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?


  1. Yes, but...

    Although the promise to Abraham comes before "The Law", the covenant of works with Adam in the garden comes before the revelation of the covenant of grace to Adam in the garden.

    So is it ALWAYS gospel then law?

  2. Hi Dan,

    A few hasty thoughts in response….

    Perhaps unsurprisingly I think that ordering of law and then Gospel (I wouldn’t say ‘priority’) comes out of the Biblical narrative, which is predominantly one of death to life, exile to restoration, slavery to freedom, etc. IMHO one of the big strengths of Lutheranism is that is sees our lives, as well as the message of the Bible, as narratives – not an ‘event’.

    Life under Egypt was life under law in the broader sense. They were enslaved by Egypt and then they were freed. Like Joseph they were in the pit but then lifted out.

    God certainly did save Israel for the purpose of serving him, but they didn’t receive the law with joy. At the mountain the people were afraid, stood far off and called for a mediator (Moses, Ex 20:18-19). That is the how the law works: it presents us with a holy God and his demands on us, we are afraid and cry out for a mediator. The provision of a mediator is the Gospel.

    Creation is in some sense ‘Gospel’ because it is an unmerited gift and so an act of grace. However, the Gospel is really something greater. It is the gift given to those who not only don’t deserve it, but deserve the opposite. Good things given to people can demand a response. If I give you a Christmas card I expect one in return. In that sense the ‘grace’ acts as a demand which criticises. It is free, but like the sofa shops only for the first year. It is a key insight of Lutheranism that even gifts can accuse.

    However, as Oswald Bayer has particularly emphasised, for Christians we receive creation a second time as true Gospel. The second time around it is not a gift conditional on a reciprocatory offering, but a gift given to those whose reciprocatory offering has already been made by Christ.

    I do think that the dominant scheme of scripture is Moses/Adam then Christ, but Paul’s use of Abraham is interesting. A few things to note:
    1. The Gospel preached to Abraham was a promise of something still to be done, so is different from our promise about something done.
    2. The Law still had to come and perform a purpose to prepare the way for Christ by increasing and revealing the transgression. For the “promise by faith in Jesus Christ [to] be given” the law had to imprison “everything under sin” first (Gal 3:22). Abraham had to wait first for the law then for the Gospel to actually receive what he was promised (Heb 11:13).
    3. Paul in Romans makes the point that Abraham was as good as dead when he received the promise. Death, sin and the law are intimately bound together for Paul. The Gospel only ever speaks to those under death, sin and the law (not necessarily the Mosaic Law as Steve says).

    Ultimately though Paul’s argument is not that the law was the end or purpose of the Gospel (as you seem to suggest), but that the Gospel was the end and purpose of the law. His purpose in bringing up Abraham was not to show that it was Gospel and then law, but that the law was always intended to precede the Gospel that could give life.

  3. PS you say "There is no record that they have to do anything to secure their rescue."

    In fact worse than that they are portrayed as pretty ungrateful and doubtful when Moses comes back to Egypt with his mission.

    If they were rescued as a result of obedience that wouldn't show that it should be law then gospel, it would show that the law was the gospel. Very different. It is important to remember that the purpose of the law was to condemn/kill SO THAT forgiveness/new life could be freely given. Israel in Egypt were under condemnation and death and this is the work which belongs to the law. The work of the Gospel is to free and give life. That is what they received next. This little cycle of death/life is then repeated again and again in little stories later in Exodus, big stories elsewhere and the meta-narrative of the whole Bible.

    Let me know if you think we're talking past each other.

  4. Hi Steve,

    Of course, one of the problems with structural/narrative analysis is that you have to decide where to start... So, in the Eden narrative, if you start with the giving of the command you have a covenant of works; if you start with the creation - and the gracious provision of all things the human couple need - as already a witness to the gospel, perhaps the command looks less like a covenant of works and more like an outworking of the covenant of grace..?

    Anyway, suffice to say for myself that I am not convinced by the idea of a CoW in Eden - or anywhere else for that matter. Aware that this puts me on the wrong side of a lot of Reformed theology, and happy for you to try to persuade me that I'm wrong if you like...

  5. Hi Dave,

    To a certain extent I do think we are talking past each other, but I think that's probably inevitable, as I haven't really set out my stall yet. For that reason, I won't engage in detail with what you've written at this stage, but I will hope to come back to some of your points later.

    I think I just want to say two things at this stage. One is that there is of course a wider sense of 'law' than just the Law of Moses - that is going to be critical to my argument later on. However, I think it is unwise to see Egypt as a picture of that law - in fact, you can only do so if you assume that law/sin/death go together in the sense of classical Lutheranism. Without denying that there is indeed some relationship between those three, I would question the Lutheran understanding fairly radically. In particular, it seems to me that this understanding makes the narrative structure: law/gospel/law - i.e. it takes Israel out of slavery and the realm of law/sin/death and then straight back into it! Perhaps more on this later.

    The second thing I'd want to say is that I don't understand how on this view anyone could ever say 'Oh, how I love your law!' - and since that is a recurrent theme of the OT, that causes me a problem. This one I will definitely come back to in the next few days.

    Keep the thoughts coming, I'm still thinking all this through...

  6. Hi Dan (and all)
    I'm really not as much up on this as others but here's a thought...

    I think I have some conceptual problems with the statement "the Law takes priority over the Gospel". My problem is it starts with a practical question "how should I use "law" in the Christian life” and then works back into the Bible to find an answer.

    Dan what I really like about a narrative approach is it starts from the ground up and only after understanding how the OT works as a story does it try and answer practical questions. My problem with starting from a systematic perspective, especially if you have a strong tendency to say "I'm Lutheran", "I'm Reformed" etc. and a practical question, is you are bringing too much to the text.

    I'm still putting this together myself but I think you partly have to have a narrative experience of walking through the narrative before you answer the sort of practical question above. What I mean by this is that I doubt anyone at Sinai was asking "do these commandments have priority over God's saving act." The experience of Israel would not have led them down that ally.

    I feel that start of understanding Exodus is to imagine that every chapter is the end of your bible because this would have been the experience of those who first received it. What this does is forces you to go back not forward. So to start understanding Exodus 20 you have to go back to creation, fall, Noah, Abraham etc. and relate the law in those terms first.

    The question I don't have a clear answer to is if you were a young Israelite at Sinai raised on the stories of Genesis what would have you made of Sinai?

    I think you have to understand Exodus on its own terms or you can never understand it on Paul’s. I feel if you want to understand Law you need to keep Paul out of it until the narrative gets you to him. And especially you need to let the story set the questions or you end up asking questions at Sinai that no Israelite would. This does not mean that you should not ask practical questions or that you should ignore Paul’s view on law when discussing Exodus. But you need to rework yourself through the story first.

    In part I think this means you can make sense out of Psalm 119, I feel most people who work back from Luther and Paul have little chance of understanding it. But as I said I’m not clear on the answer just I really like Dan’s focus of narrative theology as it allows you to re-frame the questions.

  7. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your further thoughts.

    The way I see it is that the Bible is full of cycles of little deaths and little rebirths. I.e. law->Gospel, law->Gospel, law->Gospel, again and again and again. The trouble is that until Christ the law doesn’t have its complete effect of total death, and so the ‘Gospel’ doesn’t have it’s complete effect of total New Creation either. All we have are anticipations of that great law->Gospel movement which happens in the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Therefore it is not surprising that Israel cycle back to law again because Christ has not yet come, so any freedom Israel experienced was only a shadow of the real freedom that is to come.

    In response to your second point it is a challenge at first to see how the Psalmist can say that but I think that is because we confuse the law with its purpose/effect when it comes into contact with a sinful humanity.

    The law is:
    1. A representation of God’s beautiful love and holiness.
    2. A description of the way the world should be

    In that sense of course the law is delightful in and of itself and as a revelation of these things. HOWEVER, we are sinful so God’s love and holiness is bad news for us, and we can’t find a place to stand in this depiction of a beautiful world. I know someone a short time ago who was invited to a wedding, but he didn’t own a suit. I had a right job trying to persuade him to come on the day explaining that he would be welcome despite his lack of a suit, but he felt he would be so out of place that he refused to come despite our best efforts. The very attractiveness of the event repelled him!

    What he needed was someone to provide him with a suit. Unfortunately it was all a little short notice!

    I can’t believe that until now I’d never thought of that episode as a possible illustration… That’s going on my blog soon before I forget it again!

    Hi Tom,

    It would take me too long to argue the case, but I think that reading the Bible narratively, and in a way that is cognisant of the Ancient Israelite’s experience of God would lead to a ‘Lutheran’ reading. If I thought it had to be read in then I wouldn’t believe it. Paul helps us to see what was already there, but there are lots of hints in the narrative itself that the Israelite’s should have understood the way law was meant to function to bring them to Christ.

  8. Tom, thanks - I think it's useful to try to put yourself into the narrative. And we're not left to wonder about what Israelites thought/felt about the law; our imagination is helped along a lot by Scripture!

    Dave, I think you can see some sort of cyclical structure in the OT, but I don't think it's the cycle you're talking about. Obviously I don't think the move law->gospel is correct - and I'm not sure how you'd argue that God enslaves his people again directly after freeing them...

    On loving the law as an OT saint, of course you could read it through the Lutheran model, but I don't think it has the best fit. The Psalmists don't say that they love the law because it points out their failings - they say they love it because it revives the soul, rejoices the heart, shows wonderful things... etc etc.

    Of course, because I don't really see the dichotomy between law and gospel that you do (on which more to follow), I don't really have a difficulty with saying that the OT saint loves the law because he loves the gospel - again, more on this to come.

  9. I'll look forward to the further posts.

    Just as one point of clarification I'd say that I don't think that God enslaved his people. His service is perfect freedom after all (Cramner). Rather, sin seizes an opportunity through the commandment and enslaved the people. God knew that would happen, but he is not the slave master.

    Oh and another point of clarification. I was not saying (I hope) that the Psalmists said "that they love the law because it points out their failings", but that they loved the law because it showed the m the true identity of God and the way humanity should be. That is good. It is the contact with sinful humanity that makes it crushing, but it is crushing precisely because it is good. It is not good because it is crushing.

  10. Dan, you ask: "The storyline of the Bible is Gospel first, then Law.  What impact should that have on our doctrine?" In that case, I think we now see "law" (in its broad sense) as a response to the gospel. As you say, Paul lays out the gospel in the first half of many letters, then gives instruction "in view of God's mercy". Our response is guided by the law, but it is a response to grace. Two passages spring to mind: firstly, when Jesus sums up the law he sums it up as love for God and neighbour; secondly, John writes "we love because he first loved us". God loves, God saves, we have done nothing to deserve it (gospel) and so what is our response? To love, and live a life of love, for love fulfils the law. Or to word it differently: the life that follows the law, according to Jesus, is one of love; the life of love, according to John, is a response to the gospel of God's love.

  11. Matthew,

    Yes, that's basically what I'd say. I think it's also what Paul is saying when he says that, although not under the Law [of Moses?] he is nevertheless under the Law of Christ. So, a life shaped by the gospel is a life that fulfils the law.

    The more I think about it, the more I think 'shape' is what law is all about - giving structure to our life of response to God's grace.

  12. I feel that this thread has somewhat passed-by my earlier comment and your response, but here are my thoughts on CoWs.

    To my mind a CoW is simply a way of expressing a situation where God's ongoing spiritual blessing of people is conditional, based on their obedience (either "Do this and live" or "Don't do this or you will die"). This in contrast with a gracious covenant, which is unconditional, because God meets th conditions on our behalf.

    In both the Adam/Christ scenario and the Old Covenant/New Covenant scenario, a conditional covenant comes first. This doesn't mean that grace doesn't precede that (and I'd agree that God's grace in Creation somehow points forward to the gospel), but if we are to keep our understanding of Christ being the perfect man who fulfilled God's conditions for us, I think we need to keep CoW/CoG (or call it what you will) in that order.

    Having said all that, what I think is of supreme importance is that we understand the grace-law/obedience-back to grace-back to law/obedience, etc. of the Biblical narrative, wherever it begins, because practically that is the pattern our lives need to follow.