Our understanding of how the old and new covenants relate largely determines our understanding of how the Old and New Testaments relate. I frame the issue this way to highlight the importance of the covenants. Our grasp of the character of the two covenants will have a wide-ranging impact on our grasp of the content of revelation given under those covenants.
All the attention that E. P. Sanders has generated concerning Paul and the law has not produced a corresponding interest in analyzing Paul's understanding of the Mosaic covenant. Pauline scholars continue to treat the Mosaic law in abstraction from its historical nexus in the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, certain fundamental questions suffer from scholarly neglect. For example, what is "new" about the new covenant? Surprisingly few Pauline studies directly address this question although many vexing Pauline problems stem from a failure to answer it correctly. Even more Pauline scholars have ignored the related question, what is "old" about the old covenant? This study seeks to tackle this long-standing problem. Many legitimate questions will necessarily remain unanswered concerning this topic because of the immense scope of the covenant concept. The central question of this study concerns the character of the Mosaic covenant.
What is the character of the Mosaic covenant in the theology of Paul? I will advance the following thesis: Paul conceives of the Mosaic (old) covenant as fundamentally non-eschatological in contrast to the eschatological nature of the new covenant. Paul declares that the Mosaic covenant is now old because it belongs to the old age, whereas the new covenant is new because it belongs to the new eschatological age. This distinction has determinative effects. The old age is transitory and impotent, and therefore the Mosaic covenant is both transitory and ineffectual. 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.
Another way to state the difference 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 what He calls for in the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant lacked this power to produce what it demanded. One could illustrate this point in the following poem:
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.
Before examining the merits of this thesis, we should quickly review the history of research and the relevant discussions to date. Few scholars have directly addressed Paul's conception of the character of the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, the reader must begin with general trajectories of thought concerning continuity and discontinuity in Paul and then move to specific attempts to understand the Mosaic covenant in Paul.
James D. G. Dunn helpfully orients the reader to two dominant perspectives in Pauline scholarship concerning the newness of Paul's gospel: the "salvation history" (heilsgeschichtlich) and apocalyptic approaches. The first perspective states that Paul's gospel relates to the Old Testament as a renewed expression of God's Old Testament promises to Israel so that the new covenant fulfills the old covenant. The second perspective suggests that Paul advocated a clear and decisive break between the old and the new covenants so that the new covenant eschatologically "invades" the old one. Therefore, the first approach emphasizes continuity between Paul and the Old Testament, while the second focuses on discontinuity.
Dunn correctly identifies the reactionary nature of these two perspectives. The "New Perspective on Paul" and its emphasis on the continuity between Paul and his Jewish heritage arose as a reaction against the "Lutheran" antithesis between law and gospel, and its corresponding antithesis between Judaism and Christianity. The "apocalyptic" approach to Paul reacted against treatments that tended to downplay the eschatological nature of Paul's gospel.
This book is not the place to examine each perspective in a comprehensive fashion. The main goal of this summary is to show that these opposing poles of thought in Pauline studies continue to clash as each perspective wins prominent proponents who forcefully advocate one approach over against the other.
However, some scholars detect a false dichotomy in the way the debate has materialized: salvation history or apocalyptic. James D. G. Dunn and D. A. Carson both argue against an either-or approach. They advocate a balanced approach that integrates both salvation history and apocalyptic into the overall structure of Pauline thought. This study understands Paul along similar lines and attempts to build on this balanced approach.
The influential work of E. P. Sanders in particular has led to a more intense fixation on issues of continuity and discontinuity, and thus this brief history of interpretation must now move from general interpretive frameworks to a more specific focus on the "Sanders revolution" with respect to grace and works in Paul.
The paradigm shifting work of E. P. Sanders has dominated the Pauline landscape not so much by securing a consensus, but by setting the agenda for subsequent Pauline studies, which many call "post-Sanders." Sanders argued that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace, not legalism. He coined the term covenantal nomism to express this "pattern of religion." One obeyed the law as a response to grace already given; one did not obey the law in order to enter the covenant (getting in), but as an obedient expression of covenantal life already begun (staying in). The Sinai covenant was gracious from beginning to end in this system of thought.
Despite Sanders's widespread influence, this study will suggest that Sanders's "covenantal nomism" fails to explain fully the differences between the "old" and "new" covenants because of a faulty understanding of grace. Specifically, I agree that the structure of grace is the same, but I sharply disagree with Sanders over the nature of grace.
Many of those who followed in Sanders's wake adopted his understanding of Judaism, but not his view of Paul. In other words, they agreed with Sanders's assessment of Paul's context (i.e., the Judaism to which Paul responded) but not Paul's content (i.e., Paul's response to Judaism). Sanders argued that Paul attacked Jewish legalism, but only because he misunderstood the Judaism of his day. New Perspective adherents assert that Paul understood Second Temple Judaism, and therefore he did not attack Jewish legalism, but Jewish exclusivism.
Responses to Sanders and the New Perspective have followed four different tracks. First, some scholars responded exegetically by contesting the New Perspective reading of Paul's epistles. Second, scholars have reevaluated the Judaism of Paul's day and begun to question Sanders's one-sided reading of Second Temple Judaism. Some scholars then combined both of these elements in contesting the New Perspective. Fourth, some studies now call the New Perspective's reading of Luther into question.
One of the most extensive effects of Sanders's work concerns his understanding of grace. He argued that Paul and Palestinian Judaism share an almost synonymous perspective with regard to grace and works. Scholars like K. L. Yinger would concur with Sanders's assessment of Judaism and Paul. They are no more "synergistic" or "monergistic" than the other.
This perspective has not gone unchallenged. Stephen Westerholm objects to some of the contradictory ways that the New Perspective establishes its case. First, he recites the common charge that "Lutheran" interpreters of Paul are guilty of imposing "Lutheran" categories on the texts of Judaism that are foreign to their ethos. Second, he cites the conclusions of scholars like James D. G. Dunn who make the claim that first-century Jews turn out to be good Protestant "champions of grace." Sanders "explicitly and repeatedly" makes the same point: Judaism never held grace and works in any kind of opposition. Therefore, Westerholm rightly asks how Judaism can then preach Protestant doctrine (salvation by grace, not works) when they did not hold grace and works in contrast like the Protestant doctrine they supposedly preach?
Simon J. Gathercole also stands as a prominent voice in the attempt to demonstrate the differences with respect to Paul and Judaism. Gathercole affirms continuity between the two in that they "share an elective grace and also assign a determinative role to works at final judgment." However, he detects a note of discontinuity in the substantial difference between the synergism of Judaism and the monergism of Paul. The work of Timo Laato and Timo Eskola bring similar claims to bear concerning the anthropological dimensions of the differences between Paul and Judaism. They hold that because Paul's appraisal of human nature is much more pessimistic than that of Judaism, Paul stresses predestination and grace, while Judaism expresses synergistic sympathies because of their "higher view" of human nature.
These wide-angle debates over continuity and discontinuity serve as a necessary background for the approaches whose lens provide a more narrow focus to the relation between the Mosaic and new covenants.
This narrow lens focus will introduce the reader to some very nuanced discussions of how the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant relate. One way to group these discussions is through a categorical taxonomy. At the risk of oversimplification, this study can utilize the taxonomy of Walter C. Kaiser. Kaiser labels five different ways interpreters relate the covenants: (1) replacement, (2) super, (3) dual, (4) separate, and (5) renewed. It is helpful to order them according to their placement on the spectrum of continuity versus discontinuity. Positions two and five represent continuous positions, while one, three, and four fit the discontinuity perspective. This survey of scholarship will now further clarify these categories of thought in relation to Paul's own exposition of the Mosaic covenant. Some of the scholars mentioned do not consciously place themselves within one camp or the other, but it may help the reader to classify their thought according to the five categories.
Although few scholars comment on the character of the Israelite covenant in Paul's theology, theological approaches to the covenants continue to exercise determinative effects. Scott J. Hafemann falls into the "renewed" approach to the covenants. He has argued extensively for understanding the law/gospel or old/new covenant debates in terms of their respective functions rather than in terms of their content, structure, or purpose so that the "new" is a "renewal" of the "old." The character of the old covenant mirrors that of the new covenant: they are coequal in grace and glory. The only difference concerns the fuller presence of the Spirit, which is owing to the respective places the covenants occupy in redemptive history. Therefore, he says, "The designation 'old' is not a pejorative evaluation of the character of the Sinai covenant, but a temporal and eschatological designation of its fulfillment."
James D. G. Dunn also adopts the "renewed" approach. He says that the new covenant and its variations (Isa 59:21; Ezek 36:26) are "renewals of the Sinai covenant or indeed as the promise of a more effective implementation of the earlier covenant by divine initiative." Ellen Jühl Christiansen is similar in that she asserts that the new covenant is new as "that which brings the potential of the 'old' into existence by adding a new Christological and pneumatological dimension."
Adherents of covenant theology (i.e., the "super covenant" position) attempt to understand Paul's statements in a way that does not detract from the character of the Israelite covenant. They emphasize the gracious nature of the Mosaic covenant when it is taken on its own terms. They also suggest that Paul's statements should be read polemically as his responses to legalistic misunderstandings concerning the Mosaic covenant. Meredith Kline and Mark Karlberg take a different track within covenant theology. They understand the Israelite covenant as a covenant of works on the earthly level and a covenant of grace on the spiritual level.
Progressive Dispensationalists occupy the "replacement" camp in Kaiser's taxonomy. They tend to emphasize discontinuity and "newness" with respect to the new covenant. Bruce A. Ware advocates a newness with regard to mode, result, basis, and scope. Craig A. Blaising chalks up the differences between the Mosaic and new covenants to the respective type of covenant each one represents. The old covenant was a suzerain-type covenant (bilateral), whereas the new covenant is a superior grant-type covenant (unilateral).
Lutheran scholars consistently affirm a discontinuity between the old and new covenants. Ernst Kutsch asserts that the newness of the new covenant concerns the concept of inviolability. The old covenant is deficient in that unlike the new covenant, it can be broken, even though both covenants consist of "obligation" (Verpflichtung). Erich Gräßer also posits a stark antithesis between the old and new covenants. He contests a "renewed" understanding of the covenants and highlights the discontinuity of the Mosaic and New covenants.
I am not a conscious adherent to any theological system within Kaiser's taxonomy. One can profit from an orientation that takes account of these theological categories, but one must not assume that Paul operated with the theological categories that the exegete brings to the text. Therefore, Kaiser's taxonomy is pedagogically helpful, but this book will not attempt to place Paul in one of the categories. The argument of Stephen J. Wellum is very well stated in this regard: we should put a "moratorium" on using language like the "covenant of grace" and speak instead of the "one plan of God" or "the eternal purposes of God centered in Jesus Christ" in order to express the concept that the "covenant of grace" terminology is trying to convey; however, when speaking of the biblical covenants, one should speak of the plural covenants of Scripture and their place in the "overall eternal plan of God centered in Jesus Christ." This approach will keep scholars from flattening the progressive development of the covenants and will allow Paul to answer his own questions in his own categories. This aspect of the study will require firm methodological footing.
The method employed in this book is thoroughly exegetical. I will only engage in synthesizing Paul's position after the exegetical data has emerged from each individual context. We need to avoid flattening the features of Paul's position and should hesitate to color Paul's position with later theological categories.
Paul's discussion of the old covenant comes to the reader in very different contexts (Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Romans). Paul faced different opponents and had to respond to their specific arguments in these epistles. This fact should not call Paul's consistency into question. This study will attempt to demonstrate that he advances the same perspective throughout his epistles, while expressing that perspective by drawing on different terminology, arguments, and Scriptural support.
Two essays within one volume exemplify the sharp divide in Pauline studies concerning Paul's covenantal theology. James D. G. Dunn undertakes to understand the concept of covenant in Paul by adopting a methodology that examines the eight occurrences of the term "covenant" (diathēkē) in chronological order. He argues in a forceful fashion for the peripheral nature of Paul's concept of covenant. He advances the thesis that Paul did not have a "covenant theology." He defends this assertion by highlighting both the infrequent and reactive nature of Paul's usage of "covenant." In other words, in the relatively few places where Paul uses "covenant" (diathēkē), he did not develop the concept to express his own thinking; he forged it in the heat of battle because his opponents' use of the term forced his hand. Erich Gräßer takes a similar approach and relegates the covenant concept in Paul to the tangential sphere.
Stanley E. Porter cautions against narrowing the scope of covenant in Paul to only those places where Paul uses the term "covenant" (diathēkē), in order to avoid the fallacy of "equating words and concepts." Porter notes that even though many biblical scholars buy into James Barr's classic criticism of this error in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, some still unwittingly dredge it back up in their own writings. The irony of Porter's essay preceding Dunn's contribution is that Dunn's work effectively becomes an example of what Porter stringently labels as "fundamentally flawed."
Porter attempts to develop a linguistically informed approach to the lexicographical study of "covenant" (diathēkē). Therefore, he prefers a study based on the semantic domain of "covenant" through the use of the Louw-Nida lexicon and "contexts where other covenant terminology may be suggested by immediate usage." This analysis leads him to assert that there is a semantic relationship between diathēkē and "righteousness" (dik-) words based on semantic domain. He also concludes that immediate usage suggests a relationship between diathēkē and "promise" (epangel-) words.
My approach runs parallel to Porter's analysis although this study will build on the foundation he established. The semantic domain and contextual approach is sound, and the present study will come to some of the same conclusions as Porter. I will suggest an even more expansive approach that does not narrow the concept of "covenant" (diathēkē) to "righteousness" (dik-) and "promise" (epangel-) words alone.
Several other works have stressed the importance of the covenant concept in Paul. These works are notable exceptions to the common tendency to restrict the covenant concept to a few passages in Paul and thus relegate it to the tangential sphere of Paul's thought. N. T. Wright states this perspective with characteristic clarity:
At this point at least I am fully on the side of E. P. Sanders when he argues that the covenant is the hidden presupposition of Jewish literature even when the word hardly occurs. Exegesis needs the concordance, but it cannot be ruled by it. It is no argument against calling Paul a covenantal theologian to point out the scarcity of diathēkē in his writings. We have to learn to recognize still more important things, such as implicit narratives and allusions to large biblical themes. Just because we cannot so easily look them up in a reference book, that does not make them irrelevant.
I will build on these studies. This book will make some methodological refinements by taking semantic domain and immediate contextual usage into account. Furthermore, one of the specific refinements this study will suggest is that the reader must pay attention to grammatical links between diathēkē and other terms. Four different categories appear if one observes its grammatical usage. It serves as (1) the subject of the relative clause in Rom 9:4, (2) a predicate nominative in Rom 11:27; 1 Cor 11:25; and Gal 4:24, (3) the direct object in Gal 3:15 and Gal 3:17, and (4) a genitival modifier in 2 Cor 3:6, 14; and Eph 2:12. One could delve further by focusing on the words or phrases that modify diathēkē. This kind of analysis uncovers three different categories: (1) prepositional phrases, (2) adjectives, and (3) genitival modifiers. I will also suggest some methodological refinements by examining (1) semantic domain, (2) immediate contextual usage, (3) grammatical usage, (4) Old Testament precedent, and (5) multiple attestation. These semantic, grammatical, and contextual links will ground the present study in Paul's own usage. The upshot of this approach is that the interpreter does not impose on Paul an alien system of thought. These links will arise organically from the text and not from the ideas of the interpreter. I will stress some of these findings more than others, but all of these considerations will receive attention throughout this study.
Chapter two will explore the plural usage of diathēkē in Rom 9:4 and Eph 2:12 as unique instances that view the Mosaic covenant in a transhistorical sense. Chapter three shifts to a study of the adjectives "old" and "new," which become central in 2 Cor 3:1-18. It is surprising that many studies focus exclusively on the "new covenant" (2 Cor 3:6) and the "old covenant" (2 Cor 3:14) in 2 Corinthians, while ignoring Paul's usage of "old" and "new" elsewhere in his writings. This analysis will suggest further connections that are often neglected.
Chapters four through six constitute a three-part study of the Mosaic covenant in contexts of contrast. Chapter four examines the Mosaic covenant in 2 Cor 3:1-4:18. Chapter five carries this exploration further into Galatians. The covenantal contrast of Galatians 4:21-31 will function as the main focus, and Gal 3:1-4:20 will provide supplementary material. The third part of this series takes the reader to Rom 9:1-11:36. The new covenant of Rom 11:27 serves as the focal point along with a study of the relationship between the themes of seed, remnant, and covenant. The study of Rom 9:1-11:26, 28-36 will round out the discussion.
Can Paul's reading of the Mosaic covenant stand even on Old Testament terms? Chapter seven attempts to ground the discussion in the Old Testament itself by examining the metaphor of the circumcision of the heart.