Sunday, September 4, 2011

Epstein and Pope Benedict, Cont'd

I'm afraid that this is going to come off disjointed. The starting point is that I've been reading Deuteronomy (which means the second telling of the Law). From the very beginning Christians have been debating what role the Old Testament Law Code should have in the life of a Christian. Almost no Christians believe that every Mosaic law is binding upon Christians. Some Christians go to the opposite extreme of antinomianism, which says that the law has no role in our lives. I suspect that the vast majority of Protestant Christians come somewhere along the lines of the reformers, who believe that the sacramental laws are no longer binding, but that there are certain of the laws that are moral laws that serve functions separate from any kind of works righteousness: they can be moral guideposts for what is expected of a sanctified life, for example.

One problem is where is the dividing line between the sacramental and the moral law? I think that most Christians wouldn't have any trouble putting the prohibition against weaving together two types of cloth or clean and unclean foods in the former category. But what about the prohibition against tattoos? According to my study Bible, tattoos were a sign of cultic paganism. But what about today, when that connection has been lost? Maybe we should see this law, given its ancient cultural context, as essentially sacramental. But if we are going to make cultural drift a part of the distinction between sacramental and moral laws, where do we stop? Does that lead us to surrender ALL of our moral values to our culture?

I think that most Christians would argue that the 10 Commandments form the core of an unambiguous moral law. But if we stop with the Decalog, what do we have to guide the kind of moral context for economic life that I mentioned in the last post? One: "Thou shall not steal" is pretty good. And bearing false witness could include all kinds of deceit and fraud. But much of what forms our debate on economic policy is found in the extra-decalog Mosaic rules: the restrictions on usury, the jubilee and tort codes, and so forth. So are the rules against usury like the rules against theft or like the rules against tattoos?

Another approach is to note that the 10th Commandment is unique in that it prohibits a particular way of thinking: coveting your neighbor's stuff. And that's where this all loops around back to Deuteronomy. It is in Deuteronomy that Jesus pegs "the Greatest Commandment", and it is another rule about our thinking and not our actions: "Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:29, quoting Deut 6:4-5).

But how, you may be asking, does this get us back to economics. Well, just 2 chapters later is an amazing command from God that is also a "right thought" command and it certainly goes to the heart of our economic life. From Deuteronomy 8:

"Take good care lest you forget your God by not keeping his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up and you forget the Lord your God....Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God for it is he who gives you the power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day."

1 comment:

Brad Hansen said...

Hi, Mark! The issue of how the O.T. law relates to New Covenant believers is always an interesting one, for the very reasons you cite. It seems problematic to attempt either to import all of the law code to modern settings unchanged, or to effectively remove all such considerations from the conscience of the Christian. But I think there is a possible avenue of approach. What the N.T. affirms across its writings (esp. Jesus' own words and Paul) is that "Christ is the end of the law" (Paul's words: Romans 10). The term is the Gk word telos, which I take to mean that everything which was revealed in the Hebrew scriptures pointed to Jesus, his person, and his work. This is confirmed in Jesus' encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, where we are told that "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was written in the scriptures concerning himself." It's hard to imagine what would be more revolutionary for readers of the Hebrew scriptures to be told - that without Christ as the key, they are, in fact, missing the mark. So what does this have to do with the larger question of the the place of the law? An idea I'm working on is that because Christ is embedded in the O.T. and revealed out of that context when we read the N.T., the principle is that, the law (understood as all Hebrew scripture)in its entirety carries over to the N.T. believer, but only through the mediation of Christ, his teaching, and his redemptive work. Paul in Galatians seems to recognize that one necessarily is bound to the law; the question is whether Christ has, through his power, removed the veil at the level of understanding, removed the curse at the level of sin and judgment, and removed the hostility of Jew and Gentile in the realm of ethnicity. One of the practical outworkings of all this is to consider the ecomonic implications of New Covenant transformation. What God willed for Israel in terms of lawful provisions for the poor and needy appears in its new setting almost immediately in the book of Acts. Without code, without lawful direction, without specifying storehouses, Jubilee or anything of the like, ecomonic function is spontaneouslly addressed by the people of God as a transformed body, effected by the presence and redemption of Christ. Something to think about.