Part I — Part II — Part III — Part IV — Part V — Part VI
The ‘Works of the Law’
Anticipating Final Vindication
The day would come when the true Israelites would be publicly vindicated by God. Whilst the precise identity of the group that was destined for final vindication was not public knowledge prior to the final vindication, many within Israel believed that it was possible to anticipate the verdict of the final judgment.200
The sign of those who would be vindicated in the future was loyalty to the covenant in the present. If one knew the various signs and symbols that marked out loyal covenant members the identity of the group that would one day be vindicated could be recognized in the present.
In the light of this understanding, the various groups and sects within Israel sought — by allegiance to the appropriate symbols, stories and practices — to be marked out as the ones who would one day be vindicated by God Himself. This ‘marking out’ was not a means of ‘earning’ future vindication; Wright believes that it is important that we appreciate that loyalty to the covenant was understood in terms of man’s response to God’s prior grace, not as man’s own autonomous initiative.201
Present loyalty demonstrated
membership of the covenant people, rather than meriting
Loyalty to the covenant should not be thought of in terms of perfect obedience to the Torah as ‘the sacrificial system existed precisely to enable Israelites who knew themselves to be sinful to maintain their membership none the less.’203
The important thing was always allegiance to and protection of the symbols (Temple, Torah, etc.), stories and practices.204
Wright, as a proponent of the New Perspective, maintains that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of “works’ righteousness”. People did not obey the Torah in order to earn merit with God (as a ‘legalist’s ladder’205
). Rather, the ‘works of the Torah’ (εργα νομου) that Paul speaks about in his epistles were perceived by the Judaizers to be the ‘present signs of future vindication.’ They served to mark out in the present the members of the community that God would vindicate in the future.206
Although in principle εργα νομου certainly include the full range of actions prescribed by the Torah, within the majority of Paul’s arguments the focus is upon how the εργα νομου serve to perpetuate a distinction between Jews and Gentiles.207
Consequently, εργα νομου have more especial reference to the key practices that marked out the Jews from non-Jews.
The fact that, for Wright, the εργα νομου are not in principle limited to practices like circumcision that particularly served to divide Jews from Gentiles is an important point to recognize. Many have argued that Wright and other advocates of the New Perspective limit the meaning of εργα νομου in an unjustifiable manner.208
However, Wright’s position (like that of many other NPP proponents209
) is not that εργα νομου are merely markers of ethnic identity, but that this is what they particularly refer to in the context of Paul’s arguments.
Good works and the εργα νομου
There are a number of facets of Wright’s understanding of εργα νομου that we would do well to observe if we are to understand how his position differs from many of the common evangelical understandings of this expression. Firstly, εργα νομου does not necessarily have to carry negative connotations. The works of the Torah included things like circumcision, dietary practices and other actions prescribed by the Jewish Torah that were not inherently wrong. Under the old covenant system they were prescribed by God and were not moral works done with the intention of earning salvation, or anything of that kind.
Secondly, Wright is careful to distinguish the εργα νομου from general ‘good works’.210
Although the works of the Torah were prescribed by God, and therefore were ‘good’, they are given a specificity that distinguishes them from general good works; they are works of the Torah
. Whilst those practices that we would generally designate as ‘good works’ could be subsumed under the expression εργα νομου, we must remember that the important thing about the εργα νομου is the relationship that they bear to the Jewish Torah and not the fact that they are prescribed by some universal moral standard. The Torah was the covenant document given to Israel, alone among all the nations of the world, and not something held in common by mankind as a whole.
The ‘works’ that Paul generally mentions are works that are grounded upon the Torah that was given to the Jews and not just general good deeds.211
Even when the context shows that the emphasis is upon ‘works’ as doing good rather than evil, Wright does not want us to lose sight of the fact that the ‘works’ in question are not without a reference to the Jewish Torah.212
The good works expected of Christians, whilst certainly not unrelated, differ from the εργα νομου in the manner in which they relate to the Torah; they do not relate to a Torah that is to be kept in a manner that renders it specific to the Jewish people. In addition to this, within the new covenant order, the εργα νομου like circumcision and the dietary requirements of the Torah simply cannot be classified as ‘good works’ at all, as they have not been prescribed by God for the Christian. By thinking of the εργα νομου as the ‘good works’ required of the Christian we risk eliding some of these important distinctions.213
If we think that Paul’s denial of a place to the εργα νομου in justification is simply a direct denial of any place for good works in justification, we risk short-circuiting his argument. Wright acknowledges that many of the points made by the Reformers and their heirs are perfectly valid and necessary consequences of Paul’s statements about the εργα νομου.214
However, if we fail to distinguish Reformation arguments regarding the place of good works in justification and salvation from the issues that were foremost in Galatians and Romans we risk obscuring important elements of Paul’s theology.
There are important overtones of Paul’s statement [of Romans 3:20] here [in the theology of the Reformers and modern evangelicals], but they are not its fundamental note. If we play an overtone, thinking it to be a fundamental, we shall set off new and different sets of overtones, which will not then harmonize with Paul’s original sound.215
Wright is concerned that many within the Reformation tradition have tended to treat Israel mainly as the ‘classic example of the wrong way of approaching God’ and have consequently built a ‘Pauline’ theology ‘in which half of what Paul was most eager to say in Romans has been screened out.’216
Once we have firmly established the fact that the story of Israel and Jesus is the fundamental note of the gospel, however, Wright is persuaded that ‘many of the things the Reformers wanted to insist on can be retained and, indeed, enhanced.’217
Jewish Nationalism and the εργα νομου
Paul’s attack on the ‘works of the Law’ as the basis for justification is not directed against people who were trying to ‘earn their own salvation’ in some Pelagian fashion, but rather against those who were maintaining the division between Jew and Gentile within the Church by means of the Jewish Torah. At this point Wright opposes common Reformation readings of the book of Romans and Galatians.218
Wright argues that the ‘works of the Torah’ were not being used as a means of earning salvation, but as a means of sustaining a nationalist boast.219
The ‘righteousness’ of their own that the Jews sought to establish was a status that was exclusive to themselves; the only way that Gentiles would be admitted would be by means of their becoming Jews through proselyte initiation.
[Paul] does not regard his contemporaries as proto-Pelagians, trying to pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps in order to be good enough for God and to earn “works-righteousness” of that sort. Rather, they believed that God’s covenant with Abraham was their exclusive and inalienable possession, whereas Paul had come to believe that, through the death and resurrection of the Messiah, the long covenant story as set out in the Scriptures had all along had a different shape.220
It should not be supposed that Paul perceived the error of the position of the Judaizers merely in terms of the sin of nationalism; he recognized that there were far more profound problems with their use of the Torah as a ‘charter of national privilege’ than mere nationalism. Their error may have taken a nationalistic shape, but Paul’s response is chiefly directed against their understanding of the place and role of the Torah, rather than against the sin of nationalism in general.
The Role of the Torah
Is God the God of the Jews Only?
Wright believes that Paul attacked the Judaizers’ understanding of the Torah on a few grounds. Firstly, Paul realized that the Torah, when employed as a charter of national privilege, prevented the fulfillment of the promise of a worldwide family that had been made to Abraham.
What Israel has sought, and what [Romans] 9:6-29 has been at pains to deny, is an inalienable identity as God’s people for all those who possess Torah, for (that is) ethnic Israel as a whole. Paul, assuming his whole argument to date, declares that this can never be the appropriate fulfillment of, or attainment to, Torah. The God who gave Torah is the God who made promises to Abraham, promises about a worldwide family. Unless we are to suppose (which Paul never does) that Torah was a bad idea that God subsequently abandoned …, we must conclude that God always envisaged a kind of Torah-keeping, a kind of law-fulfillment, of a different order from that pursued so vigorously by the zealous Jews of Paul’s day, including himself in his earlier days (Gal 1:14; Phil 3:4-6).221
Paul recognizes that, were justification to occur by the ‘works of the Torah’, God ‘would be shown to be the God only of Jews.’222
If this were the case ‘God’s impartiality would be impugned …, and the whole fabric of the δικαιοσυνη θεου (dikaiosynē theou
), the justice and faithfulness of God, would start to unravel.’223
For Paul, the covenant was never established merely in order for God to ‘have Israel as a special people, irrespective of the fate of the rest of the world.’224
The covenant had been put in place with the design of dealing with the sin and bringing about the salvation of the world.
Israel, says Paul, is ignorant of what God has righteously and faithfully been doing in her history. In seeking to establish a status of righteousness, of covenant membership, which will be for Jews and Jews only, she has not submitted to God’s righteousness. The covenant always envisaged a worldwide family; Israel, clinging to her own special status as the covenant-bearer, has betrayed the purpose for which that covenant was made. It is as though the postman were to imagine that all the letters in his bag were intended for him.225
At this point, we should observe that this is one of the reasons why Wright is concerned that we do not permit God’s cosmic restorative justice and His covenant faithfulness to become polarized; it is by means of His covenant faithfulness that God is setting the cosmos to rights. Retaining the essential relationship between the two is important if we are to appreciate the underlying reasoning in Paul’s argument against the Judaizers.
200 The New Testament and the People of God, pp.334ff. (return)
201 Ibid. (return)
202 In many respects, the manner in which these symbols functioned could be compared to the manner in which symbols function within any group of people. Members of a particular nation, for example, are distinguished by their respect for a particular flag, their singing of a particular national anthem, their allegiance to a particular government, their sharing of a particular history, mythology and body of culture, their national customs and their particular cultural celebrations and cultural symbols. These various badges of membership do not serve to earn membership; they evidence membership (for example, an American’s celebration of July 4th does not earn him his American identity, but serves among other practices to mark him out as a true American). Of course, the analogy is far from perfect, given the role played by the marks of covenant membership in anticipating future vindication. (return)
203 Ibid. p.334. When Wright explains the workings of the sacrificial system he makes clear that the sacrifices did not work ‘automatically’; the individual needed to repent for the sacrifice to be efficacious for good in his case [Ibid. p.275]. (return)
204 Ibid. pp.215ff. (return)
205 Ibid. p.238 (return)
206 Ibid. See also What St Paul Really Said, p.119 (return)
207 The Letter to the Romans, p.461, 480-481, 637, 649 (return)
208 See, for example, Philip H. Eveson, Justification by Faith Alone — In the Light of Recent Thought (Leominster: Day One Publications, 1996), pp.132ff.; Cornelius Venema, ‘Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul 4 — What Does Paul Mean by “the Works of the Law”?’; Douglas Kelly, ‘New Approaches of Biblical Theology to Justification’ (return)
209 For the position of Richard Hays and James Dunn, see The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI: 2 Corinthians — Philemon, p.239. For the position of Don Garlington see his book, An Exposition of Galatians: A New Perspective/Reformational Reading (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), p.109. (return)
210 See, for example, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters, p.23; New Perspectives on Paul, p.9 (return)
211 Although, as we shall later see, Wright does believe that there is a ‘doing of the Torah’ that is not limited to the Jew, this should always be held in balance with the fact that the Torah, in the sense that Paul frequently speaks of it, is only given to the Jews and the performing of it serves to separate Jews from Gentiles. (return)
212 The Letter to the Romans, p.493, 637 (return)
213 In passing, it should be observed that Wright questions the validity of reading the New Testament references to ‘good works’ as references to ‘living a good moral life’ or ‘obeying the law’. In Wright’s understanding they are better understood as good works of ‘giving practical help, particularly money, to those in need.’ [Paul For Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, p.158, 163]. (return)
214 The Letter to the Romans, pp.463-464 (return)
215 Ibid. p.464 (return)
216 Ibid. (return)
217 Ibid. (return)
218 See, for example, What St Paul Really Said, pp.120-122 (return)
219 He writes:—
Paul is not addressing the more general “boast” of the moral legalist whose system of salvation is one of self-effort, but the ethnic pride of Israel according to the flesh, supported as it was by the possession of the Torah and the performance of the “works” that set Israel apart from the pagans. [The Letter to the Romans, p.480] (return)
220 Ibid. p.655 (return)
221 Ibid. p.649. We will be returning to the ‘kind of Torah-keeping…of a different order’ that Wright speaks of in a later post. (return)
222 Ibid. p.482 (return)
223 Ibid. (return)
224 What St Paul Really Said, p.118 (return)
225 Ibid. p.108 (return)