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Covenantal collapse?

A review of A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant

by Tim Gallant

"I have certainly learned in reading [Paul, the Law, and the Covenant] to be more nuanced in some of my own formulations." So writes Richard B. Hays, no mean Pauline scholar himself, concerning this new book by A. Andrew Das.

Paul, the Law, and the Covenant represents Das' doctoral work (Union Theological Seminary). It is a comprehensive attempt to overthrow the now-ubiquitous "New Perspective on Paul," written from a somewhat non-traditional vantage point. Along with a (growing?) handful of other scholars (Westerholm, Stuhlmacher, Seyoon Kim), Das disputes the notion that Paul's major concern with the Mosaic law is that Jews were employing it as a nationalistic badge in order to exclude Gentiles from salvation.

The New Perspective, which can be traced back to the seminal work by E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress, 1977), contends that Paul is not concerned with a legalistic, merit-based works-righteousness when he argues so forcefully for justification by faith. After all, argued Sanders, a careful reading of the Judaic sources shows that Judaism was not a legalistic religion. Rather, Judaism's "pattern of religion" is best characterized as covenantal nomism. The covenantal side stresses that the Jews were God's elect people, whom He chose in grace. Nomism is the corresponding duty of God's people to observe the Mosaic law as a necessary response to their election. Because the law had mechanisms for forgiveness (repentance and sacrifice), perfect obedience was not ultimately necessary. The demands of the law were set forth within the context of the covenant of a merciful God who forgives sins.

Das, however, points out that Sanders' reading of the Judaic evidence is one-sided. While Sanders stresses the sometimes-invisible context of the covenant, into which all speaking of the law would have taken place, Das sorts through a volume of texts which show that there was a vital tension within turn-of-the-era Judaism, between the anticipation of merciful judgment for the Jewish people, on the one hand, and a notion of an almost mathematical judgment (conceived either in terms of a requirement for perfection, or else as a requirement that good deeds outweigh bad ones), on the other. He suggests that Sanders has minimized this tension in favour of stress upon the covenant, and has thus been one-sided.

Das then turns to the Jewish literature of post-70 AD, when many Jews were prompted, by the disaster of Jerusalem's destruction, to question Israel's place in the covenant. Das asks, "What happens when the covenant is called into question?" From the literature of this period, Das argues that the tension tends to be broken. Covenant recedes from view, and the law-as-rigid-demand comes to the fore. The basic point is that for covenantal nomism to function fruitfully, it needs the tension; otherwise, it will sink into legalism.

What does this have to do with Paul? After all, Paul is not dealing with the post-70 AD context. When he is writing his epistles, the Jews usually had a fairly positive outlook on their place as God's covenant people, elect by grace.

Ah, says Das, but that is precisely what Paul calls into question. Paul's whole program is a challenge to the notion of Jewish soteriological (saving) privilege. God will judge both Jew and Gentile alike, Paul argues in Romans 2. In view of the predominant Jewish repudiation of Jesus Christ, it is clear that the covenant is not such a big advantage as Jews have supposed.

In short, Das is arguing that the covenantal side of the covenantal nomism equation has collapsed in Paul's theology. The result is that the law's absolute demands come to the forefront, even as they would later in post-70 AD Judaic texts such as 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, etc. Without the covenantal side balancing the nomistic side, the law becomes a terror.

This book scores some rather impressive hits on the one-sided views of scholars such as Sanders and James Dunn (the latter of whom has made his mark by stressing the "boundary marker" character of certain laws, which served to separate Jews from Gentiles, as the primary object of Paul's critique of the Mosaic law). Das has done us a service by pointing out the imbalanced character of Sanders' defining work. (This, of course, was already hinted at by earlier scholars such as Thomas Schreiner, although Das works more with the primary sources. See now also Justification and Variegated Nomism, edited by D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid.) Still, this book is less a rejection of the NPP's view of Judaism than an alternative understanding of Paul. It gives a healthy corrective to Sanders without undermining his fundamental insights regarding Judaism as "covenantal nomism." At most, it is a slight modification of Sanders on that point.

Along with these sorts of improvements, we can also appreciate the balance which Das brings to the table, in trying to move us away from the false dichotomy that scholars have laboured under ("either Paul is fighting a nationalistic exclusivism, or he is, in some sense or another, critiquing the law in connection with its character of absolute demand"). Writes Das, "A Jew would not have seen the law's requirement of obedience and its function as a charter of ethnic identity as exclusive. Scholarship on Paul and the law today is wrongly polarized on this point" (pp. 269-270).

Yet, ultimately, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant is a frustrating work. It is never entirely clear why the gracious framework inherent in the new covenant cannot take the place of the gracious framework of sacrifice that was available in the Mosaic law. Das goes to some length to show that Paul probably did not view Christ's work as a sacrifice, and thus he avoids a rather obvious direct link. But even if one were to accept his argument on that score (which is highly strained, and in particular his too-easy dismissal of N. T. Wright's impressive argument regarding Rom. 8:3, which concludes that Paul is portraying Christ as a sin-offering), one can hardly deny that Paul does have a gracious covenant structure which provides means of forgiveness. (It should also be noted that Das' argument presupposes disunity in the New Testament: even if we could agree to the unlikely proposition that Paul does not see Christ's work as sacrificial, Das can hardly deny that the Evangelists certainly do so.)

The gracious new covenant structure would not damage Das' case if Paul's opponents were all unbelieving Jews, i.e. Jews who did not recognize Jesus as the Christ. For then his opponents would be repudiating the one remaining means of atonement, and the only side of the covenantal nomism equation left for them would indeed be the absolute law.

But that is just the problem. Paul's opponents in Galatians, at least (and likely Colossians and elsewhere, as well), were Christ-professing Jews. In other words, it would seem that they too in some sense accepted the fact that the grace of God was now to be found in Jesus Christ. But if that is so, then why not covenantal nomism? Why, in that context, does Paul critique the Mosaic law in such stark terms; why does he maintain that it is an old order characterized by bondage (Gal. 3:21-4:5), when he knew full well that the new covenant provided the grace that was necessary to maintain a healthy covenantal nomism?

There are further difficulties. Das stresses the law's requirements as demanding "human accomplishment," and that when God judges in terms of it, nothing good can come of it, because human beings simply do not measure up to the law. But he never really engages the texts in which Paul discusses judgment according to works for Christians (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:10) and shows how this can be compatible with Paul's critique of the law.

Finally, like so many other recent Pauline scholars, Das fails to distinguish between Judaism and the law as revealed in the Old Testament. He repeatedly says that Paul rejects covenantal nomism in favour of an altogether different framework. But the covenantal nomism in question in Das' discussion is always the exclusivism endemic of first-century Judaism. Which raises the question: was this really the sort of covenantal nomism that was dictated in the Jewish Scriptures? If so, how can Paul so easily dismiss it, and in what way? And on the other hand, if the first century version was not faithful to the Jewish Scriptures, indeed, more narrowly, to the law itself, then why does Paul sometimes critique the law rather than merely its misinterpretation? We are only left to wonder on such points.

A. Andrew Das has helped move discussion forward regarding Paul and his Jewish context. But ultimately, we are left with many of the same looming questions that we started with, as well as a few new ones. As one might expect, we have not heard the last word on Paul and the law.

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