Tom Wright and the Use of the Law in Lutheran Theology

I am busy preparing for my Seminar on Romans 5-8 at the moment. The three commentaries that I rely on most (they give the broadest possible variety of points of view) are Ben Witherinton III’s, Brendan Byrne’s and of course Tom Wright’s. I am also reading Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God – very good for anyone trying to get their head around the “historical Jesus” quest(s).

Also on Wright, for anyone interested in either his own work or critiques of it, are the recordings from this Seminar held at Wheaton College last year. Excellent stuff there.

And then (and this is the main point of this blog) there is an article which is not available online in the Lutheran Quarterly (some of you read this, I know) by Dr Erik Heen, NT professor at Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania “A Lutheran Response to the New Perspective on Paul” (LQ vol XXIV no. 3). It doesn’t focus on Wright (it includes Stendahl, Sanders and Dunn) but does take issue with a statement in Wright’s book Justification.

Heen writes:

Perhaps the most misunderstood term in Lutheran theology within the NPP is “Law”. Representative is Wright’s characterisation of “the Lutheran scheme whereby the law is a bad thing abolished by Christ.”

The body of the article is therefore a defence of the Lutheran “Law/Gospel” paradigm – in particular in Luther’s own writings – over against the New Perspective’s reading of St Paul’s use of this term. In particular, Heen is at pains to show that Lutheran theology speaks of various “uses” of “the law”, not all of them negative.

While it is a good defence of this peculiarly Lutheran doctrine, the article unfortunately fails to be very useful for anyone actually seeking a Lutheran critique of the NPP, and specifically of Tom Wright’s understanding of how the term “ho nomos” (ie. “the Law”) functions in Paul’s writings.

In his Romans commentary, Wright takes issue with a number of other commentators in insisting that when St Paul speaks of “THE Law”, he is always speaking of the Jewish Torah. This itself can be understood in a number of ways – as it was in fact in Paul’s own day. It can mean the Sinaitic covenant, the “Law of Moses”, the Pentateuch, the laws of Halakah, and even sometimes by extension the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes this means that we end up with a very stretched meaning of “Torah”, but Wright’s point is that Paul is intending this “stretching”. Wright expressly rejects the idea that it can mean “more general principles or statutes or forces or authorities” (as Michael Winger writes in “By What Law?”, quoted by Heen).

A good example is in Romans 3:27-28. Here is the RSV translation:

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. 28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

The word “nomos” (“law”) appears three times in these verses in the Greek text; the RSV translates it twice as “principle” and once as “law”. But what Paul seems to be doing is contrasting a “Torah of works” with a “Torah of faith” – which may very well be related to the “Torah of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2) and “the new life of the Spirit (Rom 7:6).

Another case is at the end of Romans 7, precisely where Paul has been working hard to defend the goodness and holiness of “the Law/Torah”:

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.

Here the RSV translates “law” in each case for “nomos”, but in v21 the Greek is quite clearly “THE Law” (“ho nomos”), not “a law”. Paul is still talking about “the Torah”, even when he speaks of “another Law” – he is still talking about “the Torah”, but the Torah acting in a paradoxically different way from which it ought to function, ie. emphasising sin rather than eradicating it (as in Rom 7:5,10-11).

In any case, Dr Heen has not appreciated the fact that Wright, whenever he reads Paul’s using the word “Law”, believes that Paul is speaking about “the Torah” . So when Wright says that Lutheran theology thinks of “the Law” as a “bad thing abolished by Christ”, he means this is the way in which Lutherans think of “the Torah”.

Dr Heen, however, understands the phrase “the Law” in Paul in a more Lutheran sense. When Lutheran theology speaks of “the Law”, it is speaking of the existential effect or aspect of God’s Word as it addresses me. When I hear God’s Word commanding or forbidding me to do this or that, I am hearing “the Law”. (Conversely, when I hear God’s Word as a promise of grace and mercy, I am hearing “the Gospel”). It would be wrong therefore to speak of “the Law” (or “the Gospel” for that matter) in authentic Lutheran theology as a “principle” (although it has certainly been mistaken for such at times), but it certainly isn’t the same thing as “the Torah”. Thus in his article, Heen quotes approvingly from David Lose who wrote:

[One recognises] the law…not simply from what it says (content) but from what it does (function).

Therefore, Heen concludes,

The law, in other words, is not a “bad” thing but the active, lively Word of God that drives one to Christ.

This is good Lutheranism, but it is not what Wright understands St Paul to mean by “the Law”, and it isn’t what he meant when he wrote that Lutheranism sees the law “as a bad thing abolished by Christ.”

Sometimes – although Heen rightly objects to an approach to “the Law” of Israel which makes an artificial distinction between the moral and ceremonial aspects – “the Law” can mean for Lutherans “the 10 Commandments”. Thus, seen in theological terms of the existential address of God’s commanding and demanding Word, or even in simpler catechetical terms of the 10 Commandments, Lutheran theology does still see a positive use for “the Law”. Heen writes:

One might observe that this first use of the law is similar in some respects to Torah (“law” in Jewish discourse) understood as God’s gift to Israel. That is, the usus politicus outlines human responsibilities archetypically represented by the two tables of the Ten Commandments. …The Ten Commandments, in fact, are central to the Lutheran catechetical tradition…

But again Wright – for all his admittedly limited understanding of Lutheran theology (and Catholic for that matter) is nevertheless right to say that most Lutherans would generally believe that “the Torah” itself (the Sinaitic Code rather than “the Law” in Lutheran terms) is a “bad thing abolished by Christ”.

The problem here, as in many “dialogues”, is that we are using different words for different things. Just to take an instance that regularly reoccurs on this blog: Purgatory. If you forget the name and just talk about what the doctrine is really about, you tend to find more agreement than you might previously have thought. Likewise, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with what Heen has written about the “use of the law” in Lutheran terms. Much the same could be said in terms of Catholic theology. The thing that Lutheran theologians, and Catholic ones for that matter, need to wrestle with is not the question of whether or not Wright has properly understood either Lutheran or Catholic theology as such, but whether he has properly understood Pauline theology. If he has, then we all have some rethinking to do.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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6 Responses to Tom Wright and the Use of the Law in Lutheran Theology

  1. Schütz says:

    I’m going to leave a comment on my own post! I actually received a comment from a new commentator (who has yet to provide me with the details necessary for an invitation to join our commentary table – see the side bar!), who suggested that I should look up one Andrew Das, a Lutheran theologian who has a book called “Paul, the Law and the Covenant”. I looked it up on Google, and found that it was his doctoral thesis under Paul Achtemeier at Union Theological Seminary in 2001 – 10 years old now, and written before Wright’s commentary on Romans. Nevertheless, the blurb on Amazon ( ironically seems to fit with Wright’s complaint about Lutheranism (and the Lutheran reading of Paul). The blurb (nb. not Das himself) reads in part:

    “However, as Das demonstrates in this book, whenever the gracious framework of covenantal nomism is called into question, the law’s demands take on central importance. Das traces this development in a number of second-temple Jewish works and especially in the writings of Paul. “Covenantal nomism” is probably an apt characterization of Paul’s opponents, and indeed of Paul’s past life; thus he can assert that formerly he was “blameless” under the law. But now Paul sees God’s grace as active only in Christ. He emphatically denies that God will show special grace in his judgment of Jews; to do so would be favoritism. Similarly, Paul sees no atoning benefit to the sacrificial system. In effect, Paul is no longer a “covenantal nomist.” Since the gracious framework of the covenant has collapsed, all that remains for Paul is the law, with its oppressive requirement of perfect obedience and ethnic exclusivism. Contra the “new perspective,” the “works of the law” should not be construed so narrowly as only the law’s ethnic exclusivity. Christ is “the end” of the law in general, both in the sense that he is the goal to which the law always pointed, and in that he is the sole agent of God’s grace apart from which the law’s demands would be impossible.”

    Sounds pretty much like “the Law is a bad thing abolished by Christ.” It also seems to be what has now become a pretty standard critique of the New Perspective, without focusing clearly on what Wright himself has to say. I’m really keen for a dialogue to take place, rather than a diatribe.

    Anyway, having said that, I haven’t read the book yet, and will buy it to find out “what Andrew Das really said”!

  2. Jim Ryland says:


    This may seem quite simplistic but I don’t think that Jesus ever intended to counter the Decalogue. In fact, He eloquently summarized the spirit of the rota. Jewish Law had become a morass of formulas and restrictions by the time of His birth; a bit like doctrine being cluttered by dogmas that may be somewhat questionable. The Jews, like the church, proclaimed these items to be as binding as the root doctrine. Might it not be these “machinations” that Jesus, Paul, and others decried? They would all fall under term “The Law”.

    • Schütz says:

      I am not saying anything of the kind, Jim. The identification of “The Law” with “the 10 Commandments” is quite common in many circles. It isn’t really what St Paul meant when he used the term “ho nomos”. He meant the Torah and Torah observance. Then you use the term “Jewish Law”, which might mean the 613 Commandments of Halakah, which you call “a morass of formulas and restrictions”, ie. “a bad thing” which Jesus came to “abolish”. When reading Paul, just use the word “Torah” when ever you come across the word “the Law” and you will get the slight but important difference.

  3. William Weedon says:


    When you wrote:

    But again Wright – for all his admittedly limited understanding of Lutheran theology (and Catholic for that matter) is nevertheless right to say that most Lutherans would generally believe that “the Torah” itself (the Sinaitic Code rather than “the Law” in Lutheran terms) is a “bad thing abolished by Christ”.

    I am utterly befuddled. The Law as the immutable and eternal expression of the divine will for human lives (that they be love) is by no means a bad thing abolished by our Lord. Rather, it is for the very fulfilling of this divine will that our Savior came in the flesh, poured our His blood, and conquered death. He thus opens up that new and living way in which by being in Him the Law can begin to be truly kept. When Luther (and Lutherans) speak about the being “delivered from the Law” or some such, that is always a theological short hand for: being delivered from the condemnation which the Law brings on any who do not keep it flawlessly. Christ delivers us from this condemnation for He Himself does indeed keep it flawlessly in human flesh and thus becomes for us an eternal righteousness in whom we may take refuge. His grace forgives us our sin, and by His Spirit He begins to work in us in this age already a keeping of the Law that is but incipient and weak and frail, but grows, and which He will bring to perfection at the resurrection when all that is not love will have been burned out of our lives by the fire of His gracious presence.

    • Schütz says:

      Pastor Bill, you are still using “the Law” in the Lutheran sense rather than in the sense of “the Torah”. Paul himself speaks of the Torah as a good and holy thing (Romans 7). As I said to Jim above, use the word “Torah” instead of “the Law” and you will get the difference.

      • William Weedon says:


        Is not our Lord summarizing the entirety of Torah when He teaches that it all drives toward love of Yahweh above all and love of neighbor as self? That LOVE is the fulfillment of Torah? That’s why He came to fulfill it?

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