N. T. Wright and the Works of the Law -- By: J. V. Fesko

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 22:1 (Fall 2004)
Article: N. T. Wright and the Works of the Law
Author: J. V. Fesko

N. T. Wright and the Works of the Law

J. V. Fesko

Pastor, Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary
Marietta, Georgia 30066


Since the very early years of the church, interpreters of Paul have often been puzzled by some of the apostle’s writings. The Apostle Peter most famously observed about Paul’s epistles that “there are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 2:16). This statement is as true today as when it was first written and is certainly true regarding Paul’s understanding of the law. The literature on Paul and the law is legion, especially in recent years as the New Perspective has moved front and center in the ongoing discussion regarding the interpretation of Paul. One of the most prolific contributors to the discussion on Paul and the law who writes from the New Perspective is N. T. Wright. Of the many issues upon which Wright builds his case for his understanding of Paul, especially as it relates to the doctrine of justification, is his understanding of the phrase, the works of the law.

If Wright has correctly interpreted this key phrase in Paul, then his reformulation of the doctrine of justification represents a significant contribution to the church’s understanding of the New Testament (NT). If, on the other hand, Wright has misunderstood this key phrase, then his doctrine of justification would require recasting. This essay represents an attempt to demonstrate the latter, that Wright has misinterpreted this crucial phrase. Paul does not refute the Jewish national boundary markers but legalism.

This essay will demonstrate Wright’s erroneous interpretation by surveying Paul’s use of the phrase in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Before we can proceed to Wright’s analysis and use of the phrase in question, we must briefly survey the recent historical development of the interpretation of this Pauline phrase. This is necessary because there is a connection between the development and Wright’s use of the phrase.

Background: Stendahl, Sanders, and Dunn

Krister Stendahl: The Introspective Conscience

Krister Stendahl apparently first complained that Paul’s interpreters were reading him, not in the light of his immediate first-century context but through the interpretive lens of Martin Luther:

The Reformers’ interpretation of Paul rests on an analogism when Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety. The Law, the Torah, with its specific requirement...

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