For Pauline scholars, Paul’s understanding of works takes central stage. What does it mean to say that we are not justified by works (of the Torah)? The traditional Protestant answer has been to suggest works are something people considered meritorious; good works get rewarded and evil works get punished. However, this understanding wasn’t just a Protestant view of works, it was a Catholic view of works, which we can see taking place in Western Christianity by the time of Anselm’s satisfaction atonement theory had been developed. This is the political view of works in the sense that one’s actions are judged by the polis (in the ancient Greek sense of the term) and rewarded or punished as necessary. At the end, this theory of action is meritorious action.
However, this is not the only understanding of action we can take. We can also understand action in terms of it’s impact rather than its socio-political significance. Is what I am doing having an impact? As a pastor, an important consideration in helping others was to consider what impact my actions might have on another and try to work towards God-desired peace, even amidst conflicts. Sometimes it would entail accommodating to other people’s thoughts, sometimes it would entail putting my foot down. But here, action is evaluated in regards to the purpose sought to be achieved and the effectiveness to bring it about. We can refer to this as effectual action.
In between meritorious action and effectual action is a third understanding of action: virtuous action. This hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle’s views on virtue, where justice about actions that brings about happiness. Each person has a certain role to play that if they fulfill by the right action, they will be rewarded with happiness when they do what most fits with who they are. This can be also related to a covenantal understanding of relationship, where a covenant outlines the role we are to have including between God and His People.
While one could outline many various different theories of action, I highlight meritorious action, effectual action, and virtuous action as a useful place to start in understanding the Pauline understanding about works. Whatever understanding of action is most salient will influence how you read Paul. Are works about merit? Then Paul is saying we don’t earn our way, but God earns it for us. Are works about effective impact? Then Paul is saying that getting the result of justification isn’t about what you do to get there but what God does to get you there. Are works about virtue? Then Paul is saying that it isn’t about your faithfulness outlined by Torah but about God’s faithfulness.
But the theory of action wouldn’t influence just reading Paul, but also broader theological considerations, such as the theory of the atonement. Meritorious action has Christ as the meritorious sacrifice, allowing others in based upon his merit. Substitution and satisfaction views of the atonement incline towards this view. Effectual action has Christ as an effectual sacrifice, created a change due to his action. Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor would fit in understand Christ’s action as effective. Virtuous action would highlight the virtuous nature of Jesus’ death, such as moral influence theory.
Furthermore, these different theories of action are not necessarily mutually exclusive, because life is complex and action multifunctional. An action can simultaneously be effective or ineffective, meriting or demeriting, virtuous or unvirtuous, all at the same time. Our theory(ies) of action are different abstracted frames that pick out select features of the reality that surrounds behavior. So, in understanding Paul, atonement, etc. our interpretation and theology may be influenced by multiple theories of action. Personally, I think the best understanding of Paul is a combination of effectual and virtuous action, where it is God’s faithfulness to His covenant in Jesus Christ that has an effectual impact on the world in new creation. I don’t think merit is a significant role when it comes to Paul’s view of works, except in isolated instances such as Romans 2:13. Similarly, when it comes to my view of the atonement, I understand the death of Christ as revealing of God’s type of faithfulness as a virtuous action that then begins to define us through the power of the Holy Spirit, where Christ’s action becomes effectual within us. I don’t present my views to argue for them being better than other options, but only to make the point as to how multiple theories of action might work in hermeneutics and theology.
But I will leave this pondering with one final musing: the theory(ies) of action that influence our interpretation and theology are going to be influenced by what we pay attention to in the action of ourselves and others. Are we focused on praise and blame? We will be more inclined to a merit view of action. Are we concerned with doing well and having a specific impact? Then we will be inclined to think in terms of effectual action. Is consistency with who we a salient consideration for you? Then you might be inclined to think about action as virtuous. Similarly, our theology and Biblical interpretation can engender these views of action in our own personal lives in the reverse direction. In other words, our Biblical interpretation and theology flows from our view of action, where what is true about our heart gets brought into our faith, and our view of action flows from our Biblical interpretation and theology, which can form our view of action by bringing in other information about the Bible and theology in order to form our theory of action, and through that, also the heart behind our actions.