Paul’s (Dueling?) Perspective on the Law

In the last couple of posts, I’ve outlined my study of a topic that has long bewildered me: the law.  In the first post I looked at the Old Testament perspective.  In the second, I looked at the New Testament perspective

So far, things seem pretty clear. The New Testament writers agree with the Old Testament writers that the law was given by God to His people as a means of loving Him and loving others.  It protected His people from sin.

But we haven’t yet dealt with Paul, the Biblical figure that has mystified me for over a decade.  To me, the Bible would be such a simple book without Paul creating so many tensions.  But he is a major New Testament figure who has major things to say.

There are only two options with Paul.  He either needs to be tossed or he needs to be dealt with.  I chose to deal with him before deciding that the Bible cannonizers were wrong to include him.

I had always thought of Paul as an anti-law guy.  I thought his perspective on the law contradicted all the other perspectives outlined in the last two posts. But when I started taking a hard look at his writings to understand them, I encountered a surprise.  Though there are many seemingly anti-law versus, there are also many pro-law versus.

Suddenly, it seemed that Paul wasn’t just in opposition with everyone else; he was in opposition with himself.

Contradictions of Paul

Many of his seeming contradictions come from the book of Galatians. Here is a sampling of the contradictions I encountered.

On circumcision:

  • In Galatians 5:2 he says, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.”
  • Yet, in Acts 21:20-26 Paul takes a Nazarite vow to prove that he is NOT teaching against circumcision.

On being justified by the law:

  • In Galatians 2:21 he says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law then Christ died for no purpose.”
  • But in Romans 2:13 he says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

On law vs. lawlessness:

Law in a negative light:

  • In Galatians 5:4 he says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
  • And in Galatians 5:18 he says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

Lawlessness in a negative light:

  • In Romans 6:19 he says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
  • In the same way, in 2 Corinthians 6:14 he says, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?”

Does anyone else want to scream and pull out their hair in complete confusion?  How in the world are we to process this? Is the law bad or is lawlessness bad? Should we pursue the law or proclaim our joyous freedom from it?

I spent a decade unsuccessfully trying to reconcile Paul.  In the last few months I’ve actually made some happy progress in my understanding.  In the next post, I’ll share with you where I’ve gotten with this apparent Pauline Paradox.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by hungary2009 on May 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Pauline Paradox? Sounds familiar 😉

    I, too, am working through Paul and the many things he says. On a daily basis my feelings towards what he’s really saying shift from lawlessness to lawfulness.

    Thank you for the post. I’m subscribed on an RSS feed and can’t wait to hear what you’ve found.

    Reply

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