11 April 2002

Mark Horne asks, "What were Hays's conclusions about Leviticus? What are yours? Enquiring minds want to know."

Hays says that "Paul rejects the Law not because of an empirical observation that no one can do what it requires, but because its claim to give life, explicitly articulated in Lev 18:5, is incompatible with the gospel story, which says that Christ had to die in order to give life to us" (page 179).

Now, I think Hays is right that Paul's position with regard to the Law does not arise out of our observed inability to keep the Law. That contradicts Paul's own testimony in Philippians 3:6, doesn't fit with the fact the Law itself as an overall way of life makes provision for transgression, and seems implausible in light of what I find to be the fairly persuasive arguments of Stendhal and others.

I also agree with Hays's corollary suggestion that Paul's implication--that there is no Law that could possibly give life (3:21)--is a purely general one. That is to say, it is not so much a point about the impossibility of Law-keeping, but is making the claim that even if one were to keep the Law perfectly, the Law still wouldn't be able to give (resurrected, vindicated) life. After all, in some sense Jesus did keep the Law perfectly and still fell under its curse. The focus is less one of "Law-keeping" vs. "faith" in the abstract as it is two successive phases of covenant history. Paul can speak of the work of Christ as "when faith came" as an eschatological fulfillment that lies beyond the Law (Galatains 3:25).

But I don't like Hays's handling of Paul's quotation of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 (and its parallel in Romans 10:5). It seems implausible to me that Paul is saying that [1] the Law claimed to be able to give life in the sense that the promise does by faith through the death of the Messiah and [2] that the Law was mistaken in this claim about itself.

Paul holds the Law in too high regard elsewhere to say [2], indeed, suggesting that the Law was a necessary step in the unfolding of the divine plan and was, in its proper place within redemptive history, holy, righteous, and good. Moreover, one apsect of Paul's argument is that the Law itself teaches that the promise precedes the Law, which seems to contradict [1].

So, what's going on in Galatians 3? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. It is one of the most notoriously difficult bits of Paul's writings.

The picture as I see it goes something like this. The whole function of the Law all along was to point beyond itself to faith, to an eschatological fulfillment that had been promised ahead of time to Abraham who himself, as the man of faith, typologically points forward to the faithfulness of the Messiah (Galatians 3:6, 16-18).

The Galatians had not received the Spirit (correlative to justification and life) by the works of the Law--the God-ordained system of Torah, which, among other things, distinguished between Jew and Gentile--but by the "hearing of faith," that is, the message about the faithfulness of the Messiah, which they then believed (Galatians 3:2-8). When that "faith came" (the faithfulness of the promised seed, Jesus Christ) the Law no longer could play the role it once did in forming Israel's identity, thus allowing the Gentiles to enjoy the Spirit, justification, and life together with the Jews, as those who believe in the Messiah (Galatians 3:14, 22-29).

Indeed, Paul indicates that those who are under the Law are under a curse (Galatians 3:10), quoting Deuteronomy 27:26 where Israel swore allegiance to the Law. Since the Law was laid upon Israel through a self-maledictory oath and since the Law points beyond itself to faith (the faithfulness of the Messiah and those who put their faith in him), the Law can only ultimately curse those who are bound under it as it moves them beyond itself to faith (in the case of the suffering remnant) or as they apostatize from it (in the case of unfaithful Israel, and either way, curse is inevitable). This "curse of the Law" given to Israel had, from the beginning, been central to God's plan for dealing with sin (as Paul makes clear in Romans).

As a matter of eschatology, the Seed to whom the promise is made lives (and is justified) by faith, moving that Seed beyond the Law but also, thereby, bringing him under the curse of the Law as one who no longer continues in the Law. But, "The Righteous One [i.e., the Messiah, the promised Seed] will live by faith" (Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4). And living by faith, he redeems us from the curse of the Law since his life of faith leads to crucifixion upon a tree, manifesting the curse that the Law inevitably brings (Galatians 3:13).

The Law, however, Paul says, is not of faith (Galatians 3:12). But here he means the Law taken on its own terms, in itself, apart from its eschatological goal: the Messiah who is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:19, 22, 24). Thus, he quotes from Leviticus 18:5, "The one who does these things shall live in these things." Paul doubles up the phrase "these things" in the quotation to show the Law's expression of its own self-limitations. The point here is not "Law-keeping" in some abstract way, but the refusal to move from Law, taken in itself, to the Law's eschatological goal of faith (e.g., by still requiring circumcision once faith has come).

Contrary to Hays, the Law is not rejected here because it claims to give the life that only comes through faith. Rather, it is rejected because the life the Law offers is not the eschatological life that comes through faith, but only the life that is to be found "in these things," within the sphere of the Law itself. Once faith comes, that sub-eschatological life that comes through the Law can no longer function among God's people. It's the wrong kind of life. Now we have life in the Messiah, in our corporate identity with the promised Seed, as Abraham's children.

That, at least, is my current thinking on the matter, though this is still very much a work in progress.