I just finished reading an interesting lecture by James D. G. Dunn called "The New Perspective on Paul". It lays out some interesting ideas that further a line of thought I have been following for some time. Mr. Dunn's theory is that because we have been reading Paul's letters (Romans in particular) through the lens of the Protestant Reformation we may have been reading him wrong. I know, the idea sounds crazy, but once the idea is laid out in full, it does make a lot of sense. Let me explain.
Since Luther's interpretation of "justification by faith", we have looked at our salvation and justification to be enough; that it was all we needed for God's grace to be extended to us. Where we start to go askew, according to Dunn, is when we talk to Jewish scholars and modern historians we find that the view of Judaism that Paul seems to be talking about doesn't match the Judaism that seems to have actually existed at the time. So where does that leave us, especially knowing that Paul was a member of the Pharisees before his conversion, and should know what his own people believe.
What if Paul is not talking about works in general, but about specific works related to the Jewish faith and nationality: circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and the purity codes? What if the argument isn't so much about belief in Jesus vs doing what is right but rather about who Grace is extended to? Let's dig a little deeper.
Even today, in order for a man to be Jewish there are certain rituals that he must go through. If we look at Paul's argument through this lens, something different emerges. Paul isn't so much arguing against works, as expanding the idea of God's Grace beyond the Jewish nationality. Circumcision, following the purity codes and observing the Sabbath were physical parts of being in the covenant with God. It was a matter not just of religious identity, but of national identity as well. If we apply the faith/works argument with this in mind, it isn't that Paul is touting faith over good works, but rather placing faith in Christ as the Messiah as the new Jewish litmus test. This would expand Grace beyond the Jewish nation and into the world of the Gentiles.
It also explains the tone within the letter of James. James, rather than trying to refute Paul completely, is trying to explain that doing good works are still necessary. For me it helps to reconcile James 2 with Galatians 5 and Romans 10.
I encourage you to read the lecture that sparked this posting. It definitely gives some food for thought.