Paul, Judaism, & Legalism, Pt. 4

I’ve understood the terms “legalism” and “ethnocentrism” roughly along the following lines:

Legalism: seeking to accumulate merit through doing good deeds with the goal of presenting a claim to God for salvation.

Ethno-centrism: the notion that God’s salvation is limited to those who are “within the Law,” those who are ethnic Jews or who convert to Judaism.

Now, it may not be possible or even all that helpful to determine the extent to which Judaism was or wasn’t legalistic.  That may not even get us anywhere in understanding Paul.

Further, it seems that we must proceed text by text in Paul’s letters, seeking to understand just what Paul is commending and condemning in each passage.  Simply defining these terms, then, doesn’t get us very far since Paul is dealing with one thing Philippians 3 and something quite different in Galatians 3.

So I find myself of two minds about even defining these terms.  I want to go to distinct passages and describe with exact nuance the unique problem and Paul’s precise solution in each passage.  What’s more, we must keep in mind Sharad’s comment that these aren’t really mutually exclusive categories.

There’s so much more to say about Paul’s ambitions as a Pharisee and the impact of all this on the grammar of faith and works in the gospel.  For now, however, I’ll leave it there.  It’s Friday afternoon and I’m heading home to hang out with Riley for the evening.

Any thoughts on these definitions, how they need to be nuanced, and what the two dynamics might have in common?

8 thoughts on “Paul, Judaism, & Legalism, Pt. 4

  1. bobmacdonald

    My thoughts as a layman
    Merit and Salvation are both loaded terms in themselves
    within the Law is likewise loaded.

    My experience with the psalms is that to see them I had to imagine I am working within the poet’s framework at least as far as the evidence of the text allows me. In doing this, I have completely rethought my words about anointing, Christ, and the relationship of Jesus as one who reads the psalms to his own tradition. Does he identify with Yhwh or does he identify with the poet, or the king, or the anointed, and how. I don’t have enough experience to be definitive any which way

    My experience with Paul likewise is limited to the text I have absorbed. I would absorb it differently now with the 5 years of study of the psalms. I think for instance I have enough information on the birthing of the world in the psalms to identify this with the creation groaning in Romans 8. That changes completely my understanding of creation in the NT, grounding it in the will of Yhwh who both invites and confronts us with such birth pangs individually and ‘socially’, i.e. with a testimony in the great assembly.

    How does Paul relate to Torah etc – is he a shallow thinker? Hardly. So I cannot accept a surface usage of NT words to explain legalism or ethno-centrism. The psalms are ethno-centric as far as the election of Israel, but they are frequently also universal – to all who fear Yhwh – Ps 106 gives a mark of having been written by an outsider. (Mind you Paul has to start somewhere with those who are not of Israel – though he may consider them the seed of Ephraim – see the current JBL What do the Gentiles have to do with All Israel summer 2011 p 371).

    I tend to think that circumcision was the big issue and it was eventually seen as having been done within the crucifixion and baptismal symbolism – Col 2:11. This statement almost comes out of the blue – but the hints are in Romans if circumcision is seen as a type of death. This concord with a reading of the Psalter as well – at least I have not had to revise my thinking on this from before I read the psalms.

    So ‘within the Law’ – I suspect means the external markings in the flesh. But we are ‘of the Spirit’ through the death of Jesus who is the Anointed without measure, therefore the external marker is internalized through our death in him by the Spirit (Rom 8 again). So legalism is a non-issue since we have to work out the daily walk with the Teacher who also is the giver of Torah and the Teacher of the psalms – where the same lessons of obedience of faith are learned in this age and in the past ages in the same way. (At least that is how I read them). There too Salvation is a given: we begin with the threat – ps 3:3 no salvation for the elect, David, the poet etc. The psalmist prays for it – knows it is with Yhwh (3:8-9) and has no doubt about his or her part in it (9:31, 15:6 I will rejoice in your salvation, 25:5 you are my God, my salvation), and so on – there is no question of merit – everything – all teaching, rebuke, refereeing, are in God and with God and so belong also to the elect in him whether that be poet, king, Israel, Judah, Aaron, or all and any who fear.

    Just a few thoughts.

    1. joey

      This is good. There is so much rich theology and doctrine in the Psalms that we don’t hear about. You do a good thing in pursuing it and teaching it to others.

    2. timgombis

      Brilliant stuff, Bob — so much here! Autobiographically, what led me to a dissatisfaction with certain conceptions of ‘Paul & the Law’ was my long-standing love for the Psalms. I soaked my mind in the psalms for several years as an undergrad and then encountered a group of folks with a crass ‘Law-Gospel’ antithesis and it made no sense to me. That antithesis, however, undergirds many forms (not all) of Reformed theology and afflicts popular evangelicalism. This is so unfortunate and mind-boggling for those who taste the goodness of the Lord throughout the Scriptures.

      1. bobmacdonald

        Tim and Joey – thanks for your encouragement. I am delighted to find others who have immersed themselves in the psalms. I wish for a new word for the chasidim, those who are the merciful or targets of God’s covenant mercy. I think the psalms are the story of the formation of this class of people, these merciful and mercied ones. While I think it coheres with the ‘saints’ of the NT, I think ‘saints’ doesn’t work (though that is often the KJV rendering). The mercied is how I rendered it a couple of times. My spell checkers don’t like that word!

  2. Allen Browne

    Legalism and ethno-centrism are not confined to Jew, e.g.
    In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, the father of the bride says something like this: “There are two types of people in the world: Greeks, and those who wish there were Greeks.” That’s ethno-centrism: a focus on who’s in, who’s out, and the benefits of being in.
    The Yolƞu (aboriginal tribe in Arnhem Land, northern Australia) believed they were given a language and a to live by the creator spirit. “This way is called the Madayin. There is no equivalent for Madayin in English as it encompasses a whole system of law and living. It includes [13 bullet points].” Trudgen, Richard. “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die” (ARDS, 2000), 13.
    Might it help to think of these terms more broadly than the narrow categories we sometimes argue in if we are to understand the human/sociological pressures?

    1. timgombis

      Yes, this is spot-on. It’s a perennial human problem, which is why I think that readings of Paul that tap into the problem he’s diagnosing the solutions he commends are actually far more applicable to our lives and our world today. I think that Dunn actually hints at this sort of thing in his initial 1982 lecture.

      By the by, I think some in my family might actually agree with the thrust of your MBFGW quote!!

  3. joey

    It seems to me that one of the problems that has arisen out of the OPP is that we moderns (especially we lay people) think that the Torah was ACTUALLY ABOUT “legalism” or “earning salvation.” (We have then in many ways come to despise the Law. That is unfortunate.) Whether or not first century Jews believed that the Law was about Lutheran-type legalism is a valid issue to be discussed. But was “the God of the OT” actually a legalist? Did God himself view the Law as a way of “earning” salvation? (salvation is not the right word, I know)
    Whether or not first century Jews had a legalistic/salvation-earning understanding of Torah needs to be discussed. But, along the way, we average church-goers need to hear that the Law was not ACTUALLY about earning anything. The Law was ALL ABOUT grace. Grace, grace grace!
    (And if the Law was actually about grace, surely Paul knew that, right?!)

  4. S Wu

    I think these definitions help me to know where you are coming from. What you have been saying over these four posts make a lot of sense. It has been a great conversation.

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