Re: Shapes of a Wedge

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Jun 01 2004 - 21:12:46 EDT

Dennis -
    I'll comment below on some specifics but here let me make two general

  Your statements simply don't adhere to the text you keep referring to,
Dt.4:2. There may be some analogy between Jewish circumcision and Christian
baptism, though the NT in fact makes no such connection. But one does not
fulfill the torah commands about circumcising males by baptizing males &
females. Gen.17:9-14 says "You must circumcise," not "You must have an
initiation ritual." Similarly the Sabbath commandment is not satisfied by
setting aside some day for worship and the regulations about clean & unclean
foods are not satisfied by having a healthy diet.
    & there are many other laws which Christians have never made a big deal
about but just quietly dropped. If we find mold or mildew on our basement
walls we don't feel we have to follow the procedures in Lev.14. I won't
bother to multiply examples.
    & similar things can be said about additions to "biblical law." Try as
we might we can't get laws about air traffic control or the regulation of
nuclear power plants from torah. Sure, we can get some very general
guidance - try not to harm people, don't steal, &c - but it's the most
fictitious of legal fictions to think that you can actually deal with those
things strictly in accord with Dt.4:2, torah & only torah. & when it comes
to something like reproductive human cloning, "biblical law" gives
essentially no answer at all.
    This is not all to say that the laws of torah are of no value. Even
beyond the 10 Commandments they can give pretty good guidance in a number of
areas. We don't have to follow the exact procedure of letting the land
"rest" given in Lev.25 but the basic idea of stewardship of the land is
important. Again, however,m we are not just using torah & nothing but

    Then because Christians are not bound to follow "biblical law" in that
detailed sense, the claim that they are only to obey civil laws that are in
accord with "biblical law" falls to the ground. Peter & Paul state no such
condition when they command obedience to the Roman authorities just as
Jeremiah stated no such condition when he urged the exiles in Babylon to
settle down there & to pray for the city's welfare in Jer.29. & since P&P &
Jeremias weren't ignorant of the fact that Rome & Babylon respectively
weren't governed by biblical law, this is not (as you suggest below) simply
an argument from silence.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Innovatia" <>
To: "ASA Listserver" <>
Sent: Monday, May 31, 2004 3:00 PM
Subject: Fw: Shapes of a Wedge

> From: "George Murphy" <>
> > Then to the question, "What is to establish right and wrong?"
> > 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
> > we simply aren't told what Jesus did in a lot of the situations with
> > we're confronted in today's world. And this doesn't mean that the OT
> is
> > irrelevant, but it is incomplete and only finds its fulfillment in
> > And of course OT law also doesn't answer many of today's ethical
> > like those arising from modern technologies.
> I'm not so sure it doesn't go farther than what is often supposed. (I
> address this at length in XLM.) For instance, a common objection is
> laws. But the law does provide for tort liability. If the convention is to
> drive on the right side of the road and stop at red lights and one
> disregards convention, then one is liable for consequent harm to others
> under the law. But what is liberating about God's law is that it leaves it
> to the driver to exercise law-keeping to avoid harm.
> I would agree that many situations today (in medical ethics, for instance)
> were not covered in particular OT laws, of course, but the basic legal
> principles are adequate to provide a foundation for deciding how to behave
> in these newer cases. Some regard the Ten Commandments as being
> comprehensive in covering all the bases of human social concern. The basic
> intent of the law is the key to understanding and applying it.

But again one hardly is following the injunction to "nor take away anything
from it" if one drops all of torah except the Decalogue!

> There is also still a place for case law, which is the result of
> jurisprudence.

        Sure, but many of the regulations of torah are casuistic.

> > I don't know what it means to say that the Galatians (I assume
> > mean the Judaizers who were trying to win over the Galatians) used the
> > "illegally." The law says men have to be circumcised, observe the
> Sabbath,
> > &c. Nothing illegal about that. In Galatians Paul doesn't say that
> > 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).
> Illegal in that the Galatians were attempting to use the law in a way that
> controverted the law itself. In Paul's exposition to the Galatians about
> wrong use of the law, the issue (as I understand it) was not whether the
> law is good and applicable but whether one can be justified by keeping it
> within one's own experience as a Christian. The inability to fully keep
> law was the issue. The Galatians reduced the broad claims and stringent
> demands of the law to something they could satisfy within their human
> experience. By supposing they could "keep" the law, this implied that a
> sacrifice for sins was unnecessary, for anyone who does not sin does not
> need atonement, and does not need the gospel. This reduction of the law is
> not allowed by the law. (Deut. 4:2) It also denied the gospel in the
> sacrificial part of the law, thereby denying the law, which is illegal for
> covenant people to do.

    1st, Paul's opponents in Galatia were not trying to replace faith in
Christ with obedience to torah. They were not simply Jews but Jewish
Christians who believed that one should trust in Christ - but also had to
observe torah. They did not say that a sacrifice for sin was not necessary
but that in itself it wasn't sufficient. & while Paul does suggest the
impossibility of keeping torah completely in 3:10, he doesn't focus on that.
His argument is more fundamental - that Christ has freed us from the curse
of the law.

> > 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.
> Some traditions would consider baptism the NT observance of what
> circumcision entailed. The Sabbath was widely observed by all early
> Christian traditions not under the papacy (Syriac Church of the East, the
> Vaudois, Celtic and Italic churches, etc.) and today by some Christians.
> for the food laws, it was given for a purpose, to protect Israel from
> various diseases that God promised they would not suffer from if the law
> were kept. Peter's vision establishes that these laws were circumstantial;
> I'll grant that. But how are we to distinguish the generality or
> of OT laws unless we are biblically informed, such as in Peter's case?
> Peter's vision provides us a precedent in how to distinguish the law's
> general versus particular doctrines.

    I've already commented on this. As to the Sabbath, it's clear that
Christians were worshipping regularly on Sunday well before the authority of
the Bishop of Rome extended significantly beyond Rome: Justin Martyr treats
this as a matter of course in his 1st Apology c.150 A.D. Furthermore, one
doesn't show that some practice is in error simply by attributing it to the
papacy, which for all its mistakes has often exercised its authority for
good - cf.. Chalcedon.

> I don't want to affirm this position too simplistically. I recognize that
> discerment of the purpose of the law is essential (especially since much
> the OT law is given as illustrative case law). But I am also wary of
> Christians nowadays as being too free in its interpretation so as to
> in new law-making. Complications such as these in adjudicating God's law
> must be dealt with by jurisprudence, leading to a body of case law. I
> claim that living by biblical law is trivial in practice! It wasn't for OT
> Israel. But I see it being laid aside too easily nowadays, to the
> of those left with only their own moral sensibilities as their guide.

    Again Christians should certainly take "biblical law" - & not just the
10 Commandments into account in ethical decision making, whether individual
or social. But that is far from the whole story. What role does Christ
have in your understanding of ethics? Does the guidance of the Holy Spirit
in the Church make any difference? Do our brains make any difference?

> >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
> > 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
> > decide (trusting in the Spirit's guidance) that biblical condemnations
> > homosexual acts do not applied to Christians in committed same-sex
> > Whether or not the church should do that is, of course, a matter for
> debate.
> That's basically the Romanist position of church vs scripture.

        There is no "Romanist position of church _vs_ scripture." This is
frankly an insulting statement on which any competent Roman Catholic
theologians will be glad to set you straight.

>I am wary of it in view of the scriptural emphasis upon the eternal nature
of God's law.
> The church, as representative in the world of Christ's kingdom, must
> exercise such discernment, but (as you might be intimating) must do so by
> adjudicating God's law. The homosexual issue would be an instance of what
> the church should adjudicate (Paul to Corinthians urges adjudication by
> church), however the conclusions or legal reasoning might end up.

       In view of the fact that the law _has_ been changed - again,
circumcision, Sabbath, kosher - it's hard to argue that it's "eternal" in
any meaningful sense. It is Jesus Christ who is "the same yesterday, and
today, and forever." But if you want to call the procedure for change
"adjudicating" rather than "binding & loosing" I have no objection.

> > & none of the above give any detailed guidance about what kind
> > 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.
> My concern was what biblical govt would be like, not a society (such as
> America) with a declared humanistic ethical base (in which "we the people"
> decide right and wrong). No human law-making is biblically acceptable, if
> understand the plain meaning of Deut. 4:2; 12:32.

    To the extent that those texts are concerned with laws for society they
are applicable only to ancient Israel. There is nothing at all in Dt.4:2 to
suggest that a Jew living in Babylon or Egypt shouldn't obey the laws
concerning marriage, contracts, penalties for crimes, &c of Babylon or
Egypt. We can assume that Jeremiah didn't want the exiles to worship
Babylonian idols but he doesn't tell them to follow the commands of torah
and destroy them.

> I think we might have a
> different conception of how the Christian is to understand his/her
> politically, perhaps. If a Christian lives under a government that does
> acknowledge Christ as having authority over it, then we find ourselves in
> jurisdiction that, at a basic level, is in rebellion to the jurisdiction
> (Christ's rule) that we have given all our loyalties to. The basic
> relationship is one of tension, and it is to the extent that the earthly
> power repudiates Christ's authority (i.e., biblical govt).

        Roman authorities defied Christ's authority when they demanded that
Christians swear by the genius of the emperor but not when they required the
payment of taxes for building Roman roads or maintaining the legions -
neither of which is commanded by torah.

> I agree that we have a certain freedom in regard to OT law in that God
> us a role in adjudicating it, and that of course includes its
> interpretation. My concern is that I see AmXny largely doing what the Gang
> of Nine in DC do - legislate from the bench, as it were.

        It seems to me that even though you claim to be neither adding to or
subtracting from biblical law, you are in fact interpreting it in a way
rather like the way the Warren Court sometimes interpreted the constitution!


> > Neither of these texts says anything about "biblical law." Christians,
> > 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.
> I think the right approach to the law is that we are bound to obey it in
> larger understanding of the gospel. Working out the details of what this
> means for church and state, or God and govt, is where the substantial
> are, as I see it.
> Though your two examples are given in somewhat of a simplified form, the
> issues behind them (such as labor laws) are substantial. The law of
> bad youth actually has some stiff legal requirements - not a casual
> undertaking. If such an event were to occur today, I suspect that the
> of lawlessness grown up between generations would not be nearly as
> pronounced as it is. Why did God give this law, anyway, if not to aid in
> preserving society? I'm not saying parents necessarily should do this
> but I wouldn't discard it simply because it bothers my 21st-century moral
> conditioning.

    What "stiff legal requirements"? Dt.21:18-21 says that if a son is
stubborn & rebellious & won't obey his parents they should take him to the
elders of the city, tell them that he's stubborn & rebellious & disobedient,
& they shall stone him to death. It's pretty simply. And it's not
optional. So if you really take Dt.4:2 seriously you _should_ say that
parents necessarily should do this today.

> > 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
> > there.
> >
> > 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
> > problem.
> It is not from Rom 13/1 Peter 2 that I am making this argument but from
> Deut. 4:2; 12:32. Which is the controlling text? I don't think Rom/Peter
> addresses it, but Deut does explicitly.

        & as I've pointed out in detail, you don't follow Dt.4:2.

        The state can of course make bad laws about marriage & families &
Christians may feel that they have to oppose them, even to the point of
civil disobedience. But the fact that the law can't be reduced to "biblical
law" doesn't make it ipso facto bad.
Received on Wed Jun 2 00:13:11 2004

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