Works of the Law as Boundary Markers?

Have I not over-emphasised the social and national dynamic behind Paul’s language and seriously underplayed Paul’s analysis of the radical helplessness of the human situation and his concern for the salvation of the individual?” For my part, I have no desire to diminish the seriousness of the charges which Paul levels against humankind, particularly in the devastating analysis of Rom. 1.18-3.20 as I hope my earlier work has made clear. (pp. 29-30, James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, Rev. edn (GRand Rapids: Eermdmans, 2007).

This is from a remarkable opening chapter wherein Dunn provides a fascinating biography, narrative of his career and of the career of an idea. To hear Dunn tell it, all that he has tried to do over the last few decades is to broaden our conception of what the expression “works of the law” might entail. He has only tried, he says, to get us to take more seriously the racial and social implications entailed in Paul’s teaching concerning “the works of the law.” He never meant to reduce them to mere boundary markers or badges of identity (though the do have that function) nor did he intend to revise fundamentally the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of justification. His detractors have quite misunderstood him—he lists a number of such allegedly confused detractors including Carl Trueman, Guy Waters, and Seyoon Kim.

He also discusses the NPP as a “de-Lutheranising” of Paul and confesses that his study of Luther consists of a very limited reading in Luther and an elementary (literally) reading of the secondary literature (pp. 18-19). He seems to wish us, as the say, “to give him a pass” on the basis that he is a NT scholar and not a historian. To be sure, that’s implied, not stated.

I wonder if historians could get away with dipping into NT studies in the way NT folk (including N. T. Wright) make amateur plunges into historical work and claims and get away with it? I guess not. Still, Dunn and Wright and others of their tribe do this on a regular basis and then complain then that they are criticized for it. The study of Luther is certainly as vast as most NT topics. The primary literature in the study of Luther is massive — much more massive than the Pauline corpus (including Ephesians, which many NT scholars omit, thereby limiting their field even further) and the secondary literature is virtually unmanageable. What on earth gives some NT the hubris to think they can read 50-year old secondary works on Luther and then make pronouncements about his reading of the NT when others make a lifelong study of the same and struggle to collate their research and to describe their findings?

Nevertheless, even though I am not a professional NT scholar, I was reading St Paul this morning and I noticed the expression εργον του νομου (work of the law; Rom 2:15). I noticed that it occurs first with reference to εθνη τα (the gentiles) and not directly relative to Jews. I take it that the expression “εθνη τα” refers to those who are not ethnically, nationally Jewish, to those considered outside the Israelite covenant community descended from Abraham (hence Paul’s expression”φυσις”) and constituted a national people under Moses.

Since Paul predicates εργον του νομου of the gentiles it seems unlikely that it refers here, in this instance, to badges of ethnicity or to ethnic boundary markers. Since this is the first use of the expression in Romans it would seem reasonable to take this usage as indicating the baseline notion embedded in the phrase. In other words, whatever “εργον του νομου” (whether expressed in the singular or the plural) means elsewhere in Romans or in Paul—it can’t be ruled out a priori that they might elsewhere entail the notion of boundary markers or badges—the baseline sense isn’t “badges of ethnicity” or “ethnic or religious boundary markers.”

Further, unless one wants to predicate a fundamental difference between “εργον” (work) and “εργα” (works) which seems unlikely and even unreasonable, then it seems most reasonable and most likely to take them as having the same basic idea embedded in them.

I was also struck this morning by the connection between the phrase “εργον του νομου” and “ποιωσιν” (they do) “τα του νομου” (the things of the law). The gentiles, “μη νομον εχοντα” (not having the [Mosaic] law) nevertheless “they do the things of the law.” I take it that “τα του νομου” (the things of the law) is substantially identical to “εργον του νομου” (the work of the law). The Gentiles do the work of the law and the things of the law, even though they lack the formal publication of the law. How is that? Paul says that ” ουτοι νομον μη εχοντες” (these not having the law) nevertheless “εατοις εισιν νομος” (these are a law to themselves). Paul isn’t saying that they are lawless but quite the opposition. They are a law unto themselves because the the “εργον του νομου” is “γραπτον εν ταις καις αυτων” (written on their hearts).

In other words, the gentiles do what they know. They “do the things of the law” or “the works of the law” because they know the law and they know the law because it is written on their hearts. This is my response to the too clever claim by some that Paul does not teach “natural law” because he says that the gentiles have the “work of the law” and not the law of nature or natural law written on their hearts. Such an interpretation is too clever because though formally correct, Paul doesn’t use the expression “natural law,” it substantially wrong because Paul implies that the gentiles actually know the law. They aren’t doing the law unreflectively or on the basis of mere beastly, animal instinct . They know something and that something is the substance of what Christians call “the moral law.” We know the possession of “the law” is cognitive since Paul goes on to say that their “συνειδησις” (conscience) testifies against them. The human conscience, even in the reprobate and in those outside the covenant community, involves the intellective faculty.

This writing of the law on gentile hearts is obviously a reference to the writing of the law on tablets of stone at Sinai. Those who are Jews “by nature” had the Sinaitic revelation of the law and the gentiles have substantially the same law written on their hearts. There is no evidence here that Paul is considering gentile Christians. Nor does this, in context (beginning with 1:18), seem to be any reference to the benefits of the new covenant, e.g., the outpouring of the Spirit and the interior knowledge of God and his moral will. The gentiles in view (2;12) are considered as “ανομως” (lawlesslessly or outside the law). If the gentiles being considered actually, substantially have the law and do it to some degree, then their lawlessness is relative, not absolute. The contrast here is between two ethnic and even religious groups: Jews and non-Jews or gentiles. They both know and do, or fail to do perfectly as the case is, the law. Despite the external differences created by the Mosaic law and the national covenant with Israel, the Jews and gentiles in this passage have substantially the same law in different ways. Despite their extrinsic differences, they are bound together by their common liability to the demand by that one law for perfect and perpetual obedience (αλλ’ οι ποηται; v. 13). They are both obligated to be “doers” of the law since only “doers” of the law are actually righteous before God.

A final point here is that Dunn’s juxaposition of the social-corporate element in Paul is not properly contrasted with the “individual” element but with the forensic or legal. Paul’s concern here, in this passage, is evidently both corporate (Jews and gentiles) AND legal (standing before God). If some evangelicals have sometimes missed the corporate and sociological element in Paul’s doctrine of justification (and no one denies that we have—but as Dunn himself suggests the fascination with the private and personal may have more to do with Bill Graham and Rudolph Bultmann than it does with Paul, Luther, or Calvin) one cannot help but be impressed by the way that Paul’s first concern is with God, his law, his standard, and with eschatological judgment (to which he turns in v. 16) and that, as important as they are for understanding Paul, questions of boundary markers and badges are a consequence of his judicial, legal, and eschatological concerns.

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  1. Dr. VanDrunen deals with this text excellently (albeit briefly) in his essay in The Law is not of Faith.

  2. Scott,
    1. “If some evangelicals have sometimes missed the corporate and sociological element in Paul’s doctrine of justification (and no one denies that we have—but as Dunn himself suggests the fascination with the private and personal may have more to do with Bill Graham and Rudolph Bultmann than it does with Paul, Luther, or Calvin)” – hallelujah. This is exactly what some of us have been saying!
    2. Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Calvin, and [can you believe] John Locke are good examples of older commentators who recognized the both/and dimension of justification.
    3. For the most part what you say about law in Romans 2 (Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat) holds water. But to be honest, I think you’ve pick a soft target in using Romans 2 to accentuate the universal implications of disobedience to the law. In Rom. 3.21-31 and Gal. 2.11-21 it gets much harder to see “works of law” as a general principle of not fulfilling obedience that is required as the ethnic elements are slightly more accentuated in those instances.

    • Michael,

      I can’t see immediately why starting with the first occurrence of a key term in a text makes that text a “soft target.” Isn’t it usually good hermeneutics to use clearer passages to interpret less clear? This is how I usually work when I work on non-canonical texts. I didn’t know that the rule for canonical texts were different.

      I wouldn’t take much advice from John Locke, thank you very much!

      I don’t think that I’m saying anything here, recognizing corporate elements in Paul’s concern about “works of the law,” that confessional NT scholars and others have been saying for some time. I’m pretty sure that Guy Waters has said this sort of thing and there are other critics of the NPP who’ve said similar things. Mike Horton published a substantial critique of the NPP in which he said this and you lot have just ignored it. I am impressed, however, by the breadth of Dunn’s reading in the sec lit. I’m not impressed, however, with his historical reading. He seems to be typically, for a bib studies guy, myopic and dependent upon, e.g., McGrath’s Iustitia Dei. That’s a good survey in places — I’ve learned from it — but it’s problematic in places and has been subject to criticism which Dunn and NTW seem to ignore.

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