Monday, February 28, 2011

Purpose of the Law Study

As mentioned, I will be posting a series on the difficult subject of The Law. These posts will be a bit rambling—almost like notes I want to save as I read some books. I have to assemble them into a coherent Sunday School by next fall. Unless I am excommunicated first.

I thought I would start with the purpose of doing such a study. Let's begin with a familiar if unpleasant verse:
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Lev 20:13)
So, are you a hypocrite, or do you advocate the death penalty for practicing homosexuals?

This is the false dilemma that many atheists present to believers. If the atheist is loathsomely troll-like, he may even say something like this:
If you really want to see the most honest adapation (sic) of what the bible and Christianity really stands far if you follow the most literal interpretation of the bible, go to [Fred] Phelps.
The motivation of this line of, um, reasoning is not honest intellectual debate—the motivation is to portray Christianity in the worst possible light using the least possible effort. The atheist-troll's utter transparency defangs what he considers a killer argument. Nevertheless there are sincere versions of the question that must be addressed, for example: why do Christians keep the Ten Commandments yet wear blended cloth? (Lev 19:19)

It doesn't help that Christians have both unsatisfying responses to this question and inconsistent practices—or at least large loopholes.

An example of the former is the oft-repeated claim: The Old Testament has three types of laws: ceremonial, civil, and moral. The first two are null and void, but the third type remains in force. This sounds sublime (well, maybe) but suffers from at least two major flaws:
  1. There is no such teaching in the bible—that there are three types of laws and two and only two are nullified.

  2. It is arguable some laws that are readily jettisoned by most Christians, like the call for execution of homosexuals, are in fact moral in nature—the very type of law that is supposedly preserved from the Old Testament. So, again, are we hypocrites for ignoring them?
An example of the latter (inconsistent practices and loopholes) are churches that take a high view of Sunday-as-the-Sabbath: no restaurants, no yard work, etc. In my experience these churches, conservative as they are, always have a liberal "works of necessity" exclusion. You can't work on Sunday! Oh, it's a work of necessity! Why didn't you say so? Probing would generally reveal that "work of necessity" means "My schedule came out, and I am assigned a shift on Sunday."

Not to mention the number of times I have heard someone rationalize: but I like mowing the lawn, it's relaxing, so it's not really work, is it?

The purpose of this study is twofold. The first is to argue that the atheist does indeed present a false dilemma. That our choices are not limited to: executing homosexuals or being hypocrites. We have, it will be argued, a third option: to comprehend the fuller revelation of the law as presented not by God through Moses, but by God through his Son. As a metaphor (Apropos? You tell me. I think so) for the argument we will use the Transfiguration:
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Math 17:1-5)
Here we have personifications (not the right word—but you know what I mean) of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) and the New Testament/New Covenant (Jesus.) God makes it clear which one is supreme: Listen to Him! 

When it comes to the law we have much to learn from Moses and Elijah. But ultimately, we listen to Him.

We will look for a solution to this dilemma by these very means: the superiority of the law as revealed by Jesus over that of Moses. Not as a denigration of Moses—but as an acknowledgment that God's revelation has always been progressive. The gospel first appears as the protogospel in Genesis 3:15. Throughout the Old Testament more is revealed—including the motif of the suffering servant. But the full revelation—the supreme revelation—required the incarnation of the Son of God. We acknowledge the supremacy of the fully revealed version of the gospel over the protogospel of Genesis and prophetic gospel of the bulk of the Old Testament. We evangelize with the gospel as revealed in the ministry of Jesus, not with Genesis 3:15.

The second purpose of this study is to show that Christians do not need inconsistent practices or loopholes. Spoiler: I will argue that it is perfectly fine to go to a restaurant on Sunday—or to mow the lawn.


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  2. Yea, you're back blogging. My mornings just got brighter! I hope you are going to take on the Evangelical biggie as far as the law goes - tithing. If you do, you probably will be excommunicated :-)
    Mike the Geologist.

  3. I was surprised, and pleased, to see your posts show up in my reader again. This topic, it so happens, is the topic of my church's Sunday School classes for this month and the next two, and I'm supposed to be the teacher. Thanks!

  4. Feel free to delete this comment. I think you said "God make is" when you meant "God makes it."

  5. Thanks Martin--will your SS materials be on line?

  6. Hi David - I was referred here by Martin. I asked Martin about Acts 15 in which Paul and Barnabas debate circumcision for gentiles. Although the disciples decided that they ought not burden gentiles with god's commands regarding certain things, they did extend laws regarding sexual immorality, aviodance of eating strangled meat and blood, and food sacrificed to idols. I can understand the first and last, but the meat and blood rules seem legalistic and not consistent with being meant to "comprehend the fuller revelation." How does this square with your proposal that Moses' Law is not applicable to modern christians? (sorry if the question maybe overstates your point!)

  7. Peter,

    Well, I'm no theologian, but this would be my reply.

    Up to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 Christianity was protected, I would say providentially but certainly historically, as being identified as a sect of Judaism rather than a separate religion. This was unraveling quickly near the end of this period--but nevertheless it was prudent not to antagonize the Jews or give ammo to the Judaizers. So I think the Council of Jerusalem took a prudent approach rather than a dogmatic approach.

    Note that if the council was being dogmatic then virtually all Christianity is now in violation--even the majority view: that the ceremonial and civil laws are gone but the moral law (10 Commandments) remains--well, what the council recommended was in part dietary law, not moral law.

    Furthermore I would add that what they suggested was trumped, in an ultimate doctrinal sense, both by Peter's vision in Acts 10 and Paul's teaching regarding food sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor 8.

    So that would be my opinion: The council had to address circumcision because it was treated special, as a mandated covenantal sign. It was the "big thing" that simply had to be addressed. Having done that they could try, for pragmatic reasons, to make things easier for Jewish and Gentile converts by in effect asking the Gentiles not to be a stumbling block to Jews on some dietary customs.

    But the definitive teaching is that, in any ultimate sense: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

  8. Thanks David...I'm a bit confused as to the whole concept of dietary law. Why was there a dietary law? Why did it change? I can understand the cultural aspects of winning new converts, but why give laws that seem pretty arbitrary to only a relative few?