Monday, March 19, 2012

Interpreting the Old Testament Law

            The Old Testament Law has caused many interpretive problems for Christians throughout the ages. This has especially been true in the last 50-60 years (since the dawn of Fundamentalism and its anti-intellectual tendencies [which now seem to have gone]). The traditional view is examined by J. Daniel Hays and ultimately found to be arbitrary in its delineation of what is and is not for the Church today. He espouses a view called Principlism. This essay shall consider the implications of Principlism, its contribution to the author’s overall understanding of the issue, and an application of this view to Scripture.
Principlism Examined
            His alternative, Principlism, asserts a five-step hermeneutic for ascertaining and applying the OT Law to Christian life today.[1]  
            Hays exhorts readers to “identify what the particular law meant to the initial audience…determine the differences between the initial audience and believers today…develop universal principles from the text…correlate the principle with New Testament teaching…apply the modified universal principle to life today.”[2]
            The primary strength of this approach is that it tries for consistency and faithfulness in interpreting the text. It also finds New Testament purchase in Romans 15:4: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (KJV) For instance, assessing the original audience’s cultural context is essential to understanding of any text. All of his steps are also in logical order (for instance, the reader should never try to apply the principle to himself before assessing the cultural context or the principle itself!). A weakness of this view is found in the second step. He asks the reader to find a timeless and universal truth.[3] However, even on the traditional view this is the problem! It seems he is telling the reader how to find a timeless truth by telling him to find the timeless truth! The author’s understanding of OT Law was enriched from the traditional view (which arbitrarily assigned a law as moral or ceremonial) to a view of Principlism. Hays accomplished this move from traditionalism by pointing out the intermingling of moral and ceremonial law.
Principlism and the Law
            Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he had “not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill.” In both Romans 7 and Galatians 3-4, Paul states clearly believers are not under the law at all. These statements are not in contradiction in any way. Jesus is to fulfill the law while believers are not bound by the law via the Old Covenant, but are related to God in the New. Hays shows the meaning is roughly akin to “complete,” when Jesus says he is fulfilling the law.[4] Hays makes it known that the OT Law was actually a covenant between God and Israel, and the New Covenant is one between God and the Church through Jesus Christ.[5] Since Jesus is not assigning covenantal significance to the OT Law for believers in him, there is no conflict.
Principlism Applied
            The idea of Principlism will be applied to the text of Deuteronomy 18:9-13. First, we must identify the contextual experience of the original audience. They had been promised a specific land to enter into (v. 9). When they did so, God told them to expect sorcerers, child sacrifices, astrologers, supernatural mediums, witches, or ones who contact the dead (vs. 10-12). Further, God promised to drive them all out of that land that God had promised the Jews.
            Second, we must determine the differences between the original audience and hearers today. God did not promise modern-day readers a specific land, and certainly not one in the Middle East such as this. In a Westernized context there is not much going on in the way of child or animal sacrifice. Finally, God has not promised to remove people who do these things from our presence here on earth.
            Next, we must apply a universal principle and see if it accords with New Testament theology. The admonition to avoid the aforementioned things has a common theme of the supernatural. The principle is that God does not want his people to look to any other source of knowledge, wisdom, strength, or to worship any other. This is reflected in Romans 11:33, Colossians 2:3, Matthew 4:10, Colossians 2:23, and Acts 17:23-31.
            Another principle involves infanticide, or child sacrifices done to other gods. While people in a Westernized context surely would not sacrifice to other gods, the fact remains that abortion is a large issue. God here places a high value on human life, and specifically that of children.
            Another implicit but universal principle is that of being separate from the world’s ideology as it relates to spirituality. 2 Corinthians has Paul showing this separation to be from unbelievers. The final step is application. This is done by a turning from worldly sources for information about God and spirituality and a turning to the God of the Bible and godly wisdom for spiritual truth.

            The traditional view may have some beginning steps to a proper understanding of the text, but it is ultimately arbitrary. Hays’ explanation of Principlism demonstrates a logical hermeneutic for understanding and applying the OT Law to New Testament times and situations. An application is easy to do once the believer identifies the proper principle and applies it in light of New Testament theology. In this way the modern-day reader can understand the timeless truth within an often-misunderstood portion of God’s Word.

                [1] J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, 158, No. 629 (2001): 21-35.

                [2] Ibid., 31-32.

                [3] Ibid.
                [4] Ibid., 29.

                [5] Ibid., 28.

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