A Question for the Apostle Paul

“How should we live?” That’s the question so many today want to ask Paul — and about as many answers as the numbers of those who ask him the question! There are tensions when one asks this question of Paul — he was after a Jew and a Jew would say “Obey the commands.” But many think that’s not what Paul would say. This question has been posed in a remarkably sensitive manner by James Thompson, at Abilene Christian University, in a book called Moral Formation according to Paul.

What role does the Torah play in your understanding of spiritual formation? Which of the five approaches (the second listing of five items below) best captures Paul’s ethics? Or do you think it is the Torah?

Here are some of those tensions:

1. “Paul’s moral instruction has been a problem for those who place the doctrine of justification by faith at the center of his thought” (4). Thompson pulls to the fore the classic set of categories from Bultmann: the indicative (who we are in Christ) shaped the imperative (what we are to do), but Thompson says this covers only some of Paul’s commands for his churches. Thompson’s right. Anyone who struggles with why Paul gave commands is failing to understand Paul’s theology.

2. Paul “insists that believers conduct themselves ‘worthily of the gospel’… but he gives no comprehensive ethical theory to guide their conduct” (5).

3. Paul wants the believers to be different from the world, but what is different about Paul’s ethics? Are there things here not found in Hellenistic Judaism or in the Old Testament?

4. Paul both informs his readers they are not under the law (Rom 6:14) but tells them to “keep the commandments” (1 Cor 7:19). Much of what he says, in other words, sounds like Torah.

5. Paul shows extraordinary pessimism for moral behavior apart from Christ and extraordinary optimism for those who are in Christ.

Yet, Thompson knows that many today — Christian theologians in particular — don’t want Paul to be offering a Torah-shaped set of ethics. So there are a number of approaches to Paul’s sources:

1. Some see his sources in typical Greek and Roman (and Jewish) moral traditions. That is, folks like Dio Chrysostom or Plutarch or Musonius.

2. Some think Paul’s ethic is absolutely reduced and emerged from the command to love. Bultmann. Or Freedom. Strecker. Even in a situational framework. Robin Scroggs.

3. Yet others think it is all about guidance and discernment of life in the Spirit. Here he appeals to Udo Schnelle and Jimmy Dunn.

4. Some think what Paul wanted was for people to do what he did: imitate Christ.

5. Last he looks at Richard Hays’ proposal of three focal images: cross, community and new creation.

Thompson thinks each falls short and that there is no going forward until one understands the central place the Torah played in Hellenistic Judaism — Paul’s concerns, after all, are with Gentile converts to the gospel in the Diaspora. And in that location the Torah was very, very important, even if it wasn’t halakic and even if it didn’t often sound like the rabbis were to sound.

At the core of Hellenistic Judaism’s Torah teaching for converts and expectation of Gentiles is the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17–26, esp. Lev 18-20. There one finds the classic emphases of the Hellenistic Jews in forming an ethic that enabled them to cohere into a unity and to separate themselves from their immoral neighbors. We find very little of the ritual commands, an emphasis on big ideas like justice and love and care for the poor, and at the same time a major emphasis on sexual sins.

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  • Norman

    Paul lays out that if anything he is flexible and adaptive with where he finds people.

    (1Co 9:19-23) For though I AM FREE FROM ALL, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. TO THE JEWS I BECAME AS A JEW, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. TO THOSE OUTSIDE THE LAW I BECAME AS ONE OUTSIDE THE LAW (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. TO THE WEAK I BECAME WEAK, that I might win the weak. I HAVE BECOME ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

    Perhaps this reflects the freedom he finds within the good news to imitate God’s grace instead of the burdens that people unwittingly shackle themselves with. As Christ said the law and the prophets which encompass the Torah were summed up in Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. We find this taught throughout the Law and the Prophets

  • Scot McKnight

    Norman, I don’t want to tempt you into a long excursus on eschatology, but I venture a question: Do you think Paul observed the Torah? Or that he ever broke it? Do you think he expected the Gentiles to observe the Torah?

  • Norman


    I don’t think Paul broke the spirit of the Torah but it’s obvious in Acts 21 that many of the Jews were concerned with Paul’s teaching as they were presently continuing to practice. But when those same ones came to mingle with the Gentile world (Galatians) they were rebuked by Paul with their methods.

    Paul continually put up a fight against certain aspects of Judaism as he understood the problem but he certainly was expecting all to walk in purity.

    (Rom 6:15) What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

    Paul’s work with the Gentiles is just the beginning it seems of a long walk of the two groups Jews/Gentiles working out their salvation that continues even to this day.

    However I don’t have completely clear answers concerning Paul’s mind and is why the authors book “Moral formation according to Paul” would likely be a worthwhile read.

  • IF we view the New Covenant as a better covenant than the Old as Hebrews says, and see that much of what the New Covenant contains are fulfillments of the Old, we can’t have too much problem saying that Paul’s ethic was Torah-centric.

    The desire in the Old Covenant was for a New Covenant where the Law is written in our hearts and the Spirit works in us to make us obey. There is only ever one standard of right and wrong, both are revealed in the Torah and in the life of Christ, both enabled by the Spirit.

  • I work with youth and foster kids, so my best explanation would need to be simple.

    There is a double standard, but it doesn’t contradict the Law (or at the least the intent of the Law summed up by both Jesus and later Paul).

    My own kids (like the Jews) know the expectations of me (or the Father). They should be obedient that that, but the Gentiles are like the kids that I work with that aren’t mine biologically. The expectation is different, but if my own children understand the intent of the Law, then they wouldn’t get upset with that double standard.

    Obedience to the Law should make you love God more and disobedience to the Law (while realizing the Gospel) should make you love God more.

  • MatthewS

    Looking at even just the one metaphor of walking (περιπατέω) yields a multi-faceted message. “Walk worthy of your calling”, he says.

    Other considerations of our walk:
    not necessarily in the old customs (Acts 21:21)
    newness of life
    in day vs. night
    in light vs. darkness
    in love
    in truth vs. deception
    in Spirit vs. flesh
    as wise vs. unwise

    In addition to walking, we are building: the church of God is a building made with living stones. And in addition to building we are being: we, the church, are a bride.

    I think that Acts 21:20-26 gives an example of Paul being diplomatic and giving an example to Jewish believers of being a Jewish believer, but his rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2 makes it clear that it was not OK to treat non-Torah-following Gentiles as second-class citizens.

    Such things lead to a belief for me that how we should live is that regardless of whether following Torah or not following Torah we keep in step with the Spirit, living in the light and in love, working with each other to build up the building, the body, and the bride of Christ. These aims will be found to be “worthy of the calling you have received.”

  • I think Paul’s morality is bound up in the new reality created by the Jesus Death and Resurrection for all people. Everything is reinterpreted in light of Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is Torah in as much as it led us to Christ.

  • If the Torah is the wisdom of God, I would expect Paul to use it as the basis of his ethics.

  • Tim Atwater

    Oversimplifying, but — can we try on
    Torah, realized-embodied-in-Jesus-Christ-Messiah, the New Creation