Paul and “The Works of the Law” -- By: Daniel P. Fuller

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 38:1 (Fall 1975)
Article: Paul and “The Works of the Law”
Author: Daniel P. Fuller

Paul and “The Works of the Law”

Daniel P. Fuller

[From a paper read at the Institute for Biblical Research (Tyndale Fellowship), meeting at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, April 6, 1974.]

One example of how the methods of biblical theology have helped the Bible to speak more for itself is the now generally accepted conclusion that Paul used the word “law” in two very different senses. C. F. D. Moule has said:

The many shades of meaning attached to nomos have to be deduced from the ways in which the word is used; and it is clear that nomos is used by Paul in (among others) the two quite distinct connections which may be called respectively “revelatory” and “legalistic.” [Then he cites Rom 7:12 as an example of a “revelatory” usage, and Rom 3:28, with its phrase “the works of the law,” as a “legalistic” usage of nomos.]…This contrast between the two contexts in which nomos is used is perfectly familiar to all the students of Paul.1

C. E. B. Cranfield makes the same point:

It will be well to bear in mind the fact (which, so far as I know, has not received attention) that the Greek language used by Paul had no word-group to denote “legalism,” “legalist,” and “legalistic….In view of this, we should, I think, be ready to reckon with the possibility that sometimes, when he appears to be disparaging the law, what he really has in mind may not be the law itself, but the misunderstanding and misuse for which we have a convenient term.2

If Cranfield and Moule are right and Paul did use nomos (“law”) in these two different senses, then some changes in parts of reformed theology may be required. In the conclusion of his article just cited, Cranfield said:

If the foregoing exposition of Paul’s teaching on the law is substantially correct, it is clear that his authority cannot justly be claimed for…the view that the law was an unsuccessful first attempt on God’s part at dealing with man’s unhappy state, which had to be followed later by a second…attempt…; nor yet for the view (characteristic of Lutheranism) that in the law and gospel two “different modes of God’s action are manifested” [he is quoting from W. Niesel, Reformed Symbolics, 1962, p. 212], the ultimate unity of which, while it may indeed be supposed to exist in...

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