Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Galatians 3:10 and Works of the Law (Part 2)

e;rgwn no,mou in the Pauline Corpus[1]

Paul uses the terms e;rgwn no,mou and/or no,moj at times interchangeably[2] and in different ways—sometimes favorably and other times negatively. When looking at the Pauline corpus at least four distinct uses of “works of the law” or simply “law” can be discerned: the Old Testament, as a “principle,” a moral law given to all mankind, or the Law of Moses. We will look at each of these in turn.

The first use is that of the Old Testament. Paul employs no,moj often to point to the whole of the Old Testament or sometimes more particularly as a designation for the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament. Thus, when Paul refers to no,moj he is referring to a body of inspired literature (1 Corinthians 9:8-9; 14:21, 34; Romans 3:19; Galatians 4:21-31). The clearest example of this is 1 Corinthians 9:8-9, “Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses…” In these verses Paul refers to the Law and he lets his readers know what he means by “the Law,” namely, “the Law of Moses.”

The second use of no,moj is that of a principle. That is, when Paul utilizes the word no,moj he has in mind a “principle” or “rule” that refers to a rule that governs human life and conduct. Paul makes use of this meaning primarily in the book of Romans (Romans 3:27; 7:21, 23, 25; 8:2). “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”[3]

The third use of no,moj refers to a moral law that is given to all people. This use is similar, yet distinct, from the second use. They are both moral standards, but they remain distinct because the third use is given to all mankind and thus different in content from the second use, since all mankind is not given the same moral law.[4] Consequently, this third use is broader and less specific in content as the second use (Romans 2:14-15; 26-27). The classic text for this moral law is Romans 2:14-15, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

The fourth use of no,moj is that of the Law of Moses. This use has two distinct understandings—a broad sense and a narrow sense. The broad sense is the most important use of no,moj in Paul’s writings because it is Paul’s term for the Mosaic administration (a period of time) and this is central to Paul’s understanding of works and their role in justification (Romans 2:17-27; 5:13-14; 7; 10:4-5; Galatians 3:10-12, 17-24; 5:3-4). Romans 3:20 shows this use clearly, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” This also illustrates that in Paul e;rgwn no,mou and no,moj can be used interchangeably because Paul goes on in verse 21 to assert that “now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” In verse 20 the contrast is between e;rgwn no,mou (works of the law) and dikaiwqh,setai (will be justified), whereas in verse 21 the contrast is between no,mou (law) and dikaiosu,nh (righteousness). Notice that in verse 20 the verbal form is used and in verse 21 the noun form is used. Thus, it is apparent that Paul is making the same distinction in verse 20 as he is in 21, but he is using different words to express the same point. This shows that Paul uses e;rgwn no,mou and no,moj, in certain contexts, as synonyms.

Though the broad sense is the most significant, the narrow sense, which refers specifically to the obligations and demands of the law, is also important in that it helps us focus on a precise meaning of no,moj in Paul’s writings (1 Corinthians 9:8; 15:56; Romans 2:12-13, 23-27; 3:20-21, 28; Galatians 2:16, 19; 3:10). This narrow sense is evident in Galatians 2:16, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

This fourth use has a broad and a narrow sense, and as such, a passage can carry with it both of these meanings as in the case with our passage Galatians 3:10, which we will show to be the case. That is, a passage can refer to the law in general and to the demands of the law in specific. With this broad understanding of Paul’s overall use of the phrase e;rgwn no,mou and no,moj, we can now turn to our specific passage and grasp what Paul means by “works of the law” and the role they play in Paul’s view of justification and his over all argument in Galatians.


[1]The author is indeted to the work of Cornelis Venema for this section. Cornelis P. Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and ‘New Perspectives’ on Paul (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 171-173.
[2] There are some, such as James Dunn, who argue that the two phrases, e;rgwn no,mou and no,moj,
should be viewed as having different meanings. We do grant that Paul uses these phrases in different ways, but, as our discussion will show, at times time uses these phrases interchangeably—that is as synonyms. In other words, these phrases, in many places, are used to denote the same reality.
[3] Romans 7:21.
[4] The Old Testament sets out a moral standard that is quite different from the moral law written on the heart of all people (Romans 2:15), in that it is more specific in what it demands of those under it.

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