In 1529, one of Luther’s principal opponents, Johannes Eck (1486–1541) published the first edition his Enchiridion Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church a refutation of the Protestant errors. Under the heading, “De fide et operibus” he proposed the thesis that “faith does not suffice without works and that works are to some degree meritorious of eternal life by the accepting grace of God. One of the many biblical texts he cited as proof of this doctrine was Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous with God but the doers of the law who will be justified.” In the early editions he argued that “good works of their own kind are pleasing to God and meritorious of eternal life.” Of course these good works proceed from the beginning of spiritual life, grace, love, and faith but human cooperation is essential in all these.
In 1532, near the end of his life, the other of Luther’s chief adversaries, Tomasso de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534), whom T. H. L. Parker describes as the “foremost scholastic theologian of his day,” published his brief commentary on Romans. In his comments on Romans 2:13 he read it principally in terms of the problem of the relations between Jews and Gentiles. He also deduced, however, a general principle about the relations between works, merit, law, and justification.
Whoever does good works without the law, will be justified without the merit of the law. And similarly with the saying is, ‘and whoever sins under the law through the law will be judged,’ the contrary is likewise signified as also whoever doers of good under the law, through the merit of law they will be justified.
He continued by noting that Paul’s principle intent in the passage was to explain “the ground of merit.”
According to Caietan, Paul was addressing a “a great question against his doctrine….” (magna questio adversus doctrinam eiusdem). He argued that Paul here is not discussing “merits absolutely” (de meritis absolute) but the “merits of works” (de meritis operum). This is why Paul says, “the doers of the law shall be justified with God.” Paul is explaining the ground of works, which is merit which leads to justification with God. He does not thus, however, exclude “the merit of works or the merit of faith which far exceeds the merit of works.”
In other words, for Caietan, Paul, when he says “It is not the hearers but the doers of the law who shall be justified” teaches a motive for good works, which we can do, grace and cooperation with grace, which results in the accumulation of condign merit toward acceptance with God. For Caietan, this potentiality was not mere theory but a real possibility.
Like Caietan almost fifty years before, Olevianus recognized that the immediate context was the question of the relations between Jews and Gentiles and like Eck and Caietan, he deduced from this passage teaching concerning justification but by contrast when Olevianus read Romans 2:13, he he came to rather different conclusions concerning Paul’s doctrine of justification and he did so not only because of his Protestant theology but because of his Protestant hermeneutic. According to Olevianus, Paul spoke as he did in Romans 2:13 in order that “we might know sin and that we might flee to Christ. Both Jews and Gentiles need this knowledge and this Savior. He exhorts the reader to consider two classes of humans, those who have only the natural and those who have the written. If we ask those under the natural law, “how do you think you will be saved?” He answers “If do not steal.” If we ask one who knows the written law, but who does not know the gospel, the same question “he answers,’if I love God with all my heart etc and my neighbor as myself.’” Then, if we ask the question, whether they escape by such a response? Paul says “No.” It is not the hearers but the doers of the law. Jews, who are under the written law (he cites Leviticus 18 as proof) are condemned by their own law.
“Next,” he says, “sin is discovered in the Gentiles.” The gentiles, who are under the natural law (legem naturae habuerunt), are condemned by the “judgement of conscience” (iudicio conscientiae). We know that they have the natural law “1) because they do good good works, 2) because they know the judgment of God accusing them in their conscience.” Like Caietan, he also found a corollary to Paul’s requirement for proper, personal righteousness. Unlike Caietan, however, his corollary was not a second form of law but the gospel.
We Gentiles who are called to Christ, unless we have embraced Christ by true faith and carry out repentance we are convicted of damnation: by the first judgement of our own conscience and then by the decalogue. And finally by the Gospel itself, which will be a testimony to us, who refused the grace offered.
Even though Olevianus agreed with Caietan that this passage teaches a sort of law, his analysis of this passage was fundamentally different. For Olevianus, in contrast to Caietan, the law condemns sinners. It promises something that, through it, sinners, even by grace, can never achieve. For Olevianus, in contrast to Caietan, for believers, the gospel is not just the New Testament form of the law. It is categorically distinct, it is another kind of word. Just as law and gospel both promise something but upon different conditions, so too, law and gospel threaten something to impenitent, reprobate unbelievers: condemnation.
Given Olevianus’ Lutheran language hitherto, one might be surprised to find him speaking thus but he explained that the Gentiles will be be accused first by the natural law in their consciences, then by the decalogue itself, and third everyone will be chiefly accused by the gospel. He says, “For it is not the hearers of the Gospel, but those who embrace the Gospel by a living faith and who do penance who will be justified through the grace of Christ.
This material is taken from R. Scott Clark, “Law and Gospel in Early Reformed Orthodoxy: Hermeneutical Conservatism in Olevianus’ Commentary on Romans,” in Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma and Jason Zuidema editors, Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2013).