A New Perspective on Works of the Law

N.T. Wright’s spin on what has come to be called the “New Perspective on Paul” has given me a great deal of food for thought. This post will note some of the observations he makes in a paper he presented to the Future of Anglicanism Conference at Oxford in 2002. The paper was called “Communion and Koinonia: Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries.” In this paper he discusses how the Apostle Paul stickhandles the issues of unity, culture and morality for Christian believers. He concludes that Paul is being entirely consistent when he calls some issues sin and others matters of indifference to Christians. For Paul, there are some things that call for tolerance among believers, while other things call for repentance and change by the offender.

The paper is divided into three sections: 1) Paul’s spiritual/religious context, 2) our current spiritual/religious context and 3) Wright’s response to current issues affecting the Anglican communion worldwide, based upon his understanding of Paul’s position.

It won’t be possible to cover the entire paper in one post, so we will start with a synopsis of the first section, in which he discusses three aspects of the “new perspective” with which he agrees: 1) what assumptions we have made about New Testament Judaism that are not true. 2) what “works of the law” really means, and 3) what Paul’s critique of Israel really is.

1. First-century Judaism was not legalism

His first point is that E.P. Sanders was correct in realizing that “first century Judaism was not a system of Pelagian-style works-righteousness.” Jews did not have to “earn” standing with God by doing good works. They did not believe that they would be saved by “works.” On the contrary, God had already redeemed the people of Israel from slavery by “an act of sheer grace and power.” In that context, Torah was “the way of life for the people already redeemed.”

Since they were already members of a redeemed people, they did not have to earn redemption. They kept the law to express gratitude for their salvation, “and ultimately to become the sort of person God intended you to become.”

[Note: I have a great deal of sympathy for this view, since I functioned in this manner myself during my time in the Worldwide Church of God. Christians who considered me a cult member would claim that I was attempting to earn salvation by works. They were entirely missing the point. My answer was always the same. “If I belong to Jesus Christ, why would I deliberately want to do something that God tells me is wrong?” I might have been applying the wrong law to my Gentile Christian circumstances, but I was definitely not earning salvation. Christians are supposed to follow God’s will. What is the point of being a follower of Jesus Christ if we aren’t following?

The key is in knowing which covenant you have been saved into and what its conditions or “laws” are. Jesus was offering a new covenant to a people who understood, wrongly, that they were still a redeemed people. A careful reading of Deuteronomy 28 and 31 would have taught them that they were functioning in an inter-covenantal “times of the Gentiles,” still awaiting a second redemption/exodus. ]

So, for Sanders and for Wright, first-century Jews, by and large, were not legalists. Keeping the law was about staying holy, not about trying to become holy by their own strength. This understanding sets the stage for the second point Wright makes in his paper.

2. What Paul Meant By “Works of the law”

James Dunn, following up on preliminary work by Wright, notes that Paul is not defining “works of the law” as either a generalized moral code or the entirety of the Torah law-code. He is specifically referring to the boundary-markers between Jews and pagans that every Jew and many Gentiles were aware of: circumcision, food laws and the sabbaths. The “works of the law” are those three specific things which separate Jews from Gentiles. By keeping them they show that they are God’s unique, covenant-people who are separate from “the world.”

[Note: Herbert Armstrong taught WCG members to keep the food laws and Sabbaths (weekly and annual) for essentially the same reason. These formed the distinctives that separated WCG from what they labeled “so-called Christianity.” Since Paul’s teaching about the non-necessity of physical circumcision was clearly stated, WCG did not require it. They did require the rest of the “boundary markers ” for their membership.

Rather than being a way of earning salvation, this teaching reflected an inaccurate view of the requirements of the new covenant. These distinctives were first dropped (rightly) as no longer required by the elder Tkach’s administration, and later banished from visibility by the younger Tkach. In other words, they could theoretically be observed by individuals or small groups, but must no longer be mentioned or publicized in church services or any official print, audio or visual (including website) material, nor in any material that mentioned name of the church. This banishment from public view, I will argue, goes beyond Paul’s intent for a multicultural church.]

3. Paul’s Actual Critique of Israel

Since Judea was not keeping the law to become holy, but were, rather, keeping it to remain true to God as His undiluted, distinct covenant people, what was Paul upset with them about? According to Wright, Paul is criticizing them for claiming exclusive rights to God.

Paul is claiming that they are ignorant of God’s righteousness, and are seeking to establish a “righteousness” that would be for Jews and Jews alone (presumably via the “boundary markers” mentioned above.) The problem, for Paul, was that God had thrown covenant membership open to all on the basis of faith and belief. Since you no longer have to be a Jew to be a member of the new covenant, boundary markers are no longer required.

This is an argument that is more nuanced than the traditional appeal to anti-legalism. It also explains why Paul is able to categorically state that certain things are sin, while others must be tolerated within the Christian family. Surprisingly, the outcome is not an intolerance of Jewish Christianity, but rather the accommodation of both strains of Christianity within one church. In Wright’s words, “In all these things [Paul] wants Christians to stop thinking about themselves as basically belonging to this or that ethnic group, and t see the practices that formerly demarcated that ethnic group from all others as irrelevant, things you can carry on doing if you like but which you shouldn’t insist on for others.”

Does this leave people free to do whatever they please in the name of culture? Absolutely not! According to Wright, “the [differences] to be tolerated were the ones that carried the connotations of ethnic boundary lines, and the ones that were not to be tolerated were the ones that marked the difference between genuine, living, renewed humanity and false, corruptible, destructive humanity.”

To me, Wright’s argument makes greater sense of Paul’s thinking than traditional arguments about law and works. Wright also seems to present a Paul who is clear and consistent in his thinking about what is to be tolerated in the church and what must be eliminated.

Tolerance should be extended to cultural boundary markers, so long as they remain irrelevant for purposes of covenant membership and so long as they do not violate God’s will for redeemed living (e.g. sexual misconduct, malice, etc.) As a general rule, there should be a healthy diversity-within-unity in the church with regards to practice of days and foods.

The irrelevance of these practices to salvation as such should not result in the systematic removal from view of practices of one culture in order to replace them with others from a different culture. That seems to be precisely the kind of cultural imperialism that Paul was deliberately telling the Romans, Galatians and the Colossians to avoid. As Paul himself comments about days and times, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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1 Response to A New Perspective on Works of the Law

  1. al hodel Efc Regina sask. says:

    Thank You John . al , efc Regina

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