Sundays With St. Paul: Nuances of “Law”…

For our discussion groups this week, we were asked to interact with the 16th chapter of Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul.[1] In this chapter, Westerholm discusses five key aspects of Paul’s usage of “law” (“nomos” in Greek[2]): its meaning, and its relation to “works,” faith, legalism, and Torah. Our goal was to utilize these nuances to find what Paul really meant when he used “law” – whether it be something ambiguous or something precise.

Another part of the assignment was to categorize all of Paul’s references to “law” as to what he might have meant by the term (i.e. Pentateuch, Sinaitic Law, OT in general, etc.). Although time-consuming, I found the exercise helpful in seeing how fluid “law” actually is, as Paul uses it. For instance, when Paul says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” in Romans 7:12, he means something else by “law” when he says, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good…” in 7:21.[3]

Westerholm’s discussion of “The Law and Legalism” was the particular part of the chapter I interacted with. Reacting to Cranfield’s claim that “what [Paul] really has in mind may be not the law itself but the misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we have a convenient term,”[4] Westerholm argues “the Greek language… provided, Paul’s vocabulary included, sufficient resources for indicating whether he was speaking of the law as intended by God or in the (allegedly) perverted form in which it was understood by Jews.”[5] Westerholm takes this into his next point: “that no such distinction is intended.”[6]

Overall, this is the part I interacted with the most. Paul’s lack of distinction doesn’t seem to indicate the words didn’t exist; it indicates he didn’t feel the need to separate them. Instead, he treats “law” as a single entity (almost always), but with various aspects that he highlights in order to make different points. It’s as though Paul had a box of crayons: sometimes he refers to the entire box; sometimes he refers to specific colors. We create problems for ourselves when we say that Paul was only talking about one color (i.e. legalism).

Now I know this might oversimplify the issue, but I think it points out how Paul did not seem to care which part of the law he was discussing; what mattered to him was how, in comparison to Christ, it was insufficient. Or as Westerholm puts it, “But – it must be emphasized – in Paul’s argument it is human deeds of any kind that cannot justify.”[7] It didn’t matter if it was the legalism crayon or the “Abraham is our father” crayon; the entire box is insufficient in comparison to Christ.

With that analogy exhausted, I think there might be one counterpoint to Westerholm’s statement about human deeds. In Romans 13:8, Paul says, “Own no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” I might be misunderstanding Paul here, but if what Westerholm says is true, that deeds cannot justify, then what do we make of loving one’s neighbor? And how does Christ play into all of this?

I’m not asking rhetorically; I’m asking because this was the one hang up I had in understanding Paul’s nuanced usage of “law.” If he treats the law as insufficient, which I think is a correct assessment of Romans, then how should we interpret Romans 13:8-10?

What do you think? Does Paul have one cohesive meaning of “law” or is it more ambiguous as I’ve suggested? And how might this alter our understanding of Paul’s Judaism – or the Judaism in Paul’s day?


[1] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New On Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Eerdmans, 2004), 297-340

[2] I have not studied Greek; this is second-hand information from my professor

[3] Emphasis mine

[4] C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Paul and the Law,” Scottish Journal of Theology 17 (1964), 55, referring to the terms “legalism,” “legalist,” or “legalistic.”

[5] Westerholm, Perspectives, 331

[6] Westerholm, Perspectives, 331

[7] Westerholm, Perspectives, 333

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Jeremy

Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

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