How NOT to Interpret the OT Law

WrongThe Resurgence has posted The Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Law and offered the commonly received Reformed categorization of the Torah as ceremonial, civil and moral. The problem is that this is an external distinction not found in the text of Scripture itself. And while it may be helpful as a basic categorization to separate what is still “in force” for the Church, it offers a system that creates its own problems which are foreign to the Torah itself.
On the other side, J. Daniel Hays (“Applying the Old Testament Law Today” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 [Jan-Mar 2001]: 21-35) wrote a terrific treatment on the topic where he discusses why such categories are not as helpful as many have been led to believe. Here are his concluding remarks:

The traditional approach of dividing the Mosaic Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws violates proper hermeneutical method, for it is inconsistent and arbitrary, and the Old Testament gives no hint of such distinctions. This approach errs in two ways. On the one hand it dismisses the civil and ceremonial laws as inapplicable. On the other hand it applies the so-called moral laws as direct law. In addition the traditional approach tends to ignore the narrative context and the covenant context of the Old Testament legal material.
Principlism, an alternative approach, seeks to find universal principles in the Old Testament legal material and to apply these principles to believers today. This approach is more consistent than the traditional one, and it is more reflective of sound hermeneutical method. It also allows believers to see that all Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Joseph Kelly blogged about this last year in relation to Rachel Held Evans “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” (and Tim Keller’s review of it) wherein he argues she likewise subscribes to the “naïvete” of such distinctions in the Law. He notes that mainstream Biblical scholarship has largely moved from such distinctions (even though I note it has had little effect on the wider churches’ understanding and application of the Torah).

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4 Responses to How NOT to Interpret the OT Law

  1. Rob says:

    Good article. I have been considering some of these things recently as well. God hasn’t called us to be nomian (i.e. legalists). But neither has He called us to be antinomian (i.e. lawbreakers). The breakdown you discuss is the one that I have heard most often. But it seems to take part in both extremes.
    I have not considered all of this deeply enough for this to be well-developed yet. But, I am beginning to see things this way. With the New Covenant, God has written His laws on our hearts and minds. As we submit to Him and become more like Christ, He fulfills His law through us. In other words, as the life inside us matures, our nature becomes such that we begin to naturally fulfill His law, without having to compare our actions and thoughts to a list of rules. In other words, when we are who we are supposed to be, we will do what we are supposed to do, since our words and actions flow out of who we are.
    I’m not sure if I have explained this very well. I think in symbols, which do not always translate easily into words.

    • Rob,
      Here is a reply I gave someone else on my FB: “For myself, it would seem preferable to view the entirety of the Law as within the person and work of the Lord Jesus as the Christ (and vivified in and among us by His Spirit). This removes the conversation of divisions of the Law and places the conversation within the self-revelation of God’s own being. That is where I prefer to deal with the Law.”
      IOW, I think we are coming at it from the same angle. I don’t like the notion of the Law being treated in abstraction from God’s own self-revelation and therefore applying an external foreign criteria to differentiate what (perhaps) should not be. I simply find it all fulfilled in Christ and by His Spirit being fulfilled in us. (Though this needs some serious teasing out to clarify how I understand the specifics to play out).

  2. Keith A. Needham says:

    I, too, am struggling with finding a solution to the law / grace distinction. Paul says that as a result of the work of the Spirit the righteous standard of the law will be fulfilled in us who walk, not according to the flesh, but according the Spirit. If I am not mistaken, this is the righteousness of the Old Testament law. It is fulfilled, not in Christ, but in us who walk by the Spirit. While I agree this is not a slovenly, legalistic conformity to its every law and command; I do sincerely wonder if some of these that the modern generation want to overlook (let’s say tatooing and piercing, for an example) inform this righteousness which is supposed to be being fulfilled in us by the Spirit?
    In other words, I am beginning to see — or at least I am — that the law does provide us with a framework for understanding what righteousness looks like. The church is faulted for ‘hypocritically’ condemning homosexuality, but then wearing clothing of polyester and cotton. But what is the law getting at with the wearing of mixed fabrics prohibition? Could it be that what the law is getting at is the attempted joining of dissimilar objects, such as pagans and Christians, of those who love God becoming enmeshed with those who hate Him?
    I have not quite figured this out. I do think that we can safely say that where God says that such and such are an abomination to Him, that these things still are. God does not change; Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever; certainly what God hated back then is what He hates now; how else am I to understand it?
    While the cross may lie between the Old and New Testaments, does the cross, in practice, truly lie between Christ and the wicked? In theory, perhaps; the call is open to all to accept the good news of the Gospel. But God either foreknew or predestined — take your pick, depending upon your doctrinal proclivity — who was going to accept it; and hence, in practice, it seems to preclude the cross being the distinction argument.
    As I say I am still wrestling. I was raised almost in the antinomian camp; and unfortunately, I have at least some of my kids that there are no laws when it comes to the Gospel and grace. But grace is not lawlessness — as the previous poster outright stated. Grace rather teaches and instructs us that denying ungodliness and sinful lusts, we should live soberly and righteously in the midst of an ungodly generation.

  3. Keith A. Needham says:

    2nd paragraph, the clause separated by the hyphens should read “or at least I think that I am.”

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