Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Primer on the Mosaic Law and the Christian

In his excellent book, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, Stephen Westerholm offers a number of theses on how the apostle Paul viewed the Mosaic law following his Damascus Conversion. The section is entitled "The Law in God's Scheme," found on pp. 408-439. Here are the theses, which I find helpful and accurate:
  1. Human beings find themselves in an ordered world not of their making, with the capacity to acknowledge or deny their dependence on the Creator, to conform to or to deny their dependence on the Creator, to conform to or defy the wise ordering of his creation. Life and divine favor are enjoyed by those who fear the Lord and do good. Those who reject what is good and do what is “wise in their own eyes” court disaster.
  2. The law of Moses articulates the appropriate human response to life in God’s creation. It is a divine gift to Israel, a signal token of God’s favor to his people.
  3. The law of Moses contains ordinances binding only on Jews; their observance has marked Jews off from other nations as God’s people.
  4. Adamic humanity does not, and cannot, submit to God’s law.
  5. For Adamic human beings the law cannot serve as the path to righteousness and life.
  6. The giving of the law served to highlight, at the same time as it exacerbated, human bondage to sin.
  7. The righteousness of God revealed in Christ Jesus is operative apart from law. Those who continue to pursue the righteousness of the law mistakenly attribute to the works of their unredeemed flesh a role in securing divine approval.
  8. Believers in Christ are not under law.
  9. Christian righteousness nonetheless fulfills the law.
Of course, for fuller explanation and defense, see Westerholm's work.

I see this as having rough overlap with an article by David Dorsey, professor of OT at the Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. He has written on “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34 (1991): 321-34. (Not available online so far as I can tell.)

Dorsey also offers a number of theses about the Mosaic law. In what follows, I've supplied the questions--the answers are Dorsey's:

What was the purpose or design of the law of Moses?
  1. The corpus was designed to regulate the lives of a people living in the distinctive geographical and climatic conditions found in the southern Levant, and many of the regulations are inapplicable, unintelligible, or even nonsensical outside that regime.
  2. The corpus was designed by God to regulate the lives of a people whose cultural milieu was that of the ancient Near East.
  3. The Mosaic corpus was intended to regulate the lives of people whose religious milieu was that of the ancient Near Eastern world (particularly Canaan) and would be more or less inapplicable outside that world.
  4. The code of laws was issued by God to lay the detailed groundwork for and regulate the various affairs of an actual politically- and geographically-defined nation.
  5. The corpus was formulated to establish and maintain a cultic regime that has been discontinued with the Church (cf. Heb 8:18; etc.).
Should the law be divided into three parts—moral, ceremonial, and civilsuch that the ceremonial and civil have been fulfilled by Christ, but the moral continues on into today?
  1. The scheme of a tripartite division is unknown both in the Bible and in early rabbinic literature.
  2. The categorizing of certain selected laws as “moral” is methodologically questionable.
  3. The attempt to formulate this special category in order to “save” for NT Christians a handful of apparently universally-applicable laws—particularly the ones quoted in the NT—is an unnecessary effort. There is a more logical, Biblically supported approach to the law that retains for Christians not only the very heart of the so-called “moral” laws but also the underlying moral truths and principles, indeed the very spirit, of every one of the 613 laws.
What role does the Mosaic law play in the lives of Christians today?

"Having suggested that the Mosaic law in its entirety be removed from the backs of Christians in one sense, I would propose that the corpus be placed back into their hands in another sense: the entire corpus—not just the “moral” laws but all 613—moral, ceremonial, civil. If on the one hand the evidence strongly suggests that the corpus is no longer legally binding upon Christians, there is equally strong evidence in the NT that all 613 laws are profoundly binding upon Christians in a revelatory and pedagogical sense."

How then do we apply the OT laws to our own lives today?

"I would suggest the following theocentric hermeneutical procedure for applying any of the OT laws, whether the law be deemed ceremonial, judicial, or moral:
  1. Remind yourself that this law is not my law, that I am not legally bound by it, that it is one of the laws God issued to ancient Israel as part of his covenant with them.
  2. Determine the original meaning, significance and purpose of the law.
  3. Determine the theological significance of the law.
  4. Determine the practical implications of the theological insights gained from this law for your own NT circumstances."