Friday, April 29, 2005

Faith & works-1

David Deavel has written an article for the May issue of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review defending the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification.

I’m not sure that this is worth my while, but since I’ve been asked to comment on his article, I’ll take a wild leap of faith.

“How do faith and works go together? This question implies another question, namely, how do grace and free will go together. And at the root of these two questions is the question of how man is justified before God—how is he saved?”

Since Deavel is defending the Catholic position, he is entitled to frame the issue in Catholic terms. Since, however, he is not only defending the Catholic position, but opposing the Protestant position, it is worth noting that this is not how a Calvinist would pose the question. For a Calvinist, freewill, as Deavel defines it, would not go together with grace.

In addition, justification and salvation are not synonymous in Reformed theology. Justification is a subset of salvation. Salvation is broader than justification. Salvation includes such other elements as regeneration, propitiation, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

“Was repentance itself a work? Could an unrepentant sinner still be saved? Some Protestants seemed to say yes and some no.”

I will only be defending my own position, which is the Reformed position. Lutherans and fundamentalists are free to speak for themselves.

In fairness to the Lutherans, however, I’d point out that if Deavel were interested in offering a serious critique of the Lutheran view, he would not pick out a few quotes here and there from Luther, but address himself to a subtle and sustained statement of the opposing position such as we find in R. Preus, Justification & Rome (Concordia 1997).

“Calvin, as we have seen, is more careful to say that ‘we are justified not without works, yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness’ [Institutes 3.16.1]. Whether there is a difference between justification “not without works” and in some sense ‘through works’ is a good question.”

Yes, this is a good question—a very good question. I’m more interested in exegeting Scripture than Calvin. However, the Calvinian distinction only looks nebulous because Deavel chooses to clip little snippets out of their larger frame of reference. There is a quite elementary distinction in saying that on those whom God confers the grace of justification, he also confers the grace of sanctification, without in any way confounding justification and sanctification.

“In the end, of course, St. Francis was right: Protestants themselves differ as much among themselves as they do with us, even if they go back to the ‘original Reformers.’”

I don’t see much division here. By his own accounting, Deavel has only identified two basic views: an antinomian version of justification which he identifies with Lutheran and fundamentalist theology, as well as a Reformed version, where justification and sanctification are both necessarily elements in salvation.

“What, however, is the problem with the ‘whore of Babylon’ that makes Protestants so nervous about the Church, even when, as with Calvin, their teaching is so closely aligned as to make the differences almost purely a matter of semantics.”

The Council of Trent would not have anathematized the Protestant position had the Tridentine fathers regarded the differences as “almost purely a matter of semantics.” So this is an odd way for Deavel to defend his own church.

“They generally read St. Paul’s polemics against salvation by “works [plural] of the law” in, for instance, Rom. 3:20 as a polemic against the notion that good works of any kind have anything to do with our final justification before God… Protestants, taking this verse at face-value and without any context, will tell you that there it is, plain as day, what you do has nothing to do with justification before God. St. Paul even repeats it in Rom. 3:28…Similarly, in Gal. 2:15-16.”

What Protestants take this verse without any context? It should be unnecessary to point out that there is a very extensive literature in Reformed theology, for one, defending in no inconsiderable detail the Reformed doctrine of justification. This is not a case of isolated prooftexting. Has Deavel never read the second volume of William Cunningham’s Historical Theology? Or the second volume of Turretin’s Institutes? Or Berkouwer’s book on Faith and Justification? Or Hoekema’s chapter in Saved by Grace—to name a few? Or is he talking about some backwoods preacher in the Smoky Blue Hills? An honest critic will test his own position against the best that the opposing side has to offer.

“What are ‘Works of the Law’?

Taking the second point first, what are works of the law? Rom. 3:28, denying justification by “works of the law,” is immediately followed by a question: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (3:29). This question is a tip-off. What law would apply to Jews only but not Gentiles other than the law of Torah? When he refers to “the law” (nomos in Greek), St. Paul is not referring to any old law, particularly not the natural moral law that he said is “written on the hearts” in Rom. 2:15. No, “the law” means the Torah. Continuing in Rom. 3:30, St. Paul writes that God is the God of Gentiles also “since God is one; and he will justify the uncircumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” So the point is that circumcision, the prime entrance into the life of the old covenant, stands for the Torah in its entirety. God does not justify or make just people who simply follow the commands of the old law. He justifies all, both Jew and Gentile, on the basis of faith.”

Is that what Rom 3:28 really means? Let us turn to the standard Catholic commentary on Romans:


Paul uses for the first time [3:20] the plural phrase erga nomous, “deeds of the law.” The singular appeared in 2:15, and the plural will appear again in 3:28 and 9:32…Gal 2:16; 3:2,5,10; and in abbreviated form in Rom 3:27; 4:2,6; 9:[11?],32.

For Dunn, it would refer specifically to “circumcision and foot laws,” two obligations that “functioned as boundary makers” to set Jews off from Gentiles…This restricted sense of the phrase is hardly correct, for it contradicts the generic sense of “law” about which Paul has been speaking since 2:12 and to which he refers in 3:20b. See further Cranfield, “The Works of the Law.”

J. Fitzmyer, Romans (Doubleday 1993), 338.

Paul [in 3:27] is playing on the different senses of nomos. Such an understanding of deeds prescribed by the law has already been discussed in the argument of 2:17-3:20.

His emphasis [v28] falls on pistei, “by faith”…that emphasis and the qualification “apart from deeds of (the law” show that in this context Paul means “by faith alone.”

Paul is not speaking about deeds that are the fruit of Christian faith.

Ibid. 363-364.


Notice that Fitzmyer affirms everything that Deavel wants to deny, and denies everything that Deavel wants to affirm. He affirms sola fide. He denies that “works of the law” has special reference to the Torah. He denies the new perspective, represented by Dunn. And he denies any link between justifying faith and the fruits of faith.

What is more, Fitzmyer offers a number of supporting arguments in defense of his interpretation. So this is more than a matter of scholarly opinion.

Now, you just might suppose that Roman Catholic like Deavel would make it his first order of business to consult the standard Catholic commentary on Rom 3:28, and if it undermined his case, to interact with that interpretation and show where Fitzmyer went wrong.

Since Fitzmyer refers the reader to Cranfield’s study, we might quote a bit of that as well:


The particular concern of this essay is Prof. Dunn’s understanding of Paul’s usage of the phrase erga nomou in Romans…It is an understanding which is to a large extent determinative of his view of the Epistle as a whole, and it is an understanding to which he has apparently come, at least in part, under the simulation of Prof. E. P. Sanders’ work.

It is Prof. Dunn’s contention that Paul has been misunderstood by successive generations of commentators.

C. Cranfield, On Romans & Other Essays (T&T Clark 1998), 1.

The foregoing exegetical discussion has shown, I think, that Prof. Dunn’s explanation of erga nomou in Romans (and also of erga alone where it seems to be equivalent to erga nomou) as referring specifically to those practices which function as identity-markers, distinguishing Jews from their Gentile neighbours, in particular, circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and observance of food laws, must be rejected; and that even in Galatians, where at first sight it might seem to possess a certain plausibility, his explanation of era nomou should be rejected.

The true explanation…denotes (the doing of) the works which the law requires, obedience to the law; and that, when Paul says that no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law, he means that no one will ear a status of righteousness before God by obedience to the law, because such true obedience is not forthcoming from fallen human beings.

Ibid. 13-14.


I leave it to the interested reader to work through the closely reasoned argument between his introduction and his conclusion. The immediate point is that Cranfield, like Fitzmyer, soundly rejects the reinterpretation of Paul offered by the new perspective. Thus we have two premier commentators on Romans, one of them a Roman Catholic. And that is above and beyond the additional literature I’ve cited below.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Fitzmyer is right, and Deavel is wrong. But if Deavel wants to make good on his claims, then he needs to make a case in which he rebuts the opposing position rather than assuming, without benefit of argument, that his interpretation is the only interpretation or the best available interpretation.

“That this is the case in Galatians is evident as well. The entire book is about the question of whether new Gentile Christians, that is members of the New Israel, had to follow the rules of the Old Israel. St. Paul is quite adamant that neither Jews nor Gentiles are required to follow all the rules of the Torah.”

No, the question is whether Jews and Gentiles alike are justified by law-keeping. A very different question indeed.

“What is ‘Justification’?

To see what justification is like, we can look to the end of Galatians…how, that is, “through faith, by the Spirit, we wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5). That we are waiting for righteousness is important. It is Protestant scholars like E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright who have for over twenty years been pointing out that St. Paul does not mean by the justification of human beings “how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God…’”

This assertion calls for a fair number of comments:

i) You’d never know from Deavel that the new perspective on Paul is hotly contested. Just consider a few of the following titles which have been published in opposition to the new perspective:

Carson, D.A., O'Brien, P., and Seifrid, M., eds. Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Baker 2001).

Carson, D.A., O'Brien, P., and Seifrid, M., eds. Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul (Baker Book 2004).

Elliott, M. The Survivors of Israel:: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism (Eerdmans 2000).

Gathercole, S. Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 (Eerdmans 2002)

Kim, S. Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel (Eerdmans 2001).

Schreiner, T. The Law & Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker 1993).

Seifrid, M. Christ Our Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Justification (Apollos 2000).

Stuhlmacher, P. & Hagner, D. Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective (IVP 2002).

Westerholm, S. Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Eerdmans 2003).

To appeal to the new perspective as though this were representative of a critical consensus, when it is, in fact, the subject of raging debate, is ignorant at best and deceptive at worst.

ii) Let us consider an alternative reading by the doyen of NT scholars, beginning with Gal 5:4:


To seek it [justification] through faith in Christ was to seek it on the ground of God’s grace; to seek it through legal works was to seek it on the ground of their own merit…Paul has already made it clear (3:10) that those who seek justification through legal works do not attain it (cf. Rom 11:7), but rather incur the curse of the law; what he emphasizes here is the incompatibility of faith and works, of divine grace and human merit, where justification of the sinner before God is in question.

Here [5:5] is such a reference, however; by contrast with the vain hope of righteousness by legal works, he says, we who believe in Christ are enabled by the Spirit, through faith, to wait confidently for the hope of righteousness. The law holds out no such sure hope as this. The ‘hope of righteousness’ is the hope of a favourable verdict in the last judgment (Rom 2:5-16). For those who believe in Christ such a verdict is assured in advance by the present experience of justification by faith…In their case the eschatological verdict of ‘not guilty’ is already realized.

F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (Erdmans 1988), 231-232.


Far from supporting the Catholic position, Deavel’s prooftext undercuts it root and branch. And that is precisely why, according to Trent, a Catholic is not entitled to the assurance of salvation.

Deavel continues to cite Wright as saying that justification was not “so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we concede this claim. In Paul’s doctrine of the church, can you drive a wedge between who is saved and who belongs to the church? Remember, we’re not talking, here, about membership in a modern denomination, but Paul’s doctrine of the universal church, a la. Ephesians.


  1. Hello gentlemen and brothers in Christ,

    The challenge is renewed:

    "All in a Day's Work (More Groundless Insults From Steve Hays)"


    If Steve declines (as he did before) perhaps c.t., will take up the challenge (as he seems quite confident of his abilities to do so)?

    Yours in Christ,

    Dave Armstrong

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  5. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."