Focusing on the Law
I already provided an overall review of this book, but purposely left out my discussion about the two entries dealing with the “continuity” or “discontinuity” of the law from the Reformed and Dispensational perspectives. I am familiar with both, but an expert of neither. The terms are associated with two systems of thought—Reformed Covenantalism and Evangelical Dispensationalism—but each camp has owned a term, such that the term (either continuity or discontinuity) comes to stand for the theological framework. However, when the terms are taken for what they ordinarily mean—continuity means something continues uninterrupted and discontinuity means something comes to an end or is changed—then both camps acknowledge a wide range of viewpoints. As such, a sound bar best illustrates the mixture and gradations that any one person holds. Yet, even this example is too over-simplified to fully express the wide range of opinions on these topics.
Knox Chamblin (1935-2012), then an instructor at Reformed Theological Seminary, presents a Reformed perspective that emphasizes “continuity” of the law. Douglas Moo, on the other hand, favors “discontinuity.” Moo was also a contributor in the book “Five Views of the Law and Gospel” (1993) and he stated that he presented a Modified Lutheran perspective. While his view of the law may be similar to the viewpoint of other dispensationalists, Lutheran theology does not support the end-times scenario proposed by Darby and Scofield.
Comparison would be a good way to decide what continues and what doesn’t. Should we count the Mosaic commands and the NT commands and enumerate the differences? Are the gospels counted as OT or NT? Are we restricted to the literal meaning of a command in the historical context or are we allowed, for modern times, to spiritualize it or to imagine some continuing moral principle? Do historical events describing the positive and negative behaviors of the people of old count as commands? Do proverbial sayings count as commands? Since the Reformed folk feel that near all ethical obligations are contained in the Ten Commandments,[i] can we assume that there are only ten OT commands to compare? Christians maintain that Mosaic laws can be divided into two or three groups. Is this viewpoint defensible? If so, how shall the details of “ceremonial” commands be counted? Does continuity or discontinuity best label a ceremonial command that is abrogated but a principle within it is followed? None of these ideas are explored and none of these questions are answered by Chamblin or Moo.
Reformed. As Chamblin recognizes, there is a Jewish way and a Christian way. But law is given to God’s people within the context of a covenant, and so there is a continuity on a fundamental level from Mosaic law to Christic law. It is not a different sort of law, if we think of the law enjoining love of God and love for fellow man; however, since the advent of Christ there is discontinuity in the law because it is “newly administered and more deeply expounded than ever before” (p. 182).[ii] The new administration is related to the threefold division of the law—rather “dimensions”—and this is discovered by the New Testament use of Mosaic law.
So begins Chamblin’s discussion of the law before Christ and after Christ. Since mankind cannot keep the law, there needs to be a means to gain forgiveness. This was provided through a system of cultic performances that were an integral part of Mosaic law. Those who believed the Scriptures as delivered by Moses, should be ready to believe Jesus. The reason for the existence of the Mosaic law was to prepare Israel “for a new, more glorious order” (187). Jesus is the object of the Mosaic law, its Lord, and its teacher. His arrival marks the end of the age of the Prophets and the Law, which He fulfills, not abolishes. As the object, He accomplished and brought to fulfillment the anticipatory figures. Scriptures move from the law to the lawgiver, which was the highest purpose of the Mosaic law. The law is not the enemy, but sin is. The law was a tool of sin and now becomes a means of grace with our new Master. Bound to Christ we are bound to His law. The NT does not abolish rules and regulations per se, only the tendencies to supplant God’s law with traditions or to become proud of one’s obedience (p. 189). The details of the law confirm the “childhood” status of the people of God, but now we can convert rules into principles. Jesus does not replace the law, but exegetes it. This brings the age of the law to an end, but not the law itself (p. 190). Jesus does not declare a new law but goes to the heart of the existing law. One rediscovers the command to love, but it is not a new law. Loving one another is new because of the revelation of Christ (p. 191). The Holy Spirit amplifies rather than replaces the witness of Moses. The very law inscribed on stone is now inscribed by the Spirit on our hearts, so we are liberated for the law (p.192). We are not forced by an external command of Mosaic law to obey, but inwardly by the Spirit to obey the heart of Mosaic commandments. Law rests on grace and law is an expression of grace.
Chamblin then continues by discussing the three “dimensions” of the law. With respect to morality, there is continuity. With respect to redemption, there is discontinuity. Obedience to the Decalogue is the same thing as obedience to moral law. In typical Reformed style, he reviews the morality of the Ten Commandments which continue into the “dawn of the great sabbath age,” but there are new mercies and new severities when it comes to divorce (p.197). With regards to the ceremonial law, there is continuity of its inseparable relationship with moral law in both testaments (p. 198). The new covenant is not de-ceremonialized, but re-ceremonialized. Baptism is the counterpart to circumcision, but better because women can do it and it’s not painful. Fasting is encouraged and protected. The temple motif is not discarded but transformed. Tithing is not overturned. The civil dimension, for Chamblin, displays continuity too, but it is a re-civilizing and transformation, because there are new graces, relationships, and obligations (but no mention of new severities).
Finally, Chamblin discusses the “emerging” hermeneutic he uses to bring clarity to his conclusions, one he advances “in a very tentative fashion.” He denies that the NT warrants the idea that moral commands continue and ceremonial/civil commands discontinue. “In some sense, the entirety of the [Mosaic] law remains in force.” At the same time, “the whole [Mosaic] law is… just as surely transformed and reshaped” (p. 200). Interestingly, he lends credence to Kaiser’s (a discontinuity man) framework for determining what particulars of Mosaic law are still relevant to believers. If we use the “ladder of abstraction” from the “level of specificity” to the “level of generality” then we can reject the two opposing axioms that Reformed and Evangelicals have asserted best answers this question.[iii] Chamblin reiterates that law for the Christian is merely a better understanding of Mosaic law, as Christ interprets it.
Analysis. Chamblin’s essay was replete with theological propositional statements. At times I concurred; other times, I was puzzled or in disagreement. It is difficult to discuss the Mosaic law in its historical context without the influence of the perspective of the new covenant. As Chamblin stated, “apart from [Christ, the law] cannot be fully understood” (188). But “the law” in the OT period meant one thing, and “law” in the NT period has a wider range of meaning because of the enactment of the NT. And the gospels hold a unique position because Jesus was living under the [Mosaic] law (Gal 4:4) while at the same time fulfilling it (Lk 1:1; 4:1).
Chamblin’s failure to carefully define “law” (besides it being a “rule of life,” p. 181) and his inconsistent use of the term “law” led to statements that were difficult to assess. He understands that law is given in the context of a covenant but he doesn’t make the connection that the law is the covenant. For example, in his final paragraph discussing the law before Christ, we read this:
“The ‘new covenant’ of Jer 31:31-34 will actually achieve the forgiveness of sins, will entail not a new law but a new and more personal administration of the old (Mosaic) law, and will accomplish, chiefly by those two means, that purpose for which the Sinaitic Covenant had been established and the Mosaic Law given—namely, the deepest mutual knowledge between Yahweh and his people.” (p. 187)
In other words,
- The old covenant did not actually provide forgiveness of sins [So far, so good, from the NT perspective]
- The old law was delivered under a less personal administration [Okay? Moses wrote down what he experienced and what God told him vis-à-vis apostles wrote down what they experienced and heard with Jesus]
- But these particulars were not the real purpose of the old covenant [Okay… Did the Jews really know what the real purpose of the law was?]
- Yet a new administration of the old covenant will provide forgiveness and a deeper relationship with God [What!? The NT is the OT administered in a new way?]
Chamblin states that a new covenant does not require a new law (“not a new law”); that forgiveness will actually be achieved by the Mosaic law under a new administration. However, Hebrews (Heb 7:12) states emphatically that the change of the priesthood (which is the end of the Aaronic priesthood) necessitates a change of the law (which is the end of the old Mosaic law). After all, which priesthood was involved in the Christian’s sin-debt settlement? There must be something wrong with Chamblin’s system if the outworking of it makes him contradict a clear passage of Scripture. Is there a new covenant with its own priesthood and law, or is it really the continuation of the old covenant with an upgraded priesthood that reinterprets the same old law? If the OT is so great, why does it have to be reinterpreted and re-administered?
If Chamblin’s statement is to be understood in the historical context, then it is true that the new covenant would bring a greater measure of obedience and forgiveness, and a deeper relationship with God. The Lord explained to Jeremiah that the reason for a new covenant is because the Mosaic covenant was already broken by the people of God. And it remains a broken law-covenant (Ps 119:126). A new covenant, under these circumstances, cannot simply be a re-instatement of the former covenant. However, if the “law” that will be imbedded in their heart and mind is the very law that they received at Sinai, then the change is very small. Along these lines, we should then expect that the new covenant will be for the same people and in the same land as Jeremiah prophesied. “New” is not a radical, essential change, but an improvement and continuation of previously established covenants that brings Israel into the millennial kingdom. As Rabbi Federow stated: “This new covenant that Gd speaks about in Jeremiah 31 is not talking about a new covenant, a new contract, and He does not mean a new set of laws, a new Torah, a new scripture. It means the covenant between Gd and the Jews and the laws of that covenant are eternal.”[iv] Now that sounds like “continuity.” But as the New Testament understands this passage, the institution of the “new covenant” stamps the [Mosaic covenant] obsolete (Heb 8:13). That sounds like “discontinuity.”
Despite Chamblin’s acknowledgment that the [Mosaic] law is unable to provide redemption, he emphasizes continuity to such an extent that the covenants are nearly equalized. Referring to John 1:17 (law from Moses), Chamblin says the [Mosaic] law is as much about grace and truth as is Jesus, and to see Jesus is to see Yahweh as He revealed Himself at Sinai (p. 188). So much for a more personal administration. He struggles to avoid admitting any shortcoming or “disparagement” [to reduce in esteem or rank] of Mosaic law. However, Calvin, commenting on this verse, sees this as an antithesis between the old and new testaments. “[John] reminds [the Jews] that what [Moses] brought was exceedingly small, when compared to the grace of Christ. It would otherwise have been a great hindrance that they expected to receive from the Law what we can only obtain through Christ.”[v] When it comes to grace and truth, you’ll find it in spades with Jesus, the testator of the new covenant.
The discontinuity viewpoint is presented by Douglas Moo, who acknowledges the complexity involved in presenting an answer to the question regarding the relationship of the law to both testaments. He decides to give an overview of his opinion that the NT leans more toward a discontinuous attitude toward Mosaic law, while focusing on the likely meanings of Matt 5:17, Rom 10:4; and Gal 6:2 (p. 204).
Beginning with Jesus’ statement that He has not come to “abolish” the law but to “fulfill” it, Moo examines the idea that Jesus merely means to establish or uphold the law, but finds it inadequate a position in view of the contextual contrasts in Jesus’ sermon. While some of Jesus’ teachings are directed against perverse Jewish traditions, most of His demands “go considerably beyond any fair exegesis of … of the actual texts he quotes; nor do most of his demands find support anywhere in the OT” (p. 205). Jesus positions Himself as a new authority. Moo prefers to think that “fulfil” [Gk. πληρόω] means “deepen” or “extend,” and not simply to bring to pass an OT prophecy, nor to validate the law as a code of conduct. “The continuity of the law with Jesus’ teaching is thereby clearly stressed, but it is a continuity on the plane of a salvation-historical scheme of ‘anticipation-realization’.” While the law is to be taught, it must be interpreted and applied in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Paul’s view of the law sometimes resembles what Jesus taught.
Paul taught that Christ is the “end” or “goal” [Gk. τἐλος] of the law for righteousness. Moo asserts that neither word is adequate in itself as we understand them in our language. But it is clear that “end” does not mean the law ceases to function in all regards. The law pointed to Christ; it was a key element in God’s redemptive plan, but not the ultimate provider of righteousness. (p. 207). Paul introduces a new term—the law of Christ—now that Christ has come fulfilling that for which the law was designed (Gal 6:2). Again, Moo reviews a variety of interpretations of this phrase. To assist the reader in understanding this phrase, he elects to review two other concepts: 1) how love is the fulfillment of the law (Gal 5:14), and 2) how Christians are no longer under the law (Gal 5:18).
The quandary throughout the church age is how a Christian is “free from the law” and at the same time expected to be obedient to God’s moral standard. Clearly, to the Jewish mind, if a Christian is free from the law of circumcision, then he is at the same time a law-breaker. Paul’s answer is not so complex as to enumerate which laws from Moses are legitimate and which are not, but to provide a more basic grid to evaluate moral choices in relation to Christ’s demonstration and advocacy of love. Love may thus summarize the law, but acting in love fulfills the law (p. 209). The Christian’s attitude toward the law is elevated through the Spirit, for in one sense the law has already been fulfilled in us, so as we continue to act out of love, we continue to fulfill the law’s purpose (p. 210). This can be done even when excluding such a commandment as circumcision.
Paul also asserted that believers are not under the law. Moo clarifies that the phrase cannot be taken to mean “the law as perverted by men into a means of salvation” (p. 210). Better, it means that Christians are “not being directly subjected to the ordinances of the law of Moses (p. 212). Moo continues to describe the law as a pedagogue and its relationship to the Gentiles. The law was not only culturally specific, it was temporally confined. Moo examines all occurrences of “under law” and sees a consistent contrast with the Christian’s lifestyle, but at the same time cautions against the tendency to totally separate oneself from the law. While the NT stresses discontinuity of the law, the Christian is nevertheless bound to God’s law or the law of Christ. “No commandment, even those of the Decalogue, is binding simply because it is part of the Mosaic Law” (p. 217). Moo concludes with saying, “any approach that substitutes external commands for the Spirit as the basic norm for Christian living runs into serious difficulties with Paul” (p. 218).
Analysis. Moo’s presentation was certainly coherent, moderate, and discursive; and I found myself more in agreement with his understanding of the law. He focused on a handful of verses that are crucial to this topic, and was true to his stated goal to suggest general ideas that give shape to the puzzle as he sees it. I noticed that he did not discuss God’s law prior to the Mosaic covenant or even the concept of moral law (there were a few “brushstrokes”), and he did not delve into the NT teaching that Jesus is the substance of various OT laws or the necessary classification of Mosaic laws. It was as if he intended to explain the apostolic position at their point in time as they promoted the concepts of walking in the Spirit, the virtue of love, and the example of Christ. This is all before the church tried to explain this position with a breakdown of moral, ceremonial, and civil commands.
The Jews moved from one form of slavery to another (2 Cor 3:9). They could not experience the full measure of freedom in their deliverance until the fullness of times arrived. “Their rest was a memorial of the Lord’s sinless seventh-day rest and a token of the future eternal rest; it was a reminder that their inward state of sinfulness must be despised as a slave despised his mistreatment and that they must call out to God for redemption from their sins as a slave would call out for redemption from slavery.”[vi] This, I believe, is what Paul meant by calling the law a pedagogue-someone to provide instruction for the greater matters of adulthood. Once maturity is attained, there is no longer a need for such an authority figure.
[i] i.e., “Directions for handling [lawsuits] are found in the Decalogue…” (p. 199)
[ii] So discontinuity relates to “newness.”
[iii] Reformed: “Every law in the OT continues unless specifically abrogated” (but Chamblin does not believe in abrogation). Evangelical: “Only those laws repeated in the NT are valid” and it’s corollary: “Free to do anything that is not specifically prohibited by the NT.” I questioned these two axioms myself in The Sabbath Complete: “Unfortunately, the regulative principle has been turned around to produce the very thing that it was meant to correct: elevating the traditions of men (formulated through deduction) to the unequivocal level of God’s precepts” (229). “The alternative, called the liberal or permissive principle, common in Lutheran and Evangelical churches, is to allow anything in worship that is not specifically prohibited by Scripture. Even this principle has its flaws” (232).
[iv] Federow, Stuart. http://www.whatjewsbelieve.org/prooftext7jer3131.html. Accessed October 4, 2018.
[v] Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Calvin’s Commentaries, Baker (2009) Vol. XVII, p. 52. (John 1:17).
[vi] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, p. 101.