This is the second part of a series tackling the theme of the relevance of the Biblical Law into modern-day society. To read the full document, click on this link. to read the first part, click on the tag ‘Jubilee Centre’ below this article.
Overcoming the Objections
Having ‘discovered’ biblical law, we were confronted with a host of reasons why we should not seek to apply it to life today. Each had to be worked through. Four of the more important objections were:
‘Biblical Law Has No Continuing Role in the New Testament’
A superficial reading of the New Testament makes it appear that OT law has been abolished by the coming of Jesus. Paul, for example, says that ‘Christ is the end [or goal] of the Law’ (Romans 10:4). But Jesus insists that he has not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17) and Paul elsewhere says that ‘the Law is good if one uses it properly’ (1 Timothy 1:8). Fortunately, Chris Wright’s doctoral thesis helped to clarify the role of OT law for the Christian. He found three levels of fulfilment or application: typological, eschatological and paradigmatic.The last of these, that Israel’s distinctive social organisation was part of its calling to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 42:6), had immediate relevance for our work.
‘There Is No Mandate for Christians to Promote Biblical Law in Society Today’
The immediate answer lies in the incentive offered by Jesus, ‘anyone who practises and teaches these commands will be great in the kingdom’ (Matthew 5:19). There is some intrinsic link between law and kingdom. As Paul says, the law was put in charge to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). However, if the kingdom is only where the rule of Christ is acknowledged in people’s hearts, what is Christ’s relationship with the rest of humanity? The New Testament claims that Christ’s reignis over all humanity, both as creator and as redeemer, whether people recognise it or not (Matthew 28:18). So Christians have the God-given authority to address society with both law and gospel.
‘Biblical Law Upholds a Society Based on Patriarchy and Slavery’
The gender issue in OT law is complex and some allowance must be made for cultural context. However, agricultural societies cannot allow land inheritance to pass down through both sons and daughters or plots become even more quickly subdivided and scattered. This was clearly an issue in Israel (Numbers chapters 27 and 36). The law chooses the patriarchal route, consistent with the Genesis account. With respect to slavery, Israel’s institution was a far cry from life in ancient Greece or Rome. Slaves in Israel were allowed to run away (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), and were released every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). Indeed, OT slavery is more like a domestic service contract, albeit giving considerable power to the house-holder. It was in effect punishment in the community for a thief or a person in debt (Exodus 22:3), and was probably more humane than the social exclusion and enforced inactivity of a modern prison.
‘It Is Not Clear Which Parts of Biblical Law Should Be Applied Today’
While many of the laws and their penalties are part of Israel’s ceremonial law, and thus are fulfilled in Christ and no longer binding on the Christian (e.g. the food laws), Jesus insists no part of the Law can be entirely dismissed on grounds of cultural irrelevance (Matthew 5:17). The reformers’ categories of moral, civil and ceremonial law are helpful if seen to describe different purposes rather than different types of law. One specific command, to keep the Sabbath holy, for example, may be regarded simultaneously as having moral, civil and ceremonial functions. It is the moral-civil function of the Law, not its role as a sign of the OT covenant (Exodus 31:13), which is relevant to the ordering of society today.There were many other objections we faced in the early years of pursuing this approach. It seemed that Christians had found many reasons over the last 300 years not to study the application of biblical law to contemporary society.
(Part III will be published next week)
Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.
With special thanks to the Jubilee Centre. For more information, visit the website http://www.jubilee-centre.org.
See Christopher J.H. Wright, Living as the People of God (IVP, Leicester, 1983).