What did Paul mean by “works of the law”?
Paul writes that we are justified by faith apart from “works of the law,” a disputed term that represents a fault line between “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul. Was the Apostle reacting against the Jews’ good works done to earn salvation, or the Mosaic Law’s practices that identified the Jewish people?
Matthew J. Thomas examines how Paul’s second-century readers understood these points in conflict, how their readings relate to “old” and “new” perspectives, and what their collective witness suggests about the Apostle’s own meaning. Surprisingly, these early witnesses align closely with the “new” perspective, though their reasoning often differs from both modern viewpoints. They suggest that Paul opposes these works neither due to moralism, nor primarily for experiential or social reasons, but because the promised new law and covenant, which are transformative and universal in scope, have come in Christ.
Dr Thomas’s work is a landmark in historical scholarship, which no interpreter of Paul should be allowed to overlook. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception, based on Dr Thomas’s recent Oxford doctoral thesis, brings its readers up to date with the significant shifts in our understanding of how Paul was received and understood in the early Christian period. This major work of scholarship, happily now available in this new edition, is an invitation to rediscover what early Christian readers of Paul found in his letters. Yet it is also a powerful reminder that contemporary reflection on Paul must be informed about—and informed by—how earlier generations understood him.
—Alister E. McGrath, Oxford University
Matthew Thomas’s cogent and compelling argument in Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception moves the stalled discussion between old and new perspective views forward. His thorough, nuanced, and even-handed presentation illuminates second-century writings on the topic of law and works, and brings their analyses into conversation with current scholarship. If the reader’s goal is to better understand Paul’s thought, then Thomas’s thesis deserves serious consideration.
—Lynn H. Cohick, provost/dean at Denver Seminary
Matthew Thomas has done a rare thing. This book is a stellar contribution to patristic studies that, by examining the early reception of Paul in light of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives on Paul, makes an equally important—or perhaps even more important given the heat of the controversy—contribution to biblical studies. Thomas directs us to the early Fathers’ view: Paul is insisting that the ‘law of Christ’ has replaced the Torah. As a Catholic theologian, my hope is that this stimulating book will rekindle dormant discussions among Catholic theologians about justification and the life of grace.
—Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary
Matthew J. Thomas (DPhil, University of Oxford) is assistant professor of biblical studies at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California, and an instructor in theology with Regent College, Vancouver.