Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what law? The law of works? No, but by the law of faith. Romans 3:27 ESV
Law – It is so unfortunate that Paul uses a word (nomos) that has become so stripped of its original complexity that we now think of its meaning basically as “rules.” That often leaves us with the impression that Paul uses nomos as the equivalent of Torah, and for that reason, we often hear the claim that Paul did away with the obligation of Torah for believers. But this simplification in translation belies the wide range of meanings associated with nomos in Paul’s Greek usage and forces us to think of only the single association nomos = torah. What a disaster this has caused! In the contemporary world of faith where very, very few believers have any real knowledge of the original languages and where most Christian worship is conducted without any deep ties to the original community, it’s no wonder that we tend to believe what we are told by the religious professionals. We are no longer very Berean. We just don’t look for ourselves.
Perhaps that’s why Michael Winger wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject of Paul’s use of nomos. Winger outlines seven different, and not necessarily related, uses of this word in Pauline material – and this does not include the rich metaphorical uses Paul also employs. Winger’s list includes: nomos as verbal (nomos is action), as a standard for judgment, as a guide for conduct, as something that controls or commands or rules, as an identification qualification of a particular people, as a source that is received, and as something that some people subject themselves to. Some of these uses are related. Some are not. The question for any individual verse in Paul’s written material becomes: Which use of nomos best fits the context of this text? It is not always obvious.
I am not here to tell you what Paul means every time he writes the word nomos. I am here to tell you that you simply cannot assume that the translation committee got it right or that you know what he means before you place his words in their context. I am here to plead that you will continue to ask yourself, “What would this have meant if I understand the author to be a Torah-observant Jewish rabbi writing to Torah-observant Messianic synagogues?” In other words, the assumption that Paul is writing to sola fide Christians is neither theologically warranted nor historically accurate. Therefore, we will have to discover what Paul means from within Paul’s frame of reference.
Law and grace! Oh, the cataclysm that this juxtaposition has perpetrated. The needless agony and confusion that has been the result of Augustine’s view that Romans 7 is the standard account of conversion.
Let’s make a vow. Let’s vow to stop all the argument and debate about the “law vs. grace” stuff until we really know how Paul uses nomos. Let’s investigate and stop listening to the theological pundits (including me, by the way). Let’s be Berean.
Topical Index: law, nomos, Romans 3:27, Michael Winger