Paul, Judaism, & Legalism, Pt. 2

Robert Gundry sums up a traditional Protestant conception of first-century Judaism:

[T]he question is whether [Jews of Paul’s day] thought meritorious works on their part were needed to supplement God’s grace. Yes, they did, as another Dead Sea Scroll attests: “Now we have written to you some of the works of the Law …. And to your own benefit and that of Israel, it will be credited to you as righteousness when you do what is right and good before him [God]” (contrast with Rom. 4:1-6).

I stated yesterday that the popular assumption that first-century Judaism was a system of crass legalism is inappropriate.  This portrayal is simply wrong, misrepresents the varieties of Judaism of the first century, and leads to a misunderstanding of Paul before and after his conversion.

A second thought in light of Prof. Gundry’s response.  This traditional Protestant conception assumes a certain grammar or logic that connects Jewish statements of God’s grace and statements of the necessity of obedience.  As the above citation of Gundry reveals, that grammar is one of supplementation.  Jews thought that “meritorious works on their part were needed to supplement God’s grace.”

The problem here is that the very same phenomenon is pervasive in both the Scriptures of Israel and the New Testament.  Statements of God’s mercy and grace can be found alongside statements of the necessity of obedience.

In addition to a few passages noted by contributors to the conversation yesterday, one could cite a number of Psalms, including 15 and 145:19-20a.  God’s favor rests upon the righteous, the one who does what is right, the one who fears God. 

Mary utters Scripture-inspired praises in her Magnificat.  She extols the Lord, whose “mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear him.”

In Romans 2:5-8, Paul, in continuity with his Jewish heritage, states that the final judgment is in accordance with a person’s life-direction, that is, his works (as he does in 2 Cor. 5:10).

But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.

James agrees with Paul, configuring the grammar between faith and works similarly:

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:20-24).

The problem, then, for the traditional Protestant conception, in the wake of the Reformation, is what to do with passages that speak of God’s favor to those who fear him, his grace towards those who obey, and judgment according to works.  Since we find the very same phenomenon in the Scriptures of Israel and the New Testament as in Jewish texts, why do we not assume that the underlying grammar is not legalism?  On what basis do we assume that biblical passages have a grammar of grace while Jewish texts reveal a grammar of legalism?

23 thoughts on “Paul, Judaism, & Legalism, Pt. 2

  1. S Wu

    I find Romans 2:6 (“God will repay each person according to their deeds”) fascinating. It cites Psalm 62:12 and Prov 24:12. Psalm 62 uses a key word that Romans has in 1:16-17, namely, “salvation” (and the verb “save” appears quite often in Romans). The psalmist seeks to trust in Yahweh’s salvation, precisely because he will repay everyone according to their deeds. Because of his unfailing love (or “hesed” in the Hebrew, I think), and because he will repay everyone according to their deeds, one can trust in him for his salvation. I tend to think that Paul embraces this OT concept in Romans. He does not depart from it. It seems to me that Paul sees no apparent contradiction between judgment according to deeds and justification by pistis in Jesus the Messiah. What is constant in Paul, I think, is God’s covenantal love and faithfulness, revealed in the crucified Christ and and risen Lord.

  2. John Meunier

    We will be judged by our deeds but we are saved by grace through faith.

    I’m unclear why these are understood as contradictory.

  3. Daniel

    John 5:28-29 and Revelation 20:11-15 could be added to your list of passages which teach that the final judgment is based on your “life’s direction.”

    I like that phrase. I will have to use it in the future.

  4. bobmacdonald

    Psalm 62 ‘surely’ is worth a full read on this subject. The work is for the individual but the fine line between what is God’s and what is the individual’s is drawn in the differences between verses 2 and 6 (Hebrew numbering). The tension is between the individual nephesh being in silence or being mute and salvation, and the same individual silence and waiting. This psalm shares the recurring word ‘surely’ with psalm 39 with which it has other elements in common. Notably
    Surely the children of dust are futility
    a lie the children – each
    to ascend in the balance
    they are altogether weightless

    Ha ha – take care O beloved theologians. My translation is here where you can also see my colourful automated table of its keywords.

    The instruction to all (corporately and severally) is in verse 9: שִׁפְכוּ לְפָנָיו לְבַבְכֶם
    pour out before his face your heart
    – the word your heart is one lexical word in contrast to psalm 95 where ‘their heart’ is written as two lexical words (a unique enclitic failure in the Bible I suspect).

  5. Casey Bedell

    Good thoughts Tim. I really appreciate your blog.

    That the NPP has brought to the table a pluriform understanding of Judaism is common ground for both OPP and NPP folks. I think we all agree that this has been very helpful. As well, we need to say the same with Pharisaism, which does have an inherent legalism within some of its adherents. So to nuance the topic, we should see that Judaism does not equal Pharisaism, even if Pharisaism wanted to be equated with Judaism.

    So the main question is; how influential were the Pharisees within large tent Judaism?

    An obvious thing to remember is that the OPP readings concerned themselves with Pharisaism in particular and then Judaism in general. This does seem to be correct because Jesus himself spends so much time dealing with Pharisaism. Recall him saying, they justified themselves before men, they were lovers of money, they were hypocritical, they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were white washed tombs, they neglected justice and the love of God, they wanted to be seen by others, they exalted themselves, they loved the praise of man more than the praise of God.

    So when we read Paul, we are reading one who comes out of a form of Judaism and has a history for misunderstanding who Israel is suppose to be. We can’t equate Israel’s faith with the Pharisees faith, but we can assume that the Pharisees believed their faith was to be equated with what Israel’s faith was to be. Again, if the Pharisees had considerable influence, then OPP readings are helpful, because that is dealing with a particular form. The thing OPP readings needs to be clear on, is that the Pharisees were not the only representatives of Israel. This I think is what I see you saying.

    I do appreciate you working out the necessity of obedience in response to grace. Though I would be very clear on prioritizing grace in my own formulation.

    1. Jon Mcgill

      But are the OPP readings of Pharisaism (as it appears in the gospels) correct? Were the Pharisees attempting to amass enough good deeds to tip God’s salvation scale or earn his favor?

      1. timgombis

        That’s where I’m not on board. I don’t think that’s what they were doing and I don’t think Jesus scores them for being legalists. They were hypocrites, loved the praise of men, and were resistant to humbly receiving Jesus as Messiah.

      2. Casey Bedell

        Granted, but if we do consider their aims, even if political, justification/vindication from their perspective was assumed to be on the basis of them being the “true Israel”.

        I went back and read Wright’s chapter on the Pharisees and the Hopes of Israel in the NTPOG and like Tim said, there is little to work with to construct a genuine view of the Pharisees, but there is the common view that most sects within Judaism believed God would vindicate them because of their unique way of being Israel. For the Pharisees, it was their intensification of Torah.

        I think that gets back to Sharad’s remark about the fine line between legalism and ethnocentrism. As well, I think it gets back to the issue of being justified on the basis of works or according to works. Something Wright himself had to qualify.

    2. timgombis

      That may be an important distinction, Casey. The difficult thing is that traditional Protestant interpreters look to certain Jewish texts to demonstrate the presence of legalism. And we don’t have much historical evidence at all of Pharisaic activity or texts. The historical evidence is really quite negligible. To answer your question, then, it’s just tough to tell.

      There may be a kind of legalism inherent in Pharisaism, but I think it’s better to think along with Wright about their aims, which were largely political (though that isn’t meant to marginalize other aspects of what politics meant back then).

      And yes, Jesus does indeed roundly criticizue them and for the very reasons you mention. I often wonder if it’s because they were the one group among Jews who he thought would really accept him.

      I was thinking of hitting some of this in coming days, so stay tuned. As to your last point, that’s huge! But it’s got to be articulated rightly. That’s the trick…

  6. Jon Mcgill

    We could also add Hebrews 6:9-12 to your list, Tim.

    Right after the author finishes his bit on apostasy he turns to the congregation and tells them, “But we feel sure of better things–things belonging to salvation.” Why’s he so sure? Because God is not unjust.

    Here is what he doesn’t say: “God is not unjust because he sent His Son to satisfy His justice and by believing in that we can be declared right.”

    Rather, he says God is not so unjust “as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”

    So, within the context of (eschatological) salvation, the author says God would be unjust if he were to overlook their works and their love showed to all the saints when considering their future salvation.

    Granted the New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls (including numerous other Judaistic texts) and Hebrew scriptures all see the obedience of God’s people (fear of his name, etc.) issuing in God’s grace to them, how do we then understand the nature of grace? Because the general distinction I hear most of the time is between God’s grace and my inability to do anything remotely pleasing to God ever, not between God’s grace and my humble repentance and obedience (which sounds a bit more like “God gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud.”)

    1. timgombis

      Yes, great stuff, Jon! And yes, the typical ways of highlighting God’s grace may be off track, and I think they are. It’s not that God is so gracious that he’ll save even those who never repent! Obviously. Most would agree. So how is God gracious? In what ways does this manifest itself?

  7. Sharad Yadav

    I wonder whether legalism and ethnocentrism are mutually exclusive categories; it seems like both conditions rest on a platform of self-exaltation over against those outside the camp and an unwarranted assumption that God remains safely on one’s side against the outsider (whether because of heritage, meritorious effort or fortuitous association or whatever). People’s concern with “works” righteousness, it seems to me, is the inappropriate inference of self-sufficiency from what is otherwise praiseworthy ethical behavior. The concern of ethnocentrism is the inappropriate inference of self-sufficiency from otherwise praiseworthy religious heritage. The reason it can be called self-sufficiency regardless of professed recognition of God’s grace can be illustrated by Americans who believe that God’s grace has made them superior to the other nations of the world or by white supremacists’ claims that God’s mercy has favored them over other ethnic groups. In such cases the conditions which mark oneself out as specially favored over against another group are based upon some characteristic found in themselves. It might be helpful to get a clearer survey of what is meant by “legalism” in the first place; I sense that all parties involved in the debate are not using the term equivalently.

    1. timgombis

      Well-stated, Sharad. It does seem in many ways that a fresher or newer conception of Paul’s theology–both what he diagnosed as in error and what he commends as righteous–actually does include something very like “legalism.” That’s also why I’m uncomfortable with criticisms of Luther outright. Later associations of his work with Paul’s theology without remainder aren’t fair either to Paul or Luther. Both were going after slightly different symptons of human presumption. I’d like to try to get at some of that, but you’re dead-on in pointing this out.

      1. S Wu

        Well said! My sense is that when we come to the Scripture we should not separate religion, politics (not the terms of Western democracy, of course) and culture. Thus legalism and ethnocentrism are not mutually exclusive. (But I actually find the term “legalism” confusing in this debate.) Nationalism, social-racial identity, and religious rituals, for example, are closely connected. An individual might feel both guilty and shameful not to participate certain religious ritual, for it had something to do with their identity as a community and nation. We may call the religious ritual a “deed”, but it cannot be separated from other meanings – meanings that are real to the individual as well as the community. (Hence, we miss something significant every time we emphasize one and neglect the others.) In fact, in their worldview everything has a cosmic dimension. Satan, angels, and Yahweh’s mighty deeds are all part of the mix of their daily existence. Their hope and fear, joy and sorrow, all have something to do with their own personal and communal lives. (But I would think that the communal aspect is the dominant one.)

  8. Sharad Yadav

    (I think the most persuasive parts of the Justification and Variegated Nomism volumes – regardless of what one thinks of the way Carson marshals the contributors’ conclusions against the usefulness of covenantal nomism as an appropriate category – were those parts that seemed to soften the boundaries between these two notions of legalism and ethnocentrism)

  9. Steve W

    Interesting post, Tim. You noticed the grammar at work in Gundry’s statement and the world of connections that emerge from such a trajectory of discourse. Coincidentally, I was just reading Lindbeck and his treatment of grammar is quite interesting. Following the later Wittgenstein, he suggests that theological doctrines serve as rules for religious language. Thus, theology as grammar. Anyway, at least I think this is some of why he and others in the Yale narrative camp are so refreshing to post-conservatives…

    1. timgombis

      Yeah, Steve, and that’s why it’s so vital to get the grammar of the text right — it provides the basis for theological grammar in contemporary discourse. This gets back to McKnight’s book. He’s going after bad theological grammar among evangelicals and it all goes back to getting the NT grammar wrong. The bad grammar leads to theological discourse in the church that isn’t life-giving — or, isn’t as life-giving as it could be. It doesn’t open up life-giving, imagination-transforming vistas like it could!!

      1. Sharad Yadav

        I think Lindbeck’s project has a lot of genuinely helpful insight for theological method, but I think it might be going too far to say that he is following Wittgenstein. From what I can tell, it seems he has employed the “language-game” metaphor in a much broader context than anything which Wittgenstein himself would have used the term – namely as a heuristic description of forms of life that were far more discrete activities than could possibly be described in a whole religion. Moreover making the grammar or “rules of the game” prescriptive is thoroughly non-Wittgensteinian, since for him the “grammar” is a purely descriptive heuristic tool for understanding human activity. There are a lot of conceptual problems that seem to arise from these metaphors, not least of which is the question of how (or if) theological language affixes to reality. The theological question that arises out of that is whether changing our language changes our perceptions and opens up imagination transforming vistas or whether the Spirit causes us to encounter imagination transforming vistas that changes our language. Maybe the latter is probably a more Wittgensteinian notion than the former.

  10. Steve W

    Thanks, Sharad. Maybe “following” Wittgenstein was too much. Perhaps, “taking a cue from” might be better. These darn grammatical structures are getting in the way. I do think that Lindbeck is on to the way that reading first theologically (a case of “second-order” grammar) rather than (for him, “first- order” grammar) reading the narrative for its own coherent ideas does impose a set of “rules” on the grammar–rules that would not necessarily be there if the narrative were being dealt with more directly. Anyway, I think Lindbeck thinks “rules of the game” becoming prescriptive only happens if the narrative is dealt with in a–what?–non-“first order” way. I think I’m on the verge of making up my own words here. Thanks…

  11. Pingback: Elsewhere (09.14.2011) | Near Emmaus

  12. Scott C

    I have not read E. P. Sanders and only some of Wright, so I am not well versed in NPP. In any case, I wonder if this is much ado about nothing. It seems to me, unless I can be corrected, that most of what we know about the Pharisees comes from the gospels and to a quite lesser extent, Paul. IOW, I wonder if scholarship has tried to extract to much from too little with regard to extra-biblical Second Temple Judaism’s documentary sources. Having said that, with perhaps some nuance being necessary, I don’t find Jesus’ critiques of the Pharisees to be all that difficult to decipher.

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