Fred Zaspel

The Law and Its Fulfillment…


A Review of…

The Law & Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of LawThe Law & Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law
Thomas R. Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993) 294 pp., hardcover.

Professor Schreiner has provided a valuable service to anyone trying to get a “handle” on the various issues related to the complex theme of the Mosaic law and its fulfillment. Well suited for more advanced students/scholars, this book serves particularly well those who are beginning their frightful journey through this most thorny field.

As the subtitle implies, Schreiner’s focus is on the Pauline literature, but the range of topics covered is by no means narrow. In his Introduction (p.14) Schreiner states that his purpose is to provide a fresh analysis of the “new perspective” on Paul. This he does well in chapters 2 & 4 (and at other points), and his defense here of the historic Protestant view is both clear and convincing. Especially insightful is his demonstration of Jewish legalism in the first century and that this is, indeed (contra Sanders), precisely what Paul was opposing (pp.93-121). And his evidencing of the same even in Sander’s own data is fair and compelling.

But his work takes the reader beyond this objective and examines such perennial and controversial topics as the present relevance of Moses, the purpose of the law, and Paul’s theology of works. And although he never says so directly, Schreiner enters the current “lordship salvation” controversy in chapter 7 (“Did Paul Teach Justification by Works?”).

The Introduction (“The Background to the Debate”) surveys the history of the various interpretations of Paul preceding the new perspective. The summary is brief but helpful (again, particularly for the new-comer), sets the reader well on his way, and provides a general frame of reference in which to approach the study.

Chapter 1 (“The Meaning of the Term Law in Paul”) yields little that is new, but it does sort out carefully the various nuances of nomos in its Pauline usage. Among the various meanings offered, Schreiner wisely avoids the confusion of “law of Christ” with “law of Moses” (p.36). He also demonstrates that “law,” more often than not, has the narrower focus of “commandment” (pp.38-39). And he notes the redemptive-historical use of the term (p.39). These observations – and their implications – are in my judgment very significant and often overlooked. Further, this chapter provides some helpful definitions and establishes the parameters for the study.

Of particular interest in chapter 3 (“The Purpose of the Law”) to me, at least, is Schreiner’s treatment of paidogogos(pp.77-80). The salvation-historical reference he sees in it is critical to a right understanding of the passage, and the observation avoids the difficulties other commentators must face. It goes without saying with a subject such as his, that no one will agree with him at every point – particularly on the more minor issues (e.g., charin in Gal.3:19; pp.74-75). But Schreiner deals carefully with all of the primary passages involved, as well as some others, and his conclusions reflect a close attention to the details of the text.

On the dust cover of the book the publishers state that Schreiner defends the historic Protestant view of the law. This is certainly true in regards to the “new perspective.” It is also true in regards to his insistence that the Mosaic Covenant was “wholly gracious” in nature (p.249; c.f., pp.247-251 and 125-126) – a contention which finds amazingly little exegetical warrant. But his brief remarks concerning the sabbath (i.e., that it is not a Christian obligation; e.g., p.169) place him well outside of traditional Puritan Protestantism – although, as he briefly demonstrates, this is much safer ground exegetically.  Thus, in chapter 6 (“The Fulfillment of the Law by Christians”), his suggestion that it is the “moral” dimension of the Mosaic Code which is still binding on New Covenant believers resembles the traditional Reformed theology of law only superficially, for he never equates the moral law of Moses with the decalogue. This is an important distinction which he is careful not to miss.

Chapter 8 (“Soundings from the Rest of the New Testament”) provides a helpful summary of the corresponding ideas in the other NT writers. The agreement of these others (even Matthew!) with Paul is concisely demonstrated at each point, and several of the key passages involved receive more lengthy treatment. This chapter is useful not only in that it supports Schreiner’s various contentions throughout his analysis of the Pauline passages, but also in that it serves as a basic introduction for further pursuit of the study.

One weakness of the book lies in the relatively little attention given to the subject of Christ as the fulfiller of the law. Some good treatment is given to this in the section on Matthew in chapter 8 and in chapter 5 (“The Temporary Nature of the Mosaic Covenant”). But there could well be more consideration of such ideas as the relation of Christ’s teaching to the Mosaic law – was it merely a “rubber stamping” of the moral demands of Moses? Or is there something about it that is new? If this theme seems a bit more Matthean than Pauline, then what about the “law of Christ”? Schreiner himself indicates on p.36 that this should not be confused with the law of Moses, but he never really offers a clear distinction. His treatments of 1Cor.9:21 and Gal.6:2 here (pp.158-159) are weak. In this same vein – is the “newness” associated with the New Covenant to be explained only in terms of the Spirit’s enablement to obedience (p.173), or is there something more? In my mind, these are large issues with far-reaching implications which deserve considerably more attention – particularly in a book whose title emphasizes the law’s fulfillment.

On more of an editorial note, I mentioned that the book is particularly well suited for beginners to the study. Yes, but some working knowledge of Greek is at some points necessary. And while the Greek is transliterated, often it is not. The same is true of the Hebrew. This appears to be a mistake on the part of the publishers.

All in all, the book is well worth the reading, and it is a useful service to students of the NT theology of law. The ideas are very well organized, and the arguments are well presented. Most of the major subjects are addressed, and sufficient analysis is given to most of the relevant passages. Schreiner shows himself well-read on his subject (the Bibliography is a full 20 pages, with nine entries by the author himself), and his work reflects his more than ten years of interest in the subject. His exegesis is consistently thorough and fair. And (a quality lacking in oh, so many authors!) he is always direct and to the point; his treatments of the various issues are no more detailed or verbose than necessary. He writes clearly and well. And the indexes (Scripture, Author, Subject) are thorough and useful.

Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel


Fred Zaspel

Pastor Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).

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