Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders -- By: Thomas R. Schreiner

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 47:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders
Author: Thomas R. Schreiner


Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law:
An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders*

Thomas R. Schreiner

E. P. Sanders is already well known for his groundbreaking and controversial work on Paul and Palestinian Judaism. His new work on Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People will probably be even more controversial, for Sanders argues that the conventional understanding of Paul’s theology of the law is seriously mistaken. Paul did not, according to Sanders, say that the works of the law could not save because no one could possibly keep the law perfectly; there is no convincing evidence that Paul ever thought it was impossible to observe the law. Neither does Paul criticize works-righteousness because “it leads to legalism, self-righteousness and self-estrangement” (p. 46),1 for it is a fallacy to say that Paul thought that adherence to the works of the law was legalistic. Instead, Paul was hostile to a Torah-centered righteousness only because such an orientation created and preserved a breach between Jews and Gentiles, and it supported the idea that Jews were superior to Gentiles. Paul attacked the Jewish notion of election and justification by law so that he could articulate the equality of both Jews and Gentiles: both are saved only by putting their faith in Christ.

It would be too ambitious in an article to describe and evaluate all that Sanders has to say on Paul’s theology of the law. It is interesting to note that James Dunn has embraced, with some qualifications, the basic thesis propounded by Sanders and that he will

* E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. xi, 227. $19.95).

write his commentary on Romans from this “new perspective.”2 In this article we will summarize and analyze only one pillar of Sanders’ argument. As we have already pointed out, Sanders claims that Paul did not teach that it was impossible to keep the law perfectly. First of all, we will analyze how Sanders supports and defends his thesis that Paul thought it was possible to obey the law in toto. Second, we will subject Sanders’ interpretation to critical scrutiny. How convincing and credible is his exegesis of the major Pauline texts on this issue?

I. An Exposition of Sanders’ View

1. Galatians 3:10

Gal 3:10 is often used to support the idea that justification by works is unattainable, for no one can obey the law perfectly.3 The verse reads as follows: “For all who rely on work...

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