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  • Paul's "Works of the Law" in the Perspective of Second Century Reception by Matthew J. Thomas
  • Curtis J. Mitch
Paul's "Works of the Law" in the Perspective of Second Century Reception by Matthew J. Thomas (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), xv + 230 pp.

The present volume is a lightly revised doctoral dissertation written at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Mark Edwards, David Lincicum, and Jenn Strawbridge. It examines one of the most vigorously contested phrases of the New Testament ("works of the law" in the Pauline Epistles) from the standpoint of early patristic reception. Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, formulates a sharp antithesis between "faith in Christ" and "works of the law" (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). For the apostle, faith in Christ effects justification, while works of the law are denied a role in justification. But what are these works? What do they signify? On what grounds does Paul oppose them?

According to M. J. Thomas, modern debates over Paul's "works of the law" have long been impoverished by inattention to the earliest patristic evidence. His dissertation aims to address this deficiency by ascertaining (1) how Paul's earliest readers understood "works of the law," and (2) how these ancient perspectives relate to modern debates among proponents of the Old and New Perspectives on Paul.

The parameters of the study extend from the Didache to the death of [End Page 326] Irenaeus. The rationale for these endpoints is derived from the work of Markus Bockmuehl, who argues that New Testament scholars can profitably consider the first 150 years of Christian history as a privileged period of living memory in which a vital connection with the apostolic age remains. Methodologically, the author describes his work as a conceptual study of the Pauline phrase ἔργα νόμου, "works of the law," rather than a purely lexical one. Instead of restricting analysis to occurrences of the expression, which is not attested in early patristic literature before Irenaeus, he identifies texts that evince thematic overlap with Paul's discussions in Romans and Galatians, especially those that are marked by Christian–Jewish polemics and engage in parallel discussions of law, works, and justification. Evidence gathered on this basis is sorted into three categories, labeled A, B, and C. Works in category A ("direct evidence") show clear signs of Pauline influence and reference specific Pauline passages dealing with works of the law. Works in category B ("supporting evidence") have probable Pauline influence and engage Paul's letters, but not specifically passages about works of the law. Works in category C ("circumstantial evidence") show possible signs of Pauline influence and canvass debates that are similar to Paul's in Romans and Galatians, although without reference to Pauline passages about works of the law.

Having set forth the scope and procedure of the study (part I), the author moves to examine the views of leading representatives of the Old and New Perspectives on Paul (part II). Once the contours of the debate are framed out, and their views on Paul's "works of the law" are identified, he proceeds in chronological order through the early patristic sources with the aim of discovering what he calls the Early Perspective on Paul (part III). Finally, he brings the ancient evidence to bear on the modern controversy, comparing and contrasting the Early Perspective on "works of the law" with the Old and New Perspectives (part IV).

The Old and New Perspectives divide cleanly down the middle of Paul's "works of the law" formula. For the Old Perspective (OP), which is represented in the study by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Rudolf Bultmann, and Douglas Moo, Paul primarily denies works the power to justify. For advocates of the New Perspective (NP) such as E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright, Paul primarily denies the law the power to justify. (1) What then is the meaning of Paul's "works of the law"? According to the OP, Paul is talking about any works that one might perform to earn favor with God and attain salvation. According to the NP, the apostle refers mainly to the...


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