What does Paul mean by “Works of the Law”? An interview with Matthew J. Thomas

I am delighted to post a fun interview I recently conducted with Matthew J. Thomas (DPhil, University of Oxford). Matthew is the author of the highly-acclaimed Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception. I read this book over the Christmas break, and I found it to be a fantastic treat. Matthew’s book has caused quite the splash in biblical studies, generating fresh and lively discussion once more about the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP)—a topic that has received much attention through the years.

Matthew has won praise from important voices such as N.T. Wright, who has described the book as a “detailed, patient, historically careful, and theologically explosive study.” Similarly, Alister McGrath calls the book “a landmark in historical scholarship.”

So, what’s the book all about? To answer that question, you’ll have to read the interview below to find out! And then… go buy the book! (Amazon link)

Note: My questions are in bold type, with Matthew Thomas’ answers following in regular font.

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In your book, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception, you tackle a central question in the debate between the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” and the traditional “Old Perspective on Paul.” For those who may not be familiar with this debate, can you summarize what the issue is all about? Specifically, what has been so controversial about Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law”?

Sure thing! Here’s a quick introduction:

The “old perspective” on Paul refers to the views held by Luther, Calvin, and those who have followed within their respective theological traditions, while the “new perspective” arose in the late 1970’s with the work of E.P. Sanders, and was subsequently developed and popularized by biblical scholars like James Dunn and N.T. Wright. (It’s important to say at the outset that these two categories are lumpy—there’s overlap between the two sides, as it’s largely an intra-Protestant debate, and also significant differences between figures within each “perspective.”)

A major distinction between these sides is their understanding of “works of the law.” In Galatians 2–3 and Romans 3, Paul engages conflicts between Jewish and Gentile parties related to faith and justification (like the dispute with the Judaizers supposedly sent from James at Antioch), and each perspective differs quite a bit on what exactly Paul is reacting against. The Reformed theologian J.V. Fesko gives a helpful shorthand summary of the two views: “According to some New Perspective scholars, “works of the law” refer to Sabbath observance, food laws, and circumcision—those things that identified Jews. According to the Old Perspective, “works of the law” represents the Judaizers’ attempt to secure salvation through moral effort.”

As Fesko states, for the “old perspective,” Paul’s target here is works in general, which the Jews are performing on an individual basis to try to earn salvation. For the “new perspective,” Paul is referring to the practices of a specific law, the Torah, and within it particular works like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. These practices have a communal significance: adopting them makes one part of the Jewish nation and covenant (which, according to this perspective, Paul is saying doesn’t make one righteous before God). Depending on which interpretation you go with, you can end up with quite different senses of what Paul means by faith and justification, which are so central to the Christian message.

There has already been a lot of ink spilled on this subject, but your book offers a fresh (and in my mind, exciting) approach to the debate. In short, you examine some of Paul’s earliest readers, those living in the second century, and ask how they understood Paul’s writings on this issue. So, two questions: (1) What led you to do this, and (2) what value is there in this approach?

Thanks for this! My background is working in inner-city ministry, and when I was first learning about these debates I was running an after-school program for youth in Oakland, where I’d teach a little devotional from Scripture each day. Somehow I’d come across N.T. Wright’s “Romans in a Week” course that he gave at Regent College decades ago, which I’d listen to as I was driving in, and in it he talked about the difficulty in translating the Greek word pistis, since it means both “faith” and “faithfulness.” Now this was a revelation for me — within the theological contexts I knew, “faith” was essentially a cognitive belief, while “works of the law” (Paul’s antithesis) was good works, obedience, basically any actions at all. (I’d always struggled to figure how to fit this paradigm onto the rest of Scripture, or even onto the rest of Paul, but that’s another story!) Now if the Greek word for “faith” itself was more robust and included faithfulness to God, then what was Paul setting in antithesis to it? It seemed like it had to be more specific than just “good works,” otherwise I’d end up with an unintelligible contrast, like “justified by faithfulness apart from obedience.”

At the same time, I was trying to figure out what Scripture says about how our works and lives relate to the final judgment. I remember this came to a head for me one day when a person (who was a Christian) had been wronging some people, and one of my kids at the program told me (rather seriously) that he was going to kill them. I responded to him with Paul’s line from Romans 12: vengeance is God’s, and he will repay each of us for the things we do (meaning that, in this instance, it wasn’t his job to take things into his own hands and kill the person in question). But then afterwards I thought about it, and realized I actually wasn’t sure if this was true, because how our works relate to our final salvation wasn’t completely clear to me, and lots of the major theological voices around said that a professed Christian basically skips the judgment line.

So when I started studying at Regent myself not long after, these were the kinds of questions that were going around in my mind — what is Paul actually talking about when he says we’re justified by faith apart from works of the law, and how does the life we live relate to our final destiny with God?

The first semester there I wrote a paper for J.I. Packer on the competing books on justification from N.T. Wright and John Piper, and I think the idea of looking to the early church for guidance was partially inspired from Piper. I’d always held to a high view of the early church anyway, since they were closer to the sources and the original contexts. And even though Wright’s book seemed to make more sense to me overall, I did think Piper had a good point about needing to test our interpretations by the “wisdom of the centuries,” and how the Reformers (contra Wright) tried to link their ideas to those of the church fathers. But this led to the surprise for me: when I started reading Calvin on the question of “works of the law,” it was actually the church fathers that he was setting in contrast to his own position; and when I looked at the early fathers themselves, they all seemed to sound like Wright!

That’s fascinating! So, would you say that Paul’s earliest readers are more closely aligned with the Old or New Perspective? How so?

What I found is that what we’re calling the “new perspective” on this question is essentially what the early fathers understood by “works of the law,” while the so-called “old perspective” lacks similar parallels. This all got started for me from reading Calvin’s Romans commentary, where he says at 3:20 that “it is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean.” Calvin then cites Chrysostom, Origen and Jerome as saying these refer to the Jewish “ceremonies” (which is wrong in Calvin’s view), then Augustine that these are any works done apart from God’s grace (which for Calvin is also an incorrect limitation). And then, surprisingly and uncharacteristically, Calvin doesn’t cite any of the fathers in favor of his view (that these are all works, even those produced by God in his own people).

My research found that Calvin’s assessment is basically right — that the early church holds to a quite different view of “works of the law” than he does. Calvin’s earliest source here is Origen, who says in his Romans commentary (around 240 A.D.) 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.” My study basically looks at Pauline reception in the period prior to Origen (focusing on the earliest period from Paul to Irenaeus, around 180 A.D., but bringing things up to Origen in the conclusion), and finds that this understanding of “works of the law” is ubiquitous in the tradition prior to Origen.

Now this sounds a lot like the “new perspective,” and it’s indeed the case that on the question of the meaning and significance of these practices, the “new” perspective really does seem to be the “old” one, while what we call the “old” is itself relatively new. But when it comes to the logic of Paul’s writings — that is, why “works of the law” do not justify — we find that things are more mixed, and emphases from both sides of the contemporary debate can be found in these early sources. (So, for example, the “old perspective” concern regarding humanity’s fallen state has some analogy within these early writers, who attest that the Torah was never able to fix humanity’s hard-hearted condition, which has now been healed by the Spirit in the new covenant.) 

Luther was clear in his view that works in general do not at all contribute to a person’s justification. In your book, you mention that while early patristic sources would indeed agree that works in general do not play a role in a person’s initial justification, they do, in fact, play a role in one’s final justification (i.e., the final judgment). Can you elaborate a bit more on how these early readers of Paul viewed good works in general? In what ways specifically would they have disagreed with Luther on this question?

That’s right. When I first started reading these early sources, one of the things that was striking to me was how freely they talked about both the completely gratuitous nature of salvation, and how Christians were to be strictly judged according to their works. In the contexts I was from, you might hear a lot about either the one or the other, but not at the same time! As I note in the new preface to the IVP edition, there’s a number of patristic passages where you find these principles right next to each other — before the dissertation I wrote a study looking at these two sides in 1 Clement 30–35, and you can also find good examples in Polycarp 1–2 and 2 Clement 1–5, which is the earliest preserved Christian homily. What makes sense of these two sides is the understanding that God’s grace is transformative: because God does remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh by the Spirit in the new covenant (Ezek 36:26), this means that we’re now empowered to truly live in ways that are pleasing to God, and will be judged as such at the last day.

For Luther and these early readers of Paul, there’s no disagreement regarding the initial reception of God’s grace, which is given as a gift apart from works of any sort (whether the Torah’s practices or otherwise). The difference between them comes with final justification: while the early patristic writers only have positive things to say about good works here, Luther is distinct in the way he regards them as still potentially problematic — and not just in a minor way, but one that can lead to the worst kind of idolatry. So for example, in arguing against “the papists, the Zwinglians, [and] the Anabaptists” in his Galatians commentary, he writes: “For this is what they teach: ‘Faith in Christ does indeed justify, but at the same time observance of the Commandments of God is necessary; for it is written (Matt. 19:17): ‘If you would enter life, keep the Commandments.’’ Here immediately Christ is denied and faith is abolished, because what belongs to Christ alone is attributed to the Commandments of God or to the Law.” For Luther, the danger here is so great that good works actually need to be guarded against even more than sins. (As one example, from his Sermon on the Mass: “Therefore let us beware of sins, but much more of laws and good works, giving heed only to the divine promise and to faith. Then all good works will come of themselves.”)

It’s worth noting that the Reformed tradition typically doesn’t problematize works in this way, and it’s one of the reason why Reformed thinkers are more comfortable engaging with early patristic thought in this area than Luther. Luther is forthright that his understanding of the law / gospel distinction is not found in the preceding tradition, as he writes in his Galatians commentary: “Of this difference between the law and the gospel, there is nothing to be found in the books of the monks, canonists, schoolmen; no, nor in the books of the ancient fathers.” It’s what leads to some of his statements against the fathers that strike us as quite radical (and sometimes hilarious!), and dissuades him from holding to any kind of early “golden age” that can be appealed to as common ground. This is different from Calvin: though he occasionally makes similar comments about the fathers (such as in his 1 Corinthians commentary at 3:15), he does regard the first few hundred years as a golden age (see e.g. Inst. 1.11.13, 4.9.8), and in his Letter to Sadolet he repeatedly states that the goal of his reforms is to return to the purity of this earlier period. Of course, Calvin does sometimes openly diverge from the fathers (as he does on questions of free will and predestination in Inst. 2.1-5), but these instances are rarer, and overall he seems much more reticent about doing so than Luther.

This is also one of the areas where Luther’s more radical position isn’t followed precisely by subsequent Lutheranism; Melanchthon, Luther’s successor, at least wants to talk about good works as necessary evidence, and this becomes an area of fracture between Luther’s strict followers and the more moderating Lutheranism. I’ve actually been working this week on the Colloquy at Worms in 1557, which is the last of the formal meetings between Lutheran and Catholic representatives, and which breaks down because the competing Lutheran parties disagree with each other on questions like these.

Luther’s own thought is often so much more complex and surprising than our modern representations of it. Over the years I’ve found myself coming back over and over to a line in his Galatians commentary: “If anyone denies here, as the fanatical spirits do today, that righteousness and salvation are granted to an infant as soon as he is baptized; if anyone evades this promise in this way by saying that it becomes valid when a man reaches the use of reason and is able to do good works and to obtain what is set forth in the promise by doing good works; if anyone says that Baptism is not a sign of the will of God toward us but only a mark that distinguishes believers from unbelievers—such a person utterly deprives Baptism of salvation and attributes salvation to works. This is what the false apostles and their disciples did in everything.” It’s fascinating stuff, and upsets so many of our contemporary categories. I mean, when was the last time you had someone tell you that if you deny salvation by baptism, then (like a false apostle) you believe in salvation by works?

It’s interesting that Calvin, who often appealed to patristic sources, did not have access to the earliest sources you examined in your book. Can you elaborate a bit on this, specifically how his lack of early sources perhaps misguided him on the issue of “works of the law”?

This is one of the most interesting questions I’ve come away with from this project, and I’m genuinely curious how experts on Calvin’s thought would speculate on this point. As I mentioned, there’s a tension in Calvin here; on the one hand, I think he does genuinely hold to a high view of the early church’s interpretation, while he also recognizes that his own view on “works of the law” is different from theirs. Calvin only had piecemeal access to sources prior to Origen — he seems to have read Irenaeus at least in the latter part of his career, but beyond this, reliable primary sources from this earliest period were not easy to come by. (For anyone interested, the great study on this is Tony Lane’s John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers.) If Calvin had been able to see how Origen’s perspective was simply a restatement of the prior Christian reception of Paul, rather than an innovation (as he suspects), would his underlying theological principles have persuaded him towards this reading? It’s a question I’m uncertain about, and I honestly go back and forth depending on where in Calvin I’m reading.

It’s interesting as well how these early debates relate to modern Reformed discussions on these questions. Since I’m a bit of an outsider to these conversations, I only recently came across the controversy raised by John Piper’s foreword to Tom Schreiner’s Faith Alone book, in which he talks about how while faith alone is necessary for entering into a right relationship with God, love and obedience are required to enter into heaven. Now these comments (along with similar ones Schreiner makes in the book) have provoked some serious reactions from other commentators saying that the initial justification / final salvation distinction is a betrayal of certain Reformed confessions, while other commentators have defended them, and I’m honestly not expert enough in these specific areas to know who is right. But I can say that the paradigm Piper and Schreiner articulate would seem to be compatible with what one finds in the early church, and their side of the debate would have the advantage of substantiation from “the wisdom of the centuries,” to use Piper’s line from elsewhere. It also seems to me that the “early perspectives” on works of the law hold no major incompatibility with such a paradigm, at least as far as I can see. If anything, Piper’s articulation actually reminded me of Jerome, who writes as follows in his Galatians commentary: “It is of course inquired from this place, if faith alone is sufficient for a Christian: and whether he is not cursed who despises the precepts of the gospel. But faith is effective for this, that it justifies those who approach God in their initial believing, if afterwards they remain in justification: however, without works of faith (not works of law) faith is dead. For he who does not believe the commands, and those who despise the precepts of the gospel, are alike cursed, as the Savior teaches.” 

What would you say to future PhD students who are interested in researching this subject? Are there areas still left to explore and additional questions that need to be asked? 

For starters, my recommendation for folks is always to start reading the early fathers for yourselves — they’re so easily accessible, and you never know what kinds of treasures you’ll find that can really help us today.

I think there’s all kinds of valuable material within this early period related to soteriology, and because all of us as Christians trace our own heritage back to the believers in the early centuries, I’ve found they can provide helpful common ground for these kinds of discussions. It can also be a bit of fresh air that they’re unburdened by the polemics of later centuries (such as the ones I mentioned above that derailed things at Worms), and I find that they’re often able to affirm what we want to affirm without having to deny what we sometimes feel forced to deny.

I could say lots here, but to take two: theologically, I think exploring how this early Pauline reception relates to the various Reformed confessions would be valuable in all sorts of ways, and it’ll fall to someone with greater expertise in this area to do so. Historically, while it doesn’t necessarily change the overall narrative, there’s lots of material from later writers in the third and fourth centuries that I think can be really valuable in explaining how this early perspective on Paul works. Two of my favorites are Aphrahat the Persian, who has some fascinating commentary on all this in his Demonstrations, and Eusebius of Caesarea, who presents perhaps the best overall synthesis of this “early perspective” in Book I of his Proof of the Gospel. Since they’re not in the ANF / NPNF series they’re both criminally under-read, but both of them can be found online, and they’re incredible texts.

Thanks for your time, Dr. Thomas!


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