Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Questions about the Mosaic Law in Paul's Theology

It's a pleasure today to interview Dr. Jason Meyer, assistant professor of religion (New Testament and Greek) at Louisiana College in Pineville, Louisiana. His new book, published by B&H Academic, is called The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology--a dissertation completed at SBTS under Tom Schreiner. At the end of the interview I've reproduced some of the blurbs from Schreiner, Seifrid, Piper, and Porter, among others.

1. Tell us a bit about the methodology you employed in seeking to answer the question, “What is the character of the Mosaic covenant in the theology of Paul?”

One's methodology has a decisive effect upon the formation of one's conclusions. Some studies of "covenant" in Paul restrict the object of study to the eight occurrences of covenant (diathēkē) in chronological order (Gal 3:15, 17; 4:24; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; Rom 9:4; 11:27). James D. G. Dunn is a notable proponent of this approach. Evangelical scholars would add Ephesians 2:12 to this list, while others categorically exclude this text from consideration because they classify it as "deutero-Pauline."

Frankly, I am a little surprised that scholars still adopt this approach in the present era of biblical studies. Remember that this present era prides itself on its linguistic advances over previous generations. It is a generation that supposedly came to the point of wholesale repentance over their linguistic fallacies because of the expose of James Barr and his book The Semantics of Biblical Language.

Dunn's approach, however, proves that the "word equals concept" fallacy is alive and well. This fallacy would essentially say that a concept only appears in Scripture when a particular word appears in Scripture. For example, where would someone look when studying the cross of Christ in Paul's thought? It may be helpful to start with the places where Paul uses the term "cross" (stauros) or "crucify" (stauroō), but it would be just that – a starting point. This study would require the student of Paul to examine an expansive set of terms that collectively contribute to our understanding of the concept of the cross in Paul. The next set of terms to study would include words like "death," and "blood." A fuller study would be forced to examine even metaphors like "the circumcision of Christ" in Colossians 2:11 (which many think is a metaphor for his death) or phrases like "for sin" (peri hamartias) in Romans 8:3 (which many believe refers to Jesus' death as a sin offering). Christians read texts like Romans 8:3 and instinctively know that it speaks of God sending His Son to die for our sins, even though they are hard pressed to answer which word conveys the concept of death or sacrifice for sin.

My methodology self-consciously attempted to build upon Stanley Porter's excellent essay on the concept of covenant in Paul in which he argued for an approach that looked at the wider semantic domain of covenant. He also advocated analyzing the uses of "covenant" in each context in which it appears in order to see if other covenant terminology would come to the forefront. I added three other factors for consideration, which resulted in a five-fold methodological focus: (1) semantic domain, (2) immediate contextual usage, (3) grammatical links between terms or concepts (i.e., "covenants of the promise" [Eph 2:12] or expressions like "ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit" [2 Cor 3:6]), (4) Old Testament precedents (i.e., awareness of prior semantic links like the connection between "law" and "covenant"), and (5) multiple attestation (i.e., instances where Paul draws a connection more than once between two terms or ideas).

2. In what sense did Paul see the Mosaic covenant as “old”?

I argue that Paul conceived of the Mosaic covenant as "old" in the sense that it is fundamentally non-eschatological in contrast to the eschatological nature of the new covenant. In other words, Paul declares that the Mosaic covenant is now old because it belongs to the old age, while the new covenant is new because it belongs to the new eschatological age. The fact that the "old" covenant belongs to the "old" age has enormous implications for determining its character. The old age is transitory and impotent and therefore the Mosaic covenant is both temporary and ineffectual. It called for the right things like internalizing the law ("These things that I am commanding you today shall be upon your hearts" [Deut 6:6]; "circumcise the foreskin of your hearts" [Deut 10:16]), but it lacked the power to create that for which it called. Therefore, Paul can say that "the letter kills" (2 Cor 3:6).

3. In what sense did Paul see the “new covenant” as “new”?

In contrast to the temporary and ineffectual nature of the old covenant, the new covenant is both eternal and effectual because it belongs to the new age and partakes of the power of the new age, the Holy Spirit. We are not looking for a "newer" new covenant to come along in order to fix the problems with the present "new" covenant. This consideration takes us back to methodology. When I began my research on this topic, I was surprised that the available studies on the contrast between the old and new covenants in Paul did not take the time to examine the other "old" versus "new" contrasts in Paul in order to see if they shared a common approach or perspective. In each of these contrasts, I would argue that Paul's eschatology created the contrasts between what he labels as old and new. I found a great quote from Geerhardus Vos in this respect. He says that “the comprehensive antithesis of the First Adam and the Last Adam, sin and righteousness, the flesh and the Spirit, law and faith” are “precisely the historic reflections of the one great transcendental antithesis between this world and the world-to-come.” Paul contrasts the old and the new because the new age has come. This invasion of the age to come into the present evil age creates eschatological contrasts.

Another way to state the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant is as follows. As the eschatological covenant, the new covenant consists of what one could call “eschatological intervention,” while the old covenant does not. God intervenes through His Spirit in the new eschatological age in order to create that for which he calls in the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant lacked this power to produce what it demanded. One could illustrate this point in the following poem attributed to John Berridge:
To run and work the law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings:
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
Jason, thanks for answering these questions. May God bless the work of your hands, and may he cause many to pick up and read your book!

Thank you, Justin, for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts on your blog, which has been such a blessing to me and so many others.

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Here are the endorsements for this book:

John Piper:
For the last forty years of my ministry no biblical issue has proved more recurrent or more vexing than the nature of the Mosaic law as it relates to the gospel and the New Covenant. The pastoral implications for how you preach the gospel, aim at sanctification, comfort strugglers, give assurance, and admit people to membership in the church, are huge. Jason Meyer is a good guide. I found myself writing ‘YES!’ in the margins repeatedly. And there were enough ‘Aha’ moments of fresh discovery to make me want to keep going. I thank God for this younger scholar. His book is a precious gift to the church.
Mark Seifrid:
In this careful study, Jason Meyer decisively shows that the “newness” of the “new covenant” is that of the age-to-come and the eternal life that God has brought into this world through Jesus Christ alone. The implications of this truth for the life of churches, for Christian preaching, and for Christian living are inestimable. I hope that Dr Meyer’s work will have wide influence.
Tom Schreiner:
We will fail to understand the larger storyline of the Bible if we do not grasp the significance of the old covenant and the new covenant. Jason Meyer in this careful exegetical study unpacks the meaning of the new covenant over against the old covenant. One of the virtues of this work is the elegant clarity that characterizes Meyer’s study. He defines terms succinctly and clearly so that readers are not lost in a forest of obscurity. Even more important, Meyer advances his case with in-depth and convincing exegesis. New Testament scholars are known for their exegetical skills, but Meyer’s exegesis is coupled with theological rigor and insight which one finds too infrequently among biblical scholars. The work concludes with perceptive practical and theological implications. To sum up, we can be grateful for Dr. Meyer’s assistance in understanding the whole counsel of God.
Charles Quarles:
I read The End of the Law with regret—that this book was not available before now! Whether one has studied Pauline theology for years or is just beginning to mine the depths of Paul’s thought, this book will serve as a reliable guide. Dr. Meyer’s synthesis of Paul’s theology of the old and new covenants is grounded in careful and thorough exegesis of Paul’s writings, is clearly expressed, and is informed by the most recent research on the subject. The book provides a helpful model for guiding others in the task of developing a truly biblical theology. Dr. Meyer does not merely study Paul for academic purposes. He worships over the New Testament text. This combination of scholarship and worship makes The End of the Law immensely readable and instructive.
Bruce Ware:
To read Jason Meyer’s The End of the Law is to enter into the thrill of seeing the abundance of grace and power God has unleashed through His radical new covenant in Christ and the Spirit. With excellent scholarly support and clear and persuasive argumentation, Meyer defends his thesis that the new covenant both replaces and surpasses the ineffectual and transitory old covenant of Moses. To see the new covenant for what it is—God’s answer in Christ and the Spirit to the intransigent sinful rebellion of His people—is to celebrate the greatness of the gospel and the surpassing richness of God’s gift to His people in His Son and in His Spirit. What joy to know that the law has ended and new life in Christ has come. Meyer’s development of these themes, so central to the gospel, is simply superb.
Stanley Porter:
The covenant in Paul is an important topic that continues to be discussed widely by scholars. One of the limitations of much previous study has been the failure to advance discussion methodologically. In that respect alone, Jason Meyer’s work is to be warmly welcomed. By taking up and developing the kind of approach that opens up, rather than closes down, possibilities, Meyer shows that there is much still to do in understanding Paul’s notion of the old and new covenants. As a result, he pursues several new areas of exploration and puts forward an eschatological approach that certainly merits consideration.