Monthly Archives: August 2013
I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).
In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.
All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.
Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.
It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.
Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.
It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.
But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.
It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.
The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.
A few weeks ago I suggested that the emphasis of Reformed catechisms on the Ten Commandments can obscure the fact that the New Testament’s approach to the Christian life is that of putting on – or being conformed to the image of, or following – Jesus. The ordinary pedagogical approach of the New Testament, I noted, is not to explain the Ten Commandments or urge believers to follow them, but to describe the implications of the person, work, virtues, and commandments of Jesus.
Although this claim may sound radical to modern ears, for most educated Christians up until the 13th or 14th centuries it would have been a matter of course. One thoughtful reader – a student of the early church – wrote this to me:
I’ve continued reflecting on the catechetical and didactic use of the Law, particularly as I’ve been reading William Harmless’ book Augustine and the Catechumenate which details the complex and rich process of preparation for baptism in the primitive church.
I have been on the look-out for mention of the Decalogue as a core part of any of the four parts of initiation: 1) the evangelistic, 2) the catechetical, 3) the illuminative, or 4) the mystagogic processes. In both East and West, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer receive paramount attention, especially in the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil when baptisms would take place. Particularly during Lent, there was tremendous instruction in Christian living and ethics during the daily services which involved teaching, singing, exorcism, anointing, and blessing. But, as I’ve been reading Harmless, he makes no mention (that I’ve picked up on) of a systematic use by the primitive church of the Decalogue. I’ve now become curious as to when (presumably during the Medieval period) the Decalogue became a focus again of Christian discipleship and instruction.
This prompted me to do some research on my own. Is it true that the early church did not emphasize the Ten Commandments in its catechesis? If so, when did the Ten Commandments become a focus of Christian discipleship? And what was the motivation for the shift in focus?
These questions led me to a fascinating (and unfortunately expensive) book by Robert James Bast entitled, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of A Patriarchal Ideology in Germany 1400-1600. Bast’s basic thesis is that during the late medieval era and the early Reformation Christian theologians turned to the Ten Commandments as a focus of catechesis as a primary means of disciplining and ordering a society that was widely seen to be in crisis. The title of the book comes from the stress such theologians placed on the Fifth Commandment as the foundation for paternalistic magisterial authority, and the consequent obligation of godly magistrates to enforce all ten commandments.
In the first chapter Bast sets up the context for his more focused analysis by considering “The Ten Commandments and Late-Medieval Catechesis.” He begins by confirming the judgment of my correspondent above, that early church catechesis involved “a formal period of instruction, usually based on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and moral directives drawn from a variety of sources” (3). It was not until the late 12th Century that the Ten Commandments began gradually to move into a more prominent position. Yet of the tradition before this Bast writes,
Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount). (32-33)
Bast goes on to clarify that the church decisively rejected the heresy of Marcionism, which divorced Christianity from Judaism and the New Testament from the Old. As a result, the church sought to emphasize on the one hand the enduring truth and relevance of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, and on the other hand its fulfillment in the clearer revelation of Jesus.
The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over. (33)
Augustine was somewhat of an exception, Bast points out.
[H]e preached on the Commandments regularly, and a cautious though unwavering affirmation of them runs through his works. Here too, however, the ideological need to preserve the superiority of Christian revelation was maintained, for Augustine was careful to read the Decalogue as the practical exposition of Jesus’ commands to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself. (33)
Augustine’s careful and qualified approach to the Decalogue did not change the church’s emphasis in catechism and discipleship. The typical early church approach to catechesis was solidified during the medieval era by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).
According to Gregory, the commandments of the Decalogue were essentially inferior to the precepts of the Gospel. While the former governed only external actions, he argued, the latter went further, dealing with matters of the heart. The old Law was ‘imperfect’ and ‘weak’; ‘bread for infants,’ given to an immature people for a limited time, but later repudiated by God himself. As … good things cease to be good when compared to what is better, so too, argued Gregory, the Commandments given to the ignorant pale beside the ethical teaching of the New Testament. (34)
Gregory’s Moralia, Bast observes, became the basis for the church’s moral instruction for centuries.
Culling ethical imperatives and prohibitions almost exclusively from the Gospels, the Epistles, and patristic theology, Gregory created a patchwork of moral teaching organized into seven virtues and seven vices (or ‘deadly sins’). (34) Ecclesiastical legislation from subsequent centuries followed Gregory in de-emphasizing the Ten Commandments. (34)
The later shift toward the Ten Commandments did not come from the Reformation. Indeed, it was not a distinctive of the Reformation at all, contrary to popular belief. It began, rather, during the 12th Century, both in response to a new scholarly interest in the Old Testament and the increasing fear of European elites that Christendom was falling into crisis. Many scholars have noted that during the late medieval era, especially after the Gregorian Revolution, the church began to devote tremendous energy to social and cultural reform. The Ten Commandments were increasingly seen as a simple and decisive authority for the illiterate masses (the Ten Commandments can easily be counted on one’s fingers). They were also conceived as an easy and obvious program for enforcement by lay magistrates.
It was no accident that the medieval church turned to Israel and the Law when its mindset revolved around reforming the masses, Bast notes.
As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)
In part 2 of this series I’ll consider these developments after the 12th Century. Either there, or in a part 3, I’ll take a look at how the Protestant appropriation of the Ten Commandments built on and adapted the late medieval approach.
At the Huffington Post my friend Jimmy McCarty offers a thoughtful contrast between Egypt, which has seen its effort at democracy collapse in violence and chaos, and South Africa, which almost miraculously emerged from generations of racism, division and strife to become a democratic, multiracial, and relatively stable society.
At least one key difference, he suggests, is the role of South Africa’s first ever black president Nelson Mandela, who at age 95, has been in the hospital for the past two months. McCarty writes,
As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today).
How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”
McCarty goes on to outline the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in recorded history. When God confronted Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded with the famous dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”
Nelson Mandela understood this, McCarty, points out. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes,
Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed … I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
It was based on this conviction that Mandela led South Africa in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is unparalleled in the events of the 20th Century.
In his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5 Calvin makes one of his most provocative claims about the significance of the lordship of Christ over all things.
God has appointed to his children alone the whole world and all that is in the world. For this reason, they are also called the heirs of the world, for at the beginning Adam was appointed to be lord of all, on this condition, that he should continue in obedience to God. Accordingly, his rebellion against God deprived of the right, which had been bestowed on him, not only himself but his posterity. And since all things are subject to Christ, we are fully restored by his mediation, and that through faith, and therefore all that unbelievers enjoy may be regarded as the property of others, which they rob or steal.
Calvin makes the same point in numerous other places. When Adam sinned humanity forfeited not only its hope of eternal life, but its very right to the blessings of God’s creation. Jesus’ work as the second Adam has regained the creation, which is now destined for complete restoration at Christ’s return. Yet only those who hold fast to Christ in faith can participate in this legitimate lordship, let alone in its future restoration. All other possession is unjust.
Continuing in his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5, Calvin writes,
And which of us would venture to claim for himself a single grain of wheat, if he were not taught by the word of God that he is the heir of the world? Common sense, indeed, pronounces that the wealth of the world is naturally intended for our use, but since dominion over the world was taken from us in Adam, everything that we touch of the gifts of God is defiled by our pollution, and on the other hand, it is unclean to us, till God graciously come to our aid, and by ingrafting us into his Son, constitutes us anew to be lords of the world, that we may lawfully use as our own all the wealth with which he supplies us.
Some contemporary Reformed Christians, wary of Neo-Calvinist claims about the progressive transformation of the world into the kingdom of Christ, have insisted that the New Testament teaches a redemption of persons but not of creation itself. Whether or not this is the case (and I believe the New Testament is quite clear that Christ reconciles creation itself), there is no doubt that Calvin is on the side of the Neo-Calvinists here. Jesus’ lordship over all things is exhaustive, and no one has any right to use or enjoy the blessings of creation without dedicating it to the glory and service of God. As he puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 2:8, “nothing is ours except through the bounty of God and our union with Christ.” This includes “not only things needful for eternal blessedness, but also such inferior things as serve to supply the wants of the body.”
But does that mean non-Christians have no rights to property or political power? In the medieval era a number of Christian theologians, as well as some popes, claimed just that. A king might forfeit his authority over his subjects, for instance, if he was excommunicated. We might find a parallel to this view among contemporary Christians who speak and act as if unbelievers should not be placed in positions of political leadership, or as if political power justified on any other basis than Christian scripture is illegitimate.
Yet Calvin does not go there. He carefully distinguishes between right and legitimate use. Because of his sin, he argues, Adam was denied the good things of creation, “not that he was denied the use of them, but that he could have had no right to them” (Commentary on Hebrews 2:5). Nowhere in his massive corpus of writings does Calvin question the practical right of unbelievers to hold property or to exercise political power.
But if Jesus is lord over all things, how is this consistent? For many of us it seems intuitive that if Jesus is lord his authority must be asserted with energy and power. We are quite confident that we understand what lordship looks like and what its implications should be. If we’re serious about following him, we need confidently to conquer and defend every square inch of creation.
“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.”
This is where it is crucial to understand Calvin’s understanding of the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom. To put it in ordinary terms, while Calvin affirms that Jesus is lord over all things in heaven and on earth, he insists that until he returns to judge the living and the dead, this lordship is exercised in the context of mercy, service, and suffering. Just as Jesus, in other words, declined to exercise his judicial authority during his earthly ministry, taking instead the form of a servant and going the way of the cross, so believers are to live in the same way. This is true even though Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Today is the day of salvation.
As Calvin explains in the commentary on Hebrews 2, following his comments on Adam’s having forfeited his rights over creation, it is God’s will that believers “spend their whole life under the cross,” just as Christ did before them. “This is the conforming of the head with the members, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:29.”
If we are serious about Christ’s lordship, then, we are going to have to give up our intuitions about what that must mean and start to pay attention to what our lord has actually told us to do. The calling of Christians in this age is not militantly to assert and defend Christ’s lordship, as real as that lordship is, but to proclaim and witness to that lordship by conforming to the image of Christ in service and suffering.
And it is here that much of the Protestant tradition after Calvin went wrong. Whether due to an idealistic Puritan postmillennialism or to Whig theories of liberal progress, leading theologians, both conservative and liberal, became convinced that the kingdom of Christ will be realized progressively in this world, transforming all political and social structures in its wake. They even claimed Calvin’s authority for this view, despite the reformer’s constant insistence that the Christian life this side of Christ’s return is marked by the experience of the cross.
To be sure, Calvin taught adamantly that society is to be regulated in accord with the word of God, and he was confident that the kingdom of Christ would expand progressively up to Christ’s return. But the primary expression of this expansion is the preaching of the gospel by Christ’s ambassadors, empowered by the Spirit, and the consequent gathering of repentant sinners. And Calvin never wavered from insisting that this expansion takes place under the cross.
Thus it is a most apt conclusion – that whatever the gospel promises respecting the glory of the resurrection vanishes away, except we spend our present life in patiently bearing the cross and tribulations….
He then shows by the very order of election that the afflictions of the faithful are nothing else than the manner by which they are conformed to the image of Christ, and that this was necessary, as he had before declared… [G]ratuitous adoption, in which our salvation consists, is inseparable from the other decree, which determines that we are to bear the cross, for no one can be an heir of heaven without being conformed to the image of the only begotten son of God… [H]e will have all those whom he adopts to be the heirs of his kingdom to be conformed to his example. (Commentary on Romans 8:25,29)
So often in contemporary debates among Christians one side insists that because Jesus is lord Christians need to be more assertive in the culture wars, while the other side insists that because Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual Christians shouldn’t worry about or even engage the culture wars. Yet Calvin’s theology points us in a different direction. Because Jesus is lord over all things, whether on earth or in heaven, Christians should imitate their lord and conform to his example, taking up their cross and serving their neighbors in love. Clearly Christians need to be engaged in the issues of our time, but the manner of our engagement matters just as much as the engagement itself. Because we testify that apart from Christ no one has any right to political authority or property, including ourselves, we must approach the things of this world as Christ did, in humility and service.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
During the past few weeks I’ve written several articles arguing that the Christian life is about following Jesus Christ rather than about following the law. As I carefully explained, my point was not that Christians have no obligation to follow God’s moral law, including as that moral law is revealed in the Ten Commandments. We do. Rather, I was speaking of the law in its covenantal sense (i.e., the Sinai Covenant), as the New Testament usually does. My main point was that the New Testament presents the Christian life within the covenantal framework of putting on Christ (i.e., the new covenant) rather than the covenantal framework of the law.
Some of my readers were confused by this point. Are not the Ten Commandments the summary of the very moral law of God? Do they not represent God’s timeless moral will for all people in all places? And as long as we interpret them through the lens of Christ and the New Testament, is it not entirely appropriate to present them as a norm for Christian living?
I agree with these objections in their conclusion. As I declared several times in the articles, the law remains profitable for Christians for correction and instruction (the third use of the law). I wholeheartedly affirm, for instance, the interpretation of the Ten Commandments found in the Heidelberg Catechism.
But the problem I have with this argument is its assumption that the Ten Commandments are somehow a timeless document of ethical instruction. It seems to assume that scripture’s ethical instruction can be removed from its covenantal context, or even that the Christian life is fundamentally about fidelity to any timeless moral standard. To be sure, Christian obedience never falls below God’s moral law. But is that all that it is?
The reality is that scripture always presents the life of the faithful as a covenantal life, and its instruction to the faithful always comes in covenantal form. What’s more, if there is any document in scripture that is the very form and essence of a covenantal document, it is the Ten Commandments, often referred to in the Torah as “the covenant” itself. Scripture generally presents the Ten Commandments not as a summary of God’s timeless moral will but as the representative document of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The Ten Commandments, therefore, like the rest of the law, emphasize Israel’s having been called out as separate from the nations, faced with God’s promised blessings for obedience and threatened curses for disobedience.
And while there can be no doubt that the perfect fulfillment of the covenant required wholehearted love for God and love for one’s neighbor, it is equally clear that the Ten Commandments themselves largely take the expression of negative prohibitions. The law is framed as a document for children, as Paul writes in Galatians, filled with types and shadows. Its perfect righteousness is highlighted by its emphasis on judgment (both on the Canaanites and on unfaithful Israel). Its perfect love is obscured, as Jesus declares, by concessions to “your hardness of heart,” even though “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19).
The beautiful prediction of the prophets was that although Israel flagrantly and consistently broke this covenant from the very beginning (Moses threw down and broke the tablets even before they could be presented to the people), God would make a new covenant with his people. This covenant would not be like the one he made with the people when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. Rather, he would take his law and write it on their hearts, enabling them to serve as his faithful people by granting them his Holy Spirit and forgiving their sins. It was through this new covenant that the law would no longer serve as a dividing wall of hostilities, separating Israel from the nations; rather, all nations would come streaming to Zion to receive instruction from Zion’s King, the Messiah.
As the New Testament writings make quite clear, it is Jesus who fulfilled these prophecies, establishing a new and better covenant in the process. Many statements in the writings of John, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews declare that the Christian life is shaped within the covenantal framework of following Jesus rather than the law. The understandable objection of the Jews and the Judaizers was that the law was central to God’s relation to his people; that it could not be abandoned without abandoning Israel’s very identity. The response of the apostles was that Jesus is the new Israel, the one who fulfilled the law, and that by holding fast to him by faith and being united to him through the Holy Spirit Christians are grafted into Israel and fulfill the law in the only way that they possibly could.
The New Testament’s instruction about the nature of the Christian life therefore takes a quite different form from that of the law and the Ten Commandments. In terms of God’s timeless moral will there is continuity, of course, but that is only a small part of what the Christian life is all about.
- If the law communicated God’s character through inscriptions written on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of God himself, in the form of a living, breathing, acting, speaking human being.
- If the law emphasized Israel’s identity as having been called out from the nations to be different, Jesus called his followers to go into all nations, baptizing and making disciples, always being willing and ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them.
- If the law established Israel as a nation called to wage war against its pagan neighbors, as the expression of the judgment of God, Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to suffer rather than inflict vengeance on others.
- If the law tolerated a certain degree of mistreatment of captives, slaves, or wives, because of the hardness of human hearts, Jesus, both in example and in word, called his disciples to serve one another, recognizing that greatness takes the form of humility and self-sacrifice.
- If the law stipulated capital punishment for thirty odd cases of impiety and injustice, including adultery, Jesus, the messianic king himself, refused to decree death on a woman caught in adultery, taking instead the curse of the law on himself, and calling her to go and sin no more.
- If the law warned that suffering was a sign of God’s judgment for disobedience, and promised that obedience would be rewarded with earthly prosperity and peace, Jesus declared that suffering was the sign of God’s blessing for being identified with him, and promised that it would be a means of our being conformed to his image.
I could go on and on, of course. And yet the point that needs to be emphasized is that although not one of these changes amounts to an alteration of God’s timeless moral law, the nature and experience and mission of being one of God’s people has changed radically. Our calling is not merely to conform to God’s moral law. Our calling is to hold fast to Jesus Christ as the express image of God, and in our lives of service, self-sacrifice, and obedience, faithfully to witness to him as the only hope of the world that God so loves. As we do so we together become his body, drawn from all nations, proclaiming peace and reconciliation even to the worst of sinners who seek salvation.
And it makes a difference, as Chris Gordon helpfully explains, whether or not we conceive of our Christian lives and our churches as testimonies first and foremost of the law, or as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Does this mean we forget the history of Israel, forget the teaching of the law and the prophets, or forget the Ten Commandments? Of course not! How else would we understand just how rigorous is God’s righteousness and how tragic is our sin? How else would we understand just who Christ is and what he has done? We neglect the teaching of the law at our peril.
And yet, Jesus Christ remains our focus, for justification, sanctification, and glorification. We dare not turn back to the law as the covenantal framework for our lives, let alone as the summary of all that is required of us. The law takes its place as that which pointed to and prepared us for Jesus, and we should use it accordingly. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 1:17; 14:6).
I was five years old when Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers. I still remember quite vividly the shock of finding out. In my five year old mind, Gretzky and the Oilers in their bright blue and orange uniforms (though they were black and white on our TV) represented everything that was good and exciting in the world. For the first time in my life I had to come to grips, personally, with the problem of evil.
This morning I told my four year old son that 25 years ago today Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Oilers. His response:
Why? When’s he coming back?
I still ask myself that question. The pain doesn’t go away Joel. You just have to deal with it.
The United States has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world. Contrary to popular belief, even many western European countries are much more restrictive of abortion after the first trimester than is the United States. For instance, both Germany and France ban abortion after 14 weeks, while Sweden bans abortion after 18 weeks. In contrast, the United States Supreme Court declared in a series of rulings beginning in 1973 (Roe v. Wade) that states cannot restrict a woman’s right to have an abortion before the child is viable (around 24 weeks).
But times may be changing. Amid signs that the potentially pivotal justice on the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy, is open to a more liberal approach to protecting the rights of the unborn, a dozen states (as well as the U.S. House of Representatives) have passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks. These laws would still be much more permissive of abortion than is the case in Germany, France, or Sweden, and they remain well behind American public opinion, but they nevertheless move the debate in a direction that would once have been inconceivable. And yes, protecting the right to life is indeed a liberal cause, if liberalism is rightly defined in terms of the “freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties.”
What is making the difference? Americans are becoming increasingly (if slowly) more pro-life, in part due to growing conviction that unborn children are, in fact, persons. As the New York Times pointed out in an article on Thursday, part of the reason for this is new yet still controversial evidence that a fetus experiences pain as early after 20 weeks. The Times reports:
With these bills, the anti-abortion movement is tapping into a powerful strand in the complex tangle of public opinion on abortion. Support for legal abortion drops when people are asked about the later stages of pregnancy.
In a Gallup poll last December, 61 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, but 27 percent said it should be legal in the second three months, and 14 percent in the final three.
Translated: According to consistent measurements, only one quarter of Americans think abortion should be legal after 14 weeks. Even the fetal pain laws that are based on controversial evidence fall well short of public opinion.
In a fascinating article at Slate a couple weeks ago William Saletan pointed out Americans support the 20 week prohibition by solid margins even according to the most carefully worded polls. Saletan writes:
The Post/ABC poll lays this bare. Here’s the full text of its question: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said abortion is legal without restriction in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks, or up to 24 weeks?”
It’s reasonable to speculate that the phrase “without restriction” alienated some respondents and made them more likely to choose the earlier time limit. It’s also possible that the passive language—“reduce” rather than “ban”—soothed people who might otherwise worry about a new abortion law. But it’s hard to believe that these factors could account for the enormous gap that resulted: 56 percent of respondents chose 20 weeks, while only 27 percent chose 24 weeks.
In fact, those numbers understate the pro-life tilt. Eight percent of respondents volunteered that abortion should never be legal. Two percent said they wanted an earlier time limit than 20 weeks. So the percentage of respondents who would have chosen 20 weeks if they’d answered the question as it was posed isn’t 56 percent. It’s more like 66 percent.
Saletan observes that whether or not fetal pain is mentioned, as well as whether or not the victim of the abortion is referred to as an “unborn child,” affects poll results. Indeed, he suggests, it may be that people are less interested in whether or not a fetus feels pain than they are influenced by the thought that the fetus is a child. As he puts it,
it isn’t clear to what extent people are moved by the risk of fetal pain, as opposed to fetal pain capability. Do they believe that a fetus capable of feeling pain is too fully human to kill? Or do they simply think it’s wrong to cause pain? There’s a simple way to force the issue: Offer them two choices at 20 weeks, an abortion ban or mandatory fetal anesthesia. What do you think they’ll say?
Saletan doesn’t answer the question, but it’s not hard to figure out what he thinks the answer is. As Walter Russell Mead has written, when it comes to competing rights claims, in the long run Americans always tend to fall in the liberal direction of protecting an individual’s self-determination. Whereas in the case of same-sex marriage this liberal inclination seems to support the Left, in the case of abortion it supports the Right. The more Americans think of the victim of an abortion as a human being, as an individual, the more they will want to see abortion restricted.
This suggests two things. First, the pro-life movement is wise to continue to emphasize the humanity of an unborn child. This claim is fundamental to the moral argument that abortion violates not only Christian convictions about human dignity, but basic liberal principles about the right to life. Second, the pro-life movement has a far greater chance of long-term success if it is politically flexible, seeking incremental changes rather than an outright universal prohibition of abortion. Indeed, the latter may never be possible.
This second point is hard for many people, especially Christians, to accept. If our politics is to be expressive of God’s law, if it is to be principled, how can we compromise at all when it comes to human life? Shouldn’t we take outright prohibition or nothing, and refuse all compromise? And of course, in the long run Christians should accept nothing less than full justice for the unborn, especially if the long run includes the Christian hope for the full establishment of the kingdom of God.
But politics is usually about the short run. It calls us to take into account not only what is ideal (i.e., God’s moral will), but what is possible; not only intentions (or virtue), but consequences; not only the hope of the kingdom of God, but a secular order that is as just as possible. And in the short run, in light of what is possible, it is clear that compromise is actually the best form of progress. A prohibition of abortion at 20 weeks is superior to a prohibition at 24 weeks. It leads us in the right direction. It has the support of the American people and potentially that of the Supreme Court because it is profoundly liberal. It may work. And consequences matter.
When I first decided that I was going to pursue ethics as my vocation, some years ago, I at the same time made an equally important decision about the kind of ethicist I wanted to be: a biblical ethicist. By that adjective ‘biblical’ I did not simply mean that I wanted to come to ethical conclusions that were consistent with scripture. I meant that I wanted to ‘do ethics’ the way scripture itself does ethics. Specifically, I wanted my approach to the Christian life to be the same approach that is found in the New Testament. In short, I believed that Christian ethics is fundamentally about reflection on what it means to “put on Jesus Christ.”
One of the first obstacles I discovered, however, was the tradition in Protestant ethics of emphasizing the Ten Commandments as the framework or model for the Christian life. In some, Presbyterian circles this tradition was expanded so as to emphasize the Mosaic Law in general, including all of its judicial and political regulations. It is important to stress that, for the most part, my difficulty was not with the moral truths affirmed or denied, nor with the fact that those moral truths were traced to the Ten Commandments or the Old Testament. Indeed, having been raised under the Heidelberg Catechism, I was always taught to interpret and follow the Ten Commandments in light of Christ. And I wholeheartedly affirm this teaching.
My difficulty, rather, was that it quickly became apparent to me that the emphasis on the Ten Commandments is not the approach of the New Testament to the Christian life; indeed, it was obscuring it. It became clear to me that the New Testament does not identify the Ten Commandments or “the law” as the primary framework for pleasing God or conforming to his moral law. Rather, it identifies Jesus Christ, whom we are to “put on” and to whose image we are to be “conformed,” as the only perfect model of God’s moral will (or moral law). Every single New Testament writing (with only the apparent exception of James), I realized, seeks to shift our focus away from “the law” and towards Christ. If I want to follow the New Testament’s own approach to ethics, this is what I have to do as well.
This approach does not, it needs to be emphasized, separate Christ from his law. As the New Testament clearly teaches, Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law, and those who follow him and conform to his image thereby fulfill the law as well. Nor does it minimize the usefulness of the law, or of the Old Testament, for Christian ethics. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction. The law was always intended to point us to Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that by focusing on the law, or by emphasizing it as the framework for the Christian life, we thereby emphasize Christ. By analogy, the entire Hebrew sacrificial system pointed forward to Christ, but that doesn’t mean that by observing the Hebrew sacrificial system we appropriately demonstrate our faith in Christ. Rather, we best learn from the law by doing what the law itself does – looking to Jesus Christ. There is an arrow between the law and Christ, not an equals sign.
It might seem surprising to some that this argument turns out to be fraught with controversy in certain Reformed circles. The main reason for this controversy, I believe, is that we tend to approach ethics through the lens of our systematic theology and tradition, rather than through the lens of the New Testament. Systematic theology and tradition are both very good things, of course, even necessary. But they become dangerous if they in any way replace scripture itself in regulating our Christian mind. In this case, the classic medieval distinction of the Mosaic Law into the three parts of moral, judicial (or civil), and ceremonial is useful insofar as it clarifies for us that the moral truth – or the righteousness – of the Mosaic Law is binding on all times and places. It has become problematic insofar as it confuses believers into thinking that scripture itself uses this distinction, such that it should control our exegesis of specific passages, or that specific passages can be neatly categorized into one or another of these types of law. It has also become problematic insofar as many Christians have come to view any imperative or command in scripture as “the law”, failing to realize that this is not how scripture itself uses the word ‘law.’
Given the fact that for many people these are novel arguments, and that for others these arguments intuitively evoke a negative response, I want to clarify my basic argument through twelve propositions. At that point, all I can do is to point you, my readers, to scripture itself. Does the New Testament usually characterize the Christian life, and the Christian’s relation to the law, as I describe it here? If it does not, then you should reject my arguments. If it does, regardless of how any particular systematic theology approaches Christian ethics, my arguments are biblical. So look to the scriptures and see whether or not these things are true.
Here are my propositions.
1) The category of ‘moral law’ is an extra-biblical category that should play a role in our reflection but should not be brought to bear inappropriately on the primary work of scriptural exegesis. To quote New Testament scholar Doug Moo, “As has often been pointed out, the threefold distinction of moral, ceremonial, and civil law as separate categories with varying degrees of applicability is simply unknown in the Judaism of the first century, and there is little evidence that Jesus or Paul introduced such a distinction.” For more on this see Moo’s excellent article, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 73-100 ).
2) When scripture uses the word ‘law’ it ordinarily refers to the law given at Sinai, that is, the Mosaic Law, representative of the of the whole Mosaic Covenant as a unit, encompassing all three categories of what later theologians called the moral, ceremonial, and civil law. (Sometimes, of course, it also refers to Old Testament scripture in general. But the former is the default meaning.)
3) Scripture decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly identifies the Ten Commandments as the Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant itself. The Ten Commandments were the “tablets of stone” placed in the ark of the covenant. Exodus 34:28 declares of Moses on Mt. Sinai, “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is a fundamental claim in my argument. See Exodus 34:1-4, 27-30; Deuteronomy 4:11-13; Deuteronomy 9:9-15; Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Cf. 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Exodus 24:12.
4) Scripture never identifies the Ten Commandments in this way with the timeless, eternal moral law of God, despite the substantial degree of overlap between the two.
5) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly direct our attention from “the law” to Jesus, whether as the true fulfillment and interpreter of the law (Matthew); as the one who, in contrast to Moses as the giver of the law, brings grace and truth and directs his followers to “my commandments” (John); as the one who has made a new and “better” covenant and thereby rendered the old one “obsolete” (Hebrews); as the one who has fulfilled and abolished the law, creating in himself the new man (Paul).
6) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and consistently describe the Christian life, including what we would call obedience to the moral law, in terms of obedience to Jesus, following Jesus, putting on Jesus, conforming to Jesus, walking in Jesus, walking worthy of Jesus, or living in the Spirit (of Jesus). The New Testament almost never summarizes Christian obedience (including to the moral law) or sanctification primarily in terms of obedience or conformity to the law.
7) Paul and Hebrews both explicitly identify the Ten Commandments, “the tablets of stone,” with the old covenant or ministry that was temporary. See Hebrews 9:4, especially in context of Hebrews 8:6-9:15. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 explicitly identifies the Ten Commandments, in the context of Moses’ coming down from the mountain and his face shining, as the old covenant, the ministry of death, condemnation, and of the letter that kills, in contrast to the new covenant, which he describes as the ministry of righteousness and of the Spirit that gives life. As if to remind us that he is talking about sanctification, not simply justification, Paul concludes that it is through this new covenant that we are “being transformed into the same image [of Christ].”
8) Paul often explicitly identifies “the law” as that which came at a specific point in time, that is, at Sinai. It came “430 years” after Abraham as a guardian for the people of God (Galatians 3:17, 24). The Gentiles did “not have” the law, the “written code” (Romans 2:14-15, 27-29) because it was not given until the time of Moses (Romans 5:13-14, 20).
9) In the same contexts as in Proposition 8, he interprets the same law as that which Christians are not under, because they are now in Christ. We are no longer under a guardian but have put on Christ (Galatians 3:25-27). We are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14).
10) We are not under law, not only with reference to justification, but with reference to our Christian service, or sanctification. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).
11) The law is good, righteous, and holy (Romans 7), but it is bad news for sinners, to whom it brings death. Yet by following Christ and walking according to the Spirit believers fulfill the righteousness of the law (Romans 8:4) because love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10). The best way to honor the goodness and righteousness of the law is therefore by putting on Christ and conforming to his image. The law is still useful for Christian instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), but only as interpreted through the paradigm of walking in Christ (i.e., Ephesians 6:1-3). The law, as such (i.e., as a covenantal document), is only used “lawfully” and “in accordance with the glorious gospel” if it is used for the ungodly and the wicked (1 Timothy 1:5-11).
12) The word ‘law’ in the New Testament almost exclusively refers to the old covenant, to that which believers were once “under,” and almost never to the framework, model, or mindset of the Christian life. Of the very few times where the word ‘law’ is used with reference to the Christian life of sanctification, even in James, it is almost invariably qualified by a reference to liberty, or to Christ, indicating that it is not “the law,” as such, that is in view. If you don’t trust me on this, run a word search on the word ‘law’ in the New Testament. It’s startling how rarely it appears in contexts of the Christian life or sanctification, or what we would call obedience to the moral law. The most obvious explanation of this emphasis is 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, where Paul says he is “not under the law,” though he often becomes like one under the law to win over Jews, but that he is “under the law of Christ” (Cf. Galatians 6:2).
This article has gotten long enough, but it is the basis for a fuller article I’m working on that I will release at some point in the future. I’d also like to say more about why this matters so much. For now, I hope it is enough to show that if the New Testament so explicitly, decisively, and consistently redirects our focus from the law to Christ, it must be for very good reasons. I also want to offer the suggestion, built on what I’ve said above, that the reason why the New Testament does not emphasize the Ten Commandments as the paradigm for the Christian life is that it views the Ten Commandments primarily as a covenantal document, expressive of the Sinai Covenant, in contrast to the new covenant. Covenantal paradigms are hugely important in Scripture. It’s all about how you view your relationship to God and what your life is all about.
I want to close with this reminder. That I personally hold to these views is entirely irrelevant. But if I am right about the emphasis of the New Testament, then we are wrong to identify the Ten Commandments as the primary or best expression of the moral law, let alone as the framework for the obedient Christian life. In contrast, we should (following the cue of Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, as one pastor pointed out to me) identify the best expression of the moral law as Christ himself. The framework for the Christian life is therefore putting on the new man Jesus an conforming to his image (See especially Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17, both of which set the framework for those letters’ household codes).
All I can ask of you, then, is to pull out your Bibles, read through the books and letters of the New Testament (ideally in one sitting for each) and see if these things are true. Does the New Testament, in fact, emphasize the law as the primary paradigm and framework for the Christian life, or does it emphasize Jesus? Keep in mind, what we’re talking about is the particular law of scripture, not the moral law. Is it indeed wrong, as some of my critics insist, to emphasize Christ over and above the law?(Note: This article follows three previous articles on this topic, here, here, and here.)