Friday, December 23, 2005

Questions About The Law

Recently Phil Johnson has posted a number of interesting reflections on the law. He seems to be concerned about those who question some of the theological distinctions that have been made in the past as Christians have tried to understand the law and how it governs our lives as believers. Traditionally, many have found it helpful to divide the law into moral, civil and ceremonial components, arguing that the moral is perpetual and eternally binding because it reflects the character of God in a way that presumably the others do not.

While these distinctions are helpful and have some merit, great caution is in order. The Bible itself nowhere speaks in these terms. That, in itself does not mean that these categories are invalid, any more than the words "incarnation" or "trinity" are invalid as theological terms because they are not found in the Bible. But the absence of the tripartite distinction (moral, civil, ceremonial) when it comes to the Bible's own exposition of the law means that we need to be very careful lest we impose on the Scriptures and interpretive grid that distorts the structures that are already built into the Scriptures.

I do not have time to expand on these ideas in this post (what with Christmas and all, besides my wife is waiting for me to go shopping!) but I would like to mention a text that is pivotal in this discussion that I do not think covenant nor dispensational theological systems have adequately understood and properly integrated into their attempts to systematize the Bible.

The text is Matthew 5:17-20: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

It is very difficult to read these verses through "moral, civil, ceremonial" glasses. Although I am aware that various commentators have tried to make sense of these verses by resorting to those categories I believe they are bringing to the text something which will keep them from seeing what Jesus is saying. Jesus seems to be viewing the Law and the Prophets as a seamless whole. And the interpretive category that he applies to the Law as a whole is that of "fulfillment." He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them, all of them, down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of the pen. This means that there is an important sense in which the whole law, by which I think he means the whole Old Covenant revelation, is to be seen as something which points to him. This means, then, that there is a profound sense in which the whole law prophecies about Jesus in all sorts of different ways, and we are to see him as the ultimate fulfillment of the whole thing.

Once we understand how Jesus approaches the law and sees himself in relationship to the law, I think we find a key to help us understand the purpose of the law and how it applies to us today, living as we do in the New Covenant. The hermeneutical key to the law is Jesus himself. Although distinctions like moral, civil and ceremonial are helpful for purposes of analysis, they should not take the place of Jesus as the fulfiller and fulfillment of the law in our reading and exposition of it at this particular point in redemptive history. We need to reflect upon the whole Old Covenant in light of his person and work. This is what the writers of the New Testament Scriptures are doing over and over again. They are not working with essentially legal categories but with Christological categories. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:13 "For all the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John."

I really must go... but my two cents worth for now. This really is a vital topic. It brings us face to face with the very important question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It raises important questions about the place of the law, about covenants and dispensations. Although we must respect ancient confessions and men of God, at the same time we must strive to understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches today and do our best to make sure our theological formulations actually reflect the truth of the Scriptures.


stauf46 said...

Thank you for this, Kirk (I've just finished reading Phil's posts).

Your caution sounds familiar. Your brother Steve gave similar advice to his theology classes when I was at ACTS. (Another thing that stuck with me is his observation that dispensationalists err on the side of discontiunity between the testaments and Covenant theologians overemphasize continuity. That has been helpful as I read various authors straining to make arguments fit their positions). Thinking through Mt. 5:17-20 in light of what the rest of Scripture says about Christ (Lk. 24, Col. 2, etc) is really pivotal. He is the interpretational key. He took everything that was against us and nailed it to the cross, not just parts of the law.

Terry Stauffer

Kirk M. Wellum said...

You're welcome Terry. I couldn't agree with you more. It is so important to focus on Jesus and to understand the law, and all of the Scriptures, in light of him. Then, and only then, do we begin to understand how to apply what is said as God intended it in this time in which we live. This is how we sort out what is binding and what is not. This is how we find that righteousness that goes beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees who did not see their need for Jesus when it came to understanding God's revelation as well as experiencing his redemption.

kerux said...

1. Thanks for posting on this. You have thought about these things much more than most and I am anxious to hear more.
2. Stop leaving your Christmas shopping to the end! Enough of these rushed posts!
3. Post more.


Kirk M. Wellum said...

The joys of Christmas shopping on the busiest shopping day of the year! Thanks for your comments Paul. I will post some more on this in the next little while as I think that it is something that needs to be discussed. How we work through these questions is as important as our final conclusions if we are to appreciate the richness of God's revelation in Christ.

I_am_Batman said...

That is really weird. I was just watching television and the news is going to answer the question, "Why do men leave shopping until the last minute?"

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Because they are too busy blogging!!! :-)

Spencer Haygood said...


Thank you again for your insight and willingness to broach these critical questions.

I recently taught a series of classes on Sunday evenings focused on the truth that the Bible is a unified whole. Without denying the Bible’s diversity, the point still was that it is one book with one story-line and a developing plot from start to finish—from the opening “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 to the closing “Amen” of Revelation 22:21; from Paradise and Paradise lost at first to Paradise regained at last; from the way to the tree of life closed and guarded after the Fall (Gen. 3:24) to the right and access to the tree of life restored and opened at the end (Rev. 22:14). I wanted them to see how God has composed it, how he has woven together a revelation of himself and his great work of redemption that is both elegantly elementary and yet powerfully profound, diverse in its literary expression and yet unified in its divine message, that is within reach of the most unstudied and simple-hearted soul and yet continues to make foolish the wisdom of this world. (1 Cor. 1:20)

Though the Bible is characterized by much literary diversity, by definite historical movement, and by varying theological emphases book to book, yet at the end of the day all is bounded by and taken up into the larger redemptive unity—what I have called the soteriological metanarrative—that is the revelation of God to us in Christ. If we miss that, it's quite possible to be talking a lot about the Bible, and yet fail to see what God is saying to us in the Bible.

What this all means, fundamentally, is that if we come to some part of the Bible—say, the enmity between Cain and Abel and the difference between their offerings, or the building of the Tower at Babel and the following call of Abraham, or the narrative of Moses’ birth and deliverance as a baby, or Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal, or the discussion of the contents of the ark of the covenant and the exact size of the atonement cover, or the conception and birth of John the Baptist, or Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, or Peter’s Pentecost sermon, or the nature and application of the law—and we try to say what it means, we are very much more likely to miss what it means if we don’t know or fail to take into account the whole plot, the whole movement of the biblical story, the whole flow of redemptive revelation as it is progressively unfolded throughout Scripture and fulfilled finally in Christ.

Sorry to go on for so long, but this is so critical and yet so foreign in many of our churches here in the deep South U.S.


Kirk M. Wellum said...

Thanks for your very insightful comments. For what it is worth, I agree with you completely. The longer I study and preach the Bible the more I am amazed to see its unity even though it was written by so many different people over 1500 years. Inspiration is not something that just applies to the words of Scripture but to the organizing structures and the masterful arrangement of the revelation that God has given to us. All of this means that if we are not sensitive to what God is doing and we pick as our organizing structural category something that is peripheral or even supplementary to the major thrust of Scripture, we will distort what God is saying in significant ways. We cannot make progress in our understanding of the law, or anything else, if we do not see its place in the unfolding plan of redemption that culminates in the person and work of Christ.