Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Church Fathers on "Works of the Law"

Michael Bird has been writing on patristic interpretation of Paul's phrase "works of the law" (ergōn nomou), noting that some link the term to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament (here, here). Bird mentions that this interpretation is found in Ambrosiaster, Jerome and Pelagius.

I cover the history of interpretation of this phrase whenever I teach Pauline Epistles and thought I'd share some what I give to my students here.

The view that "works of the law" relate to the ceremonial precepts is found as early as Origen:
“One should know that the works which Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness [opera iustitiae] which are commanded in the law, but those in which they boast who keep the law according to the flesh; that is, the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths and new moon festivals [cf. Col 2.18]. These and works of a similar nature are the works by which he says no one can be saved, and concerning which he says in the present passage, ‘not on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace.’ For if anyone is justified through these, he is not justified gratis. But these works are by no means sought from the one who is justified through grace; but this one should take care that the grace he has received should not be in him ‘in vain’ [cf. 1 Cor 15.10] . . . So then, one does not make grace become in vain who joins works to it that are worthy and who does not show himself ungrateful for the grace of God. For anyone who sins after having attained grace becomes ungrateful to him who offered the grace.”—Origen, Commentary on Romans 8, 7, 6. Cited from Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 48–49.
In addition, here is a bit from Jerome on Galatians 3:2 ["Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?"]:
St. Jerome
“There are indeed many things, he says, which could under interrogation compel you to prefer the gospel to the law; but since you are senseless and are by no means able to hear these things, I should speak with simple words to you. I should ask about what is at hand: whether it was works of the law, observance of the Sabbath, the superstition of circumcision and new moons that gave you the Holy Spirit that you received? . . . . Let us consider carefully that he does not say, ‘I want to learn from you’ whether you ‘received the Spirit by works, but instead ‘by the works of the law.’ For he knew that even Cornelius the centurion had received the Spirit by works but not by ‘works of the law,’ with which he was unacquainted. But if, on the other hand, it is said: well then, the Spirit can be received even without the ‘hearing of faith,’ we will respond that he [Cornelius] did indeed receive the Spirit, but by the ‘hearing of faith’ and by natural law, which speaks within our hearts the good things that must be done and the evils that must be avoided.”—Jerome, Commentary on Galatians on 3:2. Cited from Thomas P. Scheck, trans., St. Jerome’s Commentaries on Galatians, Titus and Philemon (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 114.
Augustine, on the same passage, recognizes that the term refers to both the ceremonial precepts as well as the moral laws.
St. Augustine
“Here he begins to demonstrate in what sense the grace of faith is sufficient for justification without the works of the law. . . . But so that this question may be carefully treated and no one may be deceived by ambiguities, we must first understand that the works of the law are twofold; for they reside partly in ceremonial ordinances and partly in morals. To the ordinances belong the circumcision of the flesh, the weekly Sabbath, new moons, sacrifices and all the innumerable observances of this kind. But to morality belong ‘You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness’ and so on. Could the apostle possibly not care whether a Christian were a murderer and adulterer or chase and innocent, in the way that he does not care whether he is circumcised or uncircumcised in the flesh? He therefore is specially concerned with the works that consist in ceremonial ordinances, although he indicates that the others are sometimes bound up with them. But near the end of the letter he deals separately with those works that consist in morals, and he does this briefly, but he speaks at greater length regarding the [ceremonial] works . . .”—Augustine, Commentary on Galatians on 3:2. Cited from Thomas P. Scheck, trans., St. Jerome’s Commentaries on Galatians, Titus and Philemon (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 114.
St. Thomas Aquinas
Finally, we could mention Thomas Aquinas, the medieval doctor, who sees both the ceremonial and moral precepts in the phrase in Galatians:

“ . . . he is speaking here about keeping the commandments of the Law insofar as the Law consists of ceremonial precepts and moral precepts.”—Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, ch. 3, lecture 4. [source]
It is worth noting that the Reformers seem to have been aware of this interpretive tradition.  Calvin writes the following:
“Now the question is, what is meant by the works of the law? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly, assert, that by ‘the works of the law’ are meant ceremonies. . . For they see no absurdity in maintaining that ‘no man is justified by the works of the law,’ and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law. . .”—John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians at 2:15. Cited from John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries (J. King, trans.; Forgotten Books, 2007), 54.
The issues here are complex and I can't get into this in greater detail. Suffice it to say, obviously Catholic tradition does not necessarily reduce the term to ceremonial laws (see Aquinas!). You can find a bit more discussion on this in my response to James Dunn in Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Zondervan, 2013)

Let me just bring this to a close with Michael Bird's own discussion of the issue:
“It is genuinely tempting to say that these ‘works’ refers to acts of personal righteousness completed prior to the giving of the law, rendered plausible by the contrast of gift and debt in vv. 4–5. But that is only half the story, for in Paul’s epistles ‘law’ and ‘works of the law’ ordinarily signifies the Mosaic legislation. . . A specific work in mind is probably circumcision since Paul appeals to Abraham’s not-yet-circumcised-state in Gen. 15.6, the preceding references in 3.27–31 pertains to boasting in Jewish identity which circumcision epitomized, circumcision was a sign of the Mosaic covenant (Gen 17.11; Acts 7.8; Jub. 12.26–28; m. Ned. 3.11), and references to circumcision buttress the passage in 3.30 and 4.9–12. Furthermore, circumcision was regarded as the very means of entering Israel for Gentiles (Jdt. 14.10; Esth. 8.17; m. Shab. 19.3) and in several second-temple texts a necessary component of salvation (Jub. 15.25–34; CD 16.4–6; T. Levi 6.3; cf. Acts 15.1).”—Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 74.


Anonymous said...

Good works = The fruit of our faith - Colossians 1:10.

Works of the law = circumcision and all of the stuff from the OT no longer valid.

Apples and oranges...

Brian LePort said...

Makes on think the New Perspective is closer to the Old(er) Perspective!

Nick said...


41 Paul opposes the covenant-law of Sinai, on the one hand, to the extent that it competes with faith in Christ (“a person is justified not by works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ”: Ga 2:16; Rm 3:28), and, on the other, insofar as it is a legal system of a particular people, which should not be imposed on believers coming from the “nations”. But Paul affirms the value of revelation of “the old diathk”, that is to say, the writings of the “Old Testament”, which are to be read in the light of Christ (2 Co 3:14-16).

For Paul, Jesus' establishment of “the new covenant in [his] blood” (1 Co 11:25), does not imply any rupture of God's covenant with his people, but constitutes its fulfilment. He includes “the covenants” among the privileges enjoyed by Israel, even if they do not believe in Christ (Rm 9:4). Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship and remains the people to whom the fulfilment of the covenant was promised, because their lack of faith cannot annul God's fidelity (Rm 11:29). Even if some Israelites have observed the Law as a means of establishing their own justice, the covenant-promise of God, who is rich in mercy (Rm 11:26-27), cannot be abrogated. Continuity is underlined by affirming that Christ is the end and the fulfilment to which the Law was leading the people of God (Ga 3:24). For many Jews, the veil with which Moses covered his face remains over the Old Testament (2 Co 3:13,15), thus preventing them from recognising Christ's revelation there. This becomes part of the mysterious plan of God's salvation, the final outcome of which is the salvation of “all Israel” (Rm 11:26).

The “covenants of promise” are explicitly mentioned in Ep 2:12 to announce that access to them is now open to the “nations”, Christ having broken down “the wall of separation”, that is to say, the Law which blocked access to them for non-Jews (cf. Ep 2:14-15).

The Pauline Letters, then, manifest a twofold conviction: the insufficiency of the legal covenant of Sinai, on the one hand, and on the other, the validity of the covenant-promise. This latter finds its fulfilment in justification by faith in Christ, offered “to the Jew first, but also to the Greek” (Rm 1:16). Their refusal of faith in Christ places the Jewish people in a situation of disobedience, but they are still “loved” and promised God's mercy (cf. Rm 11:26-32).


Nick said...


From NOTES on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism
in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, IV.1.A

An objective presentation of the role of the Jewish people in the New Testament should take account of these various facts:

A. The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work. The dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, following the Pontifical Biblical Commission's Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia, distinguishes three stages: "The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of the Churches, and preserving the form of proclamation, but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus" (n. 19).

Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favourable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community.

Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish-relations long after the time of Jesus.

To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for the Christians of today.

All this should be taken into account when preparing catechesis and homilies for the last weeks of Lent and Holy Week (cf. already Guidelines II, and now also Sussidi per l'ecumenismo nella diocesi di Roma, 1982, 144 b).

(There's more in the document, I can't paste it here)

De Maria said...

In my opinion, when St. Paul refers to "works of the Law", he is speaking of the Old Testament.

And when he refers to the "faith of Christ" he is referring to the New Testament and specifically to the rites and rituals to which we submit.

The Works of the Law were replaced by the Sacraments of Jesus Christ. It is in the Sacraments that we are justified by grace apart from any righteous works. Gratuitously.

More often than not, St. Paul is comparing the Old Testament to the New and explaining why the New Covenant is one of justification by faith (Rom 3:21-22).

Sometimes though, he also explains in more detail that justification is God's work entirely. Nothing that we do can cleanse our soul of sin. Only God can do that (Titus 3:5).

And then at other times, he explains that no one, who does not obey God will be justified by God (Rom 2:13).


De Maria

D.L. Jones said...

What insights do The Dead Sea Scrolls give us on this topic?

Refer to Dr. Peter Flint, specifically Exploring the Dead Sea Scrolls - Dr. Peter Flint - 2/2

Mark G said...

Another patristic voice to bring to this discussion is that of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Although his Romans commentary is not extant his Galatians commentary is. Although he doesn't specifically address the question "what does Paul mean by the works of the law?" in Gal 3:2 it can be inferred that he views the phrase to mean all the law's demands; i.e., including, or primarily, moral:

"Therefore, this is what Paul means in this passage: that it is impossible to be justified by the works of the law because we are mortal by nature, however much we set our sight on virtue. Indeed, it is impossible in any way that we should for the most part refrain from sin." (Commentary on Gal 2:15-16 from Greer (2010), 49.

Notice "we", "virtue", "refrain from sin." In other passages he says the same thing.

Whatever Theodore's theological shortcomings, he was an astute reader and interpreter of Scripture and his voice should be counted here.

Anonymous said...

We have to be careful about saying that circumcicision was the means of conversion to Judaism, since obviously women can't be circumcised, and a Jewish woman by birth is no less a Jew for not undergoing that male ritual! This is where the mikveh, (or the "well of Miriam" as it was called), is important here. Every convert, whether male or female, had to undergo immersion in the mikveh to enter Judaism. Why? Because it was to compensate for them having been born from the waters of a Gentile womb, and not a Jewish one. In other words, the mikveh is a substitute womb: the convert must be "born again" as a Jew, but this is unnecessary for the native Jew since their biological mother was their mikveh, and their first birth was their immersion. The dissident groups (such as Qumran), opposed to the official temple establishment that preceded the rise of Christianity however had begun to argue that the covenant had broken down, and that the native-born Jew and the Gentile were on an equal footing, since the native born Jew could no longer plead their natural birth from their biological mikveh as adequate grounds for membership in the redeemed community, and had to go through initiation into a new covenant community as much as any Gentile. Christianity, as yet another dissident Second Temple Jewish movement was no different in that respect: Jesus polemicised repeatedly against those who sought to rely on their mere physical descent from Abraham etc, and in the early Church all who sought to enter the redeemed community, Jew and Gentile alike, stood equally in need of redemptive rebirth from the waters of the womb of baptism that ensired their participation in the fulness of the Christ-event. The issues of whether Torah observance was still obligatory after baptism, and whether or not it was mandatory for Gentile converts as well as Jewish converts, and whether or not, if it was not mandatory even for Jewish converts it could nonetheless be still observed by them to maintain a link with their unconverted brethren, all these questions were later to, and secondary to, the earliest and primary issue, the need to be born again in baptism in order to enter into membership of the new messianic people of God, an obligation incumbent on all human beings, Jew and Gentile alike, from the moment that Peter stood up to preach on Pentecost.