Re: Shapes of a Wedge

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sun May 30 2004 - 17:30:55 EDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Innovatia" <>
To: "ASA Listserver" <>
Sent: Friday, May 28, 2004 3:10 PM
Subject: Re: Shapes of a Wedge

> From: "George Murphy" <>
> > I think your whole formulation in terms of "God's laws" and an
> > implied antithesis with the laws of the state is problematic. Many of
> > laws of the Old Testament are simply the civil law of ancient Israel
> > (inspired as they may be) and are no more binding on Christians - or any
> > state today - than the laws of China are binding on a citizen of Sweden.
> On
> > the other hand Romans 13:1-7 clearly indicates that Christians are to be
> > subject to the state as a ministry intended by God - with the condition,
> of
> > course, that obedience is not required if it would conflict with the
> > will of God (Acts 5:29). & the state Paul is speaking of was, of
> > the pagan Roman Empire.
> Two issues here:
> 1. If God's revealed will in scripture - i.e., his law - is not the
> Christian's standard for determining what is right and wrong, then what
> "Family values"? a "Conservative" viewpoint? the prevailing view among
> contemporary Christians? Love? The moving of the Spirit? Luther and the
> Reformers recognized the third use of the law. Jesus came to establish the
> law, as I read the NT, not destroy it. Of course, the law can be used
> illegally, as did the Galatians, but that's another matter. But it is
> the Christian's reference for what is right and wrong, no?

        Well, not quite. But let me back up a bit. 1st, Luther did not in
fact use the term "third use of the law." And while the later Lutheran
Formula of Concord (Article VI) did do that, what it is really talking about
is the first 2 uses (the use of the law to control socity and its
theological function of pointing out and condemning sin) as applied to
Christians. I.e., it doesn't really endorse a distinctive "Christian" 3d
use. That idea is much more in the Reformed tradition. This does _not_
mean that the law doesn't apply to Christians, but just that it doesn't
apply to them in any way qualitatively different from the ways in which it
applies to everybody else.

        Then to the question, "What is to establish right and wrong?" The
most fundamental Christian answer is "Christ." Phil.2:5 ff, I Pet.2:21 &
12:3 - among other texts - point to him (and, significantly, to his Passion)
as the model for Christian life. Now this doesn't mean that Christian
ethics can be done just with a simplistic version of WWJD? For one thing,
we simply aren't told what Jesus did in a lot of the situations with which
we're confronted in today's world. And this doesn't mean that the OT law is
irrelevant, but it is incomplete and only finds its fulfillment in Christ.
And of course OT law also doesn't answer many of today's ethical questions
like those arising from modern technologies.

        I don't know what it means to say that the Galatians (I assume you
mean the Judaizers who were trying to win over the Galatians) used the law
"illegally." The law says men have to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath,
&c. Nothing illegal about that. In Galatians Paul doesn't say that what
his opponents were arguing for was "illegal" or present some legal argument
against them. Instead he tells the Galatians that "now that faith has come,
we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian" (3:25).

        As to the idea that we're not supposed to add to or take away from
the law: In its earliest years the Christian church did just that with
three of the primary precepts of torah - circumcision, food laws, & Sabbath
observance. More generally, some recent NT scholars (e.g., Mark Powell of
Trinity Lutheran Seminary) have argued that the language about the
authority of the church to "bind and loose" in Mt does not refer (as has
been traditionally thought) to the authority to forgive or retain sins (as
in Jn.20:23) but to its authority to say whether or not particular parts of
torah are to be applied in a given situation. It's clear, as I noted, that
the church _has_ done this. This doesn't mean that churches - let alone
individual Christians - can just casually ignore aspects of the law that
they don't like. But it suggests, e.g., that the church as a whole could
decide (trusting in the Spirit's guidance) that biblical condemnations of
homosexual acts do not applied to Christians in committed same-sex unions.
Whether or not the church should do that is, of course, a matter for debate.

        & none of the above give any detailed guidance about what kind of
laws Christians might find acceptable for a pluralistic society. But it
does mean that Christians can be much freer about such legal structures than
any considerations about Old testament laws might suggest.

> 2. Both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 qualify that the "higher powers"
> exousia), whoever they may be, have the characteristic of favoring those
> do right and punishing those who do wrong. But by who's idea of right and
> wrong - i.e., by who's law? They can only be referring to God's law since
> they are Christians writing to Christians. Can't be a pagan state's idea
> right and wrong, eh?

        They can be standards of right and wrong that Christians generally
agree on with non-Christians - essentially the content of the 2d table of
the law, which is also found in many other law codes and systems of ethics.
Cf. the appendix with expressions of the "Tao" in Lewis' _Abolition of Man_.
Romans and I Peter were both written before there was any systematic
persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities, and there is no
indication in these passages that Christians are supposed to reject any
significant portions of the laws that all people of the empire were subject

> While both Paul and Peter describe normative government, few states have
> their description very well. I would agree that to the extent the state
> enforces biblical law, Christians are to submit to it. The concept of
> as P & P describe it, is biblical.

        It is biblical only in the sense that P & P are part of the Bible.
Neither of these texts says anything about "biblical law." Christians, as
I've pointed out, are not bound to obey biblical law - unless they think
they're supposed to stone teenagers for sassing their parents or execute
people for picking up sticks on Saturday.

However, the state is clearly not in
> accord with biblical teaching in inserting itself into marriages and
> therefore should not be heeded in this matter. It has no jurisdiction

        You are adding to what Romans and I Peter when you say that and are
therefore inconsistent with your own principles. If the state has a
regulation about couples getting a license if they intend to marry then they
should do so, just as they should buy dog or fishing licenses. (The
comparisons do not reflect my view of marriage!) Of course if the state
ordered a man to divorce his wife and marry another woman there would be a

> > Furthermore, marriage by its nature is involved with issues over
> > which the state has some legitimate authority - property, inheritance,
> > Thus it's appropriate for the state to define who, in its eyes, is
> > married. But the state's definition may differ from the church's.
> The problem for Christians is that if the State acts outside of God's
> revealed will in the area of marriage, how much more should we be careful
> avoid its unbiblical handling of other family matters? And as my excerpt
> alludes, the CPS is anything but biblical.

        "Unbiblical" is not the same as "antibiblical." If you only do
things that are "biblical" then you're going to have to try to life the life
of a person in the 1st century Mediterranean world. The Bible doesn't give
us information about everything that we do in the world.

Received on Sun May 30 17:47:03 2004

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