Friday, October 31, 2014

Does the Law Apply to Us?

Jesus said, in Matthew 5, that he did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. What did he mean here? What Law was he even talking about? Some have used this to claim that we are all still under the Law. Others have used it to emphasize that the Law is fulfilled, and thus we are no longer under the Law. The former approach is called the continuity approach. This approach has a variety of sub-approaches, but the general idea is that the Law of the Old Testament (OT) is fully binding on us today. There are two major ways the continuity approach tends to be applied. The first way is called theonomy, where the claim is that we ought to live, more or less, as OT Israel, and that the various OT laws ought to be not only practiced by us, but put into national law as well. The other way is to divide the Law up into ceremonial, moral, and civil, and claim that while Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial and civil laws, he did not destroy them, so that the moral law is binding.

The latter approach (of the two major approaches) is called the discontinuity approach. This approach teaches that the OT Law is totally unrelated to anything we are going through now, seeing that we are in a different dispensation. The major, or perhaps even only, reason we are required to fulfill any of the Ten Commandments is because they are generally repeated or endorsed in the New Testament.

Hermeneutically and theologically, continuity approaches have been favored by covenant theologians, and discontinuity approaches have been favored by dispensational theologians. I’m a big fan of middle ground (where I can), and it may be no surprise to those readers that I favor a semi-continuity approach, with a specific hermeneutic called principlism. First, however, let me list a few problems that tend to afflict the other two approaches. For continuity issues, the hermeneutic tends to be that the church is the new Israel, whereas national Israel has been completely cast off; the Abrahamic covenant is totally fulfilled in Christ, and there are no political or land promises for Israel yet future. Because the church has replaced Israel, the OT has a spiritual, or even allegorical, hermeneutic that applies to the church. This seems to me to be problematic, in that it seems to allow theology to drive the interpretation (more than it should, anyway). The discontinuity approach seems to leave the OT as irrelevant, at least with respect to grammatical-historical interpretation. Because the Law totally belongs to another dispensation, unrelated to the current one, there is one correct major interpretation that applies only to national Israel; thus, it has nothing to do with the church. Hence, when Jesus speaks of the new covenant, which seems to be almost obviously an allusion to Jeremiah, many here are forced to say Jesus was talking about a different new covenant, and not the new covenant in Jeremiah. On the other hand, in order to make the OT even remotely relevant for us (beyond mere academic/historical interest), a second hermeneutic takes place, one in which the content is spiritualized or allegorized in having meaning for the church. This is why Song of Solomon is often represented by some (though not all) as being about Christ and the Church. Essentially, it forces us to make some unwise hermeneutical choices, on both sides.

I’m still a dispensationalist (save your stones, people of both sides!), but I choose neither the continuity nor the discontinuity approach. I choose a semi-continuity approach. I believe the OT has a specific, grammatical-historical interpretation that applies to Israel, and that there are nationalistic/political promises to Israel that will be fulfilled in the future. However, I believe we need not resort to allegory to have the text have interpretive relevance for us. With the OT, this is where principlism comes in. Briefly, the view is that the Law is still in force, but not in the sense of the letter, but in the sense of the spirit of the Law. Every OT law had a “spirit” sense behind it, which is what the particulars of the law (the “letter” of the law, if you will) showed. For instance, there is the great example of the commandment forbidding Israel from cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk. Why would God forbid this? Or wearing mixed fabrics. Why is it wrong to wear cotton and polyester?!

The answer is because of what they symbolized: the ancient near east (ANE) cultures often boiled baby goats in their mother’s milk as a sacrifice to the pagan gods; Yahweh is saying, “You aren’t going to do that; you’re going to communicate by your actions that you serve one God.” So the symbolism involved here is not concerned with diet itself; it is concerned with the worship of the one true God, and thus is related to the first commandment. In not wearing mixed fabrics, Israel wanted to communicate they were a pure people to the cultures of the ANE, and that they served only one god, and they would not engage in syncretism (the fusing together of the true God and beliefs about him with pagan gods and beliefs). Again, this goes back to the first commandment.

So, semi-continuity says we are still under the spirit of these laws, and that they apply to everyone, everywhere. Idolatry was not morally permissible prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments, and neither was anything else listed there that would be forbidden. It’s the spirit of the law that is in view here, and the way we find that is by finding the correct principle behind these laws (the NT gives some great clues about some of these things, by the way), and obeying those principles of morality. The next post will tackle a common objection/issue: the Sabbath.

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