The Old Testament Law: A View from the New

This is part of an essay that I’m writing about St Paul. This section is my attempted reconstruction of the meaning and purpose of the law, and the difference that the New Covenant makes to the Old. I hope it makes sense. Note that I am being severely cramped by a time limit for my verbal presentation, so if any ideas are underdeveloped, I apologise. I’ve had to edit my paper ruthlessly as it is. Without further ado:

The Setting of the Law in Redemption History

I believe that NT Wright has adopted the correct approach in grounding Paul’s thinking in the whole thrust of redemption history. After all, the books of the Law begin with the Genesis prologue, and it forms an important, but much ignored, interpretive setting. It defines the project and trajectory of God’s action in the world, of which the law is only a part.

In the Garden, the big problem with man and the world is the curse of death and all that it entails for relationships. The problem is immediately addressed in God’s promise of ‘the seed of the woman’ who will crush the tempter’s head. For Paul, the promised ‘seed’ (through Abraham) is one man, Christ. By Christ’s death and resurrection, death is the last enemy to be destroyed (1Co. 15:26).

The scattering of the nations at Babel is another key event. It issues in division and enmity between nations. The problem is immediately addressed by God’s election of one man to form a nation belonging to God, and the promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3 that all nations will be blessed through him. The plan of God operates from then on by means of Abraham’s ‘seeds’, but, in Paul’s view, it culminates in the coming of the ‘Seed’ (Ga. 3:19), the one who pours out the blessing of the Spirit on all nations (Ga. 3:14; Ep. 2:11-17).

We learn from Ephesians that God’s plan has always been to unite the world under the headship of Christ, the new Adam. Although it’s not explicit in Ephesians, this represents the reversal of the disunity of Babel and (in the long run) the curse of sin and death. So, Israel and her law are important, but subsidiary, elements of the larger trajectory of salvation history. Israel’s law was not an end in itself. Christ is the end of the law that there might be righteousness for all who believe.

The purpose of the law

Looking at the law in redemption history already helps to describe its purpose. Firstly, we were created without sin for relationship with God and one another, and we are headed to new creation in which this will be true again. Humanity is supposed to reflect the image of God, living gratefully under his rule and in spiritual relationship with him. We would expect, then, that God’s law for mankind would tell us what God is like, and how we are to live if we are to be like him. It teaches us what it means to be the image of God.

Secondly, while the law might be describing life with a perfect holy God, the law is given to people who are unholy rebels. The law meets with the wrong kind of raw material because of the problem of sin. So, the positive purpose of the law is simple: it describes community in relationship with God. The complications all arise out of the fact that humanity is unwilling to be in relationship with God, and incapable of living according to the standards of that relationship.

Paul’s use of the law

It is my view that the apparent contradictions involved in Paul’s view of the law can be largely ironed out if one simply recognises that the law is a clash of God’s perfect ideal with the reality of a world marred by sin, and if one remembers the law’s temporary place in the trajectory of redemption history.

So, to begin with, the following propositions summarise Paul’s major statements about the law, and hopefully show how their seeming contradictions are largely attributable to that clash of a Holy God with sinful man:

Firstly, the law teaches us who God is and what he is like.
The law is directed at relationship with God, so it describes God’s holy character. This is one reason why it can be summarised by the rule to love, because God is in himself love.

Secondly, the law teaches us how to be godly.
The law is directed towards those whom God has brought by grace into relationship with himself, so that they are able to know how to live in God’s image. The law is indeed intended for life, in other words, to teach us how to live according to God’s design for life. The law would produce right life if it did not meet with human incapacity. If people could keep the law, it would be life to us.

Third, the law was added because of transgressions.
If we lived perfectly imaging God, we would not need the law, because we would already and practice Godly Holiness. The law was added because of transgressions, because as sinners we have been plunged into darkness, not knowing God’s truth. So, sinners need the law to reveal our sin to us. It provides us with due warning that we are out of step with God’s nature and purpose.

Fourth, the law belongs on the heart.
Moses urges Israel to write the law upon their hearts. David was Messiah because he had a heart after God’s own heart. Israel as a whole failed because ‘these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’, says God. The Prophets promised an age of the Spirit, in which God will himself write the law upon the hearts of his people, so that a naturally unwilling people have their wills redirected towards God and holiness.

Fifth, the law is a shadow and a temporary schoolmaster.
God’s ideal involves having people who have his law on their hearts, and who image him willingly and naturally. Without the gift of the Spirit to bring this about in the OT, the law functioned as ‘schoolmaster’. It spelled out for God’s people how to live godly lives. This is key to Paul, I believe: The law is full of sample applications of the true law and vivid illustrations of God’s holiness (such as the food laws, which seem to have little intrinsic ethical content – eating a pig is not inherently evil and eating a sheep good).

However, the applications and illustrations that comprise the bulk of the Torah are not the law itself. They are temporary expressions of God’s eternal image: they teach the law of love.

Because the particulars of the OT law are not eternal in themselves, Paul calls the law a shadow being cast behind the figure of Christ, who is the substantial reality to which the law points. When Christ (who is the image of God) comes, the true eternal law is given concrete existence, and so he renders the weaker, shadowy examples of the image in the Torah obsolete. But because Christ is eternal God, the principles that the Torah taught remains inherent in Christ.

This is also partly why Christ can teach that not a pen-stroke of the law will pass away, and yet he effectively sets aside the ceremonial laws. The eternal law persists unchanged because God’s character is unchanged. Social circumstances change, and so the particular laws by which God’s character is expressed might vary, but the underlying law remains unaltered.

So, the OT applications of the law are not the eternal law per se. Even before the coming of Christ, the body of laws appears to have been subject to re-application when social circumstances changed. The people wandering in the Exodus had a book of laws appropriate to their nomadic conditions, whereas the settling nation in Deuteronomy received laws suitable to that state. It seems fair to say that, even in the OT, the law is an underlying fabric of moral and religious love (love for God and neighbour) that is capable of variation in application when social circumstances change. Certainly, the Prophets promise that a new covenant is coming, which presupposes (at least) a new application of the old covenant (i.e. on the heart), if not a full replacement of the old.

As Jeremiah 31 says, once the law is on the heart, no one will need to say to his neighbour, ‘Know the Lord’. The blinding influence of sin will have been done away with. The shadowy, pedagogical function of the law will have run its course.

Sixth, the good law kills.
The law is good, because it reveals God to us and it expresses what he requires of those whom he has redeemed. Without revelation of God, no one could be saved from his wrath or restored to relationship with him. However, the good law meeting with the bad subject presents an obvious complication. Natural people have an orientation towards rebellion and idolatry. Therefore, the law necessarily condemns and kills. It is ‘that which brought death to me’.

Seventh, no one can keep the law, but the law can be kept in Christ.
No one can keep the law, and so the law kills. However, the law that kills also tells us where life can be found. The law has an in-built recognition that people are hopelessly incapable: the sacrificial system exists exactly because God knows that we are unable to keep his law. Given that this is the case, sacrifice is provided as a means by which people can call upon God for grace and mercy in the light of their sin. The law, properly understood, directs sinners away from itself, and towards God’s redeeming grace.

If we are united to Christ, who is the embodiment of law, we cease from our own labours and rest in his, and so are made law-keepers.

Eighth, the law provokes the sinner’s disobedience.
The law meets with one of two expressions of autonomy: it either provokes open rebellion, whereby people find in the law new ways to disobey, or it meets with legalism. Our human nature takes the law, the expression of God’s holiness and perfection, and says, ‘Sure, I can do that’. This is idolatry.

I fail to see how the New Perspective (the new view that Paul is not arguing against Jewish legalists, because Judaism taught that they belonged to the covenant by grace, but stay in the covenant by obedience) does much to repel the charge of legalism. Surely the degree to which the Jews believed that their works merited their continued place in the covenant is the degree to which Judaism was legalistic? It fails to recognise that when God’s law meets a sinner, it can only reveal a gulf between us and God, and so drives us to repentance and the hope of mercy, but not self-righteousness.

Before Paul’s Gentile mission ever made national boundary markers into an issue (New Perspective believes that Paul was contending against nationalists, who used ‘works of the law’, i.e. the Jewish national markes such as circumcision, to keep Gentiles out), Jewish legalism was the target of Jesus’ teaching too. Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee who thanked God that he was not a sinner like other men, comparing him with a tax collector who prayed for mercy. Jesus claims that it was the ‘sinner’ who left justified. Elsewhere, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The sacrificial system was the place where God’s people were made most aware of the impossibility of self-sufficiency and of the need for God’s grace, yet even it was capable of being approached mechanically and self-righteously. God frequently condemns the sacrifices of his idolatrous people, because their hearts did not match their legal observance.

Law in the new covenant

The inauguration of a new covenant as the climax of redemption history also accounts for further apparent conflicts in Paul’s use of the Law.

Now and not yet.
The OT law was unable to give life to people so that they were able to image God truly, but the OT prophets preached of a time in which human incapacity would be conclusively dealt with. In the New Covenant, we see the inauguration and only partial fulfilment of these OT promises.

The ‘schoolmaster’ of the law no longer strictly defines our worship and knowledge of God, but the underlying fabric of the law is still a valid expression of God’s will and character. The fact that we have left school does not mean that what we learned there is now false, or that it is now inappropriate to refer to any of those lessons. Similarly, it remains appropriate to appeal to the law as a didactic help. In fact, because there is a healthy dose of ‘not-yet-ness’ about the Christian life, meaning that we remain sinful people in the flesh, it is important that we do revise what we learned under the tutelage of the law so that we don’t forget our lessons.

This is why both Jesus and Paul can treat the OT principles as authoritative and useful for ethical teaching, while still regarding the OT applications as having been dispensed with.

Christ as the end of the law.
Romans 10:4 is a particularly significant passage in understanding the law, at least it has been for me. It is curious, because it joins together two ideas that do not seem to be naturally related:

Christ is the end of the law so that there might be righteousness for those who believe.

It would certainly never occur to me to talk about the end of the law as being an occasion for righteousness. If it was talking about the abrogation of the law, it would surely be an occasion for lawlessness?

What I think it really means is that Jesus is the goal of the law, that is, the one to whom the law leads us. In other words, the purpose of the law is to reveal and prepare us for its culmination in the person of Christ. Christ comes as the true ‘image of God, the exact representation of his being’, and the one who perfectly teaches us how to be images of God. He is the one who makes real what the law could only hint at with symbols and parables.

So, Christ doesn’t stop the law, he is the law. The law persists in Christ more really than it did in the OT law. Because of this, when the law drives us to seek mercy and refuge in Jesus, we are given his righteousness.

So, Israel’s law teaches us of the kingly rule of God, and our need for his grace. In the gospels, the Old Covenant steps aside as Israel meets her God-king, and the New Covenant introduces the world to him, and the law of Christ is written on the heart by the Spirit. The world is united under the headship of Jesus, governed by the law of love.


4 thoughts on “The Old Testament Law: A View from the New

  1. Jordan Pickering says:

    And I think some more ruthless editing is going to be needed too… No one is going to sit through this.

  2. Lance Wonders says:

    On number 7, I would have said “the law has been kept BY Christ–and therefore is ‘fulfilled’ IN Christ as humanity’s Representative” before I would have said anything about our own “walking it out” by the Spirit in accordance with love THROUGH Christ as our Mediator. Call me a Barthian, but one cannot make too much of Christ’s own role in all of this. In fact, many commentators would say that the Logos in John 1:1, that is with God from the beginning, is in part a reference to Jewish tradition’s Torah being with God from the beginning. Only, it is a Person, and the “ways” that He is committed to, covenantally, from the outset/”electing” of all creation, rather than an outward “code”….

  3. Margaret says:

    Overall, a good summary with some excellent points. The Law that Israel failed to keep was not just the “teachings/Torah” as revelation of God but the signed agreement they made at Sinai to do “all that the Lord has said” by way of revelation (Ex 19:8; Ex 24:7). As they clearly could not do what they undertook it was always going to be necessary for the means to be provided, that means being Christ, otherwise Israel could not access the fullness of the Abrahamic Covenant, which was a covenant founded on grace, not law, and to which they were the natural heirs.
    However, in the seven weeks between Passover and Mt Sinai, the Israelites proved they would not walk in the way of Abraham, as he responded in faithful obedience to whatever God required of him. So Israel, for their own good, were placed in custody under a Law Covenant, which included rituals of sacrifice which gave a temporary cover for sin and placated God’s wrath.
    So the signatories of the Israel Covenant – Israel and God – converge at a point of history to produce the means necessary to fulfil the covenant and pay the debt of sin accruing under that Covenant, that means being Christ. Christ was both a son of Israel and the son of God. He fulfilled the Law and paid the debt and through Him the Abrahamic promise is accessed.
    I believe that most times Paul speaks of the Law, he speaks of the signed covenant committal to personal righteousness, which could only ever fail. This became, by virtue of the huge body of revelation given to Israel, the means of “defining sin” though of course those without the Law are also sinners.
    To determine those teachings (within that Law) that are forever applicable to God’s redeemed is, of course, a potential cause for genuine disagreement.

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