Aug 17, 2012

WHAT DOES PAUL MEAN BY “WORKS OF THE LAW”?


*this is my 7th post in the current NPP series
This last question leads right into another: what then, does Paul mean by ‘works of the law’? Paul uses this phrase – erga nomou – eight times in his epistles. I mentioned in my brief coverage of Dunn that the NPP interprets the phrase ‘works of the law’ differently than traditional Protestantism. Here is a direct quote: “Works of the law do not denote any attempt to earn favour with God.”[1] What are they then? Wright (and others in the same camp) limit the ‘works of the law’ to “sabbath, food-laws, circumcision”. Wright says these are “the badges of membership by which some Jews had sought to demarcate themselves in the present time, ahead of the eschatological verdict” because these are the works “which marked them out as covenant-keepers, as true Israel.”[2]
If one views ‘works of the law’ as things that distinguish Jew and Gentile, then this means that, as Dunn says, “to affirm justification by works of the law is to affirm that justification is for Jews only” and “to require that Gentile believers take on the persona and practices of the Jewish people”.[3] In this schema, the advantage faith has over and against keeping Torah is this: “faith, unlike the Torah, is open to all”.[4] Donald Hagner argues this approach takes “all vitality out of the doctrine” of justification.[5]  It is evident why these questions are important – they end up affecting the way one views justification.
Tom Schreiner has produced a helpful chart where he places passages from both Romans and Galatians side-by-side, demonstrating these references cannot contextually be viewed as only part of the law (identity badges) but must be seen as referring to the whole of the law.[6] This reading is the most natural and the least arbitrary because, as Schreiner reminds us, “no indication is given that only a portion of the law is intended” and even though “boundary markers may have been the presenting issue … they raised a larger question” which is “must Gentiles obey the entire law to be saved”?[7]
If the law demands perfect obedience – and it does – then human sin will prevent any one – Jew or Gentile – from keeping it. Therefore, instead of being justified by the works of the law, we are all condemned by the law’s exposure of our sinful inability. This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 3:20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Since this is the state of all humanity, we are in need of a foreign source of righteousness. We cannot do right and keep the law ourselves, but what if one could obey the law perfectly in our stead? These last two sentences segue nicely into some more significant questions: what does Paul mean by ‘righteousness’, especially in the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’? Further, is it true that Jesus has given Christians his righteousness – has it been credited to our account? I will take these in turn. 


[1] James D.G. Dunn, “Yet Once More – ‘The Works of the Law’: A Response.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 46 (1992): 109. This is something of a misunderstanding on Dunn’s part, though, for most non-NPP interpreters do not take this phrase as simply another for Paul to say “merit-earning legalistic acts” but rather as Paul’s usual way to refer to the whole law; as in the attempt to obey the whole law. As an example, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Works of Law’ in Paul,” Novum Testamentum 33 (1991): 217-244. For a more up-to-date treatment on this by Dunn, see The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
[2] Wright, Saint Paul, 132.
[3] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 364.
[4] N.T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 65.
[5] Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 105. Hagner observes that “emphasis on boundary markers … pushes justification by faith to the periphery, making it pertinent only to the Gentiles.”
[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), 43.
[7] Ibid., 44.

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