Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Book Reviews


Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God
(New Studies in Biblical Theology)
Brian S. Rosner, Apollos, 2013, 256pp, £14.99

In this excellent study, Brian Rosner wades into a discussion which he likens to trench warfare: “no clear winners, hardly any progress, many casualties, no sign of an armistice or even a détente” (23), and to carving a chicken: “fairly easy to start well, but you quickly have to make some tricky decisions (about which everyone has an opinion), and it’s very easy to end up with a sticky mess with lots of bits left over that no one knows what to do with” (25). To extend the latter metaphor, Rosner’s book is a work of resourceful cooking, using up all the left-overs, and presents us with a solution to the much discussed problem of Paul’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the law, which resembles some neat hermeneutical carvery, even if we may spit out a few bones along the way.

Rosner opens his first chapter with quotes from five New Testament scholars, all of whom have described Paul’s relationship to the law as “complex”. More specifically, this complexity surrounds the “apparent incon-sistency” in which Paul’s letters present “both negative critiques and positive approval of the law” (24). The solution, according to Rosner, is a hermen-eutical one in which Paul makes three moves: firstly he repudiates the law as law-covenant, secondly he replaces the law and thirdly he re-appropriates the law as prophecy and wisdom. The remainder of the book is given to demonstrating and explaining these three moves.

The first move, in which Paul is understood to repudiate the law as law-covenant, is dealt with in the second and third chapters in which Rosner deals with Paul’s “explicit” and “implicit” repudiation of the law, respectively. In dealing with the “explicit” evidence, which looks at what Paul says in regard to his negative stance towards the law, he limits the material to what he considers to be “two of the most critical pieces of evidence” (47) – Paul’s assertion that believers are not under the law and his use of Lev 18:5. He argues that Paul’s phrase “under the law” refers to the natural status of any Jew, under the jurisdiction of the law of Moses, and that Paul’s exegesis of Lev 18:5 in Gal 3 and Rom 10 shows that he understood the essence of this law-covenant to be “its call for something to be done in order to find life” (72). This call has failed as a result of human sin, and as Paul writes in Eph 2:15, Christ has abolished the law with its commands and ordinances, meaning that the law-covenant which promises life for obedience has been done away with. Chapter 3 continues to examine Paul’s repudiation of the law-covenant by taking note of the “implicit” evidence. Here he demonstrates that Paul does not say, as he does of the Jews, that Christians do, keep, observe, transgress, walk according to or learn the law.

The second move is that in which Paul replaces the law. Here Rosner accumulates a range of strong evidence from Paul’s letters to argue that for believers, the law has been replaced by the law of Christ, faith and the Spirit. The evidence presented includes the “Christ-Torah antithesis” in Gal 2:19-20 and Phil 3:7-8, the substitution of the law of Moses for the law of Christ /faith/the Spirit in Gal 6:2, 1 Cor 9:21, Rom 3:27 and 8:2, passages which describe believers fulfilling the law through love such as Rom 8:3-4 and Gal 5:13-14 and the language of new life in Rom 6:4, 2 Cor 5:17 and Gal 6:15. Further, Rosner presents the “circumcision is nothing” sayings, 1 Cor 7:19 (a passage which is dealt with more thoroughly in the first chapter), Gal 5:6 and 6:15, to show that circumcision is replaced “not by some other part of the law of Moses but by something else” (128). The “something else” includes apostolic instruction (1 Cor 7:19), love produced by faith in Christ (Gal 5:6) and new creation (Gal 6:15). In summary, “We do not seek to walk according to the law, but according to the truth of the gospel, in Christ, in newness of resurrection life, by faith, in light and in step with the Spirit” (134).

Paul’s re-appropriation of the law, the third move according to Rosner’s proposal, is explored in chapters 5 and 6 according to its two-fold form of prophecy and wisdom. As Rosner demonstrates the prophetic re-appropriation of the law in chapter 5, he explains this not as a change in genre, but as a new prophetic significance in light of the death and resurrection of Christ (143). Here he argues that Paul’s use of Deut 9:4 and 30:11-14 in Rom 10:6-9 is a re-appropriation of the law as prophecy, raising the question as to whether the whole law should be read in such a way, before citing five Old Testament scholars who have understood the Pentateuch as in some way prophetic. This is followed by a closer look at the way Paul re-appropriates the law as prophecy in the whole of Romans. When he turns to the re-appropriation of the law as wisdom in chapter 6, Rosner demonstrates his strong grasp of contemporary Pauline scholarship by surveying the current debates surrounding Paul’s use of the law in his moral teaching. He then outlines the use of the law as wisdom in the Psalter and in wider literature, arguing Paul’s use of the law as wisdom is analogous to the examples given from the Psalms in that he “internalizes the law, undertaking reflective and expansive applications, based in part on the moral order of creation and the character of God that stand behind the law” (188).  

The final chapter helpfully summarises Rosner’s thesis, that Paul repudiates, replaces and re-appropriates the law, which he compares to a restaurant manager who fires a waitress, replaces her and then hires her again as the maître d’ and the sommelier. He also offers some very helpful tables which outline how Paul makes these moves in several of his letters. 

Throughout the book, Rosner proves himself to have an excellent grasp on contemporary Pauline scholarship as well as the biblical and relevant extra-biblical material. His unflinching use of the Pastoral epistles and other “disputed letters” which are all too often left out is commendable and even provides a useful contribution towards their defence as Pauline, demon-strating aspects of their consistency with the rest of the Pauline canon. Much of this book should be uncontroversial for evangelicals, as Rosner admits (218-19). For example, we recognise the re-appropriation of the law as prophecy whenever we understand a passage to be “pointing to Christ”. His strategy of finding a hermeneutical solution helpfully moves beyond exegesis of particulars into a search for a wider framework for understanding Paul’s thought. The book is also structured very well, with very useful chapter sum-maries which are compiled at the end of the book in order to present the whole argument in summarised form.

Rosner’s thesis is, however, not without its problems. One of these is the extent to which he relies upon what is essentially an argument from silence when developing Paul’s “implicit” repudiation of the law-covenant. Whilst it is true that Paul never explicitly says “Christians should obey the law”, his use of the commandments in Rom 13:8-10 and Eph 6:2 suggest that he was comfortable applying them to Christians rather directly. Another problem is the vagueness surrounding Paul’s re-appropriation of the law as wisdom; despite the contrast with the use of the law in the Psalms, it is hard to see a consistent and repeatable pattern within this paradigm. This partly, I believe, rests on Rosner’s insistence of maintaining the law’s unity, which leads him to a rejection of the traditional threefold distinction of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial categories. He is right to say that these distinctions are never explicit in Paul (or the rest of Scripture for that matter) and he does recognise them as useful implications of a redemptive-historical reading of the law, even if in a limited sense (35-36). However, Paul is clearly very aware of the New Covenant realities which stand behind the three-fold distinction, even if the categories themselves are not present in his thought, and such a redemptive-historical filter is necessary in part for understanding his selective “re-appropriation” of the law, even if we maintain the “wisdom” paradigm.

This book is a very strong contribution towards the debates surrounding Paul and the law and will be useful for anyone already interested in the discussions or even as a good introduction to them. Whilst not everyone will be convinced by aspects of his methodology and exegesis, this hermeneutical approach to Paul and the law is a fresh step forwards and will hopefully stimulate further debate on the wider structure of Paul’s thought in this area.

Jack O’Grady
PhD student in Theology, King’s College London and previously on the staff of Duke Street Church, Richmond


What Is the Mission of the Church?
Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission 
Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, Crossway, 2011, 288pp, £10.99

There is much confusion in the modern church about its role in the world. Anxious that the love of God is displayed to the nations, it has heavily promoted social justice. This emphasis is clearly a response to the Lausanne Commission on Evangelism, held in 1996, when the assembled delegation recognised the church’s recent failings to engage with issues of social justice. The Commission urged that the church should recognise the gospel was for the whole man and not just for his soul.

In response to this challenge, there has been a plethora of books and articles using language that contains the word “mission”. So, as DeYoung and Gilbert observe:

the language now relates to almost anything. There is the mission to engage with ecological issues, the mission to eradicate poverty, to regenerate urban areas and many others. We now have the situation where churches have missions in which the emphasis is to clean up a local community of its litter and graffiti or to care for the elderly. All these are of course worthwhile activities, but to describe it as Christian mission is going beyond a legitimate use of the term mission. The mission of a company, or a crack unit in the army for example, focuses on the one task that they are responsible for, and cleaning the streets is not the one task the church is called to do!

Thus, the burden of the authors is to sort out how this language of mission has come to be applied to almost everything the church does, resulting in the loss of true mission, i.e., the evangelism of individuals, communities and nations through the preaching of the good news of the Saviour’s death and resurrection.

The book is well structured. The opening chapter reflects on recent trends in order to demonstrate the confusion concerning mission. The authors see that one of the aims of their book is “to guard the church from these errors”.  They acknowledge their own failure to respond adequately to social need and emphasise that they do not wish to be divisive; however, they are convinced that a voice has to be raised to alert the church to its drift away from gospel proclamation. They are sensitive, but do not shrink from shining the light on those who have contributed, in their judgment, to the confusion, including some of the most respected evangelical writers and preachers.

Chapter two is an overview of the NT’s teaching on mission. They examine this material against the OT teaching which the apostolic church inherited and was guided by. They note that there is no suggestion that the call of Israel to be the servant of the Lord had anything to do with the social improvement of the surrounding nations. They acknowledge, of course, that the NT’s teaching about mission must override the OT’s if there is any conflict between the two, and they note that the distinctive feature of NT mission is that the “church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. This is our task. This is our unique and central calling” (26).

In this second chapter, the authors examine the way Jesus used OT servant passages to describe and validate his own ministry. Clearly, he saw that the focus of his ministry was to be spiritual emancipation rather than social. They observe how these same OT texts were eventually applied to the church and her mission – evidence that her focus was to be the same as that of Jesus. They give special attention to the Great Commission, and explore the meaning of “the poor” who are the recipients of the good news. Again, it is by reference to Isaiah’s servant imagery that the identity of “the poor” is settled: they are not the materially poor but the poor in heart. They scrutinise the various accounts of the Commission and how the apostles interpreted it, noting what they gave their energies to as shown in the book of Acts. They conclude that Luke shows that the mission of Jesus was “being fulfilled as the Word of God increases and multiplies” (51). The authors also look at John’s Gospel and the Pauline letters, and show that there was a common understanding that the mission of the church was the proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship and his call, delivered by the apostles, to repentance and faith.

The third chapter is an overview of the biblical narratives of creation, the fall, and the new creation, showing how David (Christ) emerges as the centre of the NT’s story of redemption. It is a basic study, but helpful for those not familiar with biblical theology.

In the fourth chapter, entitled “Understanding the Good News”, the authors discuss the danger of adding to the essentials of the gospel. They acknowledge that good works are a valid test of authentic mission but insist that they are not at its heart. Noting how some understand ecological concerns and actions to be part of the church’s mission, the authors ask:

Are there two gospels? Are they two different things, but connected like two wings of a bird? Is the gospel of the cross part of the gospel of the kingdom? If so, is it central to it, or peripheral to it, or just one part among many, or something else entirely? For that matter, why are the New Testament writers content to call the one blessing of forgiveness of sin through the death of Christ “the gospel”, but no other single blessing by itself ever warrants that dignity/ why do we never see Paul saying, “And that’s the gospel: that the earth will be renewed”? Or why does he never preach, “The gospel is the good news that Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled to one another through Jesus”? Why is the forgiveness of sins so readily called “the gospel” while no other particular blessing is? (107)

In this fourth chapter, the relationship between biblical statements, called wide-angle and zoom texts, is examined. The former give a broad-stroke picture of the blessings that the “gospel of the kingdom” bring, while the latter focus on the gospel’s heart. This is a very helpful chapter, teaching the reader the crux of the NT message.

Chapter five, entitled “Kings and Kingdoms”, is an excellent introduction to the biblical theology of the “kingdom of God”, helping the reader to appreciate the term’s different nuances. A concluding statement is worthy of quotation: “Jesus is not just King; he is the suffering King. Not just King Jesus the Great, but King Jesus the Crucified and Resurrected!” The authors point out that this confession defines membership of the kingdom: it is made up of those who have submitted to this king and have responded to his command to follow him.

Chapter six is another excellent guide, exploring social justice from a biblical perspective. The authors do not deny the importance of seeking this for all people, but they rightly show that many of the biblical passages used to support the social gospel were written so that specific redemptive points could be made. By removing these, the passages lose their redemptive clarity and become mere slogans for supporting particular political actions. They work through the twelve key passages that speak of social justice and show how they relate primarily to the freeing of spiritual prisoners, which is the mission of the church. They are clear that failure to engage in this task can never be compensated for by programmes of social justice alone, however many or sincerely pursued. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book!

In the seventh chapter, the authors give a brief history of the ideas of political social justice. They work through texts which show that care of the underprivileged is not a responsibility that the church can hand over to government or agencies. The authenticity of the gospel is demonstrated in the behaviour of the church, and its care of the underprivileged has been a crucial element in the triumph of the good news. However, they are aware that caring for the poor raises numerous questions: Who are the poor? Since we cannot be responsible for the poor of the whole world, who should we be responsible for? Is it right that some people have more wealth than others? It is in this chapter that there is the likelihood of division amongst reviewers and readers as the authors clearly favour a capitalist model. As a Brit born into a working-class family, I have a different take on this side of their presentation! However, I would not want this difference of opinion to undermine my recommendation of their theological presentation, which is excellent; nor would I want to deny the incredible generosity of many wealthy Christians.  

Chapter eight, entitled “Understanding the New Heavens and the New Earth”, is an introduction to the topic of the New Creation in biblical theology. As the Christian community is still part of human society, questions are raised as to whether it is responsible for this fallen, rebellious world. Basing their argument on Jeremiah’s call to those exiled in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city, the authors urge that Christians should not withdraw from the world as many have done throughout church history.

Chapter nine explores the responsibility of churches and individual Christians to do good works as part of their Christian testimonies. Again, there is the reminder that feeding a person and not sharing the good news with him can be dangerous for both, for we can delude ourselves into thinking that we have fulfilled our Christian obligation. Demonstrating the good news is not the same as declaring the good news; both should go hand in hand.

In chapter ten, entitled “What it Means and Why it Matters”, the authors make a final appeal for the priority of the evangelical message, i.e., the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

The final chapter is a fictitious encounter between an older “mainstream” pastor and a young church-planter, who has sought the older man’s advice. It seeks to be positive to those involved in movements such as the emerging church, which challenges the practices and, possibly, priorities of other congregations. It is a useful chapter, but for this reviewer it does not sit comfortably in the book as it is so different in style and substance to the earlier ones. Perhaps there is room for a separate book, written in this narrative style, which seeks to bring the minds and hearts of these two sections of the church together. It would be challenging to write, but a very helpful contribution to today’s church.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that every pastor/theological student should read this book. Indeed, because of the importance of the issues with which it deals, I would recommend it to be required reading for all seminary student before they graduate.

Tom Holland
Director of biblical research at WEST