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February 08, 2018 / Issue Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2017 / Field Notes

Matthew Thomas

(MCS '12 (Biblical Languages))

Matthew serves as Visiting Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, California, and as a DE Instructor in Theology with Regent for Hans Boersma and J.I. Packer. He holds an MCS in Biblical Languages (2012), and a D.Phil in New Testament and Patristics from the University of Oxford. He and his wife Leeanne (MCS in Old Testament, 2013) live in California and have two children, Camille and Raphael. His research will be published with Mohr Siebeck this summer as Paul's "Works of the Law" in the Perspective of Second Century Reception.

When I was a first-year student at Regent in 2011, I (like many other students) was caught up with trying to make sense of the "old" and "new" perspectives on Paul's epistles. I'd spent much of my first term exploring these two sides, and had come to realize that the key difference between them was not so much differing conceptions of faith or justification, but rather their widely divergent views of what Paul was setting in antithesis to faith—the "works of the law." Was Paul objecting to the Jews' individual efforts to earn salvation by performing good works, as the Reformers and the "old perspective" believed? Or, as "new perspective" writers like N.T. Wright contended, were "works of the law" the particular works of a specific law—the Torah’s prescriptions regarding Sabbath and calendar observance, circumcision, and food laws—which served as markers to identify with God's chosen people, the Jews? Hoping to get to the bottom of this, I made an assessment of these two sides the topic of my CTC II paper. 

But then a surprise came. In the stacks of the John Richard Allison library, I had pulled Calvin's Commentary on Romans off of a shelf and opened to Romans 3:20 ("because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight"). Having read Calvin for J.I. Packer's class the previous semester, I had grown accustomed to his way of citing the church fathers on his side for nearly every disputed theological question. With this as a background, it came as a shock to read the following words: 

"It is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean. Some extend them to the observance of the whole law, while others confine them to the ceremonies alone. The addition of the word law induced ChrysostomOrigen, and Jerome to assent to the latter opinion..." (Comm. Rom. 3:20)

I searched down the page to find the church fathers Calvin would cite in his favor, and was perplexed to find none. Surely the Reformer would not neglect to mention the patristic interpreters who were on his side in a matter as essential as this? And this puzzlement led to another question: how would the sources from the early church align with our "old" and "new" perspectives on this issue? 

It occurred to me that I had no idea what the answer was, and that I'd never seen it discussed elsewhere either. I had a natural tendency to trust the early church in other matters, and given their proximity to Paul and his context, it seemed they would have a valuable standpoint to know what it was Paul was writing against when he used the phrase “works of the law.” Could the testimony of these early sources help to answer the question? 

Following the Reformers' ad fontes principle, I quickly located the early Christian writings to see for myself what they said. And what I read astonished me: one by one, each source sounded like the writings of N.T. Wright transported back to the second century. In Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, his Jewish interlocutor summarized his objections to the Christians: “This is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any way separated from the Gentiles, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or Sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision” (Dial. 10). For his part, Justin followed Paul in appealing to the patriarchs for not practicing these works: “If there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths, of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now” (Dial. 23). In Against Heresies, Irenaeus echoed Paul’s argument in Romans 4 by stating that “Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths, ‘believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God’” (Haer. 4.16.2). While such laws of bondage were “canceled by the new covenant of liberty,” Christ has now “increased and widened those laws which are natural, and noble, and common to all” (Haer. 4.16.5). The Epistle to Diognetus similarly objected to the Jews’ “scruples in regard to meat, their observance of the Sabbath days, their vain boasting about circumcision, and the hypocrisy connected with fasting and the feasts of the new moon” (Diog. 4). It contrasted these markers of the Jewish people with the universal practices of the Christians, who “are not different from the rest of men in nationality, speech or customs; they do not live in states of their own, nor do they use a special language, nor adopt a peculiar way of life” (Diog. 5). Finally, Origen's Commentary on Romans seemed to predate the “new” perspective by eighteen centuries, directly addressing the question at hand: 

“One should know that the works that Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness that are commanded in the law, but those in which those who keep the law according to the flesh boast; i.e., the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths or new moon festivals. These, then, and works of this nature are the ones on the basis of which he says no one can be saved.” (Comm. Rom. 8.8.6)

Having stumbled across these patristic sources, I quickly asked Ross Hastings for permission to alter my paper topic, and over the next two days wrote up an assessment of the material in comparison with the "old" and "new" perspectives, outlining how our contemporary categories appeared to be identifying a very old perspective as "new," and a comparatively novel one as "old." The CTC paper was eventually published in Canadian Theological Review, and when it turned out that virtually no work had been done in this area, it became the basis for my D.Phil at the University of Oxford, Early Perspectives on Works of the Law: A Patristic Study.

How does this odd and unlikely story relate to our commemoration of the Reformation? On the one hand, it is true the patristic material I came across served to substantiate the “new” perspective on Paul, rather than the “traditional” one proposed by Luther and Calvin. On the other hand, these findings themselves came from seeking to follow the example of the Reformers: having started with a note in Calvin’s commentary, I determined to read for myself what these original sources said, rather than simply defaulting our own contemporary assumptions. Further, going to these sources has helped me to understand more clearly Paul’s message in its historical context: while none of the Apostle’s earliest readers critique the Jews for seeking to earn their salvation by good works, they uniformly insist that a new law and covenant of universal scope has come in Christ, which breaks down the wall between Jew and Gentile and makes the Torah’s mandates no longer necessary for God’s people. Seen from this angle, this story can be regarded as a vindication of the Reformers’ ad fontes principle; one must simply be prepared for when ad fontes surprises you!

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