From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (SuppNovT 61)

Written by Frank Thielman Reviewed By D. A. Carson

This is the published form of Thielman’s doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of D. Moody Smith at Duke University. His concern is to examine afresh the extraordinarily complex questions surrounding Paul’s understanding of the law. In his first chapter, Thielman summarizes the debate from Montefiore to Dunn. Before the work of E.P. Sanders, scholars tended to congregate around four positions: (1) Some (Windisch, Grundmann, Bläser) argued that Jewish soteriology turned on works-righteousness, and that Paul’s polemic against Judaism was in this respect telling and right on the mark. (2) Some (Montefiore, Parkes) thought Paul unintelligible if interpreted against the background of rabbinic soteriology, but could be explained by appealing to the pessimism inherent in Paul’s background in Hellenistic Judaism. (3) Others thought Paul’s position the logical development of his knowledge of Jewish eschatology—whether grounded in his quarrel with Judaizing opponents (Schweitzer, Davies) or in his familiarity with the pessimism of Hellenistic Judaism (Schoeps). (4) Still others (Moore, Enslin, Bultmann, Wilkens and others) judged Paul’s view to be unintelligible on any reading of Jewish background and law, but explainable ‘on the basis of his prior conviction that Jesus was the universal savior’ (p. 25). Thielman summarizes the criticisms that were levelled against each group, but argues that the weaknesses of the first three groups seemed especially strong, leaving the fourth group to pave the way for E.P. Sanders. Thielman summarizes Sanders’ view, and briefly reports the criticisms offered by Räisänen, Weder and Dunn, along with some weaknesses in their own positions.

Sanders thinks that Paul can be understood only if we see that he argues ‘from solution to plight’: Paul has already accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and works backward from that ‘solution’. Thielman’s contribution lies in his attempt to delineate within ancient Judaism a pattern of argument that runs from plight to solution, a pattern that Paul adopts in Galatians and Romans. Thielman’s brief (pp. 28–45) second chapter sets out the pattern within Judaism; his third and fourth chapters treat Galatians and Romans respectively. The fifth chapter (‘Paul, Torah, and Judaism in Galatians and Romans’) is a summary of the argument, along with some pointed suggestions as to how various components in the current debate should be modified in the light of this thesis. An appendix engages the work of Lloyd Gaston and John G. Gager on Paul’s view of the law.

The pattern that Thielman uncovers runs like this: Some authors speak of Israel’s failure in terms of disobedience to the law, and of Israel’s redemption ‘in terms of God’s intervention on her behalf to enable her to keep the law’ (p. 28). Half of the second chapter traces this pattern in the OT. The other half is evenly divided between the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially 1QH) and other Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. Thielman thinks this same pattern ‘from plight to solution’ is found in Galatians and Romans. The law still functions in the eschatological community of believers, as they are enabled to ‘fulfil’ it through the power of the eschatological Spirit. Paul is negative toward those parts of the law that divide Jew from Gentile (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath-keeping—overtones of Dunn’s position), but this ‘does not threaten the place which he gives to the ethical commands of the law in the eschatological age’, and indeed in this he is following ‘a common tendency within the literature of Diaspora Judaism’ (p. 118). If Paul passes negative judgments about the law’s capacity to command obedience, these judgments do not themselves suggest that the law has been abrogated simpliciter. ‘Only the law’s effect of defining sin and enclosing the sinner under sin along with the subsequent curse of the law has been abolished, not the law itself (p. 118).

There is no doubt that Thielman is right to emphasize the pattern he first draws from the pages of the OT. The question is whether this provides an adequate explanation of Paul’s use of the law. What justification does the pattern provide for abrogating those parts of the law that divide Jews and Gentiles? Might he not have read in the pattern that the Gentiles should join the Jews? Where does the pattern establish the abrogation (or at least the principal irrelevance) of the sacrificial and priestly laws as lex? Does Paul think the eschatological community should prescribe capital punishment in the case of adultery? Although there is a handful of passages that make some sort of connection between ethics and law, is it not much more typical of Paul to tie his ethics to the Spirit, or to what it means to live up to the calling we have in Christ, or to obedience to Christ or the like? True, Thielman rightly emphasizes those passages that picture the Christian fulfilling the law through the Spirit. But what does this mean? Does it mean the law continues as lex? Does typology enter at some point? Is there a prophetic element in law (cf. Rom. 3:21b)? Does Paul view the law as lex, or as law-covenant (now superseded by a ‘new covenant’?), or as anticipatory model (‘type’?)? How much does his understanding of νόμος change from context to context?

Thielman’s book is too brief to answer the difficult questions. His thesis is an updated version of a major stream in classic Protestantism, and is to be welcomed in that, over against many current trends, it does help us to see there are more lines of continuity than is sometimes thought, and that the pattern that argues from plight to solution should not be dismissed too quickly. But I doubt that this book will convince many that the problems Thielman completely outlines in his first chapter will be greatly alleviated by these proposals.

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and president of The Gospel Coalition.