Might the Lutheran Paul Aim to Keep the Law?

Abstract: Peter Tomson reckoned Paul’s theology of justification able to coexist with his Law (Torah) observance. Recent exegetical work based on the view that Paul remained within Judaism make reconsideration of Tomson’s position timely. I examine five theological criteria in Stephen Westerholm’s Lutheran Paul, arguing that Paul so defined might also consistently observe the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws. If so, the ‘Third Use’ of the Law is relevant for all Christians.

[1] Where should one begin when constructing a Pauline theology of the Law (Torah)? Theological statements about the Law in Romans and Galatians provide the entry point for many interpreters. Conclusions derived from these passages then form a basis for interpreting the rest of Paul’s letters.

[2] Peter Tomson posited three pillars in what he called the traditional scholarly view of Paul: (1) the center of his thought is a polemic against the Law; (2) the Law for him no longer had a practical meaning; and (3) ancient Jewish literature is no source for explaining his letters.[1] Tomson held contrasting assumptions and formed a different plan: (1) comparing Paul throughout with ancient Jewish sources (not excluding Hellenistic influences); (2) considering his justification theology as a specific doctrine not to be read in where it is not written; and (3) investigating especially those passages where the practical implications of the Law are evident.[2]

[3] Tomson began with Paul’s practical decisions in 1 Corinthians, and found that he used legal reasoning based on scripture (halaka). Recalling Philo’s example, Tomson saw Paul’s coherence in the organic structuring of life rather than in any theological theme.[3] For example, at 1 Corinthians 10:20 Paul draws on biblical prophecy, inter-testamental wisdom, and Cynic and Stoic traditions to say that idols are nothing. Yet he also draws upon apocalyptic traditions that call them demonic. Elsewhere, in the midst of a polemic against the Law, Paul asserts its validity (Gal 5:2-3). Paul can therefore be the mystic portrayed by Alan Segal, and still have a halakic approach, as Segal also maintains.[4] Tomson surmised that the frequency of halaka in Paul’s thought implies observance of halaka in Paul’s life.

[4] This result does not force the doctrine of justification to take any particular shape. It is thus conceivable that the Lutheran Paul defined by the doctrine of justification by grace through faith could also have a use for the Law in ethics.

[5] Virtually no one pursued such a juxtaposition of halaka and Lutheran theology while Paul’s Torah observance itself was inconceivable. But the strategy of reading ancient Jewish sources for insight into Paul—and not only as his opposite— has become more widely accepted.

[6] E.P. Sanders pioneered a ‘New Perspective’ on Paul in relation to Judaism. Although Sanders demonstrated to many scholars that Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness, he found a new reason for Paul to leave it. Sanders’ construction of a normative Judaism over against Paul has been challenged by others. Yet they did not challenge the consensus that the Law lacked practical meaning for Paul.

[7] Tomson persuaded few people of a halakic Paul because crucial texts seemed to be against him. In 1 Corinthinas 9:19-23, Paul wrote that he became as a Jew to the Jews, and as one under the Law—while not being under the Law. Paul became everything to everyone, in order to win everyone to the gospel. This was paraded as evidence that Paul could not have consistently kept the Law. He was apparently not trying to. The curse of the Law falls upon those who attempt to keep it (Gal 3:10-14).

[8] Some new scholars, however, join Tomson and envision a Paul who remains within Judaism.[5] For example, the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference includes a group on Paul and Judaism.[6] My purpose here is not to answer all objections to this view but briefly to summarize some of the new exegetical work that supports the paradigm shift.

[9] The belief that Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was directed against Judaism was voiced by Tertullian, who agreed in this matter with Marcion. According to their view, the law of Moses has been superseded with respect to redemptive history and is superfluous for shaping the behavior of Christ-believers.[7] The curse of the Law, upon those who tried to keep it, is superseded.

[10] Recently, Todd Wilson instead argued that the curse of the Law, lifted by Christ, was upon those who failed to keep the Law. The Law is not a curse—sin is. Paul compares a function of the Law, rather than the Law itself, to a pedagogue. His point is that the function of the Law to enclose Israel under a curse was of limited duration.[8] Wilson interpreted Galatians 5:18 as, “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the curse of the Law.” This reading emphasizes the incompatibility of the Spirit and some aspect of Law rather than paraphrases that assume compatibility, i.e. H.D. Betz, “you do not need to be under the Law.”[9] However, Paul was not against the Law per se (Gal 5:14; 6:2). The fruit of the Spirit actually meets the requirements of the Law (5:23). While the Reformed tradition distinguishes between enduring and obsolete aspects of the Law, and Luther considered the Law as guidance entirely surpassed for Christians,[10] Wilson found Paul often addressing the different impact of the law of Moses on Jews and Gentiles.

[11] David Rudolph showed that 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 does not rule out the possibility that Paul lived within Jewish parameters of Law observance.[11] It is possible that Paul adjusted his behavior during meals, since a guest follows the custom of his host,[12] while remaining Torah observant among both Jews and Gentiles. If the three clauses of 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 refer to three groups, this avoids the redundancy caused by equating ‘Jews’ and those “under the Law.”[13] Perhaps ‘Jews’ includes those who are not particularly observant, while those “under the Law” may be Jews most scrupulous in observing the Law.[14] Those “without the Law” are Gentiles. Paul himself is not without the Law (9:21); as a Jew he remains observant (1 Cor 7:17-20). Yet Paul’s lifestyle follows the example of Jesus in table fellowship. He ‘becomes as’ regular Jews, Pharisees, or Gentiles by receiving hospitality from all.[15]

[12] With these exegetical summaries—chosen from many reinterpretations of Pauline passages long held to be incompatible with Torah observance—I hope to persuade readers to consider the possibility that the Lutheran Paul might try to observe the Law. Although no one can keep the Law perfectly, Paul could have kept the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws within the parameters recognized by most other Jews. As he ministered among Gentiles it would require effort to do so. I argue that Paul might have made the effort. I do not suggest that Paul adhered consistently to the most stringent Pharisaic halaka. I do not argue that the combination of Lutheran theology and Jewish practice is necessary or probable.

[13] Some scholars argue that Paul identified real dangers of boasting in the Law.[16] Stephen Westerholm defined the Lutheran Paul, as represented by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. This is the Paul I will explore.[17] Differences between the four figures over matters such as predestination and the extent to which sin remains a reality in the believer’s life were noted by Westerholm but will not concern me here. Might Westerholm’s explicitly Lutheran Paul try to keep Torah?

[14] Westerholm defined five elements in the Lutheran picture of Paul: (1) human nature has been corrupted and people cannot please God; (2) justification is by God’s grace, not works; (3) there is no reason to boast before God; (4) justification by faith must lead to good works; and (5) believers are delivered from the condemnation of the Law, while the Spirit enables partial fulfillment of the moral demands of the Law.[18] Westerholm argued that this is the correct way to read Paul. While he agreed with Sanders that ancient Judaism was not legalistic, he argued against Sanders’ “Protestant” portrait of it. What divides the Lutheran Paul from his contemporary critics is whether justification by faith, not works of the Law, means that sinners find grace through faith, not anything they do, or whether instead Gentiles are included in the people of God without becoming Jews.[19]

[15] This essay partially uses Westerholm’s construal of what divides the Lutheran Paul from his critics. It accepts his account of justification, but without rejecting the above position of the critics. Paul really did insist that Gentiles who turn to God in Christ are included in the people of God without becoming Jews. I consider Westerholm’s five elements in turn.

[16] First element: human nature has been corrupted and people cannot please God. Sanders depicted Palestinian Judaism as claiming that salvation (entering the covenant) is by pure grace, but that obedience to God (covenantal nomism) is necessary to remain saved (in Protestant terminology). Westerholm accepted this depiction of Judaism but objected that it differs from Lutheran thought in which humans can contribute nothing to their salvation. Such Judaism is like the Christian Pelagianism or Semipelagianism that Augustine and Luther railed against.[20] While ancient Judaism was not legalistic, Jews still observing the Torah are misguided in Paul’s view, according to Westerholm.[21]

[17] Paul’s view that human nature is corrupted can be found within Enoch literature, although all Jewish movements wanted Jews to observe the Torah. It is a mistake to require that Paul differ from his contemporaries on this point. Rather, since later elements of the Lutheran Paul include good works and partial fulfillment of the moral law, there is no logical barrier to including, for Paul the Jew, keeping the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws.[22] The Lutheran Paul cannot please God (Rom 7:14-21), but God’s Law can please Paul (Rom 7:22). Paul might choose to turn aside his foot on God’s holy day, calling it a delight (Isa 58:13). He would understand through the Gospel the intention of the Law and through apostolic traditions of how Christ kept it.[23] Disagreeing with Jerome, Augustine maintained that Paul observed the Law sincerely.[24]

[18] Second element: justification is by God’s grace, not works. This point is also represented (though not universal) among Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. I agree with Tomson’s assertion that Paul’s halakic foundation does not restrict but rather enables his flexibility in thought. The converse is also true. Justification by grace does not preclude faithfulness to the way of life given by God to Israel through the Torah, and exemplified by Jesus Christ.

[19] Third element: there is no reason to boast before God. The classic discussion of boasting is in Romans, where Paul writes that boasting is excluded because a person is justified ek pisteos (by faith or Christ’s faithfulness) apart from the Law (3:27-28). He anticipates an objection: do we then nullify the Law? By no means! Rather, Paul upholds the Law (3:31). This leaves open the possibility that the Lutheran Paul, if he upholds the Law, might aim to observe it.

[20] Fourth element: justification by faith must lead to good works. The Torah itself does not label some commandments as moral, others as ceremonial, and still others as national, although Jewish and Christian theologians could make such distinctions. The same logic that has good works follow faith could have Shabbat and kashrut observance for Paul and other Christ-believing Jews follow faith.

[21] Fifth element: believers are delivered from the condemnation of the Law, while the Spirit enables partial fulfillment of the moral demands of the Law. If the Spirit enables partial fulfillment of the moral demands of the Law, it could, theoretically, enable partial fulfillment of other parts of the Law. Lutherans might concede that non-Christ-believing Jews can at least partially observe Shabbat and kashrut. The Lutheran Paul, like Paul’s Jewish contemporaries and Jews today, might consider it right to try to observe as much of the Law as possible, even if one falls short of perfect obedience.[25]

[22] Supposing the Lutheran Paul aimed to keep the Law, what would this imply today? To move the discussion along, I’ll assume that the pillar apostles and Paul (Gal 2:9), and the large majority of the New Testament authors believed in the continuing covenant of God with the Jewish people, that Jesus-believing Jews should keep the Sabbath and dietary laws, and that Jews and Gentiles, with differing Torah-based obligations, remain distinct within the Jesus movement.[26] I’ll further assume these understandings are normative for followers of Jesus today.[27]

[23] If the Lutheran Paul aimed to observe matters of Sabbath and diet, Christian polemics against Jewish observance of Jewish rituals are in part misdirected. Such ritual observance implies that God remains in covenant with the people of Israel, Torah observance being an expression of that covenant. Therefore several forms of supersessionism are ruled out. While many churches have disavowed supersessionism, Kendall Soulen believes that the implications of this move are extensive and have yet to be fleshed out.[28] Here I restrict my remarks to ethics.

[24] Christ-believing Jews, including Lutheran Jews, are exploring how to express Jewish election and covenant-based Torah practice within the church.[29] Other Christians ought to support them. They ought to make space for the Jewish liturgical and dietary practices of Christ-believing Jews.[30]

[25] Reasoning from ceremonial practices to unquestionably ethical ones, and from Paul to Jesus, Christians ought to try to observe the Law as Jesus taught. Stassen and Gushee consider the “transforming initiatives” of Matthew 5-7 to invite grace-based participation in the Kingdom of God through concrete practices. The practices mesh with virtues and character ethics.

[26] Bonhoeffer’s incomplete ethical ‘conversion’ is instructive. Bonhoeffer was persuaded to oppose Nazism by taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously in the secular realm.[31] Yet, his Ethics hardly mentions the Sermon on the Mount, and Larry Rasmussen criticized Ethics for lacking concrete normative guidance.[32] Though the early church prized discipleship through following Jesus’ commands, a tradition of evading those commands developed, partly through Luther’s two-realms interpretation.[33]

[27] Imitating Torah-based practices, especially those of Jesus, is a ‘Third Use’ of the Law. For the Lutheran Paul to do it invalidates the supposition of Dibelius and Betz that Paul’s ethics conform to Hellenistic culture, so that a contemporary set of cultural norms could be substituted without difficulty today.[34] The undoing of Luther’s rejection of a ‘Third Use’ was perhaps already begun by Westerholm when he included Calvin and Wesley as sources for the Lutheran Paul.

[28] In conclusion, I have argued for the possibility that the Lutheran Paul, as characterized by Westerholm, might aim to observe the Law and, practically speaking, keep the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws even when among Gentiles. With further assumptions, this implies disavowal of supersessionism, room among Christ-believing Jews for Jewish ritual practices today, and for the ‘Third Use’ of the Law by all Christians through imitating Jesus’ Torah-based practices.


[1] Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 1.

[2] Tomson, Paul, 19.

[3] Tomson, Paul, 265.

[4] Alan Segal, Paul the Convert (New Haven: Yale, 1990) 193.

[5] Magnus Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), “Beyond the New Perspective,” 127-64; Jon C. Olson, “Pauline Gentiles Praying Among Jews,” Pro Ecclesia 20.4 (2011) 410-30; Jon C. Olson, “Paul Within Messiah, Torah, and Judaism,” Kesher 26 (2012); http://www.kesherjournal.com/Issue-26/Paul-within-Messiah-Torah-and-Judaism (accessed July 4, 2013).

[6] Tomson’s paper “”Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles – ‘Israelite, Hebrew, Pharisee'” was, however, presented in the SBL Pauline Soteriology group, November 19, 2012.

[7] Todd A. Wilson, “The Supersession and Superfluity of the Law? Another Look at Galatians,” in David Rudolph and Joel Willetts, eds., Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) 235-44; Todd A. Wilson, The Curse of the Law and the Crisis in Galatia (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).

[8] Wilson, “Supersession,” 237.

[9] Wilson, “Supersession,” 238-39.

[10] Luther argued that the Decalogue, as Mosaic law, is inapplicable to believers, but that it remains applicable as natural law. See William Lazareth, “Love and Law in Christian Life,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 1:3 (November 2001).

[11] David Rudolph, A Jew to the Jews (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

[12] Rudolph, Jew, 142-46, citing Luke 10:8 (Jesus), Tosefta Berachot 2:21 (Hillel), Josephus, Philo, the Testament of Abraham, and Abraham’s hosting of three angels (Gen 18).

[13] Rudolph, Jew, 203.

[14] Rudolph, Jew, 154-57.

[15] Rudolph, Jew, 149-65, 173-208.

[16] Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul, 165-94; Noel S. Rabinowitz, review of Mark Adam Elliott, The Survivors of Israel: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism, Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism 14 (Winter 2002) 112-30.

[17] Luther’s theology may have been more flexible than the Lutheran Paul’s is thought to be. With the Psalmist, Luther was able to exclaim “O how I love your Law!” See Mark Nanos, review of Stephen Westerholm, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Paul, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 75.2 (2013) 407-10. On Luther’s dialectical theology, see Lazareth, “Love and Law.”

[18] Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul, 184, based on Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[19] Zetterholm, Approaches, 186; Westerholm, Perspectives, 257.

[20] Zetterholm, Approaches, 190. Zetterholm regrets that Westerholm did not engage with scholars advocating a more radical perspective on Paul than the “New Perspective” of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright.

[21] Zetterholm, Approaches, 192.

[22] Zetterholm, Approaches, 229, states this explicitly: “If the old caricature of Judaism can be proven false and it can be assumed that first-century Judaism was not characterized by legalism and works-righteousness, it seems quite unlikely that Paul found reason to leave Judaism for Christianity.”

[23] For the Isaiah 61 background to Jesus’ ministry, see Glen Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003) 19-54.

[24] However, Augustine agreed with Jerome that Christ-believing Jews in his day were not permitted to observe the Law. Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005) 202-9.

[25] Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 199.

[26] Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996); Mark D. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); Peter J. Tomson, ‘If this be from Heaven…’: Jesus and the New Testament Authors in their Relationship to Judaism (Sheffield UK: Sheffield Academic, 2001); Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism; Rudolph and Willetts, eds., Introduction to Messianic Judaism; Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald, eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); David Rudolph, Joel Willetts, Justin K. Hardin, and J. Brian Tucker, eds., New Testament after Supersessionism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, forthcoming).

[27] Aquinas thought that Jesus and the apostles had been right to observe the ceremonial law, but that for Christians, even Jewish Christians, to do so in later generations was sinful. For theological argument for the legitimacy of continued Law observance by Christ-believing Jews, see Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, 202-10; Holly Taylor Coolman, “Christological Torah,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 5.1 (2010), 1-12.

[28] R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

[29] See the Helsinki Consultation on Continuity in the Body of Messiah at http://helsinkiconsultation.squarespace.com/

[30] Olson, “Pauline Gentiles Praying among Jews”; Jon C. Olson, “Christ-Believing Gentiles Dining Among Christ-Believing Jews,” Kesher, forthcoming. Even if one considers the New Testament evidence supporting Jewish dietary practices for Jewish Christians inconclusive, I argue that there is support for it, and Romans 14 teaches that the strong (wider diets) should accommodate the practices of the weak (restricted diets).

[31] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 125-45.

[32] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 127; Larry Rasmussen, Moral Fragments and Moral Community (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Glen H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

[33] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 128-29.

[34] Richard B. Hays cites without endorsing these views in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper, 1996) 17-18.

Jon Olson

Jon C. Olson is Clinical Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and an epidemiologist in the Connecticut Department of Public Health.