The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology

  • Jason C. Meyer
  • Nov 29, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Book-The End of the Law

Meyer, Jason C.  The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology.  Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009.  xx + 331 pp.  $19.99.  ISBN 978-080544842-9.

Romans 10:4 states it clearly.  Christ is the telos of the law.  But does telos mean end or goal?  Is the emphasis more on the continuity between the old and new covenants or on the discontinuity?  Church history has debated these questions endlessly, so our generation is not likely to produce a resolution that will ever achieve consensus.  But, in a crowded field of contributors, Jason Meyer’s book stands out as one of the must-reads in the conversation.

Meyer, assistant professor of religion (New Testament and Greek) at Louisiana College, wrote this welcome addition to the NAC Studies in Bible and Theology series as the outgrowth of his Ph.D. dissertation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He is remarkably conversant with the full spectrum of relevant literature, meticulous in presenting all the main exegetical options for each passage he examines, clear in listing strengths and weaknesses of each, and almost always convincing in the rationale for his own choices.  He presents his thesis on the first page of his introduction:  “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.”  Meyer’s methodology, admirably, does not limit itself to texts in which the words “covenant” or “law” explicitly appear, nor are those in which they do always the most important to treat in depth.  Rather Meyer mines Paul’s letters for the key passages that contrast the old and the new ages separated by the Christ-event, whatever specific language they employ.

The upshot is that Paul’s understanding of the new covenant is not to be diminished by thinking of it as merely a “renewed” Mosaic covenant; it is qualitatively different.  The Spirit now indwells people permanently, giving them an ability to keep the covenant, albeit only partially, which transcends the empowerment available through the Mosaic covenant.  While there are continuities with the moral teaching of the latter, a moral/civil/ceremonial division does not reflect what Paul actually articulates anywhere.  Romans 3:21 and 31 well captures Paul’s tension—a righteousness of God is manifest apart from the Law and the Prophets even though it is witnessed to by those same texts.  Fulfillment that neither abolishes the Hebrew Scriptures nor preserves them unchanged marks Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ relationship to Torah.

Meyer surveys far too many passages for us to treat in a short review.  Those on which he dwells at length are 2 Corinthians 3-4, Galatians 3-4 and Romans 9-11.  The contrasts in each case are fundamentally temporal.  They cannot be limited to a legalistic misuse of Torah or just to the new perspective’s emphasis on badges of national righteousness.  The glory that was fading away was that of the Mosaic covenant itself, not merely of the aura on Moses’ face (2 Cor. 3:10-12).  The time of the Law was temporary, like that of a jailer, a pedagogue, and guardians or trustees (Gal. 3:19-4:6).  The period of the indigenous olive tree has given way to one in which wild branches are grafted on, though a time is yet coming when a critical mass of ethnic Israel will be saved by faith in Jesus as Messiah (Rom. 11).

None of this represents a creative, new use of Old Testament prophecies, for new covenant language there is also consistently temporal and eschatological, especially in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, promising permanent and completely effective ways of dealing with humanity’s sin problem, which the Law never provided and never was designed to provide (cf. esp. Rom. 2:29 and the explicit metaphor of the circumcised heart, itself a key Old Testament motif).  Contrasts Paul sets up between seemingly conflicting Old Testament texts in Galatians 3:10-14 or Romans 10:5-8 demonstrate that the Old Testament itself recognized that the Law was given to provide the children of Israel a means of living out their faith in this life, not as a means of acquiring eternal life through sufficient obedience.  Attempts to use it along the latter lines, which did occur, inevitably failed—and still fail.  Nor can the “two covenants” approach stand up to exegetical scrutiny, which alleges that Jews can still be saved by the same way they were saved in Old Testament times, via faith-filled obedience to Torah, even if they reject Jesus as Messiah.  Paul could hardly have wished he could be damned for the sake of his kinfolk (Rom. 9:3) were this the case!  What was a proper response to God before the cross is inadequate afterwards if it rejects the cross, since only therein lie the atoning provisions once commanded through animal sacrifice.

We need not choose, thus, between “end” as termination or as goal but should see both joining hands in the concept of “culmination.” But the newness of the new age must not be downplayed.  No longer does “ethnicity or status or any other earthly classification from the old era” determine the identity of God’s people.  And a “fundamental shift” has occurred “in the way one regards relating to God” (p. 59).  Contemporary implications of Meyer’s study include the need for matching church membership with the truly regenerate as much as possible, recognizing “being right” as the missing link in much ethics between “knowing right” and “doing right,” and believers thus modeling true, new covenant living as a winsome witness to a postmodern world.

One could occasionally quibble with this or that piece of exegesis.  It is doubtful if anything in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 naturally points to divine hardening of the unbeliever, especially since 4:4 explicitly attributes this activity to Satan.  Galatians 4:24 in the Greek cannot mean “these things may be taken allegorically,” as in some translations, but reads rather, “these things are being taken allegorically (or “figuratively”)”—see esp. the updated NIV—i.e., by the Judaizers, whose argument Paul stands on its head (see Longenecker’s WBC commentary ad loc).  I am not as confident as Meyer that “Zion” in Romans 11:26 means “heaven” for Paul, since the Messiah could easily “come from Jerusalem” after returning on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4), and, as Meyer himself stresses, all the other language for Israel in this chapter is intended literally.  There are a few problems with Greek transliteration—e.g., twice on p. 68 engegrammenē is needed instead of eggegrammenē and Christou instead of Xristou on p. 69.  But these kinds of problems are few and far between.

The debates among various old and new perspectives on Paul show no sign of abating.  In my opinion, this is because they both have legitimate points to make.  One can generalize from Paul’s teaching about specific badges of righteousness to the entire Mosaic Law and from the entire Torah to works-based systems of righteousness elsewhere.  On this, Meyer is an outstanding confirmatory voice.  At the same time, the immediate context of many (not all) of Paul’s key texts on the topic does point to ethnocentrism and nationalism as key problems in first-century Judaism, and we miss crucial applications to our world where similar phenomena exist if we overly play down this starting point.  What still remains to be written is a book-length study that gives both old and new perspectives equal weight and does not see the one as necessarily precluding (or at least diminishing the force of) the other.

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
November 2010