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Paul’s Enthymemes on the Law

One of the questions that comes up for those studying 1689 Federalism is whether or not the Mosaic Covenant (which was a covenant of works) offered eternal life as a reward for obedience to the law. Historically, some have said yes, while others no. I (following Coxe, Owen, Renihans, Barcellos, etc) say no, the Mosaic Covenant only offered temporal life and blessings. However, two passages in particular seems to suggest I am mistaken and that the Mosaic Covenant did in fact offer eternal life and that Christ in fact earned our righteousness through the Mosaic Covenant.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10-14 ESV)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)

What are we to make of these passages which seem to teach that our blessings were earned by Christ as a reward for obedience to the Mosaic Covenant (“the law”)? Well, we need to understand Paul’s rhetoric as an enthymeme. An enthymeme is “a syllogism in which one of the premises is implicit.” Britannica explains:

in syllogistic, or traditional, logic, name of a syllogistic argument that is incompletely stated. In the argument “All insects have six legs; therefore, all wasps have six legs,” the minor premise, “All wasps are insects,” is suppressed. Any one of the propositions may be omitted—even the conclusion; but in general it is the one that comes most naturally to the mind. Often in rhetorical language the deliberate omission of one of the propositions has a dramatic effect.

Wikipedia refers to it as an “informal syllogism”

Here is an example of an informal syllogism, an enthymeme:

  • Socrates is mortal because he’s human.”
The complete formal syllogism would be the classic:
All humans are mortal. (major premise – assumed)
Socrates is human. (minor premise – stated)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (conclusion – stated)

While syllogisms lay out all of their premises and conclusion explicitly, enthymemes keep at least one of the premises or conclusion unsaid. The assertions left unsaid are intended to be so obvious as to not need stating.

I highly recommend that everyone take some time to listen to John Robbins’ mp3 course on logic (Course 11). Education in logic used to be a prerequisite to any formal study of a subject (such as theology). The Westminster Assembly produced The Directory for Publick Worship which includes the following rule for examination of a pastor:

He shall be examined touching his skill in the original tongues and his trial to be made by reading the Hebrew and Greek testaments and rendering some portion of them into Latin. And if he be defective in them, inquiry shall be made more strictly after his other learning and whether he hath skill in logick and philosophy.

page 72

I never received any formal logic instruction, so I’m doing my best to play catch-up. We all need to play catch-up. Logic is not common sense. It’s not something everyone knows and understands. Logic is “the rules of proper thought” or “the science of necessary inference.” It is a study of the proper way to think, and it’s something a lot of us are ignorant of (and we correct this by studying how God thinks by studying Scripture and thereby developing proper rules of thought – not by looking to “natural theology”). But back to enthymeme (from Robbins’ second lecture “Definition of Terms”):

It means an argument in which one of the premises is omitted, or understood. And he [Clark] gives the illustration of a youngster convincing his parents to let him to buy some gloves. And he doesn’t express the full argument. Most of our ordinary conversations in life are enthymemes. Some of the premises are not stated, they’re understood. It would be very burdensome, very tedious, if every time we wanted to talk to someone to repeat all the premises and ask them to agree to the conclusion. So we operate on the premise that some things are understood. It’s an ellipses, as it were, in the argument.

Some people have charged the bible with committing logical fallacies, and what they normally have in mind are enthymemes. Perhaps they’ve run across an argument in Paul’s letters where he leaves out a premise as being understood. And they say, “Look, the bible can’t be the Word of God, there’s a logical fallacy.” And all Paul has done is written down an enthymeme. The bible is written in ordinary language. It’s not written as a logic textbook or a botany textbook or a geology textbook. It’s written in ordinary language and in ordinary language, ordinary conversation, usually the complete argument is not stated. Sometimes it is.

In one of the lectures I’ll talk about Paul’s use of logic. Particularly in Romans and 1 Corinthians he states the full argument, on several occasions; no enthymemes. But you need to be aware of the existence of enthymemes when people say the bible has logical blunders in it. Then you can say, ‘Well, perhaps its just an enthymeme that perhaps you’ve overlooked.’ That will drive them to their dictionary.

Bryan Estelle shows an example of this in Galatians 3:10-12

Paul has two arguments in these verses. His first argument is in verse 10 in the form of an abbreviated syllogism. Stated most simply, the argument of Galatians 3:10 assumes the following form:

PREMISE: Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.

CONCLUSION: All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.

The implied reconstructed minor premise would then possibly look like this:

All who rely on the works of the law do not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.

Paul then goes on to make another argument in verses 11 and 12, which stated most simply assumes the following form:

MAJOR PREMISE: The one who is righteous by faith shall live (v. 11b).

MINOR PREMISE: The law is not of faith (v. 12a, reinforced by v. 12b).

CONCLUSION: No one is justified (= receives life) by law (v. 11a).

Let the reader understand the apostle’s line of reasoning here. After stating the cursed condition of every person in his first argument (v. 10), the apostle states the conclusion of his second argument first (v. 11a – “no one is justified, i.e., receives entitlement to heaven, by law”) and then asserts justification is by faith (v. 11b), and furthermore, law and faith are antithetical (read = incompatible, 3:12). The logic is lucid and insuperable: Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5 are “two mutually exclusive soteriological statements.”

Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development (133-4)

Much of exegesis involves reconstructing the logic implicit in Scripture, making it explicit and therefore easier to understand.

Returning to Galatians 3:10-14 that we started with, the question we are addressing is how Paul can use “the law” as a reference to the Adamic Covenant in distinction from the Old Covenant. For the sake of argument, assume that I am correct in stating that only the Adamic Covenant of Works offered eternal life upon the condition of obedience to the law, and the Mosaic Covenant blessings were limited to temporal life and blessing in Canaan upon the condition of obedience to the law. (For more on this, see here)

CovenantDocuments_Old+Adamic

Paul is then appealing to the written law of the Old Covenant as representative of the law of the Covenant of Works (which was unwritten and therefore could not be quoted). In doing so, he is not claiming the Old Covenant offered eternal life. He is using the principle of works established in the Old Covenant to make a point about the obedience required from those seeking to earn by their works. A reconstruction of Paul’s enthymeme might look like:

P1 Though the rewards differ (and thus the covenants are distinct), the law was given in both the Adamic and the Old Covenants as a covenant of works (meaning they operate upon the same principle of works).

P2 I cannot quote from the Adamic Covenant because it was not written down for us.

C1 I can quote statements about the conditions of the law in the Old Covenant in order to explain the conditions of the law in the Adamic Covenant (while keeping the two covenants distinct).


P3 I can quote statements about the conditions of the law in the Old Covenant in order to explain the conditions of the law in the Adamic Covenant (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

P4 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for the Old Covenant law principle.

C2 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for the Adamic Covenant law principle (while keeping the two covenants distinct).


We can then unpack the logic of the verses in question to demonstrate they are not teaching that Christ earned eternal life for us through the Old Covenant.

P5 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for Adamic Covenant law principle (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

P6 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

C3 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Adamic Covenant (in distinction from the Old Covenant).


P7 Christ was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law

P8 “the law” can be used as shorthand reference for the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.

C4 Christ was born under the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.


P9 Christ was born under the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.

P10 The law principle itself (do this and live) can be distinguished from a specific covenant.

C5 Christ was born under the principle of “Do this and live” although he was not born under the Adamic Covenant.

Long story short, understanding Scripture requires unpacking the logic implicit in the explicit statements. The simple fact that the law often has reference to the Old Covenant does not therefore mean that Christ earned our reward via the Old Covenant. Contextual clues help us know which covenant/law Paul is referring to, such as the fact that Gentiles were never under the curse of the Old Covenant, and thus could not be redeemed from it. And of course all of this assumes a distinction between the moral law itself and the moral law as a covenant of works.

See also:

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  1. markmcculley
    October 5, 2015 at 10:05 am

    The Fatal Flaw, by Jeffrey Johnson, Free Grace Press, 2010—-“The covenant of works that Christ was obligated to fulfill could not have been the covenant of creation. Why? Because this covenant had already been broken and its death penalty issued upon Adam’s fallen race. Thus Christ had to be born outside the broken covenant of creation…He could not be born under the federal headship of Adam. As Witsius explains, ‘That the surety was not from Adam’s covenant, not born under the law of nature, and consequently not born under the imputation of Adam’s sin.’

    Johnson continues: “The law justifies but before the law men could not merit salvation by works, because there was no covenant….If all this is true, then the Mosaic covenant had to be a covenant of works; our salvation depended upon it. If not, there would be no covenant to reward the man Christ Jesus for His obedience.”

    I agree with Johnson’s larger point, which is that the Mosaic covenant cannot be seen as an “administration of the covenant of grace”. But I also question even the idea of any “one covenant of grace with many administrations.” Which covenant is “the covenant of grace”? Is it the Abrahamic covenant? Is it the new covenant? Are both those covenants one and the same? Johnson is good in showing that the Abrahamic covenant had both its unconditional and conditional aspects. ..

    On page 163, Johnson seems to give away his case for the Mosaic covenant being the “covenant of works”. In a footnote, he acknowledges that Gentiles were not under the Mosaic covenant, but then says “nevertheless they were still under the covenant of works” and then quotes Romans 2:14 (a law unto themselves). But doesn’t this show that you can be under a covenant of works and not be under Moses? And if so, doesn’t this show that Christ could have been under a “covenant of works” for His elect without that being the Mosaic covenant?

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    • October 5, 2015 at 10:13 am

      1689 Federalism rejects “one covenant of grace with many administrations.” Only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace.

      Yes, Johnson’s position regarding the Mosaic Covenant is untenable. He changed his mind after that book and instead argues that the Mosaic Covenant is not a new covenant of works, but is a republication of the Covenant of Works and that Christ fulfilled this republication. But that doesn’t resolve the issue. It means Christ was under Adam’s federal headship and it also means that Moses, while saved, was still under the Covenant of Works. http://www.1689federalism.com/2015-founders-conference-w-commentary/

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