The Search for an Evangelical Consensus on Paul and the Law

Article excerpt

MARK W. KARLBERG*

From the perspective of evangelical Protestantism historically defined, one would have thought that in our day the doctrine of justification by faith alone would remain one of the central tenets of the faith, a doctrinal element foundational to the one gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully proclaimed in every age and every culture. Presumably a Protestant of the reputedly evangelical variety would have regarded this doctrine as a theological nonnegotiable. Regrettably, such is not the case in contemporary Protestantism. The doctrine that once distinguished Protestantism from Roman Catholicism has begun to fade into the background. The sharp line of demarcation between Scriptural fidelity and apostasy-respecting that which historic Protestantism considered to be the doctrine upon which the Church stood or fell-has virtually been obliterated. The document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" has signaled an ominous future for American Christianity. Of this, however, we can be certain: Biblical Christianity-present and future-will not be party to what, in any fair and balanced analysis, amounts to a betrayal of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. Evangelical Protestants continue to pray for Rome's repudiation of those teachings that are contrary to the teachings of Scripture. They also hope that Protestants who have strayed from Reformation teaching will yet reclaim these vital truths.1

My concern in this paper is not, in the first place, with this unsettling development among Protestants and Catholics but with the doctrinal error found today within the Reformed camp in particular. This is to show that the threat of theological deviancy is not isolated to any one peculiar corner on the ecclesiastical map. The problem is all about us. Perhaps it is merely indicative of the age in which we live, an age characterized by individualism and by that unrelenting drive toward relativism, the gradual undermining of truth and authority. The great creeds and confessions of Protestant orthodoxy no longer carry the weight and respect they once did. More often than not they are viewed as relics of the past, as historic curiosities. Unchecked, the contemporary disregard for historic Christian dogma will only lead to the further erosion of evangelical witness in our generation.

Although the contemporary theological landscape is rocky, the prospects for evangelical consensus on Paul and the law remain encouraging (at least with respect to the essentials of the Christian faith). This study is the culmination of two earlier unpublished papers of mine.2 Some of the material in them appears in what follows. Curiously, Craig Blomberg comments (prior to the publication of Frank Thielman's study):

The work on Paul and the Law which encourages me the most, however, is T. R. Schreiner's quite recent monograph [The Law and Its Fulfillment]. Here I think we come closest to preserving the valid insights of both Luther and Calvin, preserving the unity of Torah and the salvation-historical shift of the ages which permeates Paul's thought, while nevertheless incorporating the equally valid insights of the new perspective on Paul.3

The works of Thomas Schreiner and Thielman are strikingly similar, although the latter, in my judgment, is a slight advance upon the former. Paul's understanding of God's purpose in placing ancient, theocratic Israel under the law of Moses has a direct bearing upon the doctrine of justification by faith. (One has only to read Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians to confirm this basic but often overlooked ingredient.) What precisely is the nature of the Mosaic law, and what is the relationship between the old and new covenants? These theological questions bring into view a wide range of hermeneutical issues, more than I can adequately address in this paper. My own theological persuasion is that of Reformed, amillennial covenant theology. Typology is but one somewhat obscure feature of that system of doctrine set forth in the Westminster standards. …