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Intro to Paul: The curse of the law

Posted by Robert C. on July 27, 2007

If you’re sick of the Gospels and ready to move on to Paul (I’m being facetious of course, in light of Matthew’s post), here’s an update on what I’ve been learning about Paul and Pauline studies. Galatians 3:10 says:

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.

The traditional view is that “works of the law” here should be interpreted rather broadly, roughly equivalent to “good works. ” The New Perspective on Paul tends to view this more narrowly, referring only to the Law of Moses. In general, New Perspective advocates tend to view Paul as reinterpreting Judaic law whereas traditionalists tend to view Paul as more condemnatory of Judaic law, establishing Christianity as something less continuous with Judaism. So traditionalists often use this passage in Galatians to criticize the New Perspective because Paul sounds so critical of the law here. Below I will try to briefly, though hopefully not too inaccurately, sketch differing views on this matter by two prominent scholars, James Dunn as an advocate of the New Perspective and Stephen Westerholm as a defender of the traditional view.

Paul cites Gen 15:6 in a couple different places as an example of Abraham’s faith “count[ing] for righteousness” apart from any work that he did. After all, circumcision and the Law of Moses more generally weren’t given until after this “meritorious” declaration of faith by Abraham; thus, Westerholm argues, it is clear that Paul’s use of the term “works” which might’ve caused Abraham to boast (cf. Rom 4:4), could not be referring to “observances and the particularly Jewish part of the Mosaic code” (Dunn, p. 238).

Dunn counters by pointing to the phrase “law of faith” in Rom 3:27:

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.

This passage, in turn, is referring back to the boasting mentioned in Rom 2:17 and 2:23 where, Dunn argues, Paul is criticizing the Jews’ understanding of the law as a distinguishing mark of their chosen status by God. Dunn cites Rom 3:29-30 as evidence that Paul is indicting this elitist, nationalistic understanding of the law:

Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.

Westerholm responds to this by saying that Dunn is basically claiming that the Paul is criticizing the Jews for misunderstanding the law, but Paul’s phraseology in referring to the law does not support this idea:

[W]hether or not Paul thought Jews had misunderstood the law, a phrase that means “what the law requires” is curiously chosen if it is intended to convey the sense of “a distortion of what the law requires.” [Westerholm, p. 314]

Westerholm goes on to analyze this phraseology in Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:11, 5:4 as well as Romans 3:20, 28. Later in Romans also, Westerholm argues, Paul talks about works in a way that seems to explicitly condemn the moral or ethical merit that might be associated with works:

For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth. [Rom 9:11]

And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. [Rom 11:6]

Westerholm also criticizes Dunn’s view because it seems to undervalue the atonement: if the problem is only that the Jews have misunderstood the law, then how do the Jews benefit from the atonement? Dunn’s view seems to reduce the good news of Christ merely to the notion that the covenant is now being extended to the Gentiles, without directly benefiting the Jews (see Westerholm pp. 317-319). A counterargument defending Dunn’s view (or a Dunn-like view) is that the benefit of the Gospel for the Jews is simply not something addressed in Paul’s epistles; this doesn’t mean Paul didn’t believe there was such a benefit.


Dunn, James D. G. Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galations (London: SPCK, 1990).

Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

6 Responses to “Intro to Paul: The curse of the law”

  1. BRoz said

    It is clear to me that Paul’s comments are limited to the Law of Moses because later on refers to keeping the “Law of Christ.”

    Gal. 6: 2 Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

  2. Robert C. said

    BRoz, I’m not sure I follow. In the Book of Mormon we have Christ discussed a lot in terms of the fulfilling the law of Moses, are you proposing a similar Christ / Law of Moses juxtaposition? I’m not sure we see the same clean juxtaposition in Paul.

    Also, I don’t think Dunn or Westerholm thinks that Paul is univocal in his use of terms. In particular, Westerholm readily concedes that the Law of Moses is what is in mind in many Pauline passages, the question is whether he ever uses the term law more generally (and esp. the phrase “works of the law”). So I’m not sure how much bearing Gal 6:2 should have on Gal 3:10 anyway….

    Speaking of Book of Mormon passages, I think it’s interesting, though perhaps not very relevant, that law often seems to refer to something more general than the Law of Moses in the Book of Mormon—I have these 2 Nephi 2 passages and these Alma 42 passages particularly in mind.

    (In my previous “Intro to Paul” post, Jacob suggested that Mormons should be inclined to support the New Perspective on Paul which played a part motivating me to look into this issue more—I still don’t have any strong opinions, but I think Westerholm makes some pretty good arguments against NPP views, so I’m willing to at least play devil’s advocate with Jacob’s claim….)

  3. BRoz said

    I was just including the verse to support the conclusion that Paul’s “curse of the law” is referring to the Law of Moses and not the priciples of obedience or repentance or good works in general.

  4. Adam said

    I would suggest (without taking the time to back up any of this here with an actual reading) that, for Paul, the “curse” of the law applies equally as well to the law of Moses as to the law’s general requirements. In my humble opinion, Dunn and Westerholm miss the Pauline boat altogether in arguing about which law is at stake in a given verse because they then fail to see that Paul’s primary point is this: the law only functions as God intented (rather than as an “opportunity” for sin) when the law itself testifies to God’s unconditional grace. Law, whether Mosaic or general, will always be perverted by sin whenever it is understood as conditional, as operating on the basis of a quid pro quo, reward/punishment system. When understood as a set of conditions for reward or punishment, the law is always reduced to a mirror for our own sinful vanity: either the vanity of having succeeded and ‘earned’ a reward or the vanity of shame at having ‘failed’.

    The law, as Christ reveals, is about the unconditional grace of God, his unconditional commitment to us, and about the grace of our unconditional fidelity to God. Law, understood as economy, is death. Law, understood as an unconditional expression of commitment (either God’s or ours), is life. The law, like the gospel – as an essential part of the gospel – is about grace. Grace is not a bandaid applied as a stop-gap when the law fails, but precedes the law, gives the law its purpose and orientation, and is the very end and meaning of life itself.

  5. Robert C. said

    Adam, my (limited!) understanding is that both Westerholm and Dunn would strongly agree with you that Paul is definitely saying that the law is primarily about grace, not economy. In this sense, the disagreement is rather nuanced.

    The way you phrase this, “grace is not a bandaid applied as a stop-gap when the law fails,” however, seems more in line with Westerholm’s defense of the traditional reading of Paul. That is, Paul is arguing against works in the general sense of not being meritorious, rather than works (merely) being a sign of covenantal membership.

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