The Way

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When Paul talks about “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans, what does he mean? Does he mean all human works, even good works as Martin Luther and John Calvin believed? Or, perhaps, is he referring to particular Jewish observances such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws as modern biblical scholars, such as E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright, argue? And, what do the Church Fathers have to say about all this? In today’s special episode, I interview Dr. Matthew J. Thomas whose new book on the subject comes out this fall.

Show Notes

Bottom Line: To see what Paul means by “works of the law,” it behooves us to see how the early Church Fathers defined that concept.

  • In Romans and Galatians, Paul says that “works of the law” are not a means of justification. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom 3:28). “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal 2:16) But, theologians through the years have defined “works of the law” in different ways, and this has affected how we believe someone is “saved.” 
  • The “Old Perspective” defines “works of the law” as any human effort, including good works and pious deeds, that one performs in an attempt to justify oneself. However, because of our inability to perform such works perfectly, they believe that there's nothing anyone can do for their salvation. Thus, in their view, we are “saved” by “faith only.” The scholars we talk about that fall into this perspective include Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), and Douglas Moo (b. 1950). 
  • The “New Perspective” refers to biblical scholarship that began in the 2nd-half of the 20th-century. According to these scholars, Paul’s “works of the law” refer specifically to Jewish observances—such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws—that are meant to separate Jews from Gentiles. In other words, they function as identity markers that indicate that one is a part of the Jewish nation. They argue that Paul rejects “works of the law” because God’s promises, which are fulfilled by Jesus, are intended for all nations—not simply Jews—and so these identity markers are unnecessary. The scholars that we talk about who represent this view are E.P. Sanders (b. 1937), James Dunn (1939-2020), and N.T. Wright (b. 1948).
  • Matthew Thomas, in his book Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception, argues that the best way to determine what Paul actually meant is to see what the Church Fathers had to say. After all, they wrote shortly after Paul died. What he discovers is that they define “works of the law” similarly to the “New Perspective” scholars. In other words, the Fathers define “works of the law” as signifying Jewish identity (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws) and not pious deeds or works in general. So, for Paul, walking the Way (i.e, performing pious deeds) is still a part of our path to salvation. This can be summed up as loving God and neighbor. Some of the Church Fathers we talk about include St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202), and Origen (184-253). 
I encourage all my listeners to pre-order Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception by Matthew J. Thomas at either InterVarsity Press (click here) or Amazon (click here).

What is The Way?

Fr. Dustin Lyon explores scripture to rediscover Christianity so that we can walk in the Way of the Lord.