Sunday, October 19, 2014

Paul and the Law in Romans

St. Paul by
Bartolomeo Montagna
holding traditional sword 
I was asked by good friend for some specific insights on Romans 8:2 and this blog entry is an edited response to this. I realize that thus far all entires I have made on this blog have focused on Old Testament subjects. While I have a very deep love for the Hebrew bible, and my Greek is not as strong as my Hebrew, I felt this was a good opportunity to insert a bit of variety. 

Romans 8:2 reads as follows

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

Paul's understanding of the law (Torah in Hebrew nomos in Greek) is a difficult one and it would be wrong to say there is one prevailing opinion of what he means each time he uses the word. The Law/Torah/nomos can be understood in several ways:

  1. The Law can be understood as the Five Books of Moses and this is certainly what is meant when you see the phrase “Law and the Prophets” (as in Romans 3:21) in the New Testament, which was a formula for referring to the body of scripture at that time. Shortly afterward the phrase would be “Law, Prophets and Writings” which is the term still used today. 
  2. The Law can also be a reference to the 613 commandments contained in those five books. If you want to take a look at these I recommend which lists them. This would encompass the Ten Commandments as well as commands such as “be fruitful and multiply” that are clearly pre-Moses, but since recorded in a book attributed to him are part of the “Law of Moses”. Many, but certainly not all, of these commandments we consider still in force. 
  3. The Law can be understood as the set of oral traditions that were attributed to Moses. Tradition holds that he recieved these on Sinai, did not commit them to writing, but taught them to Joshua and they were handed down in an unbroken line by the ancient leaders (see tractate Avoth in the Mishnah). Eventually after the time of Christ, about 200 AD, these would become the source of the Mishnah and then be expanded further with commentary into the Talmud. Some of these traditions dealt with details of the functions of the temple. Other parts of this oral law included details of custom and folk religion such as detailed Sabbath rules and washing rituals. Christ was frequently antagonistic to many of these laws. At the time of its compilation many opposed committing the system to a written form. 
  4. The Law can be understood as referring to the “performances and ordinances” such as animal sacrifice and kosher laws. These were specifically called out as fulfilled Ephesians 2:15. Col 2:10-17. Yet it is not that simple as Paul continued to offer sacrifice (Acts 21:26) and perform circumcision (Acts 16:3).
Romans is probably the greatest discourse from Paul on the concept of how the old religion and the new religion interact. He was writing about 55 AD. Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews including Jewish Christians from Rome about 10 years earlier. The remaining Christians were therefore all gentile and these people with no background in Mosaic law suddenly found themselves in leadership positions. As Paul is writing, the Jews have just barely been allowed to return to the city under Emperor Nero and now the tough task of reintegrating the church between peoples that culturally have significant prejudices and tensions with each other is his focus. Paul must make sure the Gentiles who have led the church are appreciated for their role as they now probably form the core of Roman Christianity. He must also make the Jews who were the first Christians there and who have suffered most persecution feel their heritage is valued and thier efforts to keep the commandments and preserve their cultural identity for which they were expelled has not been vain. 

The doctrines of Romans is deeply intertwined with the preaching of Alma in the Book of Mormon. The interplay of justice and mercy and the relation of law being required for sin to be possible are strong themes. Paul discusses those who are under the law/nomos and those who are anomos, without law. In Romans 2:14-15 Paul begins describing the behavior of Gentiles who do what is right because of conscience, or as we might say Light of Christ, are following a Law, a law that often overlaps with the law of Moses. So they have a law of thier own written in their heart. This wording of the Law “written in their heart” reflects the wording of the Shema or Deuteronomy 6:4-9 which Jews understood to be the most important instruction in the Torah and would recite regularly, and from which both Paul and Christ would teach came the greatest commandment. In 2:25-29 he contrasts how as a Jew can be condemned for breaking the law so a gentile can be blessed for keeping it, even if he doesn't even realize he is doing so. He also makes the important distinction of the “righteousness of the law” indicating he is talking about the moral code where outward ordinances such as circumcision are explicitly neglected. He is setting up the idea that there is an important core to the Law of Moses that is not done away and not nearly so strict or culturally exclusive. This spiritual core is available to all and is the heart of the gospel. This is especially explicit in chapter 3 where he makes it clear neither Jew nor Gentile is able to live without transgressing the laws but ends it with the idea that faith is what establishes the law in 31.

After getting sidetracked a bit talking about the atonement, Paul comes back to the concept of the Law in chapter 6. In 6:15 he explicitly says that the forgiveness and grace he has been describing does not free us from obedience to the law. He begins to lay a foundation for the idea that the body or flesh induces us to sin while our spirit craves righteousness. In 7 he takes the idea further discussing a woman bound by law to her husband is not free to remarry but after her husbands death may do so, thus being bound by a new law. With the Law of Moses dying with Christ we were free to remarry the resurrected Christ with a higher law.

The real heart of understanding 8:2 begins in 7:7 where Paul explains the Law is holy but our inability to follow it is the problem. He expands on this and finally in 22-23 has formulated his idea of two laws, the law of his mind, this is the same law he said Gentiles were obeying even when they did not know it, and the law of his members, or body, which is causing him to sin. It seems his argument here is that the law of his mind is the best part of the Law of Moses. It is that part which is eternal, still in force, and taught to all men through the Light of Christ. The other Law is the various weaknesses of man through our appetites, prejudices, and fallen nature. This second Law would not be any part of the Law of Moses, but would be represented by our failure to keep it, our willingness to contend over it, and our condemnation under it.

Now having established a common core to the Law that both Jew and Gentile are subject to, Paul turns his attention to the principles of adoption and unity. Finally in chapter 13 he seems to conclude his primary message asking the Christians to obey civil authority, pay their taxes, and then also regives several key commandments in 13:8-10 prefaced and concluded with an emphasis on love as the highest command. 

Paul then says we are to awake out of sleep and contrasts night and day, light and darkness in his concluding verse. These clearly reflect his two laws he established in chapter 7. The “οπλα του φωτος/hopla tou photos” or armor of light is parallel to the Law of the Spirit or Law of God and contrasted with the works of darkness which corresponds to his law of members/body/sin. The word for armor is hopla from which we get hoplite and could denote armor or weaponry. The parrallel is stronger in the Greek as the same word is used twice in Romans 6:13 but translated by KJV as “instruments” describing an “armor of unrighteousness” and an “armor of righteousness” corresponding to the two laws he will discuss in the following chapter. Armor is something of a theme Paul favors. The word also occurs 2 Cor 10:4 translated as “weapons”. The word in Ephesians 6 is panoplian “complete armor” also used in Luke 11:22. It is a compound of pan and hopla. Note that “full armor of God” is often read as armor that belongs to God, such as He might wear into battle. The 6 peices described clearly correspond to typical Roman armor, the leather loin apron, the breastplate, the shoes, the shield for protection, the helmet, and the sword. Note that this reference too was given immediately after an injunction to obey one of the Ten Commandments creating a possible tie to Romans 13 and precedes an injunction to prayer. In the instance in Romans the sense is of a person being called to awake from sleep and dress for the day in this armor of light.

The remaining chapters of Romans are of great worth but seem to be an epilogue of additional instructions as it seems the very organized message concludes in chapter 13.

I hope you found this helpful. One common misconception is that Paul was anti-law and I think that this examination shows that his relationship to the law is more nuanced.

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