FishEaters Traditional Catholic Forums

Full Version: Essay on Romans 4 and "Works of the Law"
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.
Quote:O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? - if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 3:1-7)

This text, a quote from Genesis 15:6, is a favorite of the New Testament writers when dealing with the subject of justification and Faith vs. Works of the Law. St. Paul spends an entire chapter on the subject, namely, Romans 4; hence, I thought it would be best to cover both of these chapters at the same time.

Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are remarkably similar in their usage of this Genesis quote. Both chapters quote Genesis 15:6, and both are preceded by chapters in which faith is contrasted to works of the law:

Quote:We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified ... Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 2:15-16, 3:6-7)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law ... For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (Rom. 3:28, 4:3)

St. James also uses the phrase in his discussion of justification:

Quote:You see that faith was active along with [Abraham’s] works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:22-24)

There is another place in the Old Testament that this phrase, "reckoned to him as righteousness," is used, and I note it here for the purposes of future discussion:

Quote:Then [Israel] attached themselves to the Baal of Peor [Num. 25], and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the LORD to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation for ever. (Ps. 106:28-30)

The specific historical act to which this Psalm is referring is recounted for us in Numbers 25, when the priest Phinehas appeased God’s wrath by one solitary righteous act:

Quote:While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods ... So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel ... And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas ... saw it, he ... took a spear in his hand ... and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. (Num. 25:1-8)

Keep this in the back of your mind while we return to St. Paul’s use of the Genesis 15 text. The passage which he so frequently quotes is as follows:

Quote:And Abram said, "Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir." And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir." And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:3-6)

Now, there are two ways of approaching Galatians 3 and Romans 4; there are two ways of interpreting St. Paul’s use of this quote; and there are two ways of understanding St. Paul’s major argument against his Judaizer opponents.

The first way of understanding these things, the understanding of most non-Catholic readers, is as follows:

1) St. Paul is arguing for a dichotomy between faith and works

2) St. Paul quotes Gen. 15:6 because it shows Abraham being credited with righteousness for an act of faith, not for a work

3) Therefore, Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are saying that justification is by faith alone, apart from works

The second way of understanding these points is like this:

1) St. Paul is arguing, contrary to the Judaizers, that circumcision (and, by extension, the rest of the Deuteronomic Law into which circumcision was an entrance) is not a requirement for justification before God

2) St. Paul quotes Gen. 15:6 because it shows Abraham being counted as righteous in God’s sight, before he ever received circumcision

3) Therefore, Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are saying that justification is found in the New Covenant of Grace, not in the Old Covenant of the Deuteronomic Law

In this second view, what I am arguing is that Gen. 15:6 is quoted by St. Paul, not so much because it specifies the cause of Abraham’s righteousness (an act of faith), but more because it specifies the chronology of Abraham’s righteousness.

To understand what I am advocating, we have to step back and take a bird’s-eye view of Abraham’s life, and then we have to see where the quote from Gen. 15:6 fits into that history.

1) Abraham is called by God to leave Ur and go to a land which he does not know (Gen. 12)

2) Abraham has faith in God, and in faith he obeys God’s call (Gen. 12; Heb. 11:8)

3) Abraham goes down to Egypt (Gen. 12)

4) Abraham leaves Egypt, and he and Lot stake their territory in Canaan and Sodom/Gomorrah (Gen. 13)

5) Lot is captured in a raid on Sodom; Abraham rescues him and is blessed by Melchizedek (Gen. 14)

6) God promises a son to Abraham; Abraham believes the promise and is reckoned as righteousness; God swears His first covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15)

7) Abraham takes Hagar as his wife, and she bears him Ishmael (Gen. 16)

8) God swears a second covenant with Abraham, and is given the covenant sign of circumcision (Gen. 17)

9) Isaac is born; Ishmael is disinherited and cast out, along with Hagar (Gen. 21)

10) Abraham offers Isaac as a sacrifice; God swears His third covenant with Abraham, and according to St. James, Abraham is justified by his works in offering Isaac (Gen. 22; Jas. 2:14ff)

To reiterate: the reason St. Paul cites Gen. 15:6 is because it proves, chronologically, that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. This is precisely what the Judaizers were claiming, as is shown in the book of Acts: "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’" (Acts 15:1)

St. Paul could have appealed to Genesis 12, because Abraham obeyed God out of faith at that point as well, and certainly St. Paul sees that as a salvific moment in Abraham’s life (Heb. 11:8 and its context proves this). But such a view could be disputed by his opponents; he could be accused of reading into the text of Gen. 12, since it does not explicitly say that God considered Abraham righteous at that point. The reason he can exercise his exegetical license in Heb. 11 to say that Abraham was already righteous in Gen. 12 is because Hebrews was not written as an apologetic against Judaizers; as an epistle to Hebrew Christians, St. Paul can get away with assuming Abraham’s righteous status in the text of Gen. 12 - he does not have that luxury with his opponents in Galatians and Romans.

Thus, he reaches for a more explicit text that still falls, chronologically speaking, prior to the giving of the Covenant of Circumcision in Genesis 17.

That St. Paul is arguing chronologically can be shown by an appeal to the early Church writers. Apparently this argument was understood by the early Church, for St. Eusebius employs the same argument in an even more explicit manner. In his Church History, he begins by showing that the faith of the patriarchs before Moses was truly the Christian faith; that is, he proves that the Christian faith is not a novelty or innovation introduced by Christ late in history.

He writes:

Quote:[The patriarchs] did not care about circumcision of the body, neither do we. They did not care about observing Sabbaths, nor do we. They did not avoid certain kinds of food, neither did they regard the other distinctions which Moses first delivered to their posterity to be observed as symbols; nor do Christians of the present day do such things. (Church History, Book I, 4:8)

What he says next is of great importance, for he anticipates the objection of Jewish opponents - the very same objection raised against St. Paul - and he answers the objection in the same way St. Paul did, with an appeal to the very same Genesis text:

Quote:If it is said that Abraham, a long time afterward, was given the command of circumcision, we reply that nevertheless before this it was declared that he had received the testimony of righteousness through faith; as the divine word says, "Abraham believed in God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness."

And indeed unto Abraham, who was thus before his circumcision a justified man, there was given by God ... a prophecy in regard to those who in coming ages should be justified in the same way as he. (ibid. , 4:11-12)

St. Eusebius understands the argument in precisely the same way that St. Paul first understood it. Even apart from the testimony of St. Eusebius, we can still prove that St. Paul’s argument is chronological by looking at the very same chapter of Romans:

Quote:We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. (Rom. 4:9-11)

It is precisely because St. Paul is arguing for faith over and against circumcision that St. James can later write, without destroying St. Paul’s argument, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?" (Jas. 2:21)

For St. James, the argument is no longer against Judaizers who insist on the necessity of circumcision and other "works of the Law," but against lip-service Christians who believe that faith alone will justify them. Thus, in St. James’ case, he has to point to a justifying work of Abraham’s that takes place after his act of faith in Genesis 15 - and so he refers to Abraham’s good works as recorded in Genesis 22.

To sum up what we have said thus far: St. Paul means to exclude circumcision, Sabbaths, dietary laws, and other Deuteronomic rituals and legislations from justification - hence, he juxtaposes faith and works of the Law; St. James, however, is not speaking of the specific category of works of the Law, and so he just says "works" - which would include works performed under the inspiration of God’s grace.

I raised the issue earlier of Phinehas, and the Psalmist’s inspired commentary on Phinehas’ righteous act. The same phrase is applied to Phinehas as was applied to Abraham. His righteous work (not faith, in this case) "has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation for ever."

This, too, proves that St. Paul is not making an argument in Galatians and Romans based on the cause of Abraham’s righteousness, but from the chronology. If he had argued - as some claim he is arguing - that righteousness is only "reckoned" to a man for his faith, the Judaizers could have simply quoted this Psalm to show that righteousness is also "reckoned" to a man for his good works.

Why does St. Paul not quote this Psalm in his argument against the Judaizers? The answer to that question depends on how you interpret St. Paul’s argument. If you take the non-Catholic interpretation, that St. Paul is arguing faith vs. all works, then you would answer this question like John Murray answered it:

Quote:Paul could not have appealed to Psalm 106:31 in this connection without violating his whole argument. For if he had appeal to Psalm 106:31 in the matter of justification, the justification of the ungodly (vs. 5), then the case of Phinehas would have provided an inherent contradiction and would have demonstrated justification by a righteous and zealous act.  (Murray, Commentary on Romans, Vol. I, p. 131, quoted in James R. White, The God Who Justifies [Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2001], pp. 225-6)

But this explanation attributes to St. Paul a gross kind of dishonesty: that is, he knows of Ps. 106, and he knows that this text "violates" his own argument, so he simply ignores that text and does not quote it - perhaps hoping to slip a fast one over on his Judaizer opponents. That is, quite frankly, a very unconvincing argument, especially when we consider the dozens of other concrete examples in Pauline literature of St. Paul’s mastery over the Old Testament, not to mention his pitbull-like tendency to grab the very texts his opponents might use in their favor, and use those texts to refute them.

St. Paul does not shy away from texts that might potentially be harmful to his argument; he siezes those texts and executes, in the words of Richard Hays, "hermeneutical jujitsu."  Thus we must reject out-of-hand any suggestion that St. Paul ignores or purposefully avoids quoting certain passages because those passages contradict or weaken his arguments.

If you take the approach that I am suggesting, that St. Paul is actually arguing faith vs. circumcision, then it becomes clear why he doesn’t quote Ps. 106: Phinehas was reckoned as righteous for a work, but this work was performed after his circumcision. Thus, this text does not prove anything for St. Paul, since his opponents could simply say, "Yes, Phinehas was reckoned as righteous because of a good work - but Paul, his good work came after his circumcision" - on the other hand, if this text proves nothing for St. Paul’s argument, neither does it disprove or contradict (or even, in Murray’s words, "violate") his argument, because no matter how many times Phinehas (or anyone else, for that matter) was reckoned as righteous for acts done after circumcision, it does not remove the fact that Abraham was reckoned as righteous before his circumcision.

Thus, my view allows St. Paul’s argument to retain its integrity, to stand irrefutable, without requiring us to think of St. Paul as a man who would purposefully avoid certain texts that would damage his position (it would be tempting to examine the possibility that Murray, White, and others are merely projecting/attributing to St. Paul the kinds of hermeneutical methods they themselves employ, but this is not the time or place). The view I am advocating preserves the bullet-proof integrity of St. Paul’s argument, regardless of the existence of Ps. 106 or Jas. 2. 

In summary, then, St. Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 because he has to prove that circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, and the historical context of Genesis 15:6 shows that Abraham was justified before he received his circumcision in Genesis 17.
Quote:The first way of understanding these things, the understanding of most non-Catholic readers, is as follows:

1) St. Paul is arguing for a dichotomy between faith and works

2) St. Paul quotes Gen. 15:6 because it shows Abraham being credited with righteousness for an act of faith, not for a work

3) Therefore, Galatians 3 and Romans 4 are saying that justification is by faith alone, apart from works

This is so true and so aggravating! Faith vs. Works has to be the single biggest false dichotomy going. I was once arguing about this topic on an ezboard and the "faith alone" proponent actually used Romans to refute the words of Jesus Christ. [Image: eek.gif] 
More recently, I have been in an argument with a dispensationalist who rejects water baptism in favor of "baptism of the spirit." I think he is probably possessed rather than full of the Holy Ghost as he claims. He is definitely full of something. [Image: rolleyes.gif]