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This brief look at the development of and the practices on Sunday, and its meaning for Christians is the work of a retired octogenarian Methodist minister. Amazing. At 150 pages, this book is easily readable, enjoyable, and informative.
His purpose is to inspire Christians to maintain this badge of Christianity with hope and perseverance much like the early Christians who esteemed their time of instruction and fellowship on Sunday despite difficulties, rejection, and persecution from the world. It is as if González looks at the broad history of Sunday worship and anticipates, perhaps, coming days that echo the early Christian experience.
To do this, he examines the relevant literature and presents it succinctly, methodically, didactically, and for the most part, with integrity. Most of what he presents was already familiar to me, including his assessments of the historical data and competing viewpoints. But again, his focus is on history, not ironing out any theological arguments for the day of the week on which Christian should worship. Yet he does provide the evidence that Christians met on the first day of the week prior to the close of the first century, that the Sabbath on Saturday and the Lord’s Day on Sunday were two different religious institutions, and that Sabbatarianism was a later development in the sixteenth century. The earliest Christians continued to meet on the Sabbath as they transitioned to the Lord’s Day, but he casts this transition as an ad hoc development as opposed to a divinely inspired “tradition.” But at the same time, he notes the relationship to Christ’s resurrection, the new creation, and the symbolism of the number eight. These are the same features that characterize the God-given calendar ceremonies of Israel. If you want to think more deeply about the theological issues brought up in his book, then read my book. His mission is to just tell the story how Sunday began, how it was modified and adapted by extrinsic and ecclesiastic forces, and then came to compete with another day of worship (Saturday/Sabbath). He finishes with the hope of returning to the ideals that hallmarked the Lord’s Day in the earliest centuries.
There were many times that I wish he provided references for some of his statements. In his section for further reading, he did not mention From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed., which is a seminal work on this topic. As is common nowadays, even Christians attribute the seven-day week to ANE cultures other than the Jews and that it somehow evolved and became acculturated within Judaism, rather than believing what the Bible relates: God gave the Jews the Sabbath. To me, that’s history. And nothing he cited comes close to refuting this claim.
The Lord compelled Israel to record their history, rather His history with them: the highs and the lows, so they could avoid past mistakes and have hope for the future. Likewise, it is beneficial for believers to understand the history of the Christian day of worship for the same reasons. Unfortunately, not many Christians can articulate why they meet on Sunday and the theological importance of this particular day, the first day of the week. I heartily recommend this book to help Christians rethink their Sunday experience and recommit to this essential practice. Another good book review is here: https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/07/10/book-review-brief-history-sunday-new-testament-new-creation, but the comments are not helpful.
This last part of my review of the book “Continuity and Discontinuity” will compare the sabbatology of Covenantalism and Dispensationalism. The name assigned to each system establishes the primacy of that defining term, that is, whether one believes that covenants or dispensations (as defined by them) best describe the organization and history of God’s kingdom work among men. In this regard, I place myself within Covenantal Theology, but I do not grant as a consequence the idea that the Sabbath is a moral law. The following graph illustrates the logical sequences generally advanced by Covenantal and Dispensational theologians with respect to the fourth commandment.
While these systems present a hierarchy of beliefs, it eventually becomes obvious that ancillary beliefs do not necessarily follow as logical consequences. Given the statement that the Ten Commandments are all moral laws, as advocates of this viewpoint work out the implications of it, they are quite varied in their theological analysis and practical application of a moral Sabbath commandment. While this would be an intriguing matter for study by itself, I will restrict myself to the particular nuances that Chamblin sets forth as representative of Covenantal theology.
Sabbatology. Law is designed to affect the behavior of people within a system, often carrying penalties for non-compliance (Rom 3:19). So, in one sense, law controls us. After all, we do need to be told what to do or not do (or to have confirmed what we already know internally to be right or wrong). And if a certain law delineates behavior in specific ways, then its effect on the group leads to uniformitarianism. There is nothing inherently wrong with sameness; and the church is expected to maintain a certain unity of thought and practice (1 Cor 1:10; 2 Th 3:6). While the opposite of a system of laws is antinomianism, there are no serious Christians who are truly law-less (Matt 7:23; 1 Cor 9:21). While laws do pronounce the guilt of law-breakers, one can be a sinner without subscribing or submitting to the [Mosaic] law (Rom 2:12).
The church is expected to learn from Israel, but the church is not Israel (after the flesh). The church has more liberty in the Spirit than Israel had under the [Mosaic] law. Some [Mosaic] laws are simply null for the church, while others continue as “righteous requirements of the law” (Rom 2:25-29). Paul sees a distinction within the [Mosaic] law between laws like circumcision and laws against stealing, adultery, and idolatry. Because of the change in covenants, there is a new terminology, a new relationship with the [Mosaic] law, new ideas about motivation for obedience, and new concepts when dealing with ongoing sin (non-compliance to the law of God). Holding these views in balance is not an easy task. The presence of divergent views evidences the effect of attributing more weight to some ideas than others. The differences between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism with regard to the law, the Ten Commandments, and the Sabbath, can be summarized as follows:
- Emphasize the unity of the
covenants of God in general and the similarity of the Mosaic and new covenants
- All laws of the Mosaic covenant are moral in some respect
- Emphasize the necessity of
the law to direct the life of the church, just as it did for Israel
- The church will use the law to convict sinners (evangelical), to restrain evil (civil), and to guide one’s life (personal sanctification)
- Believe that the Ten
Commandments transcend the covenant with Israel, and are universally obligatory
- The commandments epitomize those laws given to Adam and the world
- The law teaches us everything we need to know
- Don’t disobey because you will be punished
- The Sabbath is a moral
- Adam must have known it
- It is in the Ten Commandments
- It was Important for Israel to observe
- The church observes it on Sunday
- Emphasize the obvious NT contrasts
between the Mosaic and new covenants
- The law characterizes the [Mosaic] covenant; grace and truth epitomize the new covenant in Christ
- Emphasize the liberty of
the Christian guided by the Holy Spirit
- Obedience is less of a legal matter, and more about “fruit” resulting from love, edification, and Christ’s teachings
- Believe that the Ten
Commandments are the signature document that summarizes the covenant with
- The commandments are understood through the lens of fulfillment
- We know a lot from the law, but not everything
- Don’t disobey because you are taking advantage of God’s grace
- The Sabbath is a ceremonial
- It was not practiced by anyone prior to the liberation of Israel
- It is in the Ten Commandments to foreshadow the redemption of Christ
- The reality of redemptive rest is fully ours in Christ
- The church has no warrant to observe or keep Sabbath
The Sabbath is a law of the Mosaic covenant. Its importance is demonstrated by its inclusion in the covenant written in stone. And since the Mosaic law commands Sabbath-keeping, both authors (Chamblin and Moo) mention it in their articles dealing with the law.
Matt 12:1-14 relates to the fourth commandment. That mercy is a weightier matter than sacrifice (v. 7, quoting Hos 6:6a) is already evident in Exod 20:8-11 (in that the command provides respite from labor but says nothing about offering sacrifices) and confirmed in 1 Sam 21:1-6 (where David, by securing food for himself and his companions, upholds the sixth commandment). As “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8), Jesus abrogates existing Sabbath ceremonial (the disciples are “innocent,” v. 7, for the prohibition against harvesting ceases to apply with the dawn of the end) and underscores the primacy—and the abiding validity—of the law’s moral dimension. He quotes Hos 6:6; he declares his disciples “innocent” (for they, like David and his men, were hungry, v. 1); and he heals an affliction (vv. 9-13).
In the first paragraph, Chamblin condenses a hodgepodge of ideas into a somewhat convoluted statement to establish his conviction that there is an abiding morality to the Sabbath as it is presented in the Decalogue. It is almost disingenuous to state that Exodus 20 describes the moral aspect of the Sabbath (because it doesn’t mention sacrifices) and other texts that he picks describe the ceremonial aspects. I cannot imagine any Christian Sabbatarian relying on Exodus 20:8-11 alone to make their case for a moral Sabbath. The Westminster Confession of Faith cites thirteen other passages to elucidate the multiple obligations of Sabbath-keeping for Christians. Most advocates of a Christian Sabbath do not allow buying or selling on the Sabbath, but that supporting text is found outside the law of Moses (Neh 13:15). The death penalty for gathering sticks on the Sabbath is often cited as evidence for the primacy of the Sabbath, but that event happened before the giving of the law (Ex 15:32ff). And surely, no contemporary Christian Sabbatarian campaigns for capital punishment for working on the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day, or any other rest-day of one’s choosing).
Chamblin’s citation of David and his men eating the holy bread totally misses the point that Jesus was making—that He has kingly authority to sidestep the lesser laws of the covenant (even though He did not break any laws). Chamblin avoids Jesus’ citation of the priests who work on the Sabbath and are guiltless, because that also demonstrates that Jesus has priestly advantages over the law, and that ultimately, Jesus and his men were not guilty of transgressing the law at all. While the text hints at what we call ceremonial law (His claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath), Jesus was not overtly overturning Sabbath ceremonials at that time as Chamblin affirms.
Matthew 11-12 comprises a distinct unit with several themes connecting the various pericopes. Yang’s in-depth analysis of Matthew 11-12 uncovers two central themes: 1) unbelief and Jesus’ invitation to believe in Him, and 2) multiple Messianic claims. Both of these clearly put our focus on who Jesus is and what He teaches. Concerning the relationship between Matt 11:28-30 and Matt 12:1-14, Yang says, “We may then conclude with some confidence that, for Matthew, understanding our text in the light of its immediately preceding pericope (11:25-30) is imperative.”[i] So Jesus was clearly teaching that He is the ultimate fulfillment of the Mosaic Sabbath laws (i.e., working for our rest), not merely scrapping the sacrifices made on that day! Yang concludes that the real issue behind the Sabbath controversies is not how to interpret Sabbath law, but for Jesus to proclaim His lordship of the Sabbath “since he has fulfilled the Sabbath by providing the eschatological rest (i.e., redemption) which is the ultimate goal of the Sabbath.”[ii]
Chamblin did not mention the text immediately preceding these two conflicts with the Pharisees in which Jesus positions Himself as the true giver of rest (Matt 11:28-30). Matthew’s gospel intentionally put the Sabbath conflicts in contrast with Jesus being the sole provider of rest. The Pharisees were intent on observing the Sabbath, and their focus on the details of correctly observing it made it difficult for them to see that Jesus would fulfill the twofold legal duty to abstain from work and to rest. In addition to reducing these conflicts to mundane matters about eating and healing, rather than Jesus’ kingly authority and His continuously functioning priesthood, Chamblin makes a confusing connection between these Sabbath conflicts and the abrogation of minor ceremonial laws attached to the moral Sabbath. He claims that the disciples were innocent by virtue of the abrogation of the ceremonial law against harvesting on the Sabbath. But Jesus is not abrogating Mosaic laws before He suffers and dies, and He is not admitting that His disciples actually disobeyed laws against “reaping.” They gleaned grain from a field, and this was absolutely permitted under the law (Lev 19:9-10). Chamblin erroneously suggests, in agreement with the Pharisees, that the disciples were “harvesting” on the Sabbath against the law of Moses. Again, Jesus testified that they were truly guiltless of any Sabbath violation. If Jesus intended to instruct them about the legality of gleaning, He could have and would have answered differently.
Of Matt 11:28, Hendrickson pronounces, “It is clear from this passage that ‘coming’ to Jesus means ‘believing’ in him.”[iii] It is also clear that rest for one’s soul is the consequence of believing in Jesus. That is the “benefit” to be had from believing in Jesus as the fulfillment of sabbatic types. This is a salvation matter that Jesus is addressing—not getting three square meals a day. One does not have to belief in Jesus to get “respite from labor,” but one does have to believe in Jesus to be born again and find rest for their soul. Again, Chamblin minimizes the proclamation of the saving power of Jesus and His divine authority—via the theme of sabbatic rest—in preference for a six-day workweek and a full stomach.
Romans 14:1-8 also speaks to the fourth commandment. The same person who “considers one day more sacred than another” (v. 5a) is a Jewish Christian who observes special days (including the Sabbath) as prescribed in the Mosaic Law. The person who “considers every day alike” (v. 5b) is a Gentile Christian. Paul identifies such persons as “weak” and “strong” respectively (14:1-2; 15:1). Paul recognizes that the Jewish Christian keeps the day “to the Lord” (v. 6a). Yet his faith, although genuine and sincere, “is weak” (v. 1). The “strong” understand more fully than the “weak” that OT Sabbath regulations are a shadow pointing to the reality that is Christ (Col 2:16-23), and that Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom marks the dawn of the great sabbath age to which all prior history had painted. Such insight makes it possible to “consider every day alike” (Rom 14:5). The hallowed character once reserved for the Sabbath is now extended to all other days of the week. Yet the Sabbath age, though truly inaugurated, is only inaugurated. While the present order of creation continues, and until the eschatological tension is finally resolved, the creation ordinance of the Sabbath rest remains in effect. One can esteem all days alike and at the same time honor the Sabbath principle which human beings as creatures require for their well-being. As to the day, Sabbath rest must not be riveted to a particular day, as though the efficacy of the rest depended on its being observe on this day instead of that. (p. 196)
Next, Chamblin believes Romans 14:1-8 is relevant to the Sabbath in the church age. He makes the following statements of fact.
- The faith of the Hebrew-Christian is weak if he observes Jewish holy days, including the Sabbath
- The faith of the Gentile-Christian is strong if he considers every day alike
- If he understands that Christ is the reality to which Sabbath regulations pointed
- Jesus’ kingdom inaugurates the great Sabbath age
- The hallowed nature of the Sabbath is placed on every day, yet
- The creation ordinance of the Sabbath remains in effect for all humanity
- [Because we are not experiencing the complete fulfillment of the Sabbath]
- [One day in seven remains holy]
- So now, one can consider every day alike and at the same time give esteem to the [Christian] Sabbath or Sabbath principle
- Yet the Sabbath can be observed on any day of your own choosing
In Romans 14:1-8, Paul does not use the word “holy” or “sanctified” to describe the character of any of the days in question. There are simply those who esteem, give regard to, or keep certain days and those who regard all days the same as any other (they do not esteem, give regard to, or keep certain days in the same manner as their weaker brethren). Paul has diffused the Mosaic concept that certain days are holy to the Lord, and set apart from ordinary days by the required duties or “mitzvahs” to be performed on those days. There are no holy days since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those Hebrew Christians who are weak in the faith have a difficult time letting go of the concept of holy days. Chamblin is correct in identifying believing Jews as those who still feel compelled to order their lives according to the calendar laws of the Mosaic covenant (including the Sabbath, he says). Paul asks the Gentile Christians to be especially understanding of their Jewish brothers and sisters, and to treat them in a loving fashion. This is because they more fully understand that the calendar laws pointed to Christ—and He is the substance of them (Col 2:16). One would think that if Christ fulfilled the Sabbath and that He presently affords rest for our soul (Heb 4:3), then we would be free from the external observation of the Sabbath. But Chamblin thinks he can weave in ideas that allow the Sabbath to continue as a holy day even though all days are now alike. Remember, he must demonstrate his thesis that the Ten Commandments are all moral laws and that Christians must continue to observe the [moral] Sabbath. This requires the introduction of new terms (the great Sabbath age) and new rules (ceremonial commands continue until they are fully realized).
The first term is the “great Sabbath age.” Obviously, this is not a biblical term, but Jews did view the future kingdom as a kind of ongoing Sabbath—not because of resting from labors pro forma, but from the expected experience of utter peace and well-being consonant with eternal life. From the other Hebrew word for rest—“menuhah”—Heschel explains that it “became a synonym for the life in the world to come, for eternal life.”[iv] The Sabbath was a foretaste or “type” of the future holy relationship between man and God—life eternal. Chamblin explains that Christ fulfilled the Sabbath as He inaugurated His kingdom, but as Chamblin continues, he cannot have a completely fulfilled type. It may be fulfilled enough that at this present time every day is alike—alike in a shared hallowedness; but at the same time, the Sabbath cannot be completely fulfilled, so we, like the Jews, must continue to observe the Sabbath by abstaining from work for 24 hours. There are nuances to this theory. The Sabbath is only partly fulfilled because Jesus only fulfilled Sabbath “regulations,” not the Sabbath “principle.” Chamblin alludes to three such regulations that are abolished: 1) offering sacrifices, 2) the prohibition against harvesting,[v] and 3) the specific day of the week on which the Sabbath occurs. And given his statement that we will ultimately abandon Sabbath-keeping when the full inauguration of the Sabbath-age comes in, we may conclude that resting one day in seven is still a type to be fulfilled. So, on the surface, it does not appear that Christ accomplished very much in terms of abrogating the Sabbath. And if Christ was consistent in fulfilling the other feast-days and new moon celebrations, then only the sacrifices on those days have been fulfilled in Christ, leaving the command to rest from labor intact on all other feast days while we await the consummation.
The second and third terms are presented as a pair by Chamblin: a “creation ordinance” and a “Sabbath principle.” Again, neither are discernibly biblical terms, but they are part of the package that underlies Chamblin’s rule that partial fulfillment necessitates the continuation of [Mosaic] laws until the full disclosure of Christ’s kingdom. This is where the confusion comes in. It is true that the Mosaic Sabbath requires rest from labor, but the Jewish Sabbath, according to Chamblin, is really a continuation of a Sabbath principle enacted from the beginning. The Mosaic Sabbath has “regulations” attached to it. It appears that Chamblin wishes to separate these regulations (that Christ can effectively annul) from the command to rest (which Christ does not annul, but He will later).
This leads to many questions. Is resting from all manner of work every seven days for a 24 hour period a moral law or a ceremonial law? What is the nature of a creation ordinance in relationship to a compelling Mosaic law that has consequences for disobedience? Is the effect of Christ’s fulfillment of moral laws the same as the effect of His fulfillment of ceremonial laws? Leaving these questions unanswered for now, let us turn to Chamblin’s casuistry. He asserts that, “The hallowed character once reserved for the Sabbath is now extended to all other days of the week.” I understand this to mean that by fulfilling the Sabbath regulation (presumably a regulation that had its origin in the Mosaic covenant) the holiness of the Sabbath is now shared among all days. I say “presumably” because Chamblin also introduces a “Sabbath principle” that pre-dates the [Mosaic] law and is therefore unaffected for the time being by Christ’s redemptive work. If this is the case, then the creational Sabbath principle should not carry the connotation of “hallowedness” in contradistinction to the Mosaic Sabbath regulation that does, otherwise Christ’s death and resurrection would be able to affect it. However, Chamblin believes Exodus 20:8-11 captures the essence of the Sabbath principle which assigns sacredness and sanctity to the seventh day of creation, the source and beginning of the moral Sabbath principle that obligates all humanity to rest one day in seven. So, if there was one day of the week that was sacred for all humanity before the giving of the law, and then the Jews were told that hallowed day was Saturday, how is it that since Christ’s death that sanctity or hallowedness is “extended to all other days of the week”? Yet at the same time, Christians are to “keep one day in seven holy unto Him as a Sabbath.”[vi] Chamblin goes on to state that this need not be “riveted to a particular day;” however, the Westminster Confession of Faith states affirmatively that “since the resurrection of Christ [the Sabbath] has been changed to the first day of the week.” His statement that “one can esteem all days alike and at the same time honor the Sabbath principle” appears nonsensical in light of the holiness that God ascribed to the Sabbath. It is not simply whether we esteem days or honor principles, but whether God has hallowed a particular day of the week as He did in the [Mosaic] law, and whether He commands us to keep it sacred by our attention to particular laws attendant to that day.
These are the benefits to believers, according to Chamblin, as the result of the fulfillment of the Sabbath by Jesus Christ—a fulfillment that is limited in scope, for sure, but…
- Allows us to harvest on the Sabbath (but not work) to avoid hunger
- Allows us to do more good on the Sabbath, like miraculous healings, (remember Jesus said the Jews already did good things like pulling a trapped animal from a pit),
- Eliminate sacrifices on the Sabbath (which only the priesthood could do anyway).
- Call any day of the week our Sabbath, because hallowedness is extended to all days of the week (even though God moved it to the first day of the week).
What I find interesting, is that Covenantalists have a strong theological background in classifying the laws of the covenant with Israel as either moral, ceremonial, or civil. It is this very framework for understanding the individual laws of the Mosaic covenant that should lead them to acknowledge the ceremonial design of the Sabbath. The Westminster Confession describes ceremonial laws as those that “pertain to worship and foreshadow Christ, His grace, actions, suffering, and the benefits to be had from believing in Him.”[vii] The question should be: Is the Sabbath a ceremonial law according to this definition? Does it pertain to worship? Does it foreshadow Christ, His grace, actions, suffering, and the benefits to be had from believing in Him? This can be answered in the affirmative at every level and at every point. If the ‘great Sabbath age’ has begun, as Chamblin states, and that ‘great Sabbath age’ represents eternal life, then do not believers in Jesus Christ presently possess and experience eternal life? “He who has the Son has life” (1 Jn 5:12). “Come unto me…and I will give your rest to your soul” (Matt 11:29). Any covenant theologian would and should answer affirmatively.
Citing Colossian 2:16, Chamblin acknowledges that “Sabbath regulations are a shadow pointing to the reality that is Christ.” Note that he associates Christ’s reality to shadowy “regulations” alone—not to the supposed Sabbath principle itself. But really, what is the Sabbath but a list of regulations? Rest on the seventh day from all manner of work; you and your family and working animals (Ex 20:10). Do not cook or make a fire, do not reap and set aside, do not buy and do not sell, and do not go out. (Ex 16:23; Neh 13:16-19). Instead, sanctify the day to the Lord as opposed to doing your own works, finding your own pleasures, and speaking your own words (Isa 58:13). Anyone who despises the Sabbath is worthy of death (Ex 31:14-15) which makes necessary the additional sacrifices on that day (Num 28:9-10). In addition, the showbread must be prepared every Sabbath (Lev 24:5-9). Is Jesus Christ the reality of these regulations or is He not? If so, in what way did the regulations foreshadow Christ, His grace, actions, suffering, and the benefits to be had? Rather than exploring this in detail, the following chart[viii] summarizes the proposed fulfillment of the seven major features of Sabbath-keeping.
•Day and Frequency
•Time to begin and end
•Perfection of Lord’s work in His own time; Lord’s work will surely be completed; Redemption as promised will be fulfilled eternally
•God’s work begins in midst of man’s darkness; Man awakens to the promised rest (enlightened to salvation, resurrected to glory)
•In Your Dwellings
•Presence of and fellowship with God in us, the personal temple; Communion with family of God
•Christ, our representative, makes the requisite propitiation before God in heaven
•The creation events and pattern are redemptive types; God’s rest was disrupted by sin, yet it was only a shadow of a future eternal glory; That rest is only provided by the work of God through the Seed
•Redemption of man implies a previous master: Sin is the bondage from which man must be redeemed
•Do no work
•Salvation not by works and not for purchase; not of yourself or the laurels of others; redemption not only for man but the whole world, and not only for Israel, but strangers to their land; the redeemed are not burdened with the guilt of their sin
• Relational rest in Jesus Christ, the sum of all rest figures; a present soulical rest in salvation by grace through faith; an expected bodily resurrection rest at the end of the ages; the death-rest of Jesus Christ which fulfilled the Sabbath
•Light no fire
•Free from the eternally severe judgment of God for our sins; made acceptable to God by Christ
•Our redemption was foreordained before the creation of the world and therefore, forever sure
•Sin-payment exacted for Adam and Eve through whom the promised Seed should come
•Heavenly bread is sufficient for the life of all the redeemed; All the redeemed are one before the face of God
•Cut Off from Israel
•Exact Death Penalty
•Living death of unregenerate souls apart from God
•Second death of the wicked (who do not obtain eternal rest)
The fourteen (2×7) laws specifically relate to the redemption provided by Jesus. In fact, they tell the gospel story from beginning to end. If the Westminster Confession means anything, then adherents should prayerfully consider its assertion that “All of these ceremonial laws are now nullified under the New Testament.”[ix] That includes the Sabbath—in its entirety.
“In practical terms, this means that the Christian must always view the whole law only under the condition of its fulfillment. No commandment, even those of the Decalogue, is binding simply because it is part of the Mosaic Law. In saying this, I am running smack up against a cherished and widely taught tradition. The singling out of the Decalogue as basic and eternal ‘moral law,’ to be distinguished from the ceremonial and civil law and thereby to be seen as an eternally valid ethical authority, has a long and respected history. Even within this tradition, however, there has been considerable discussion about that to do with the Sabbath command which, at least for the great majority of those who have advocated this approach, has not been applied or obeyed in the form in which it was first given (e.g., as requiring rest on the seventh day). A further difficulty was the question of how to determine what was ‘moral’ law and what not. But the basic difficulty, of course, is that the NT does not approach the matter this way. The whole law, every ‘jot and tittle,’ is fulfilled in Christ and can only be understood and applied in light of that fulfillment. In actual ethical practice, very little is lost. For the NT clearly takes up all the Decalogue, except the Sabbath, as part of ‘Christ’s law’ and thereby as authoritative for believers. But considerable difference in theological construct is involved, and the difference in approach is therefore not at all insignificant.” (p. 217-218)
Moo’s succinct paragraph is targeted at the very ideas presented by Chamblin. While Chamblin’s endorsement of the Sabbath is not strictly aligned with other Reformed expositors, it is nonetheless a cherished tradition involving—as Moo kindly described it—a [less than credible] “theological construct” that does not share much in common with Lutheranism, or for that matter, Evangelicals holding to dispensationalism. Moo’s approach to understanding the relationship between the two covenants includes the following points:
- The whole law must be evaluated in terms of fulfillment
- No commandment is binding
simply because it is stated in the Mosaic law
- This includes the Ten Words of the covenant
- The NT does not evaluate laws on the premise of what is moral or not
- But on the premise that every jot and tittle is fulfilled
- Yet, ethically, little change is evident
And Moo’s critique of the Sabbatarian model includes the following points:
- Those who do believe the Decalogue to contain only moral commands cannot attain consensus concerning the Sabbath command
- Those who advocate Sabbath-keeping do not keep it on the day it prescribes [he does not acknowledge some Christian sects that do]
- The theological construct of Sabbatarians prevents them from recognizing the obvious fulfillment of the Sabbath by Jesus
Beginning with the idea that the whole Mosaic law/covenant is fulfilled in Christ, Moo proposes that every Mosaic law must be examined in light of that fulfillment. This may be a tall order because not every Mosaic law is examined by the new covenant with this rationale in mind. One of the earliest writers is James, and his first citations from the Mosaic law are from Lev 19:18 and Ex 20:13-14. Carson’s assessment of James’ thinking at verse 2:8 lends credence to Moo’s construct.
What James is saying, then, might be paraphrased thus: If you really keep the royal law, the law of the dawning kingdom, the law which is according to Scripture—Scripture as it has been magnificently fulfilled in all that Christ has taught and effected, and that is rightly summarized in ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’—you are doing well. In other words, it appears that James, even while quoting Lev. 19:18, simultaneously uses a number of Gospel categories that remind us of Jesus’ own instruction on the centrality of the first and second commandment, which had substantive impact on how early Christians understood the relationship of their new covenant obligations with respect to the OT law.[x]
James seems to understand the law in the same way that any Jew would understand the law when he mentions the commandments against adultery and murder (Jas 2:11). However, James’ singling out Lev 19:18 as the “royal law” portrays the impact of Christ on his approach to the OT. This may reflect a shift from the traditional Jewish thinking that gave greater esteem to the Ten Words. James is not saying that the only commandment is to love, but neither is he saying that the Decalogue must be rigidly obeyed as a summary of God’s ethical demands. Instead, two commandments expounded by Jesus (Matt 5:21-30) demonstrate that love must come from a heart motivated by the Spirit of Christ.
This is why Moo could state that “in actual ethical practice” there is little difference between the Jew and the Christian. Moo must be thinking of the moral standards that are commonly held by Judaism and Christianity, such as respect for life (contra murder) and commitment in marriage (contra adultery). But Sabbath-keeping is an exception. Moo did not explain how the Sabbath is excepted, so his approach may seem too free and loose to those who are obliged to categories and systems, cherished traditions, and denominational standards.
Sabbatarians tend to hear only two points by Moo: Christ fulfilled the law, therefore, the Sabbath is not binding. However, unstated is Moo’s belief that the NT corpus gives no reason to conclude that the Sabbath is anything but a fulfilled ceremonial law. As important as the Sabbath was to the Jews, its fulfillment in the heart of believers rendered it useless as an external tradition.
Below are two logical streams that finish with the same conclusion: Nine of the Ten Commandments summarizing God’s covenant with Israel are consistent with the ethical norms of new covenant believers. The corollary conclusion is that not all of the Ten Commandments are moral laws.
[i] Yang, Yong-Eui. Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel, p. 145.
[ii] Yang, Yong-Eui. Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel, p. 302.
[iii] Hendrickson, William. New Testament Commentary, Matthew; Vol. 1, p. 503.
[iv] Heschel, Abraham. The Sabbath, p. 23.
[v] The prohibition against harvesting is a case example of work. If that specific kind of work is annulled, then the prohibition against all work is annulled.
[vi] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21, para. 7.
[vii] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, para. 3.
[viii] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, Appendix Two: “Summary of Sabbath Law” (modified). The demonstration of Christ’s fulfillment of these laws is presented in Chapter 4, of The Sabbath Complete.
[ix] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, para. 3.
[x] Carson, D.A. “James” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Beale and Carson, p. 1000.
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.
Part 1: General Overview
A Covenantalist and a Dispensationalist aim and fire their shotguns at their targets. How do you tell which target belonged to whom?
This is the battle between Reformed Covenant theology and Evangelical Dispensationalism and how these systems understand the relationship between the OT and NT, but especially between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. All of the contributors are beneficiaries of the work of Christ and participants in the new covenant, but something has created a rift in their understanding of the place of the NT church in God’s eternal plan. Essayist Petersen states “The Bible, the book that unites the church, frequently divides it” (p. 34). But I think we ourselves divide over it.
Continuity and Discontinuity is now 30 years old. And in that time, having associated with churches that espouse these varied positions, I don’t think much has changed since then. My interest in this book was specific to the law, and how the foundational premise of continuity and discontinuity would affect their respective views of the Sabbath. I plan to discuss the two chapters dealing with the law and in a separate article. A third article will address the comments made by Chamblin and Moo specific to their sabbatology.
The first chapter of this in-depth festschrift reviews the historical development of the challenges of relating the testaments to each other. Covenant Theology arose in the sixteenth century (there are precursors with everything) with a sense that the church was true Israel. I agreed with Petersen’s observation that “the implication from this was that the moral laws and precepts of the OT were given added weight as guides to the Christian life” (p. 27). Dispensationalism arose in the nineteenth century with the sense that Israel as a nation still had a role in end-times events. Historically speaking, it appears that the Christian’s hope for the Parousia, couched in terms of their present historical circumstances, can have a profound effect on their hermeneutic. Could it be possible that both of these views have misdirected NT theology?
The following topics are discussed, two essays from opposing viewpoints. I will comment only on the topics “Theological Systems” and “People of God.”
- Theological Systems (Ch 2,3)
- Hermeneutics (Ch 4,5)
- Salvation (Ch 6,7)
- The Law (Ch 8,9)
- People of God (Ch 10,11)
- Kingdom Promises (Ch 12,13)
Chapters 2 and 3 offer a general outline of the competing systems. Readers will not be presented with a conclusive position statement from either system of thought; they will simply have to be already familiar with the respective systems.
Reformed. Van Gemeren says Reformed theology is a continuity system, but little is presented what necessitates a position of “continuity.” He mentions a list of similarities and differences between the covenants compiled by Ursinus, but the list seemed to favor dissimilarities! The first half of his essay focused on the in-fighting among Reformed theologians and concluded with the introspective question whether it is possible to be biblical and confessionally Reformed. Silly question. Of course, those who embrace Reformed theology think they are biblical. The second half of his essay says little about what makes Reformed theology a continuity system. God is father, Christ is a unifying thread, the Spirit is working, and there will be end times. “The genius of Reformed Theology lies in the willingness to live with tensions inherent in the system” (p. 62).
Dispensational. Feinberg then argues that Dispensationalism does not rely on the term “dispensation,” does not mean that God is testing humanity, does not specify the number of dispensations one must accept, has no impact on whether one is Calvinist or Arminian, and does not demand a particular view of the law. Israel is important. Feinberg begins to isolate a difference between the systems when he states that typological approaches and the promise-fulfillment concept form the basis for continuity-oriented interpretations (p. 66). But later he says, “Dispensational and nondispensational thinkers agree that the NT fulfills the OT and is a more complete revelation of God” (p. 75). Later, he explains that nondispensational systems view types as shadows that somehow lose their meaning in their own context when superseded by the anti-type. On the other hand, dispensationalists view types as not necessarily shadows and they must “be given their due meanings in their own contexts while maintaining a typological relation to one another” (p. 78). Without a valid illustration of this phenomenon, it is difficult to understand what he means. All dispensationalists, he avers, “think some sort of distinction between Israel and the church is important” (p. 68, 81). Then he says that “many covenant theologians distinguish Israel from the church” (p. 71). As he admitted, there is confusion in the camps (p. 74).
Chapters 10 and 11 explain why Israel is or is not a continuing entity in God’s redemptive plans.
Reformed. Woudstra, arguing for continuity between Israel and the church, begins with a Scottish confessional statement about the existence of the “kirk” or church from the time of Adam. For Woudstra the question, it seems, is tied to salvation. He sees Israel in Genesis before it became a nation, and so he sees the church in Exodus before Christ even said He will build His church. At the same time, Woudstra calls Israel a prototype of the church, which to me means that it cannot be both the church and a prototype of the church at the same time. Israel is or it is not the church (and vice versa). And he calls the church the new Israel. Not the new “Israel” but the new Israel. However, you will not find the Reformed boasting that they are Jews. While God may call the things that are not as though they are (Rom 4:17), I have a problem with the prochronism of Covenant Theology that places the NT church in OT times. Certainly, OT saints were saved, but not because they understood that Jesus died for their sins. And if Israel, which is the kirk or a prototype of the church, enjoyed all the benefits that the NT church now enjoys, then what makes the new covenant “new”?
Dispensational. Suacy, arguing for discontinuity between Israel and the church, notes the dramatic changes brought by the new covenant, but then says, “But newness with the inauguration of the church does not in itself establish a discontinuity of the church in relation to Israel” (p. 250). Saucy seems to see the question as to whether Israel as a nation has a separate spiritual path after the establishment of the New Testament church. Of course, he admits from the outset this question arises due to historic circumstances. Paul mentions Israel and means the nation Israel, he propounds. However, Paul wrote when Israel was still a nation. And until 1948, there was no national Israel. Its contemporary existence as an independent state is certainly a monumental event, but it is not a restoration of the Mosaic covenant, nor was the event the fulfillment of clear prophecy.
Analysis. I got the impression that the contributors were often arguing from the standpoint of their chosen theological system rather than from exegetical analysis of key texts and a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the topic in question. Sometimes, the more one qualifies their position the less clear their position becomes. On top of that, the terms “continuity” and “discontinuity” were never really defined, which makes them near meaningless. I find it amusing that the discontinuity between Israel and the church means that Israel continues to be Israel; and that continuity means that the Jewish nation ends (the old church, as it were) and is subsumed or superseded by the church, which is the new Israel. But what system do I belong to if I believe that the church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that God’s covenant with Israel is old and passed away? I am glad that ethnic Jews remain to this day. Does God want them to assent to the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus and so enter the new covenant or does He want them to remain in unbelief until such time that He reinstates or reactivates the inferior covenant to resume bloody sacrifices and give them earthly blessings?
Editor and contributor John S. Feinberg provided a fine summary of this festschrift in the final epilogue. However, it is a foregone conclusion that “the authors of this volume agree that the relation of the Testaments is one of continuity and discontinuity.” Each essayist admitted that from the outset. No one supports complete discontinuity or complete continuity, whatever that might entail. Each contributor was quite nuanced in his presentation, so at times it is was difficult to figure out whether they were in agreement or disagreement with each other. Nonetheless, there remains notable differences regarding the relationship of Israel and the church, and the corollary topics of the law and kingdom promises.
The new covenant expects and demands that Christians are unified in their understanding of it and what sort of life one should lead. The contributors do not hammer out the behaviors that necessarily follow from their viewpoint (thankfully), but they do focus on the background assumptions and conclusions which in turn would play out in practical application. It does not, in my mind, adequately explain why Covenantalism or Dispensationalism necessarily lead to either continuity or discontinuity, when all the authors acknowledge that within each camp there is such variety of positions that no one position exemplifies or captures the essence of them. Hence, the shotgun illustration above. If someone could be all over the board, so to speak, how do the words “continuity” or “discontinuity” explain one’s position?
As a student of the Bible, I began to wonder if I was ignoring Paul’s advice “that the ultimate aim is to love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Some seem to have forgotten this and to have lost themselves in endless words” (1 Tim 1:5-6, Phillips). But maybe this fits under iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). It was dialogical, after all; and what better way to iron out the wrinkles in our theology? This book stimulated much thinking and study on my part, which led me to produce a three-part review. At the same time, this book was not as definitive as I would have liked.
This small book delves into the meaning of the Ten Commandments for the church of Christ. Reisinger focuses on the relationship between the Decalogue and the Mosaic law-covenant, and the corollary topic whether the Sabbath is applicable as a moral commandment for the church age. For centuries now, the church has used the Ten Commandments to inculcate Christian ethical standards. When a Christian is asked about the moral law, the image of Moses holding the tablets of stone is first to come to mind. When did this begin?
This began with Luther’s Treatise on Good Works (1520) and his catechisms (1529)[i] which used the Ten Commandments as a format to teach moral principles to parishioners. At that time, many unbelievers were compelled to go to Mass every Sunday. They slept in church, talked aloud, and even played games. After church, they would go to the pubs and get drunk. More pious parishioners thought their good behavior was meritorious for salvation or compensated for their sins. In his catechism, Luther briefly explains what the Sabbath commandment means for Christians:
“You shall sanctify the holy day. [Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.] What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Luther reduced a complex Jewish ritual law into a simple statement: attend to the preaching of God’s word [every week]. For Luther, the Sabbath as practiced at the synagogue represented the faithful weekly attendance of God’s people to the hearing and study of God’s word, and then actually applying what was learned at home and at work. His desire was that those attending church would have this heart in them and faithfully learn God’s word, as Sunday preaching was the only means to hear God’s word. It was not to keep Sabbath with a 24-hour rest from all manner of work.
Luther also emphasized the distinction between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ to emphasize the contrast between works and faith, but some interpreted this to mean that there was no law for Christians. Those who rationalized the gospel of Christ in this way were called “antinomians”—those who stood against the law or believed that they were guided by no law except the Holy Spirit. The reaction of other Reformers was … reactive; and ensuing theological statements advanced the “proper uses of the law” as opposed to any misconstrued understandings of Paul’s teaching that Christians are “dead to the law” (Rom 7:1ff). Connected to this controversy was whether the Mosaic law was a “covenant of works” by which it were possible to be saved. Of course, OT saints could not be saved by the law; they were saved by grace (Rom 11:6; Gal 3:21). And so, the idea was put forth that the law of Moses was really a “covenant of grace.” Eventually, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) took center stage among English speaking countries and became the foundational “secondary standard” for many Protestant churches. The WCF teaches that after Adam fell, God instituted a “covenant of grace” and this one covenant was administered differently during the two testaments.
“This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel. Under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament. . . There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” (Chapter 7)
The “good and necessary” inference was that the Ten Commandments epitomized the moral law of God from the time of Adam to the present day.
“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.” (Chapter 19)
Churches that assent to the WCF and its children are taught that the Ten Words are a summary of moral law, as opposed to a summary of the Mosaic covenant. This is contrary to Moses’ claim that the covenant was made with Israel and not with the fathers—not with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, and less so with Adam.
With this as a backdrop, Reisinger’s criticism of “covenant theology” and “theological systems,” his antipathy for being labeled as an “antinomian” for questioning the biblicity of the WCF, and his proposition that the Ten Commandments are NOT a summary of moral law finds context. Overall, his thesis has biblical support and this makes it a worthwhile read. There are a few foibles, but I’ll mention only one.
I wish that Reisinger’s book began with a statement of the problem facing the church that he aims to set straight, as well as references for the ideas and statements that he mentions (i.e, p. 95). I thought at first that he was being gracious to avoid mentioning names, but he eventually implicated “Covenant Theology” as presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith and derivative faith statements. With a knowledge of what the WCF actually says, it becomes obvious how its emphasis on the unity of the old and new covenants misrepresents the contrasts that abound in the NT corpus. Furthermore, the WCF proposition that the Ten Commandments are a summary of moral law is without merit. On this point, Reisinger shines. Reisinger repetitively brings the reader back to the plain sense of those texts mentioning the Ten Commandments and makes cogent arguments against the misleading verbiage in the WCF. The tables of stone are clearly a summary document of the covenant between Israel and God (not the church and God). The Mosaic covenant is over and the church is now under a new covenant. As Reisinger continues, he knows that some readers will react and say, “Don’t we have a law to obey?” Of course, Christians have a law, and it is the law of Christ. Moral duties for the church are to be defined by the covenant we are under. The Ten Commandments, he argues, are a vital part of the Christian life, but only as applied and interpreted by the Lord and the apostles—just as other OT texts are considered by the NT writers.
The ideas that Reisinger is challenging are entrenched in “confessional” churches and took centuries to develop into the one-liner—yet biblically indefensible—maxims that they are today. It is time to re-examine the wording of some of these historic theological statements and make them more true to the Scriptures, especially if church members are expected to assent to them without granting the taking of exceptions.
[i] “The first Catholic catechism was written after the Council of Trent which took place in 1546 and was published in 1566 and called the Roman Catechism. A new catechism was not created until 1994 called The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Other bishops in various parts of the world may have produced a catechism, such as the Baltimore Catechism of 1885, but there was not a universal catechism produced between the years 1566 and 1994.” http://www.aboutcatholics.com/beliefs/the-role-of-the-catechism-of-the-catholic-church/ (accessed July 28, 2017).