In his Paul and the Torah, Lloyd Gaston argues that the Pauline phrase erga tou nomou, “works of the law,” is a subjective genitive. That is, it refers to what the law works, and specifically to what Torah works, not to the obedience that one may or may not render to the law.
He cites Ernst Loymeyer’s opinion that “the only natural grammatical possibility” of the phrase is a “genetivus auctoris,” meaning “the works worked by the law.” Loymeyer can’t believe that this is what the phrase means, but in a long article still cannot give a plausible grammatical alternative (101).
Gaston’s argument is partly based on his understanding of parallels with other Pauline phrases: “righteousness of God” means the righteousness that is or is done by God, and “faith of Christ” means the fidelity of Jesus in His life and death. No one is justified by the “works worked by the law” because the Torah brings wrath (Romans 4:15), it kills and condemns. Justification is instead from the faithful obedience and death of Jesus, which reveals and enacts God’s righteousness.
The consequence of this interpretation for understanding the shape of Paul’s arguments are quite significant. On Romans 2, the consequences of this interpretation of the phrase are startling. Romans 2:14-16 is a classic passage on natural law, the proof text that Gentiles could be noble and, though without the law, could do what the law requires. More recently, N.T. Wright has proposed that the phrase alludes to Yahweh’s promise to Jeremiah to write the law on the hearts of people - thus, Paul is talking about converted Gentiles.
Gaston rejects both of these proposals. These verses use the phrase “works of the law” to describe what is on the hearts of Gentiles, as well as what Gaston takes as an equivalent phrase, “the things of the law” (ta tou nomou). On Gaston’s understanding of this phrase, doing the “works” or “things” of the law is not positive; the works worked by the law are the works of the flesh, which lead to death. Even though Gentiles don’t have the law that condemns and kills, that works wrath, they are still under wrath because they do the same things that those who are of the law do.
Gaston writes, “God is impartial in his judgment, judging Gentiles as well as Jews. All have sinned, Greeks as well as Jews. But how can Gentiles have sinned when they were not given the law? Answer: because they did have the effect of the law. Without having the law Gentiles do ta tou nomou. What Gentiles do has been rather impressively described in 1:18ff. What they do is sin, and that is what is here called ta tou nomou. What they do not do is keep the commandments. . . . What Gentiles do is not by God’s will and not really by free choice but ‘by nature,’ just as Gentiles are described in Eph 2:3 as ‘by nature children of wrath.’ This has nothing whatsoever to do with Jeremiah’s Torah or the Stoic combination of physis and nomos, and the NEB completely misses the point when it translates ‘carry out the precepts of the law by the light of nature. As if the only thing the law did was to give precepts! As if Gentiles were not really the sinner portrayed earlier! As if alongside Torah there was another law, an unwritten law, only a similar law, a law not identical to the one Torah of the one God! What such Gentiles do when they sin is to become a law for themselves, to become a parody of Torah, to put themselves idolatrously where only God’s Torah belongs. . . . By idolatrous sinning they show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, not the law itself, but the work of the law, that is, wrath and sin” (105-6).
Which pretty much turns the traditional reading of Romans 2 upside down. Instead of finding common ground with Stoic theories of nature, Paul is polemicizing against them. And all this is part of Paul’s argument that what the law produces is not life and righteousness; what produces the righteousness that leads to life is the fidelity of Jesus, and that alone.