Sunday, November 08, 2009

Calvin on "works of the law"

Here is a quote from Calvin, concerning Paul's phrase in Romans 3:20, "works of the law":
Therefore by the works of the law, etc. 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 Chrysostom, Origen, and Jerome to assent to the latter opinion;for they thought that there is a peculiar intimation in this appendage, that the expression should not be understood as including all works. But this difficulty may be very easily removed: for seeing works are so far just before God as we seek by them to render to him worship and obedience, in order expressly to take away the power of justifying from all works, he has mentioned those, if there be any, which can possibly justify; for the law hath promises, without which there would be no value in our works before God. You hence see the reason why Paul expressly mentioned the works of the law; for it is by the law that a reward is apportioned to works. Nor was this unknown to the schoolmen, who held it as an approved and common maxim, that works have no intrinsic worthiness, but become meritorious by covenant. And though they were mistaken, inasmuch as they saw not that works are ever polluted with vices, which deprive them of any merit, yet this principle is still true, that the reward for works depends on the free promise of the law. Wisely then and rightly does Paul speak here; for he speaks not of mere works, but distinctly and expressly refers to the keeping of the law, the subject which he is discussing.

As to those things which have been adduced by learned men in defense of this opinion, they are weaker than they might have been. They think that by mentioning circumcision, an example is propounded, which belonged to ceremonies only: but why Paul mentioned circumcision, we have already explained; for none swell more with confidence in works than hypocrites, and we know that they glory only in external masks; and then circumcision, according to their view, was a sort of initiation into the righteousness of the law; and hence it seemed to them a work of primary excellence, and indeed the basis as it were of the righteousness of works. — They also allege what is said in the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul handles the same subject, and refers to ceremonies only; but that also is not sufficiently strong to support what they wish to defend. It is certain that Paul had a controversy with those who inspired the people with a false confidence in ceremonies; that he might cut of this confidence, he did not confine himself to ceremonies, nor did he speak specifically of what value they were; but he included the whole law, as it is evident from those passages which are derived from that source. Such also was the character of the disputation held at Jerusalem by the disciples.

But we contend, not without reason, that Paul speaks here of the whole law; for we are abundantly supported by the thread of reasoning which he has hitherto followed and continues to follow, and there are many other passages which will not allow us to think otherwise. It is therefore a truth, which deserves to be remembered as the first in importance, — that by keeping the law no one can attain righteousness. He had before assigned the reason, and he will repeat it presently again, and that is, that all, being to a man guilty of transgression, are condemned for unrighteousness by the law. And these two things — to be justified by works — and to be guilty of transgressions, (as we shall show more at large as we proceed,) are wholly inconsistent the one with the other. — The word flesh, without some particular specification, signifies men;though it seems to convey a meaning somewhat more general, as it is more expressive to say, “All mortals,” than to say, “All men,” as you may see in Gallius.
Here Calvin argues against those who confine "works of the law" to "the ceremonies alone". But Calvin says "that Paul speaks here of the whole law". I find this interesting because of recent controversies over the phrase "works of the law", as interpreted by those branded as "New Perspective". Some (along the lines of N T Wright) speak of "works of the law" as those distinctive aspects of Torah which marked out the Jews as the people of God, things such as circumcision, food laws etc. It is not about a moralistic righteousness, a "pulling oneself up by his own moral bootstraps". Particularly they are arguing against an interpretation of "works of the law" which read into Paul a context of medieval merit-emphasising theology.While probably not exactly the same, this seems similar to the interpretation of "works of the law" as referring to "the ceremonies alone" (which, significantly, Calvin attributes to pre-medieval writers, like "Chrysostom, Origen, and Jerome"). Yet it seems that to hold a more confined view of "works of the law" is branded as unorthodox in some circles, and one is liable to come under fire for holding such a view, as if nobody in their right mind could think that Paul didn't mean some kind of 100% perfect, moral self-meriting of justification before God. While Calvin certainly held to a position which would perhaps be more popular amongst Reformed Evangelicals today, yet we would be wise to recognise with him that, "It is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean".

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