Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The problem of Galatians

Galatians is not the place to go to if you want to get a full-orbed understanding of Paul's view of the Law of Moses.  It is, I think, an angular book, with lots of sharp edges.  Any attempt to fit it into a systematic framework seems to fail - I have taught through it five or six times now, and every time I think I have it sorted I notice another corner poking out through a tear in my systematic theology.  Over time, I've decided I'm okay with it.  The purpose of Galatians is not, I think, to teach systematically about the relationship between Law and Gospel, but to burst through all our thinking and disrupt it - just as the Gospel itself bursts through all our human activity and disrupts it.

I think Galatians is primarily about cutting through one particular understanding of the relationship between human and divine activity.  The link that the Apostle wants to sever is the one leading from human action to righteousness in the sight of God - where that righteousness is understood to include not only legal justification, but also the right relationship with God and with his covenant community that such justification entails.  In Paul's world, the most obvious and most aggressively supported form of this link from human action to righteousness is the Law of Moses.  The Gentile Galatians are being urged to accept it.  Paul, I think, advances two arguments to explain why Gentile Christians should not adopt the Law of Moses:

1.  An argument about the function the Law always served.  The issue in Galatia seems to be that the Christians are being tempted to believe that they must pursue the Law of Moses in order to be righteous.  This expresses itself in table fellowship - incidentally showing how corporate and communal the concept of righteousness in the NT, against our individualistic understanding.  Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that observance or non-observance of the Law of Moses is irrelevant - he is indifferent as to whether you observe or not.  Only you must not make the Law a matter of righteousness, because to do so is to confuse the Law with the Gospel.  Righteousness comes by faith in Christ - Christ as promised, for those who lived before his advent; Christ as present for those of us who live after his incarnation.  The Law never was meant to bring this righteousness.

2.  An eschatological argument.  To adopt the Law now is particularly perverse, because the Law of Moses had a time-limited role.  It was about keeping Israel looking forward to the Messiah, to bind them closely to the promise.  Paul's argument here is complex, and there are parts which I think no-one understands, but the basic point is simple - the role of the Law was to keep the heir looking forward to the inheritance, which is now given in Christ.  The Law is therefore passe.  It will not do, incidentally, to try to find some part of the Law which is not subject to this argument - either by dividing it into ceremonial, civil, and moral or by any other means.  The Law is in the past; Christ is the present and the future.

All well and good, and this seems to suit the Lutheran positioning of the Law very well - the Law comes first and prepares the way for the Gospel.  Except for two things.  The first is Paul's insistence that the Gospel came first in time.  This is clearly very significant for Paul's argument, because it shows that the Gospel was always the point of the Law - the former did not replace the latter, because it came before it and always underpinned it.  (One is reminded of John the Baptist - he is before me (in rank) because he was before me (in time) - Paul's argument is formally similar).

The other thing is that when it comes to positive instruction about the shape of the Christian life, Paul is happy to quote the Law of Moses.  Is he saying that Christians are, in fact, bound to keep the law of Moses?  Absolutely not.   But he is pointing to the fact that the Christian life is not one of shapeless freedom.  It is one of fulfilling the Law of Christ.

I submit, then - with the reservations that must follow from my first paragraph - that Galatians breaks the link that moves from human activity (according to the Law) to righteousness in order to forge a link that moves from righteousness to human activity (according to the Law, although not that of Moses).  And this, I contend, is the pattern of all Scripture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Under the law of Christ

When Paul describes his evangelistic strategy in 1 Corinthians 9, one of the things he is keen to point out is his flexibility with regard to the Jewish Law.  He is content to keep it, if doing so will win a wider audience for the gospel; and he is content to ignore it, if that is the best way to get a hearing for the good news.  However, he is very clear that he is essentially free from the Law of Moses - "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the Law I became as one under the Law (though not being myself under the Law) that I might win those under the Law".  I take it that the second sentence is just an amplification and explanation of the first - to win Jews, who are or at least regard themselves as being under the Law, Paul, who is not under that Law, acts as if he were under it.

This is remarkable enough in itself, given the faultless legal obedience of which the apostle feels able to speak elsewhere.  It shows how completely Paul's outlook has changed with his conversion.

But to understand the direction in which it has changed, we need to read on.  "To those outside the Law, I became as one outside the Law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)..."  Paul has not become lawless in his conversion.  Rather, he has moved from the domain of the Law of Moses into the domain of the Law of Christ.  The latter is, of course, different in many ways - it is not codified but based on the gospel, it is not a burden but based on the completed work of Christ - but still, it absolutely claims Paul.  In fact, his very chameleon like quality as an evangelist is an outworking of that Law of Christ - he must serve as Christ served, and he must take the gospel out to all because that is simply the logic of the good news.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Law in Deuteronomy

Not long after I was baptised, my Pastor at the time advised me to get stuck in to the book of Deuteronomy, on the grounds that this book is the key to the OT.  Great advice.  Since then I've spent a lot of time in this foundational charter of the life of Israel.  This covenant document explains the history of Israel and underpins the prophetic critiques and warnings of Israel's national life.  So what does Deuteronomy have to say about the Law?

1.  The relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not fundamentally based on Law.  The historical preamble to the covenant (chapters 1 to 3) makes it clear that if this were the case Israel would be doomed - it is a sorry history of rebellion, focussed on the idolatry committed at the very foot of Horeb.  That Israel's entry into covenant with Yahweh is in fact based on a unilateral elective action of God is made clear in, for example, Deut 7:6-11 and Deut 9:4-12.  This is good news for Israel, because it extends hope for restoration after the prophesied exile which will follow their neglect of the Law - Deut 30:1-10.

2.  The Law which is given to Israel is good for them.  In Deut 8:1-10, for example, a description of the blessing which Yahweh has showered on Israel in the wilderness, and which he will multiply to them in the land, is intermingled with the a description of the Law.  The Law will be the foundation of Israel's reputation for greatness and wisdom amongst the nations - Deut 4:6-8.  Moreover, the keeping of the Law is repeatedly associated with rejoicing, for example the giving of the tithe.

3.  Israel can keep the Law.  When Moses says 'What does Yahweh require of you..?' and proceeds to list a series of things including keeping all the statutes and commandments of the Law (Deut 10:12-13), it is clear from the context that we are meant to think that this is only the minimum which ought to follow from the goodness of God which has been recounted in previous chapters.  By the time we get to chapter 30, Moses is able to say "this commandment is not too hard for you".  Nothing too difficult has been asked of Israel.  They can keep this Law, and moreover it makes no sense for them not to do so - it flows logically from the grace they have been shown in the past, and carries with it promises of future blessing.

4.  Israel will not keep the Law.  Moses' last recorded words are a blessing on the tribes of Israel; but before this he has seen into their future, and given them a song which predicts their future apostasy.  Indeed, Moses knows that after his death Israel "will do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh" (Deut 31:24-29).  Why?  Not because the Law is too hard for them, but because their hearts are not right - they have not yet been given a heart to obey (Deut 29:4).  This is a promise for the future (Deut 30:6), after the exile.  A time is envisaged when Israel will be changed and will keep the Law.

As well as helping us to understand the OT, isn't this important for our understanding of the NT?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Gospel, Law and the structure of Biblical narrative

I think we sometimes (often?) get the relationship between the Biblical narrative and our systematic theology quite badly wrong.  I suspect that our forebears were even worse at it than us.  We often assume that systematic theology must embody 'timeless truth'; narrative by definition is not timeless.  We also often assume that systematic theology takes priority over Biblical narrative; that means that we read the latter through the former more often than not.  I think something like this is going on when people say that the Law takes priority over the Gospel - whether they mean that temporally, logically, or evangelistically.

I would argue that close attention to the Biblical storyline indicates that Gospel always comes first.

Let's take as our main exhibit the foundational narrative of the OT, the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to Canaan.  It seems pretty clear from the narrative that there is no Law involved in the initial Exodus.  The people cry to Yahweh, who hears and rescues.  There is no record that they have to do anything to secure their rescue.  As they head out of Egypt (and my mind goes to the rather dramatic scene in The Ten Commandments) all they can do is rejoice that God has delivered them.  However, it is equally clear that their rescue was not without a purpose.  Israel was being delivered from slavery in Egypt in order to serve Yahweh (thus Exodus 3:12, 7:16 etc).  So Sinai is the logical destination, the place to go after the Exodus.  Once you get there, of course you get the Law - Israel was not being set free in order to wander aimlessly, but in order to receive a new and infinitely better Master.

The point is, structure-wise, it is Gospel, then Law.

That basic structure is repeated throughout Scripture.  I think the first example is creation itself, which is certainly presented as a Gospel, and certainly has a Law which follows it.  And I am sure it is significant that when you step out of the realm of narrative, into, for example, the Pauline epistles, you so regularly have a structure of Gospel first, followed by instruction.  (I will argue at some point that Biblically this instruction is Law - but not in this post).  Not only is this clear structurally, but it makes sense of the relationship between Gospel and Law which is described in the OT - but more on this at a later date.

If at this point you're thinking either 'I'm not sure you can make this sort of doctrinal point from the shape of narrative' or 'but in the grand scheme of things, doesn't the Law of Moses come before the Gospel of Christ in the Bible?' - let me just point you to Paul's argument in Romans 4:9-12 and Galatians 3:15-18.  Paul makes a great deal of the order of events, and argues explicitly that the Gospel was preached to Abraham centuries before the Law of Moses was promulgated.

The storyline of the Bible is Gospel first, then Law.  What impact should that have on our doctrine?