Thursday, November 01, 2007

Christians and the Old Testament Law

One of the questions I am most often asked in my capacity as person who knows something about theology is what the point of the Old Testament Law is for Christians today. I've got to do a lot of reading about this in the near future, so my opinions might change, but here's roughly what I think after however many years it is of thinking about it so far...

There are two main purposes of the Old Testament Law, and both of them function for us as Christians.

First Purpose - Modelling a Response to Salvation

The first purpose is to model a response to God's salvation. Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy are very clear that the Law was how the Old Testament people of God were meant to live in response to God saving them. Of course, it's going to be different for us now, for loads of reasons, the biggest of which are:

  • We've got the Holy Spirit indwelling us now
  • We know about Jesus
  • We aren't a theocratic state but a group of Christians living in countries that aren't Christian

That means it's often going to be hard work applying aspects of the OT Law to us today. Some areas are easier for others. For example, one of the big areas in the OT Law is a concern for social justice, and though the categories of who are oppressed are different today (due to a welfare state, less respect for the elderly, family breakdown and abortion legislation among other things), some of the ideas are still applicable. An even easier example would be commandments such as "do not murder", which pretty much just apply straight (though the punishments don't necessarily, given the different nature of the state).

A more difficult example would be some of the food laws and ceremonial laws which are about showing how holiness applies to every area of life. The OT Law doesn't apply directly to us, but it's all still relevant if we're willing to do the work.

Second Purpose - Showing Us We Need a Greater Salvation

The OT Law also points forwards to Jesus. It shows us that we are sinful and need to be forgiven - that we continually need God's grace, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness that comes by the blood of Jesus.

Civil, Ceremonial, Moral?

The traditional way of doing this (I think Calvin used it, but he might have got it from somewhere) was to split the Law into civil, ceremonial and moral, and say that the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, the moral law is still binding and the civil law is a model for how society should be, or something like that.

I don't like that distinction, for the simple reason that it isn't in the Old Testament, and it ends up being an arbitrary decision of the interpreter which bits are which.

Much better to ask questions like this of the whole OT Law:

  • How does this point forwards to Jesus?
  • What does this tell us about God?
  • What does this say about how we should respond to our salvation in Jesus?

We don't have to obey the OT Law - it has been fulfilled in Christ, but it can be very useful in showing what it meant for the Israelites to be God's saved people, and hence point to what it means for us.

The discussion continues here.


Daniel Hill said...

What do you mean when you say `We don't have to obey the OT Law'? We can all agree that we don't have to obey it to be saved, but do you think that we don't have to obey any of it in any way? If so, what did you mean when you wrote about `commandments such as "do not murder", which pretty much just apply straight'?

John said...

We don't have to obey the law to be saved.

We're not expected to obey the law qua the law as Christians. For example saying that we should not do X simply because X is forbidden by the 10 Commandments is now an invalid argument.

Of course, saying that murder is forbidden in the 10 Commandments, which means that part of the response to God's salvation is to respect the lives of other people, which means that we shouldn't murder is fine. But there's an extra step in there.

Daniel Hill said...

You spoke in your original post about `commandments such as "do not murder", which pretty much just apply straight'. I agreed with what you said there. But now you seem to be saying that it does not apply straight because there is `an extra step in there', viz. `to respect the lives of other people'. Well, then, does that extra step apply straight or not? If so, why do you take that as your commandment rather than `do not murder' (which is actually in the Bible)? If not, what is the `extra step' that we need to put in now?

What's wrong with just saying: in the Bible God forbids some things to everybody at all times, e.g. murder, and other things to some people at some times, e.g. eating pork?

John said...

A direct train can still stop at places en route. A straight application does not mean a single stage one.

What's wrong with just saying: in the Bible God forbids some things to everybody at all times, e.g. murder, and other things to some people at some times, e.g. eating pork?

The commands to murder in Joshua?

The fact that saying that provides no way of deciding objectively what is commanded for all time and what is just for some people at some times.

Daniel Hill said...

If a train goes straight to its destination it doesn't stop en route. `Let's go straight there' means `let's not stop', as in `go straight to jail; do not pass `Go''.

There are no commands to murder in Joshua; there are commands to kill. (This shows, incidentally, that the command not to murder cannot be reduced to `respect the lives of other people'.)

Of course it's often difficult to know what applies to everyone for all time in the Bible, and what is specific. That's why we need to study the Bible, use commentaries etc. But this is a general point about the Bible, not a point specifically about the Old-Testament Law. For example, is the example of the apostles in Acts 2 to be imitated? Is Jesus's command `go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor' one that applies to everyone?

John said...

OK - ignore the slightly mixed metaphors.

An example - in the BCP Communion service, the strong implication is that Christians should keep the 10 Commandments because they are the 10 Commandments. I disagree with that.

Tim V-B said...

I think there's another reason for the OT law - it is about the humanization of humanity. That is, if Israel had obeyed the Law they would have been a living example of God's intentions for humanity, albeit this side of the New Creation. E.g. living in an Eden-like nation, bringing blessing to other nations, a place without poverty and with full justice.

Of course, Moses knew full well that Israel could not keep the law, but this doesn't nullify the above purpose.

I wrote an essay on "How does a final-form reading of the Pentateuch assist interpretation of the Law?" and my three points were:
1. Law as fulfilment of creation
2. Law as failure (can't be obeyed; makes things worse for Israel)
3. Hope lies in the promises to Abraham.

Law as fulfilment of creation opens up studying it for the sake of an insight into what true humanity looks like, but I agree with you that we don't therefore obey the commandments just because "Moses said so."

Here's a good paper on the Law:

John said...

Now that's interesting - thanks!

Daniel Hill said...

Right, but, as I said, one cannot presume that just because something is commanded in the NT it is thereby compulsory for all at all times. So your point isn't about the OT law per se; it's about the Bible in general.

As a matter of fact, I think that all the 10 commandments do apply today to all.