Works of the Law – Bits and Pieces of my M.A. Thesis

In our last posts we took a look at the different positions on the Law debate in Pauline theology as well as Paul’s view of salvation history. In this post I would like to continue our study of the negative statements and do such via an investigation of the phrase “works of the Law.”

Works of the Law—ἔργα νόμου[1]

Because of the sheer vastness of literature on the subject at hand we need to focus the study on the phrase to some particular aspects and are not able to investigate all possible nuances. We are going to look at (1) the context in which the phrase is found, (2) how to understand νόμος in this construction, and (3) some of the different interpretations of ἔργα νόμου.

This phrase occurs eight times in Pauline literature (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16 (3x); 3:2, 5, 10).[2] As always it is of utter necessity to keep the context of Paul’s argument in mind so that one does not come to premature conclusions. As Moo rightly observes the passages at hand have a strong (“strongest”) law-gospel antithesis.[3] In a broad survey we see Paul affirming that “no one can be justified by ‘works of law’ (Gal 2:16; Rom 3:20, 28), that the Spirit was not received by ‘works of the law’ but by responding to the message in faith (Gal 3:2, 5), and that those who are of ‘works of law’ are cursed (Gal 3:10).”[4] The term ἔργα νόμου appears in Romans for the first time in the section of 1:18-3:20 where Paul argues for the sinfulness of humankind—Jew and Gentile.[5] At the climax of this argument Paul writes that “by works of the law no human being will be justified” giving the reason (γάρ) “since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[6] In my understanding the phrase “works of the law” refers to works which are required by the Law and these are insufficient to justify a person, because the Law was never meant as a means of justification, whereas faith was (cf. e.g. Gal 2:21; 3:21-22).[7]

Schnelle argues that Paul “uniformly” uses ἔργα νόμου in negative terms.[8] It “is never actually used by Paul in a positive context”[9] and is found in contrast to πίστις in almost every passage (with the exception of Rom 3:20 where it is contrasted with justification).

In Gal 2-3 ἔργα νόμου serves “clearly and unambiguously as the alternative to πίστις.”[10] Paul contrasts two groups in Gal 3: (1) οἱ ἐκ πίστεως, v. 7 and (2) ὅσοι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου εἰσίν, v. 10.[11] In seeing Gal 3:7 and v.10 we observe that the phrase under discussion is in stark contrast to one another. Silva goes even further when he writes: “Paul in effect defines those who are of law-works negatively, namely, as those who are not of faith.[12] So again we observe the “faith” and “works of the law” contrast. Hübner rightly observes that Gal 2:16 (οὐ … πᾶσα σάρξ) is further clarified by 3:10.[13]

In order to understand the phrase ἔργα νόμου we need to briefly look at how Paul understands the term “law” (νόμος[14]); i.e., when Paul mentions νόμος is he thinking of the Mosaic Law (Torah) or something else? This is the debate of some in regards to the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).[15] We do need to see that in the immediate context Paul is encountering “identity markers” (such as circumcision, food laws, and keeping the Sabbath). Cranfield thinks it should be admitted that “as far as Galatians is concerned Dunn’s explanation of ἔργα νόμου does have a certain plausibility.”[16] But I think Schreiner is right that the phrase ἔργα νόμου “does not focus on the identity badges of the law but addresses the role of the law in general.”[17] What the NPP (mostly Dunn) calls “identity markers” are for sure aspects of the dilemma, but it would be wrong to conclude that “national identification is the specific issue that troubles Paul or even the principle factor he has in mind” when he uses the phrase ἔργα νόμου.[18] Wright also confirms that law “always means ‘the Jewish Law, the Torah’” for Paul.[19]

If we take a look at the letter to the Galatians we see that the apostle is faulting them “for desiring to be under the law as a whole (Gal. 4:21).”[20] Hübner further maintains that Gal 5:3 needs to be part of the discussion. This then sheds light on the meaning of “law”. Paul does not merely speak of “identity markers” but the entire Law is in view if we take Gal 5:3 seriously.[21] One last observation to the terms ἔργον and νόμος is that both “are very common words in the New Testament … and that the combination of ἔργα with νόμος in the genitive is a very natural formation seems to make it extremely unlikely that Paul would use ἔργα νόμου in a special restricted sense without giving a clear indication that he was doing so.”[22] In Second Temple Judaism the Hebrew equivalent of ἔργα νόμου is also pertaining to the whole Law.[23] 

Let us now take a quick survey of the different positions held. We need to state however that not all positions can be presented and that a position like that of the NPP is diverse and any presentation therefore needs to be simplified.  Schreiner gives a good overview of the different positions:[24] 1. Inability to obey the Law and meritorious achievement: This is held on two terms (1) since nobody is able to “fulfill the law perfectly” and (2) it seems legalistic even to try to achieve righteousness “by doing good works.”[25] In this view both components are stressed with equal weight. 2. Focus on meritorious achievement: The main proponent for this view is Rudolf Bultmann (Schreiner also puts Hübner in this category). The difference to first view is that the latter part of the first view is stressed. Bultmann writes “man’s effort to achieve salvation by keeping the Law only leads him into sin, indeed this effort itself in the end is already sin.[26] So here the keeping of the Law (or the effort to do such) is sinful in and of itself. 3. Inability to obey the Law: Here the former point of view (1) is stressed. Paul is writing against “works of the law” simply because it is impossible to do all that the Law requires. One proponent of this is Wilckens.[27] De Roo also lists Cranfield,[28] Moo,[29] and Schreiner[30] in this category. 4. “Works of law” as a subjective genitive:[31] Here the main point is that Paul is not thinking of human deeds but works which are produced by the Law.[32] 5. “Works of law” as signifying distinctions between Jews and Gentiles: Here the NPP comes into play (see discussion above).

In conclusion: We need to observe that the phrase ἔργα νόμου appears in the context where faith and law are contrasted.

What is important is that Paul always polemicizes against ‘works of the law’ within the context of justification texts: nowhere does he criticize them as such. This stress on justification explains why Paul could allow other Jewish-Christians, as well as himself, to observe the law — it was only when used to justify or imposed on the Gentiles that Paul fought against it.[33]

For salvation historical matters this is quite significant. Rapa observes that “Paul recognized that both in the ποτέ and νῦν periods of salvation history, the one God graciously provided justification on the basis of faith. He also understood that the law functioned in the ποτέ period as the God-given expression of faith for the believer.” This however has changed and now “in the νῦν period, with the coming of the promised Seed, faith is now to be directed toward God through the Messiah’s person and work rather than through ritual observances.”[34] Paul thus does speak negatively about Torah when he thinks of it in relation to faith and the establishment of one’s own righteousness before God. The phrase ἔργα νόμου thus appears to be significant in a salvation historical manner. It pertains to the old age. The NPP is right to stress some of the focus to corporate and moral implications of justification by faith, but as Moo has shown (in the above) such was always Paul’s concern. Also, I think that Paul was concerned about “identity markers” and that such where used to the exclusion of Gentiles, but his main concern was the Law as a whole (as seen for example in Gal 4:21; 5:3) and that “works of the law” play no role in the believer’s justification. Nevertheless, the NPP helps us to sharpen our focus and not to state too hastily the assumption of a Law/Gospel antithesis.

In the next post we will then continue with the meaning of being “under the law.”

[1]For a preliminary bibliography see Thomas Schreiner, “Works of the Law,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 975–79. For a detailed bibliography on the subject until 2001 see Robert Keith Rapa, The Meaning of “Works of the Law” in Galatians and Romans (New York: P. Lang, 2001), 272–307. Further Bachmann rightly points out that the phrase is always inside a prepositional phrase. Seven (7) times we see the preposition ἐκ and once (1) χωρίς. M. Bachmann, “Keil oder Mikroskop? Zur jüngeren Diskussion um den Ausdruck ,„Werke” des Gesetzes,‛” in Lutherische und Neue Paulusperspektive: Beiträge zu einem Schlüsselproblem der gegenwärtigen exegetischen Diskussion (ed. Michael Bachmann und Johannes Woyke. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 100.

[2]The phrase is only found in Pauline literature. It is not seen in the LXX or the Hebrew Bible. There are some DSS which have linguistic equivalents in Hebrew. See M. G. Abegg Jr. “4QMMT.” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Ed. Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans (electronic ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[3]Douglas J. Moo, “‘Law’, ‘Works of the Law’, and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45.1 (1983): 91 [73-100]. 

[4]Thomas R. Schreiner, “‘Works of Law’ in Paul” Novum Testamentum 33.3 (1991): 217 [217-244]. 

[5]And 3:1-18 in particular where the condemnation of the Jewish people is underscored. 

[6]Fitzmyer comments: “If the law declares all people sinners and makes them conscious of their condition, then a fortiori the Jew to whom the law is addressed is just as much an object of God’s wrath as the pagan whose moral perversion and degradation reveal his condition.” Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 339.

[7]Cf. Schreiner, 40 Questions, 42.

[8]Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 281.

[9]M. Silva, “Faith versus Works of Law in Galatians,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism. Volume 2 – The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid. Tübingen; Grand Rapids: Mohr Siebeck; Baker, 2004), 219.


[11]Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009) 147-48.   Silva renders ὅσοι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου εἰσίν “those who live by the law-works.” “Faith versus Works,” 222 [emphasis original]. Moo, “Justification in Galatians,” 167 thinks this clause refers to the Galatians and not “to the historical curse that came on the people of Israel” rather he sees such referring to the “curse that comes on anyone who tries to find blessing/righteousness via the works of the law.”

[12]Silva, “Faith versus Works,” 224 [emphasis original].

[13]H. Hübner, “Was heiβt bei Paulus ‘Werke des Gesetzes’?” Glaube und Eschatologie: Festschrift für Werner Georg Kümmel zum 80. Geburtstag (ed. Erich Gräβer, und Otto Merk. Tübingen: Mohr, 1985), 131. 

[14]Here we will not directly deal with the issue of the Law in Paul’s theology as a whole but rather what he means when he uses the phrase as such; i.e., we will not develop an entire theology of how Paul views the Law. But we will need to make some remarks to such (see discussion below).

[15]See discussion below.

[16]C. E. B. Cranfield, “‘The Works of the Law’ in the Epistle to the Romans” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 43 (1991): 91 [89-101]; cf. also Schreiner who also maintains that “at first glance” one might argue for Dunn’s view when Galatians is surveyed.. “‘Works of Law’ in Paul,” 225. 

[17]Schreiner, 40 Questions, 43; cf. Silva “Faith versus Works,” who also maintains that in Gal 3 a narrow view of the law is difficult to maintain, 222..

[18]Silva, “Faith versus Works,” 221. He translates the phrase “law-works”.

[19]N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 116. See also Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 145 n. 7; and idem., “‘Law’, ‘Works of the Law’, and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45, no. 1 (1983): 75-90. On the definition of the term νόμος and its role and function in Romans see next chapter.

[20]Schreiner, 40 Questions, 44; see also 3:10 and especially 5:3!

[21]Hübner, “Was heiβt bei Paulus ‘Werke des Gesetzes’?” 131; cf. Moo, “Law,” 84.

[22]Cranfield, “The Works of the Law,” 92.

[23]Schreiner, 40 Questions, 44. Due to the space limit of this work the background of Qumran texts cannot be dealt with. For further information see Jacqueline C. R. De Roo, ‘Works of the Law’ at Qumran and in Paul (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007)

[24]Adopted and altered from Schreiner “‘Works of the Law’ in Paul.” He lists six possible interpretations in his article “‘Works of the Law’ in Paul” as well as in his article in DPL. But see also De Roo, ‘Works of the Law’ at Qumran and in Paul, 42-71.Schnelle lists six (6) interpretation; whereas only five (5) are outlined (it might be that he distinguishes Sanders’ and Dunn’s view but there is a mis-numeration in the book) pp. 280-281.

[25]Schreiner, “‘Works of Law’ in Paul,” 128; cf. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 171-172 and 185-187.

[26]R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York Scibner’s 1951), 264 [emphasis original]; quoted in  Schreiner, “‘Works of Law’ in Paul,” 219. Bultmann further states that “[t[he contrast between Paul and Judaism consists not merely in his assertion of the present reality of righteousness, but also in a much more decisive thesis – the one which concerns the condition to which God’s acquitting decision is tied.  The Jew takes it for granted that this condition is keeping the Law, the accomplishing of ‘works’ prescribed by the Law.  In direct contrast to this view Paul’s thesis runs – to consider its negative aspect first: ‘without works of the Law’”, 273.

[27]Ulrich Wilckens, Der Brief an die Römer (Röm 1-5) (Zürich: Benziger, 1997), 173-178 and 244-250. 

[28]Cranfield, “The Works of the Law,” 89-101.

[29]Moo, “Law,” 73-100.

[30]Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 168-74; idem, “Works of Law.”

[31]This view was introduced by L. Gaston, “Works of Law as a Subjective Genitive,” Paul and the Torah [Vancouver University of British Columbia Press, 1987] 100-107

[32]See P. L. Owen, “The ‘Works of the Law’ in Romans and Galatians: A New Defense of the Subjective Genitive.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126.3 (2007): 553-577. Owen gives an interesting insight into this view whereas he also maintains that his is different from that introduced by Gaston in 1987.

[33]Moo, “Law,” 97 n. 77 [emphasis original]; see also Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Downers Grove: Apollos/Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 99: “Paul does not oppose the works of the law in and of themselves.” James Thompson observes similarly: “Paul comments negatively about the law, however, only in debates about terms of admission for the gentiles. When he speaks of laws that are inconsequential, he illustrates only with references to circumcision and food laws. He does not require the three boundary markers of the Torah that have become the badges of Jewish identity. Thus Paul is not making sweeping statements about the place of the law as a source for ethical reflection, but is focusing on the place of gentiles within the family of God,” Moral Formation According to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 113.                 

[34]Rapa, The Meaning of “Works of the Law” in Galatians and Romans, 267.

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