Book Review: Paul and the Law by Brian S. Rosner

3 Jan

When rock climbing it is always a good thing to find solid footholds and places to grasp with your hands. Scaling a rock face is much easier when good footholds are available. The same principle applies to the study of theology. When an author or preacher or theologian can give us categories from which to consider complex theological topics, we can find the mental and spiritual climb is a bit easier and our progress becomes steady.
Brian Rosner, in his book Paul and the Law, gives us such footholds for the climb up one of Paul’s most difficult and complex topics, the relation of the Christian to the law.
In 222 pages Rosner explores Paul’s view of the law from all sides, first laying out the difficulty of the topic which has perplexed scholars for years. Rosner defines “law” as the first five books of the Bible in their fullness, not merely as the rules or laws contained within them. So for Rosner, the question is not, “which parts of the law are Christians to keep?” but “what is the Christian to do with the law as a whole?”
What sets Rosner’s approach apart to me is his commitment to analyze all that Paul says about the law and hold the many facets of Paul’s approach together. The result of this stud is that Rosner affirms three approaches to the law in the writings of Paul: 1. Repudiation 2. Replacement and 3. Reappropriation. Rosner says Paul repudiates the law for Christians as a legal code and as a way that leads to salvation or life with God. But this is not the whole story. Paul also replaces the law with the work of Christ as we move from the old covenant to the new covenant, from letters written on stone to the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts. If we just took these two aspects of the law into account, we could conclude that the law has little to no ongoing value for the Christian. But in bringing out the aspect of reappropriation, Rosner illustrates that the law does have ongoing worth, while at the same time not putting believers under a burden of law-keeping from which they have been delivered by Christ. The law is reappropriated as prophecy, that which witnesses to the gospel of Christ and it is reappropriated for ethics, to be read as wisdom from God for guiding our lives.
Having laid out these three aspects of Paul’s dealing with the law in chapter one, Rosner goes on in the following chapters to explain in depth each of the three aspects. He begins with the chapter “Not Under the Law,” where he explains Paul’s repudiation of the law. Interacting extensively with the Pauline corpus and with Paul’s use of the Old Testament, Rosner shows how Paul has decisively stated that those in Christ are not under the law. But of course, as we have seen above, this is not the whole story. Rosner’s third chapter, “Not Walking According to the Law” also deals with repudiation, but from a different angle. Whereas chapter two brings out those cases in which Paul explicitly denies the ongoing work of the law in the believer’s life, chapter three goes at it from the angle of what Paul does not say. Namely, Rosner shows how Paul never calls the Christian to keep the law or walk according to the law in the sense of observing the law like a person under the old covenant.
Chapter four, “Under the Law of Christ,” deals with the issue of replacement. Rosner shows how Paul made it clear that Christ changed everything. Christians are in Christ, not under the law. Christians have fulfilled the law through the righteousness of Christ and live out their obedience to God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter five, Rosner tackled the issue of reappropriation by showing that Paul views the law as prophecy. As Paul says in Romans 1:2, the gospel was “promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” Rosner convincingly shows that this phrase refers not only to the latter prophets of the Old Testament but to the Old Testament as a whole, including the law. It is clear from Paul’s use of illustrations from the law (Adam, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau) that Paul sees a clear foretelling role for the law. In this way, the law points toward Christ, in the right direction, both by showing us the perfection of God and our inability to keep the law, driving us to Christ. Thus the law is reappropriated as prophecy.
Rosner uses a second chapter to discuss reappropriation as he comes to chapter 6, entitled “Written for Our Instruction.” Here Rosner posits that the law should be reappropriated not only as prophecy but also as wisdom. This chapter is the longest in the book. Rosner takes significant time to show how Old Testament wisdom literature, particularly the Psalms, exposited the law from commandment to principles for living. Rosner says Paul approaches the law much like the Psalmist, finding in the law ethical principles and values but not looking at the law as being something Christians are under. One of the most intriguing examples Rosner gives is the example of tithing. Paul had many opportunities to urge the Old Testament practice of tithing, but he never does. He gives principles consistent with the law but never demands Christians to live under the law as covenant code. Thus the law is reappropriated as wisdom for living.
Having thoroughly surveyed Paul’s three uses of the law, Rosner concludes by tying his approach together in chapter 7, “Keeping the Commandments of God.” This chapter serves as a summary of Rosner’s main points as well as an opportunity to demonstrate how the different uses of the law play out in Paul’s writings. Helpful charts in this chapter show the different ways Paul used the law in Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 & 2 Timothy. Interestingly, Rosner shows the three uses of the law (actually he divides reappropriation into two parts in the charts — prophecy and wisdom) are in each one of these books. In other words, the three-fold use of the law by Paul shows up across the board in his writings. He is going back and forth between uses within particular books.
Rosner closes the book with a summary of Paul’s uses of the law and an explanation of why Paul’s approach was so radical in light of the Judaism of his day. The book concludes with a lengthy bibliography and extensive Scripture index.
This is an important book. Rosner’s approach to Paul and the law resonated with me and by and large I buy in to his explanations and to his fully-orbed view of Paul and the law. Working from the baseline Rosner has given us provides Christians with a good foundation from which to expound all of Scripture in a gospel-focused, Christ-centered way.

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