don’t like that (at this point they are arbitrarily engaging in special pleading) then let’s look at their position and reduce it to ethical absurdity. The issue is this: Is there a transcendental limitation on law? If we will not have God as the source of law, then we will necessarily have man as the source of law. Case Study: When is Punishment Criminal? As Dr Bahnsen pointed out: Let’s say I drive my car on your driveway and leak oil on it. You walk up to me, express your disappointment, and then knife me in the chest (remember the context; God’s law is not valid). We (arbitrarily) think that is wrong. Ok, perhaps it is. Let’s say I do the same thing and you come up to me, express your disappointment, point to the badge on your chest, and then knife me. Is that punishment wrong? If so, why? Let’s say we are in a democracy. 50% + 1 makes a judgment morally right. Let’s say enough incompetents in a democracy (but I repeat myself) vote and approve of such idiocy. On what ground can we say that this punishment is wrong? By denying a transcendent limitation law one cannot say it is wrong. In one hammer blow of a paragraph Rushdoony writes,

“ There is no law, no appeal, no higher order, beyond and above the universe. Instead of an [vi] open window upwards, there is a closed cosmos. There is thus no ultimate law and decree beyond man and the universe. Man’s law is therefore beyond criticism except by man. In practice, this means that the positive law of the state is absolute law. The state is the most powerful and most highly organized expression of humanistic man, and the state is the form over the universe, over every human order, the law of the state is a closed system of law. There is no appeal beyond it. Man has no “right,” no realm of justice, no source of law beyond the state, to which he can appeal against the state. Humanism therefore imprisons man within the closed world of the state and the closed universe of the evolutionary scheme (introduction to The New Legality by Hebden Taylor, 3).

In other words, lacking all limitations on its law, it lacks all limitations on its power. Its total law is its total power. The State reinforces its total law by its total power. And if you deny ultimacy of a Transcendental law-word from God, who are you to ever question the will of the State! This is a fair argument on my part. If you grant me my premise (~God’s Law), you must grant me my conclusion.

One Man’s Stand Against the Messianic State

You can always tell the good a man is doing by the anger he incurs, often from within the camp. I came to the Reformed faith late in life. I found the writings of R.J. Rushdoony because of my vicinity to Auburn Avenue Presybterian Church in Monroe, LA. I had been an avid history student and was studying for intense exams in American history (for the record, I thoroughly reject AAPC and FV). Rushdoony had written several powerful studies in American History. But before that I got my hands on The Institutes of Biblical Law. I was immediately impressed by his forceful writing style and clear and persuasive logic. His footnotes were utterly fascinating and the fruits of his intensive reading regimen (a book a day, six days a week, for fifty years). Rushdoony applied his faith to all areas of life (literally, he wrote on about every subject). Granted, he drew some wrong and odd conclusions but unless you require perfection of everyone you read, then this shouldn’t be too troubling. Rushdoony, like John Knox before him, championed the supremacy of God’s word and the rule of law in society. Is there a law above the law? Is Man sovereign or God? Rushdoony drew the most logical conclusion about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty: If God is Sovereign, then the State is not. The State is only derivatively sovereign. It finds its legitimacy only to the degree that it is just (shades of Wyclif!, how do you define justice except by God’s word?). At this point I am just going to quote several powerful Rushdoony quotes,

Orthodox Christianity was to introduce lasting tension into history by insisting, first, that law comes from a transcendental God and His word, so that civil law is a creature of rligion, nd, second, that for the state to attempt to

make law and religion its own creations is to play god and to incur the judgment of God and the necessary opposition of true believers. Charlemagne had inserted into his royal tide the words “by God’s Grace.” This formula is very important to Germanic or barbarian Christianity. It placed the king and the state under Christian law. Charlemagne saw himself as the “bishop of bishops,” clearly superior to the papacy, but also very clearly under God’s law (World History Notes, 115).

This is probably the second most important sentence I have read in a while:

The Germanic peoples also denied the idea of human sovereignty, as F. Kern hasshown in Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, and they held to the authorityof law. Law was sovereign, if any sovereign existed, law as ancient custom, justice, and right. Every king was under law and therefore could be lawfully resisted if he broke the law.