7. 'Works of the Law'
I have the final of my Lent talks tonight. I have been talking about Christian living. This has overlapped with what I am writing in this series of blogs. I have found myself reading and re-reading Paul's letters to the Romans. It really is an amazing piece of writing and always seems to reward another reading. Commentators today seem not to know what to make of it with many different interpretations of every passage and often very contradictory interpretations. I am often left wondering how a single piece of writing can be interpreted in so many different ways.
I wonder what the Romans themselves made of it when it was first read out in Church. Did they scratch their heads and wonder what on earth Paul was going on about? Or did it make reasonable sense to them? I would dearly love to know.
Here then is another blog in the series on Paul and the problems raised by the Gentiles!
7. ‘Works of the Law’
I want to turn now more specifically to the issue of the Old Testament Law in Paul. What is his problem with the Law and what role if any does he see it as having for the believer? I hope you will forgive me beginning by repeating some of what I have already said in this series, albeit in a different form. I especially want to look at something that goes to the heart of the debate between the Old and New Perspectives on Paul and that is the meaning of the phrase ‘works of the Law’ in Paul.
When I first became a Christian, we all accepted that you couldn’t be saved by keeping the Law, which we equated in good Protestant fashion with doing good works. This made us different to the Roman Catholics who we believed were all trying to earn their salvation by doing works of various kinds. We knew that we were saved by faith not works. Nowadays, of course, I realize that this is desperately unfair to Roman Catholics. Anyway, the issue for us was what the role of the Law was now we were Christians.
It was common in those days to make a distinction between the moral, social, and ceremonial aspects of the Law. Jesus had got rid of the social and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, but we still had to keep the moral laws. It wasn’t always easy to know which laws were which, but generally it seemed to make sense. Jesus surely wanted us to obey the 10 commandments, but equally he didn’t want us to stone women caught in adultery or worry about eating pork.
When I started theological study it seemed to be more complicated than that. After all, as Christians we didn’t even keep the 10 commandments: we had conveniently adjusted the one about Sabbath observance to suit ourselves, for example. What authority could the Law still have if we could be so cavalier in our approach to it? Where did the Holy Spirit fit in? And what was the relationship between keeping commandments and being led by the Spirit? I intend in the next few posts to turn my attention to these issues. But first, at the risk of repetition, I want to look at what Paul means by this phrase ‘works of the Law’.
It really is amazing the way that so many people can read what Paul says about the Law and yet understand it so differently. This has always been the case. The sixteenth century Reformers themselves, who agreed that the purpose of Law was not so people could earn salvation by keeping it, nevertheless disagreed on what was its purpose! The New Perspective has only added to the controversy and difficulty in understanding what was Paul’s view of the Law.
Paul says that righteousness (justification) is not by the ‘works of the Law’. Previously, previous to the New Perspective that is, this was generally understood to mean that humans could not become righteous by doing what the Law commanded. The New Perspective, however, has sought to offer a new way of understanding the phrase ‘works of the Law’ or, at least, a new emphasis. ‘Works of the Law’, it is argued, refers primarily to distinctively Jewish practices such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In other words to that which separated and distinguished Jews from Gentiles. This fits with seeing Paul’s main concern as being unity and equality between Jew and Gentile believers.
Paul, on this understanding, is not arguing against human moral effort as such. He is not making the point that Luther made against humans trying to achieve salvation by their own good works. It’s not moral good works that are in Paul’s mind so much as specifically Jewish works (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance, and the like). Paul argues against Law, not because he is against good works, but because these Jewish religious practices separate Jew and Gentile. Paul contrasts faith, not with good works, but with these Jewish works. Paul’s argument for faith is an argument against circumcision and the like because circumcision and the like divide Jew and Gentile and God’s purpose is that Jew and Gentile should be one.
Some New Perspective scholars agree that Paul would have argued against moral good works as a way of obtaining salvation if that had been the issue, in other words they accept that Paul would have agreed with Luther, they just don’t think that’s what he is talking about in his letters. Others don’t seem so sure. Some scholars seem to suggest that for Paul ‘having faith’ might well include good works so that without good works humans cannot be justified. To be justified by faith on the Old Perspective understanding meant believing in Christ that and nothing else. Indeed, it specifically excluded anything else. On the New Perspective approach, there is now a possibility that justification by faith may mean no more than justification without Jewish works. This means that excluding good works from the idea of justification by faith in Paul may be going too far and a misinterpretation of him. This may or may not be true – it’s certainly a different way of looking at what Paul says.
As I have argued in previous posts, the New Perspective has drawn our attention to something important here. Paul says what he does about the Law in the context of a dispute with Jewish believers over what is and what is not required of Gentile believers. Circumcision and food laws were an important issue. But, as I think is increasingly being recognized ‘works of the Law’ in Paul cannot be limited to circumcision and the like. When Paul discusses the Law he broadens the discussion to include all the commands of the Law: circumcision certainly, but also what we know as the ten commandments.
Paul sees the problem of the Law as human sin and our inability to keep it. This simply does not make sense if he is only thinking of things like circumcision and food laws. Nor does it make sense if the main issue is simply one of unity and equality between Jew and Gentile. As I have said, this is an issue for Paul, but his main concern surely is how Jew and Gentile together can be righteous before God and so be saved. ‘Works of the Law’, then, refers to the whole of the Law as given by God to Moses and these works, Paul argues, can never save them.
Of course, it is important to see the historical context of Paul’s discussion of the Law and the importance of the demand of some Jewish believers for Gentiles to be circumcised. The problem with the Law for Paul, though, is far bigger than the fact it belongs to the Jew, the problem with the Law is that it cannot give salvation. His opponents argued that while faith in Christ was essential, salvation would also depend on obedience to the Law! This Paul will not allow.
This means that Luther was on the right lines even if he did miss some of the historical dimension and context of what Paul writes!