Brian Rosner is the Principal of Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College in Melbourne, Australia. In this book, Rosner tackles the complicated question of “Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law.” It is standard practice in this much-traversed scholarly pathway, to start out by noticing that Paul has both negative and positive things to say about the Law, and then to try to come up with an explanation for both. Some say Paul was just not logically consistent. Others say his views changed over time or depending on the context. Others take the negative statements as Paul’s real view, and reinterpret the positive statements in light of the negative ones. Others do the opposite and reinterpret the negative statements to harmonize with an ultimately positive view of the Law. And still others try to divide the Law pie up into various pieces (moral, civil, and ceremonial) and say that Paul’s negative statements apply to the civil and ceremonial, while his positive statements indicating ongoing validity apply to the moral slice of the Law pie, which has been traditionally identified with the Ten Commandments.
Rosner rejects all of these approaches. Against the last approach (of dividing the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial laws), he argues that the Law is a unity. His approach is basically correct: he accepts all of the statements but harmonizes them by arguing that Paul is speaking of the Law in different respects or perspectives, or what Rosner calls “the Law as” statements. The negative statements are about “the Law as a legal code or covenant.” When viewed as a legal code or covenant that God gave to Israel as his chosen people, New Testament believers are not bound to the Mosaic Law. The positive statements are in reference to “the Law as prophecy or as wisdom.” When viewed as prophecy pointing ahead to Christ, or as wisdom that provides guidance for living in a way that pleases God, then New Testament believers are indeed to regard the Law as something good, edifying, and useful for Christian living, though no longer as a binding legal code. Rosner calls this a hermeneutical solution.
The heart of the book is Rosner’s thesis that Paul engages in three hermeneutical moves when dealing with the Law: repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation. First, Paul repudiates the Law as a legal code or covenant. This is where Rosner would place all of the negative statements about the Law. Paul repeatedly says that believers are not under the Law. Second, Paul engages in the next hermeneutical move, which Rosner calls replacement, that is, he sees Christ as now filling the role that the Law played. Instead of being bound to the Law, believers are bound to Christ, or are to draw their strongest moral imperatives from the gospel. Third, Paul engages in reappropriation. Having repudiated the Law as a legal code or covenant, and having replaced the Law with Christ and the gospel, he then moves back to the Law, not as a legally binding code, but as divine revelation that is still valid in the form either of prophetic witness to Christ or of wisdom for godly living.
Here are some good quotes to give you a taste:
“The striking theme about Paul’s use of the walking theme is that he never once says that believers should walk according to the law” (p. 87).
“Rather than linking knowledge of what pleases God to the law, Paul ties it to the gospel and an appropriate response of total dedication to God” (p. 92).
“Paul’s positive appropriation of the law for moral teaching is evidence neither of inconsistency (contradicting his insistence that believers are not under the law), nor an indication that his abrogation of the law is only partial (civil and ceremonial, but not the moral law). The key to understanding Paul’s use of the law for ethics is hermeneutical. If the law as law-covenant has been abolished, the law is still of value for Christian conduct as Scripture and as wisdom” (p. 160).
“Part of the answer to the objection that not being under law will lead to license and moral decline is that being under the law is overrated in terms of its moral value” (p. 167).
I agree with the substance of Rosner’s thesis, and it is nice to see the position articulated by a well-regarded Pauline scholar.
I do, however, have a few areas where I would want to formulate things more clearly.
First, I felt that Rosner’s explanation of Paul’s first hermeneutical move (repudiation) was a little oversimplified. Rosner focused on the fact that for Paul the Law was given to the Jews; therefore, it is not applicable to the Gentiles simply because they are not Jews and not the recipients of the Law. There is a measure of truth in this explanation, and Paul sometimes does speak that way. However, I believe there is also a deeper aspect of Paul’s thought. This comes to light in the passages where Paul speaks of believers as having died to the Law in union with Christ (Rom 7:1-6), which implies that we were in some sense under it. I think that the reason he can say that is because the Mosaic Law is a republication of the Adamic covenant of works, and therefore even Gentiles need to die to the Law in some sense in order to be freed from the law as a covenant of works in order to serve God in the new way of the Spirit.
Second, I think it would have been helpful if Rosner had spent more time showing that the Law does contain moral aspects, and that these moral aspects are carried over into “the law of Christ.” It is not that Rosner denies this. In fact he has a section devoted to the issue of “The moral order of creation, law and wisdom” (pp. 177-81). He affirms that “there is a moral aspect to the Mosaic law that is based on the creation’s moral order” (p. 179). He also appeals to Calvin’s view that “at the heart of the law’s demands is the call to live in accordance with the image of God” (p. 180). But I somehow felt that these affirmations in this section did not really comport with the rest of his reappropriation thesis, the focus of which was on using the Law as “wisdom” and as a source of “moral guidance” (p. 41).
Are there aspects of the Mosaic Law which, because they are rooted in the creation order and are moral in nature, are morally binding in all ages and on all people? I am sure Rosner would say that there are. Yet, commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Rosner writes: “Paul uses four terms to explain the usefulness of Scripture: ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (NIV). This posture is not one of seeing Scripture, including the law, as a binding norm to be obeyed, but as a valuable and necessary source for ethics to be read with profit” (p. 105). This is a fine statement if we are talking about Paul’s use of the Old Testament to provide guidance for running the church (e.g., Paul’s use of the Law in 1 Cor 9:9; 2 Cor 8:15; 13:1), but not if we are talking about the moral will of God. Surely the moral will of God is “a binding norm to be obeyed.”
But aside from those two concerns where I think his thesis could be sharpened and refined, I heartily recommend this book.