Interview with Preston Sprinkle on Leviticus 18:5

Mike Bird recently alerted us to Preston Sprinkle’s dissertation, which will soon appear in the WUNT series.

Preston is an outfielder who loves to hit the fastball, who left the paradise of the baseball field to do his BA and MDiv at the Master’s College and Seminary. From there he went to the University of Aberdeen for a PhD under Simon Gathercole. Dr. Sprinkle now teaches at Cedarville University. He graciously answered these questions for us.

Before we get into your dissertation, could you briefly describe how you came to faith, how you were led to Master’s and Aberdeen, and how you landed on your dissertation topic?

I was one of those typical quasi church kids that had one foot in the world and the other in church. I maintained this posture until I went to San Diego to play college ball (baseball). College ball + 18 years old + away from home, living on my own with a bunch of guys = well, a life of sin. I spiraled down this sinful path for a couple of years until a friend of mine said, “Preston, you say you’re a Christian but you sure don’t act like it! This cut me hard and deep. So I left San Diego and returned to Fresno (where I was from) and started over, as a Christian.

After a year in Fresno, I was able by God’s grace to attend the Master’s College (I came in as a junior). I had listen to MacArthur on the radio a lot during that last year, so I was thrilled to go to Master’s. My two years there were some of the best years of my life, ending with a semester in the land of Israel studying the land and the Bible. After college, I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, so I went to Seminary (in the Master’s culture, there really is only one Seminary, so there wasn’t much of a choice—I didn’t even know of other Seminaries except the Master’s Seminary). I enjoyed 3 ½ years at Master’s Seminary. I got sick of course-work but I LOVED to research and write. So I went on to Aberdeen University for my PhD, mainly because 1) it was research driven, and 2) I really wanted to study under Simon Gathercole.

As for my dissertation topic, I really wanted to do something on Paul and the Law, but it seemed that there was nothing left to do. So I emailed Tom Schreiner and he suggested Lev 18:5. Simon gave it a thought, and—against the advice of Graham Stanton—he said, “It’s a go.” I was not disappointed; it was a wonderful topic that kept my interest for 3 years.

What question did your dissertation ask and answer?

My dissertation was more of a descriptive pursuit. That is, I sought to describe how early Judaism (200BC-AD100) understood Lev 18: 5 [ESV Leviticus 18:5 “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”], how Paul understood it, then compare the two. I didn’t set out with a conclusion in mind, nor was I seeking to even prove/find a certain answer. I just wanted to understand Early Judaism and its attraction to this verse, and why Paul opposed it without elaboration.

Do you see a distinction between what Leviticus 18:5 means in Leviticus and how it is interpreted later in the Old Testament?

Yes, sort of. The verse is actually very difficult to understand in Leviticus (Anyone who thinks there is a clear-cut meaning has not really understood the issues, in my opinion!) I think that in Leviticus, to “live by them” (18:5) means to enjoy the covenantal blessing of life as a result of doing the “statutes and ordinances” of the LORD (18:3-4).

This would be the general understanding of Ezekiel (20:11, 13, 21), but for him “life” is connected to the dry bones passage in Ezek 37, where the Spirit (of life!) breathes life into the dead nation and brings them back into the land. What is significant in Ezekiel is that Lev 18:5, according to the prophet, focuses on human agency, “which if a person does, he will have life by them.” But this is not how eschatological life is attained. Life comes through divine agency, through the Spirit of life who revives a dead nation. (NOTE: I don’t think Ezekiel is speaking of an afterlife at this point).

Do you see a distinction between what Leviticus 18:5 means in the Old Testament and how it is interpreted in extra-biblical Jewish literature?

There is no “one” view of Lev 18:5 in Jewish Lit, though in the majority of texts the passage is understood as referring to eternal life, which is gained as a result of doing the commandments (whether it be the law of the Lord [Pss.Sol. 14:2-3] or the sectarian halachah of Qumran [CD 3:15-16, et al.]). Other than this aspect of eternal life, instead of just the covenant blessing of life (which is more earthly and temporal), the focus on human agency remains: it is the person/man who does these things who will gain life as a result/reward.

Some interpreters conclude that Paul is not disputing a misinterpretation of the law but with the law itself. Would you agree?

Not sure if these are the only options. I would say it’s a bit of both. I guess the simplest way to put it is this: Paul believed that Lev 18:5 was an expression of the Old Covenant (which as a conditional, “if…then” structure), while the Gospel of Christ (the New Covenant, if you will) is more unilateral—I will circumcise your hearts (Deut 30:6); “I will breathe life into you, though you are dead” (Ezek 36-37). So I would say that Paul’s opponents understood the unilateral Gospel through a more conditional framework. Moreover, in Galatians, the emphasis on the temporality of the law is at the forefront (more than in Rom 10). So not only is the Old Covenant framework inadequate, but it is also outdated.

If Paul is disputing with the law itself (for instance, when he says “the law is not from faith” in Gal 3:12), does this imply that Moses taught salvation by works to Israel?

“If you don’t do these things, you will not enjoy the covenant blessing of life.” This is pretty standard Deuteronomic teaching (cf. Deut 30). But I’m not sure if I would equate the covenant blessing of “life” with our modern understanding of “salvation.” This would take a lot of time to tease out so let me just describe it like this. When the prophets looked forward to God’s restoration (His eschatological salvation, if you will) they looked beyond the Deuteronomic “if…then” paradigm: God will unilaterally and unconditionally redeem Israel. So to foist the old “if…then” (Old Covenant) paradigm upon the newness of God’s eschatological act would be going against the grain of not only the prophets but against the very structure of the Gospel itself.

In your view, does Leviticus 18:5 require that a member of the old covenant remnant achieve perfect obedience to the law? What role does the sacrificial system play?

No. I think that the “perfect obedience” view is extremely hard to hold. I would say, rather, “comprehensive” or “blameless” obedience. For instance, in 1 Kings we read that, “…David walked in integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded” (1 Kgs 9:4), that David’s heart was “fully devoted to the LORD his God” (1 Kgs 11:4), and that he “followed the LORD fully” (1 Kgs 11:6). So, according to the Bible, you can lust after a woman who is not your wife, have sex with her, kill her husband, then be confronted, repent and confess your sin to the LORD, and then be described as having walked in integrity of heart, having done all that the LORD commanded, and have been fully devoted to the LORD.

You get the point. I just think that the perfect obedience view has just not understood what it means to be “blameless” and “upright” in OT terms. And, of course, Paul never says that the law required perfect (sinless) obedience, just comprehensive obedience.

Are perfect obedience and the sacrificial system misunderstood in the extra-biblical Jewish literature you studied? If so, what do you think led to the misunderstandings?

I don’t think that the majority of Early Jewish literature understood that the law required perfect obedience either. At least in Pss.Sol. you’ve got a lot of talk about the righteous who backslide into sin, and then the LORD pricks them and gets them back on track. Yet they are still righteous.

In Romans 10 and Galatians 3, is Paul describing what the law demanded before Christ came or what it demands now that Christ has been crucified and raised? Is this “salvation historical” distinction a helpful way to approach the question?

I think to some extent yes. But I think that the one flaw of a purely salvation-historical view is that it sees the problem as merely a temporal one—the clock strikes twelve, so it’s time to move on to something new. Paul seems to see the difference between faith and law more in terms of the inherent soteriological structure of each program. Again, I would put this in terms of the different paradigms of Deuteronomic (“you circumcise your hearts”) and prophetic (“I will circumcise your hearts”) (most would read this last phrase, which comes from Deut 30:6, as an expression of prophetic, not typical Mosaic, theology).

Can you describe how your conclusions relate to the work of E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright?

And this, of course, is the question isn’t it! In my thesis—which if you can gather is not, for the most part, in agreement with the NPP—the main thing that I found is that there is more discontinuity between the soteriological framework of early Judaism and Paul than what these scholars allow (esp. Dunn). I think that it is quite trendy in the wake of Sanders and Dunn to want to stitch together Paul and Judaism in a way that one can slide from one to the other very easily. Now I do think that there is much more similarity between Paul and Judaism than, say, what Bultmann and others have said. But I do think that Paul’s doctrine of the “Justification of the ungodly” would not have been looked upon very positively by even the Qumranites (who are often attributed as having the same framework as Paul). And their respective interpretations of Lev 18:5 is proof. Lev 18:5 was the “John 3:16 of Early Judaism,” but for Paul it expressed a soteriological framework that was much different (to say the least) than Hab 2:4 and others.

Can you describe how your conclusions relate to the work of Francis Watson, Mark Seifrid, and Seyoon Kim?

My work comes very close to Francis Watson. In fact, his book, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, comes to virtually the same conclusions. Seifrid seems much more Lutheran than I am, though he has given me a lot to wrestle with, especially in regards to Early Judaism. And Kim? There is really not much in Kim that I would agree with, at least with regard to the law. He’s a strong advocate of the perfect obedience view, which is fine I guess, but he just doesn’t argue it persuasively. Also, I might add Stephen Westerholm. His work is also very close to mine. I would say that my dissertation is a blend of Watson, Westerholm, with a shot of Gathercole here and there, of course!

Can you describe how your conclusions relate to the work of Douglas Moo, Tom Schreiner, and Simon Gathercole?

Closest to Gathercole. Moo would be next, though he still holds to a more classic “legalism” and “perfect obedience” view that neither I (nor Gathercole, Watson, Westerholm) do. But a vigorous scholar indeed! I would say that Schreiner is about where Moo is at on most issues. But I find it so hard to say anything that can be even remotely negative about Schreiner and his work, since he is the godliest scholar I have ever met. At the end of the day, he gets it. He REALLY gets it, and I’m not talking about just views on Paul and the law…

Will your work appear in the (much more affordable) series from Baker where some WUNT volumes have been published?

I sure hope so. If anyone knows how to go about this, please let me know!

Hearty thanks, Preston!

Preston has graciously given me permission to post his email in case anyone wants to follow up with him on any of these issues. You can reach him at

Anyone interested in my own take on these issues can check out this short essay.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hearing him say how close his conclusions were to Watson really makes me want to read him. Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith was awesome. Sprinkle’s book sounds interesting. Thanks for this interview.

    Bryan L

  2. Jim,
    Thanks for the interview with Preston Sprinkle.

    Your use of scholars as points of reference is helpful. And Preston’s addition of Stephen Westerholm adds further detail to the list.

    I’m curious about where Preston would put Don Garlington in the spectrum, and in relation to Preston’s own work, especially since Garlington’s focus on the Pauline phrase ‘obedience of faith’ is backgrounded by Lev. 18.5?

    I’m also wondering if Preston has caught flack for being unsupportive of a ‘perfect obedience’ view of the law in the Old Covenant?

    Thanks for your blogging efforts, Jim.

  3. Jim:

    I was happy to see that your conclusion in your short study of Gal 3:12 took a salvation-historical approach to the reading. I think surely this is the way forward in understanding Paul’s view of the law. In doing so, I don’t know if you know that you came close to my reading of the same issue in an article I wrote years back in TynBul. I am sure that you (and I know Preston) would not be happy with the way I think about the salvation-historical perspective however. I was interested to read that you take the clause “when faith came” to mean “when the time of faith in Jesus came”. Surely, the faith referred to is a salvation-historical reference to the coming of the new age/the new covenant and specfiically to Jesus. When the new age came in the death and resurrection of Jesus “we are no longer under the supervision of the law”. So when Paul says in 3:12 that the law is not based on faith it is a statement of the Mosaic covenant’s salvation-historical position: the Mosaic covenant is attached to the old age and thus under the power of sin.

    BTW: I hope you and the family are well. Blessings!

  4. Clint,

    Thanks for your interest! To answer your questions:

    1) I think that Garlington is somewhere between Wright and Dunn. Garlington generally sees a lot more continuity between Paul’s soteriological framework and (most of) early Jewish soteriology and I do.

    2) I haven’t received any “flack” for my understanding of the “perfect obedience” thing. That may be that I tend to run in Evangelical circles that genuinely place the Bible over tradition or traditionally held views. The first thing that me and (many) others would say is “what sayeth the text,” regardless of what we have always been taught. So a number of years ago when I tried to examine this issue with a fresh slate and an open mind, as it were, I just didn’t find much biblical support on the side of “perfect/sinless” obedience, and found the concept of “comprehensive” or “sufficient” obedience a better representation of the text. I might add that this seems to be the view of many (most?) opponents of the NPP, at least the ones whom I’ve learned the most from. Dunn made a comment at the Durham-Tuebigen symposim on Paul and the law (1994)–a gatheing of many scholars advocating all sorts of views–that the one thing, yea verily the ONLY THING (!), they all agreed on was they the Law did not require sinless perfection.

    Thanks again, Clint, for your questions, and feel free to email me if you wanted to talk further!


  5. Clint,

    Also, I’m nost sure what you meant by DG’s view that “obedience of faith” is backgrounded by Lev 18:5. Are you saying that DG thinks that Paul views 18:5 positively? Some (very, very few) have tried to argue this, but I find it pretty much impossible to hold. Just on a sheer grammaticl level, it is exteremly hard.

  6. Preston,

    Thanks for the response. I do think DG would hold a positive view of Lev 18.5 as at least the ‘conceptual’ background to the Pauline phrase ‘obedience of faith’, I’m unsure of his lexico-grammatical support. And I would agree with your take on where DG sits in the spectrum. I personally think, however contrary to the opinion of many, he is far more of a critic of the NPP at key points that make his arguments resemble the non-NPP ones. He is so often seen in his continuity with NPP that cardinal discontinuities get ignored. Alas it is a problem of reading both people and texts!

    Thanks for the offer of further discussion.

    And thanks to Jim for offering this forum.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *