Paul, the Law, and the Covenant

By A. Andrew Das
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2001). xix + 342 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 334-335

Is there room for yet another book concerning the New Perspective on Pauline (NPP) studies? After all, the volumes produced since 1977 now number in the hundreds. In Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, Das, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religion at Elmhurst College in Illinois, suggests a third way to look at the NPP. He takes some of the results of the NPP, combines them with the traditional view, and produces a viable alternative to NPP without abandoning the traditional viewpoint. His work challenges the views of James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright.

At the very start of the volume, in “Acknowledgements,” Das sets the tone for the book by observing, “The ultimate test of a proper understanding of Paul is whether that reading conforms to the rest of his letters” (xi). This strikes at the very heart of the NPP. His first chapter dismantles Sanders’ view that God never intended the law to be completely and strictly obeyed (12-44). Jubilees, Philo, the rabbis, and the Qumran covenanters all concur that each command required obedience (44). Then Das demonstrates that Jewish writings after the fall of the temple in A.D. 70 depart from Sanders’ covenantal nomism (8, 45-69). Indeed, either “absolute perfection or a majority of good works is necessary” (69) before God’s bar of judgment.

In Chapter 3 Das answers the question, “Would Paul the Apostle Affirm Covenantal Nomism’s ‘(Old) Covenant’?” (70-94). Whereas Sanders’ model views the Mosaic Covenant as salvific, in texts like Gal 3:15-17, 4:21-31, and 2 Cor 3:1-18 Paul obviously did not (8, 94). Would Paul agree with covenantal nomism’s emphasis on Israel’s election? That is the question in Chapter 4 (95-112). Again, according to Das, a careful study of Romans 9–11 reveals that the apostle’s view differs from that of covenantal nomism. With two key areas of covenantal nomism at odds with Pauline theology, how does covenantal nomism’s emphasis on atoning sacrifice fare (Chapter 5, 113-44)? Das’s conclusion is that “Paul nowhere granted that the atoning sacrifices of the Old Testament offer any help in mitigating the effects of sin” (9). Sin’s resolution is to be found only in Christ, not in the levitical system of sacrifices (144).

NPP adherents have attempted to change the traditional understanding of Gal 3:10, that no one ever obeys all the commands of the Mosaic law. In Chapter 6 (145-70) Das affirms the traditional interpretation (9). By demonstrating the individual focus of Deuteronomy 27–30, he exposes the inaccuracy of N. T. Wright’s emphasis on the corporate dimension (153). After examining the usage and meaning of “works of the law,” he concludes that the phrase “always refers primarily to what the law requires in general and in its entirety” (158, emphasis in the original).

In Chapter 7 (171-91) the spotlight falls on Rom 1:18–2:29. Das concludes that the law in its entirety functions as “the legal standard of what God requires of humanity” (191). The law functioned as both a means of distinguishing “the Jewish people and to place a burden of obedience upon them” (9). The Jews failed the requirements of Mosaic law. Next, Das takes up the matter of justification in an analysis of Rom 3:27–4:8 (Chapter 8, 192-214). The OT itself demonstrates and Paul concurs that “God must justify the ungodly apart from the law” (213). In fact, “human achievement is what is left of the law when grace has been shown to be in Christ and not the law” (214).

Given the results of Das’s inquiry to this point, one might ask how Paul could consider his own relationship to the law as “blameless” in Phil 3:6? The author dedicates the first part of Chapter 9 (215-22) to that question. The second part of the chapter (222-32) deals with Romans 7. Careful examination of “blameless” in the OT as applied to OT saints who have obviously violated Mosaic law, forms Das’s distinction between what Paul is describing in the two passages (Philippians 3 and Romans 7). It is an aspect of the study of Paul’s relationship to the law that deserves more attention. Das’s treatment is a worthy starting point for such a study.

In his final chapter (234-67) the author employs Rom 9:30–10:8 to prove that “the law’s requirements fall into the realm of a merely human endeavor” (11). The “newer perspective” (273) recommended by Das transcends the NPP by recognizing that there is some validity to some claims of the NPP regarding divine grace and mercy in first-century Judaism, but by also admitting that the traditional view was not far from the mark since Paul clearly interpreted that same Judaism in a framework of works-righteousness. Das’s argument is that “New Testament scholarship has not yet fully explored the consequences of a Jewish apostle (Paul) abandoning ‘covenantal nomism’ in favor of a ‘christological nomism’” (11).

Though seeking to mark out a third way to approach the NPP issue, Das so thoroughly discredits major aspects of the NPP that it is difficult to understand why he would seek a mediating position. His biblical analyses clearly support the traditional interpretation of Paul and the Mosaic law without modifying that tradition. Whether one agrees with his third view or not, his volume deserves a wide reading for its clarity, its well-reasoned argumentation, and its exposure of the weaknesses in the NPP view of covenantal nomism.