Honey, I Shrunk the Scriptures | by Daniel Botkin

In 1990 a Christian friend, knowing that my view of Paul’s writings was different from that of most other Bible believers, referred me to an article in Christianity Today. The title of the article was “The Misund­­­­erstood Apostle,” and the subheading declared that “A revolution in New Testament studies has challenged traditional understandings of Paul’s critique of Judaism.”

According to the writer of the article, this “revolution” began in 1977 with the publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, a work the scholarly world now considers “a landmark in Pauline studies.”1 This lengthy volume was followed by a shorter book by the same author, entitled Paul, the Law and the Jewish People in 1983.

Two other theologians’ works were mentioned in the Christianity Today article, but neither received as much space or praise as Sanders did. Since E.P. Sanders seemed to be Christianity’s top expert on Paul, I decided I should read what he had to say. I thought perhaps he would have a more correct way than I did to explain Paul’s seemingly contradictory statements about the Law (viz., “The Law is good” versus “The Law is bad”).

I obtained Paul and Palestinian Judaism and waded through hundreds of pages, taking notes along the way. I gleaned some knowledge from this book, but the real eye-opener for me was Sanders’ shorter book, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. I totally disagree with the author’s solution for reconciling Paul’s positive and negative statements about the Law, but the book opened my eyes to some things.

First, I learned from Sanders’ introduction that theologians have long struggled with Paul’s theology of the Law. According to Sanders, the subject “has been discussed by numerous scholars in great detail” and “all the scholarly labor that has been spent on it has resulted in no consensus.”2 Sanders writes that “one should be able, by using the normal tools of exegesis, to determine precisely what he [Paul] thought…Yet the search for what he ‘really meant’ goes on.”3 It was refreshing for me to discover that theologians have long realized that what Paul taught about the Law is not as clear-cut or simplistic as most Christians think it is.

Another significant fact I learned from Sanders’ book was that many Christian theologians, far more educated and experienced than I, have come to the same basic conclusion about Paul’s theology of the Law as I have. I have explained the seeming contradiction between Paul’s praising and practicing of the Law on the one hand, and his apparent condemning of it on the other hand, by saying that he condemned only man’s misuse and perverting of the Law. Obeying the Law for the purpose of establishing one’s own righteousness is to be condemned; obeying the Law as a result of having been made righteous by faith in the Messiah is to be expected and praised.

Sanders quotes various scholars whose explanations show that they have arrived at the same basic conclusion:

Hans Hubner explains Romans 10:4 (“Christ is the end of the Law”) by saying that “Christ is the end of the fleshly misuse of the law.”4 (Italics mine.)

Rudolf Bultmann writes, “Christ is the end of the Law so far as it claimed to be the way to salvation or was understood by man as the means to establishing ‘his own righteousness,’ for so far as it contains God’s demand, it retains its validity.”5 (Italics Bultmann’s.)

Ernst Kasemann states it this way:

The obedience of faith abrogates the law as a mediator of salvation, sees through the perversion of understanding it as a principle of achievement, and in eschatological retrospect restores to the divine gift [i.e., the Law] the character of the original will of God.6

Herman Ridderbos says that works of the Law are good “where meritoriousness is not in question.”7

In J.A.T. Robinson’s view, “the law is constantly regarded from two viewpoints, as the will of God and as a way to salvation.”8

Heikki Raisanen tells us that “the common explanation [is] that Paul rejects the law as a way of salvation but retains it as an expression of God’s will.”9

Sanders says that “this general view [the view of the above-quoted theologians] is very common.”10 He further states, “Many have seen the ‘end of the law’…as meaning that one dies to the law as a system of salvation. It is only that aspect of the law which has come to an end since Christ.”11 (Italics mine.)

I find it both comforting and disturbing that “many” theologians have seen that Paul taught that it is only man’s perverted misuse of the Law which the Christian is to shun, and not the Law itself. It is reassuring to know that my theological conclusion is the same as that arrived at by theologians with far more knowledge of the Scriptures, their historical background, and the Greek language than I possess.

What disturbs me, however, is the practical implication of this theological conclusion. If, indeed, the Law is good “where meritoriousness is not in question” (Ridderbos) and if it “contains God’s demand” (Bultmann) and tells us “the will of God” (Robinson), and if faith in the Messiah restores to the Law “the character of the original will of God” (Kasemann) so the Law is now “an expression of God’s will” (Raisanen), then it is important to carry all this to its logical conclusion, namely, that believers in the Messiah should still be following the commandments of the Law, including the Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws, and other miscellaneous commandments that are ignored by the vast majority of Christians. If the commandments of the Law still retain validity as an expression of God’s will for those justified by faith, then the only option for a New Covenant believer who wants to do the will of God is to begin putting these neglected commandments into practice.

When I hear the vast majority of Christendom conveniently label the neglected commandments “Jewish,” “obsolete,” or “nullified,” I cannot help but wonder how many of the “many” theologians who have seen that the Law is still a valid expression of God’s will (“where meritoriousness is not in question”) have acted upon it. If the theologians would teach their seminary students that even the neglected commandments are important, and if the seminary graduates taught it from the pulpit, Christian worship would certainly undergo some radical changes.

The only alternative to the above scenario is to come up with some other explanation of Paul’s theology of the Law. This is exactly what E.P. Sanders does in Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Although I totally disagree with Sanders’ alternative explanation, I must say to his credit that he, at least, appears to have thought through to the aforementioned practical implications of the other theological position, unlike the theologians themselves.

Sanders agrees that Paul expected Christians to Keep the Law. But Sanders qualifies this statement by saying that Paul imposed a “reduced law” for New Covenant believers (103). The law Paul prescribed for Christian behavior, Sanders says, is the written Torah, but a Torah from which Paul deleted circumcision, Sabbath, holy days, and food laws (101f). Sanders admits that “Paul offered no theoretical basis for this de facto reduction of the law,” (101), and he “offered no rationale for his de facto limitations” (103). “We can say that he meant a reduced law,” Sanders writes, “…only because we can observe the ways in which he reduced it” (103).

Sanders is very aware of the fact (and even points it out) that the elements of Torah which he believes Paul “deleted” were the very elements of Judaism “which drew criticism and ridicule from pagan authors” (102). Sanders writes, “I do not wish to propose that Paul consciously deleted from the law which Christians are to keep the elements which were most offensive to pagan society on purely practical grounds, so that pagans would find it relatively easy to convert” (102).

According to Sanders, Paul’s reduction of the Torah was the natural and necessary outcome of Paul’s putting into practice his two convictions: 1) Jew and Gentile are to be saved on the same basis; 2) Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (102). I personally do not see why holding these two convictions requires the deletion of commandments which draw ridicule and scorn from pagans.

On the last page of his concluding chapter about Paul and the Law, Sanders asks a question that all thinking Christians should ask themselves: “How could a Jew of Paul’s antecedents, while still viewing Scripture as Scripture, and quoting it to show God’s plan and intention, say that some of its commands are optional?” (162)

Here is Sanders’ answer to this question:

Though I wince at the possible anachronism of the phrase, I think that Paul had found a canon within the canon. He did not formulate it, and I doubt that he consciously reflected on it. We perceive it in operation. It is this: those parts of the Scripture which mention faith, righteousness, Gentiles, and love are in, as are those which accuse Israel of disobedience; parts which disagree with this interior canon, particularly the point about the Gentiles, whether explicitly or by implication, do not count. (162)

In effect, this is saying that Paul did not really believe in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, except for those parts which served his purpose. Sanders is telling us that Paul actually shrunk the canon of the Old Testament Scriptures by deleting commandments that drew scorn and ridicule from pagans. The commandments that are distasteful to pagans “do not count” because they are not “in” Paul’s “interior canon.”

This is the explanation offered by E.P. Sanders, the man portrayed in Christianity Today as Christendom’s top expert on Paul’s theology of the Law. I am sure that Mr. Sanders is one thousand times the scholar that I am, and I mean no disrespect to the man, but I must flatly reject his theory.

A Scripture-shrinker could never write, as Paul did, that” All Scripture is inspired and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), unless he were the worst kind of hypocrite. If I were to accept Sanders’ theory, I would have to totally reject Paul as a hypocrite who took it upon himself to abolish God-given commandments (even the Sabbath) with the stroke of his pen, an action which even Jesus did not have the authority to do. (See Matt.5:17-19, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” etc.)

I see no reason for Christians to reject the “general view” that “many have seen” (i.e., it is only misusing the Law as a means to establish one’s own righteousness that should be rejected, and not the Law itself). Furthermore, I see no reason for Christians to not act upon the practical implications of this theological position (i.e., keep Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws, etc.). Such a decision means undergoing some radical changes, but seeking to live and worship more like the Master often results in such painful but beneficial adjustments for the disciple.

* Image: “Read small about it.” Caters News Agency. Published: 9 March 2011.

1. Daniel G. Reid, “The Misunderstood Apostle,” Christianity Today (July 16,1990), 25.

2. E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983), 3.

3. lbid.

4. Hans Hubner, Das Gesetz bei Paulus, 2d.ed. (Gottingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), 129.

5. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol.1 (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1951-55), 341.

6. Ernst Kasemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 94.

7. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 179.

8. Sanders, 91, fn. 54.

9. lbid., fn. 58.

10. lbid., fn. 54.

11. Ibid., 83.

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