We turn now at last to Romans. The first occurrence of ἔργα νόμου is in 3:20: διότι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, διὰ γὰρ νόμου ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας. Dunn explains ἔργα νόμου here as meaning quite specifically those observances like circumcision and keeping of the food laws ‘which marked the Jews off from the other nations as distinctively God’s people’.
But there are several compelling reasons why this explanation must be rejected.
1. It fails to take account of the fact that 3:20 stands in relation to the whole argument from 1:18 on. When Dunn says of 3:20, ‘The concluding summary of the first main stage of the argument must refer back to what Paul had been attacking for the last chapter and a half, particularly Jewish pride in the law, and especially in circumcision as the most fundamental distinctive marker of the people of the law’, he has lost sight of Paul’s argument. He should have referred back not just one and a half chapters, but right back to 1:18 where this section begins. Paul’s concern from 1:18 on has surely been to lead up to the conclusion expressed in 3:20a and then restated in the opening lines of the next section in 3:23 (RV: ‘For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’), namely, that all human beings are sinners (Jesus Christ alone excepted) whose only possibility of being righteous before God is by God’s free gift accepted in faith; and his concern in 2:1–3:19 is not primarily to polemicize against Jews (Dunn speaks of ‘Paul’s polemic here’), but rather to draw out the full meaning of 1:18–32 by demonstrating that there are no exceptions to its sweeping judgment—even the Jews who might not without reason think of themselves as superior to the pagan world around are no exception.
2. It is surely ruled out by the presence of the latter part of 3:20. The force of γάρ at the beginning of διὰ γὰρ νόμου ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας is ignored by Dunn, though he correctly translates it by ‘for’. It indicates that this sentence is added as support for what has just been said. But, while a statement that the effect of the law is actually to show up human sin does indeed support what has been said in the first part of the verse, if in that first part ‘the works of the law’ means obedience to the law generally, it is difficult to see how it is support for it, if ‘the works of the law’ has Dunn’s ‘restricted sense’, and his explanation would involve supposing an awkward change in the way the law is being thought of between the two parts of the verse.
3. It involves taking the plural ἔργα νόμου in a quite different sense from that of the singular τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου in 2:15. While this is not impossible (for Paul, we know, can use the same word in different senses), it is surely preferable, if possible, to take it in the same or a closely related sense, unless the context forbids this. I understand τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου in 2:15 as ‘the work which the law requires’, and take Paul’s meaning here to be that the eschatological promise of Jeremiah 31:33 that God would write his law in the hearts of his people is being fulfilled in the Gentiles who have believed in Christ. The use of the singular ‘may be explained as intended to bring out the essential unity of the law’s requirements, the fact that the plurality of commandments is no confused and confusing conglomeration but a recognizable and intelligible whole’ (cf. the use of τὸ δικαίωμα in 8:4 and the replacement of ‘the works of God’ in John 6:28 by ‘the work of God’ in the following verse): It seems to me that 2:15 tells in favour of taking ἔργα νόμου in 3:20 in the general sense rather than in Dunn’s restricted sense. The difference then between ‘work’ in 2:15 and ‘work’ in 3:20 will simply be that in the former place it denotes the work as prescribed, in the latter the work as actually done. And if the Gentiles referred to are taken to be pagan Gentiles, it is equally impossible to give to ‘the work of the law’ anything like Dunn’s restricted sense.
4. Dunn’s explanation is further called in question by the occurrence in Romans of such expressions as οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου in 2:13; τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιεῖν in 2:14; νόμον πράσσειν in 2:25; τὰ δικαιώματα τοῦ νόμου φυλάσσειν in 2:26; τὸν νόμον τελεῖν in 2:27; δουλεύειν νόμῳ θεοῦ in 7:25; τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου πληροῦν in 8:4; and νόμον πληροῦν in 13:8. All these are, it seems to me, naturally connected with the phrase ἔργα νόμου. In none of the occurrences of these expressions in Romans is it at all feasible to see a reference to circumcision, etc. (Dunn’s proposed restricted sense of ἔργα νόμου): in 2:25 circumcision is explicitly contrasted with practising the law.
5. It is also called in question by what we find when we look at the occurrences in Romans of ἔργον and νόμος in separation. In seven out of the twelve occurrences of ἔργον without νόμου, it clearly does not refer to such things as circumcision (the other five we shall consider below). With regard to νόμος, it would surely be difficult for even the most ardent champion of ‘the new look on Romans’, after a survey of the more than seventy occurrences of νόμος in the Epistle, to deny that, when Paul uses the word νόμος, it is the law in its fundamental theological and ethical character which he normally has in mind, not the law as providing an obvious national identity-marker distinguishing Jews from Gentiles.
6. Possibly we should see a sixth reason for rejecting Dunn’s explanation in the fact that in 14:1–15:13, a section which may perhaps reflect Paul’s knowledge of actual problems confronting the Roman Christians, it is to ‘the strong’ and not to ‘the weak’ that the main thrust of Paul’s exhortation is directed. Would one not expect it to be otherwise, if Dunn’s view were right? If Paul really was as much preoccupied with polemic against Jewish reliance on circumcision and the observance of the food-laws and the sabbath as Dunn seems to think, is it likely that he would have weighted his exhortation in this section in the way he has? (I assume that ‘the weak’ are Christians, mostly Jewish, whose faith has not yet given them the freedom enjoyed by ‘the strong’ and who still feel obliged, as believers in Christ, to observe the ceremonial law.)
In view of what has been said above, the conclusion seems to me inevitable that Dunn’s interpretation of 3:20 must be rejected. The meaning of 3:20 is surely, as others have long recognized, that justification before God on the ground of one’s obedience to the law is not a possibility for fallen human beings, since none of them is righteous and the effect of the law is to show up their sin as sin and themselves as sinners.
C. E. B. Cranfield, On Romans: And Other New Testament Essays (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 5–8.
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