Thursday, January 3, 2008

Galatians 3:10 and Works of the Law (Part 4)

e;rgwn no,mou in the New Perspective
There are many who are labeled as advocates under the title of “The New Perspective on Paul”—E. P. Sanders, N. T. (Tom) Wright and James D. G. Dunn. Since the literature on this topic is broad and each of these men has a slightly different take on this issue, it seems best to handle the works of Dunn, since he has written widely on this topic, especially as it relates to Galatians 3:10.

In his influential work The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Dunn deals in length with “works of the law.” Dunn sums up his understanding of works of the law with these words,

The phrase “works of the law,” does, of course, refer to all or whatever the law requires, covenantal nomism as a whole. But in a context where the relationship of Israel with other nations is at issue, certain laws would naturally come more into focus than others. We have instanced circumcision and food laws in particular.[1]

Here Dunn puts the phrase “works of the law” in the category of that which sets Israel apart from other nations. That is, “works of the law” are what identified Israel as the people of God. This is why, for Dunn, the phrase “works of the law” is in essence covenantal nomism, which

is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandment, while providing means of atonement for transgressions…Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace.[2]

In other word, Dunn understands “works of the law” as that which keeps one in the covenant, but not how one enters the covenant. “The phrase [works of the law] means most naturally ‘deeds or actions which the law requires.’” [3] For Dunn, Paul is not arguing against how one finds a right standing before God. Rather, Paul is arguing how one finds their standing in the people of God. “Paul meant those who, in his judgment, were putting too much weight on the distinctiveness of the Jews from the Gentiles, and on the special laws which formed the boundary marker between them.”[4] In other words, what Dunn says is that Paul is arguing against making works of the law the grounds for who is in and who is out of the covenant people of God. Works of the law, then, as Dunn understands Paul, are not what sets apart the people of God, faith in Christ is. For Dunn “the problem that Paul raises in Galatians 3:10-13 is one of identity or state, not of activity: the debate is ecclesiological, not soteriological, in nature.”[5] This is the key to Dunn’s understanding. He puts justification in the realm of ecclesiology and not soteriology—church membership and not salvation.

However, as we have seen, this understanding of Paul in Galatians 3:10 does not seem to advance Paul’s argument. Rather, it seems to retard it. As we stated above, the reason Paul quotes the Old Testament passage is to show that “works of the law” are in the realm of things done. Further, these things done are done to gain a right standing before God. They do not serve as a boundary marker to show who is in and out of the covenant people. If Paul only had in mind covenant membership, his Old Testament quotes seems to be out of place because he would not need to say that people who do not “continue in everything that has been written in the Book of the Law” are cursed. Rather, all Paul would need to affirm would be that people need to follow certain key outward laws—i.e. circumcision and the dietary laws.

Further, Dunn argues specifically against the traditional understanding of Galatians 3:10. He argues that the law never required perfect obedience. That is, the implied premise for Paul, as stated above, is not that the law cannot be accomplished. He argues that,

The mistake, once again, has been to read into the argument the idea that at this time the law would be satisfied with nothing less than sinlessness [perfect obedience]…Paul was able to describe himself as “blameless” before his conversion; not because he committed no sin, not because he fulfilled every law without exception, but because the righteousness of the law included use of the sacrificial cult and benefits of the Day of Atonement.[6]

We have answered this objection above, but again it should be noted that this argument assumes that the Old Testament sacrifices were in and of themselves efficacious, which the New Testament declares they were not. In addition, this principle is taught elsewhere in the New Testament. When Paul “describe[d] himself as ‘blameless’ before his conversion” it is best to see this as the heart of an unregenerate Pharisee who does not see the law in its proper light: as consisting of more than external actions.


[1] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 358.
[2] Ibid., 338-339.
[3] James D. G. Dunn, Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Galatians, 135.
[4] Ibid.,172.
[5] Guy Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response,109.
[6] James D. G. Dunn, Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Galatians, 171.

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