Interview with Matthew Thomas on Works of the Law

Interview with Matthew Thomas on Works of the Law October 21, 2020

Matthew Thomas is the author of Paul’s ‘Works of the Law’ in the Perspective of Second Century Reception (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020), which released on 20 October 2020.

Here’s my interview with him:

So who is Matthew Thomas?

He’s just a kid trying to read the Bible! I’m originally from California, and my background is working in inner-city ministry with young people in Oakland, which I think is honestly still what I love more than anything else. I did Master’s work up at Regent College in Vancouver, where my wife Leeanne and I met in Hebrew class, and then a D.Phil in Theology at Oxford. I’m currently teaching Scripture close to home in Berkeley at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and we live nearby here with our three kids.

How did you come to your PhD thesis?

When I was working in Oakland, I would teach a short devotion each day for the youth in our after-school program, and so for my own studies I’d listen to courses off of Regent Audio, one of which was N.T. Wright’s “Romans in a Week.” I remember at one point hearing him talk about how translators weren’t sure how to render a certain passage, since “faith” and “faithfulness” were the same word in Greek, which blew my mind — I’d grown up hearing that faith was just believing something, not an active kind of fidelity. But if biblical “faith” was more robust than just belief in a passive sense, then what were the “works of the law” that Paul was setting in contrast to faith?

My first semester at Regent, I took J.I. Packer’s Systematic Theology course, and wrote my research paper for him on the recent books on justification from John Piper (The Future of Justification) and Tom Wright (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision). It was a really challenging experience as a first-year student, since I could see there was an internal logic by which both of these perspectives made sense, but the way they understood the broader narrative of Paul’s conflicts — and especially terms like “works of the law” — really diverged quite a bit.

The next semester I decided to follow up on this by writing a paper that assessed the “old” and “new” perspectives specifically on the question of “works of the law.” I was in the stacks of the Regent library going through Calvin’s Commentary on Romans, and read his comments on Rom 3:20: “It is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean. Some extend them to the observance of the whole law, while others confine them to the ceremonies alone. The addition of the word law induced ChrysostomOrigen, and Jerome to assent to the latter opinion…”. I’d known from reading lots of Calvin for Packer that he always cites the fathers who agree with him on disputed questions, so I kept reading through the section, but surprisingly, Calvin didn’t mention anyone — there was only a comment where he says his position is different from Augustine’s too. “This is very interesting,” I thought — why is this “old” representative disassociating himself from the older views? What does the early reception of Paul actually say about “works of the law,” and how would this compare with the “old” and “new” views in the current stalemate? I also had lines from Piper’s book going through my head, like where he talks about the importance of older guides and testing our interpretations by the wisdom of the centuries, and thought this early reception could potentially help bring these sides together. So I switched my paper topic to investigating these “early perspectives,” which became an article, and then a dissertation, a book, and now a book in a new edition with a fancy cover!

For a long time in the NPP wars, the debate was over whether “works of the law” means something like “works done with a legalistic spirit,” or “boundary markers,” or the totality of the Torah. What do Christians in the second century say about this phrase?

When I put down Calvin’s Romans commentary I immediately started reading through early sources, first focusing on Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, the Epistle to Diognetus, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, and Origen’s Commentary on Romans. I was astonished by how much these figures’ understanding of “works of the law” sounded like what I’d known as the “new perspective” — it was like Tom Wright had found a time machine and sent all his books back to the second century. Rather than disputing about legalism or good works, as the “old perspective” nomenclature led me to expect, these conflicts between Jews and Christians all focused on things like circumcision, sabbath, food laws — those practices identified as the key Jewish boundary markers by the “new perspective.” Similarly, the significance of doing these things was not trying to earn salvation in an individualistic sense, but instead to identify the practitioner with the Jewish nation — a communal significance, you can say. When I did the full study for the dissertation covering the century and a half of reception after Paul, I found these initial findings confirmed from all kinds of diverse sources — the law in question was always that of Moses, with practices like circumcision and food laws being the points in conflict, and their observance representing participation in the Jewish nation and covenant. In a sense, what I found was confirmation that Calvin was right — he and these early readers understood “works of the law” differently from one another.

How does the history of reception of Paul help us better understand Paul’s letters?

I should start by giving a plug for Markus Bockmuehl’s work — he’s the chair of Scripture studies at Oxford, and he’s had a big influence on me in conceptualizing precisely how early reception can function as a historical witness to what we find in the New Testament. His book Seeing the Word is a great place to start on this topic, and his Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory is a tremendous example of his methodology in action.

There’s lots that could be said here, but let me focus on one example that relates to this topic. While we can talk about fairly cohesive “old” and “new” perspectives on the meaning and significance of “works of the law,” things break down when it comes to the question of why Paul opposes these works. For example, Luther and Calvin are quite distinct on this issue — Calvin focuses on humanity’s inability to obey the law perfectly, while Luther sees the attempt to obey the law as itself sinful (since by trying to save yourself, you’re committing self-idolatry by making yourself into God). The same goes for the new perspective — Sanders, Dunn and Wright all see Paul as distinguishing between commandments of the Mosaic law that are left behind and others that are binding (see e.g. 1 Cor 7:19), but they differ on Paul’s reasoning for doing so. Sanders roots the matter in Paul’s experiences, which cause him to leave out the commandments that separate Jew from Gentile; Dunn identifies the underlying attitude of exclusivity as Paul’s real target; and Wright sees the promises in Israel’s covenant as providing Paul’s rationale for rejecting some works while retaining others.

What surprised me in reading these early sources was how frequently they made reference to the standard by which these Mosaic laws were left behind — one that is largely absent from both “old” and “new” perspectives — which is the law of Christ. The logic is simple once you think about it: since Moses gave a law that pertained to the old covenant, Christ’s teachings and ordinances represent a new law for the new covenant he has inaugurated. (For one particularly clear articulation of this, see Chapter 11 of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho; Heb 7:12 gives another parallel for the principle.) And while the Mosaic law is surpassed entirely within this new covenant, Christ’s law reaffirms many Mosaic teachings (like on the priority of loving God and neighbor), and intensifies others (like the prohibition of adultery now being extended even to lust). As a result, the “works of the law” that always emerge as flashpoints in early Christian / Jewish conflicts are the points of discontinuity between Moses’ law in the old covenant and Christ’s law in the new — circumcision, sabbaths, food laws, temple sacrifices, etc.

And here’s another thing: finding this reasoning in Paul’s early readers actually helps to solve another puzzle. Modern interpreters have a wide range of guesses as to what Paul means when he talks about the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2, 1 Cor 9:21), or the “law of faith” (Rom 3:27), or the “law of the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2). Many readers dismiss these passages as just rhetorical ploys on Paul’s part, but the early reception in this area would suggest that those who interpret Paul as referring to something much more tangible are correct. I think the “old” perspective’s Doug Moo actually has a definition of this in his Galatians commentary which coheres really well with the early evidence: “Precisely because the phrase serves as the new covenant counterpart to the ‘law of Moses,’ we should expect the reference to include all those teachings and commandments set forth by Christ and by his inspired apostles – including Paul” (378).

Who is your favourite second century exegete/theologian?

Gosh, this is like asking me what my favorite Michael Bolton song is — I sorta like ’em all. Just kidding. Seriously, I really do love all these sources, but if I had to pick one, it’d be Irenaeus, with Justin Martyr as a close second. The five books of Against Heresies can be a little daunting in their scope, but there’s more riches here than a whole lifetime of exploration can find. It’s a brilliant synthesis of biblical theology that’s simply on a different level than anything that’s written before it, and few things written since can compare.

What is next for you in publishing?

I’ve been working on various articles over the summer, including the “works of the law” article in the IVP’s new Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, so I’m just now having a chance to catch my breath before term begins and the new edition of the book comes out. The project I’ve been working on for a couple of years, which will hopefully be next to be completed, is a volume in St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series on Clement of Rome (1 and 2 Clement). Beyond this, a guy named Mike Bird told me a couple years ago that I should write a book on early patristic soteriology, and I think it’s a good idea. I have an outline for it and a tentative title, but I still need to find the time to actually write it. The inspiration behind it is coming across so much valuable material from the early church on how salvation in Christ works, and wanting to present it at an accessible level — something you could give to your grandma. In a sense, it’s like what Piper says about wanting to celebrate the wisdom of the centuries — there’s so much incredible content in this early period on how Christ saves us, and regardless of our individual church backgrounds, it’s part of the rich inheritance that’s meant for all of us as Christians.

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