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Glossary 21 Continuity/Discontinuity (of the Law)
Continuity/Discontinuity. This is an important theological discussion point—indeed, a Gordian knot—that addresses the relationship between the old and new testaments. “The first question in the interpretation of Scriptures after acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ is how to relate the Hebrew Scriptures to the ‘New’ Testament.”[i] “Any true biblical theology must recognize the centrality of the relationship between the testaments.”[ii] The answer to this question will ultimately affect your understanding of an array of key biblical concepts and topics, such as soteriology, the law and the gospel, Israel and the church, and eschatology.
There are several contemporary systems of thought that attempt to define the relationship between the testaments, the prevailing views being covenant theology and dispensationalism.[iii] These systems have developed over time and as a result of continuing biblical studies and dialogue a considerable variety of thought exists within each hermeneutical structure.[iv],[v] Both camps agree that certain aspects of the OT are discontinued and other aspects do continue; however, they may have different rationales behind any agreement. And, of course, the differences are preserved because the adopted systems 1) color the interpretation of key verses, 2) affect how biblical terms are conceived (i.e., “commandment,” “new,” “law,”), and 3) introduce constructs that delimit more freedom of thought (i.e., “covenant of grace,” “church as a parenthesis”). Covenant theology claims a position that favors “continuity” and dispensationalism adopts a position tending toward “discontinuity,” but these terms are rarely defined. What does continuity or discontinuity look like?
- Continuity describes something that changes little or not at all over time. There is a connection or succession in its state over time. Its state is uninterrupted, while at the same time, there may be progression and improvement, even arriving at a state of completeness or wholeness. Unbroken, consistent. The office of the President of the United States demonstrates continuity, though different individuals have held that office with differing political goals.
- Discontinuity embraces the idea that breaks or gaps occur, that a loss of cohesion takes place. Something comes to an end or arrives at its termination, often to be replaced by something new and different. There are jumps, intervals, separation, or breaches that upset the status quo. Things change in significant or radical ways, or something revolutionary appears for the first time. The Declaration of Independence marked the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the autonomous rule of the United States.
From these definitions, it is apparent that God is best described under the rubric of continuity, for He does not change or vary (Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). Yet He introduced discontinuity into His eternal state with a six-day creation-fest. He didn’t change, but there was something strikingly other. Next, the fall of Adam marked an early and significant discontinuity in the perfection of God’s creation, yet God remained true to His holy character. The fact that we recognize the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham as significant events is because of the discontinuities with what went before them. Heating water demonstrates a continuity that can be measured in degrees, but upon reaching its boiling point, a discontinuity occurs even though it is still dihydrogen oxide (water).[vi] When something significant happens in history, it often marks a discontinuity because of the radical changes that follow. The promulgation of the Law of Moses was a discontinuity for the life of the Israelites who previously were subject to Egyptian rule (Deut 4:34). The enthronement of King David was a discontinuity in the regime of Israel, replacing the period of judges. Jeremiah prophesied a new covenant, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jer 31-31-32), that conveys the sense of a radical change. While there is a premise of continuity as it pertains to God’s gracious character and the progression of biblical history, there is at the same time marked discontinuities evident in the outworking of His will for His people and mankind.
The ideas of continuity and discontinuity are also discussed in psychological theories dealing with the maturation of a person from birth to adulthood. The viewpoint of continuity is likened to a positive incline—a wheelchair ramp—whereas discontinuity is likened to steps. As an outsider to the theories of developmental psychology, it would appear that the maturation of the individual contains elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Many biblical scholars would admit the same seemingly bipolar relationship of the OT and NT. Interestingly, the NT describes Israel’s relationship to the law as a temporary tutelage or guardianship that would be changed at the point of maturity (Gal 3:23-25). And now that Christ has come as the mediator of a new covenant, the language of Scripture employs the metaphors of human growth, health, status, and maturation to describe the redemption of souls effected by the work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is likened to a new birth (Jn 3:3), a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), or the adoption into a new family (Gal 4:5); vision being restored to the blind (2 Cor 4:4) or a debilitating defect being healed (1 Pet 2:24); freedom being granted to the enslaved (Gal 4:7, 31), the release from the oversight of a pedagogue (Gal 3:25); the attainment of great spiritual riches (2 Cor 8:9) and indeed, coming to spiritual life (Col 2:13). None of these metaphors can be compared to an adjustment of but a few degrees or a simple change of administration. These describe sweeping, monumental changes, and markers of discontinuity with what went before. Clearly, it would be a distinct step, or discontinuity, for a Jew to adopt the phrase “the law of Christ” in favor of “the law of Moses,” or to subscribe to the conditions of the new covenant while relinquishing the demands of the Sinaitic covenant. It is doubtful anyone can be a member of both covenants simultaneously (Gal 4:8-14; Heb 2:1-4; 10:29). If Peter stumbled at this, then we can be assured that this was not a smooth transition for the Jews.[vii] Hendrickson, commenting on this passage noted, “The clear revelation of God’s love revealed in the birth, teaching, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coronation of Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to bring about a mighty change on earth… Compared to the rivulet of grace during the old dispensation there was a mighty stream now.”[viii] Whenever something “new” happens there is some discontinuity with whatever came before. “We do not have a situation in which a variety of new perspectives are added to the staple of old things that constitute Judaism, causing only minor readjustment. On the contrary, the new that comes is an eschatological turning point in the ages, of such great consequence that we must be prepared for dramatic shifts.”[ix] Calvin is even more direct in delineating the discontinuity of the law: “Paul compares this law first to a prison, and next to a schoolmaster. Such was the nature of the law, as both comparisons plainly show, that it could not have been in force beyond a certain time.”[x]
Baxter wisely begins his commentary affirming the unity of Scriptures—“one in the progressiveness of the revelation which they collectively unfold, one in the harmony of the structure which they collectively constitute, one in the spiritual unity of the message which they collectively declare.”[xi] But the unity of Scripture does not necessarily mean the operational continuity of every legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant. “The new covenant has some similarities to the old, but it is a new covenant.”[xii] Nor does it mean that the promises of God in the OT will be fulfilled precisely as they were understood in their given context.[xiii] Because scholars maintain different concepts about the OT/NT relationship, they vary in their approach to identify the basis for Christian morality, ethical norms, church life, and holy living. The following chart displays four models regarding the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant in terms of God’s commands (Mosaic law). Each model takes on a different hue when answering the question: “How should we then live?” The focus of this discussion is how the [Mosaic] law/covenant is affected by the introduction of the new covenant.
|A. The Mosaic covenant continues concurrently with the new covenant, either in full force or to a modified extent. For example, the promises to national Israel are still in effect literally, which will impact the future of the church. Jews are still bound by the Mosaic covenant if they are not in the new covenant.
B. The Mosaic covenant comes to an end; however, aspects of it continue in force as part of the new covenant (or alongside the new covenant), such as the Ten Commandments, civil laws, all moral laws, or the promises to Israel.
C. The Mosaic Covenant, all preceding covenants, and the new covenant are all parts of the construct called the Covenant of Grace and are therefore continuous with one another and essentially the same, except for their “administration.”
D. The Mosaic covenant comes to an end when the new covenant is established; however, there are features of commonality between the covenants because they are consistent with God’s holiness and His eternal and gracious plan of redemption. The new covenant will draw upon the OT as it conforms to the law of Christ.
Besides the above concepts, there are two other factors that impact our understanding of the relationship between these two covenants: typology/fulfillment and the categorization of the laws and precepts. Various laws foreshadowing Christ, His work, and His people were fulfilled with His advent, and therefore are no longer required because they possess no spiritual value (i.e., circumcision). See Ceremonial Laws. Fulfillment, then, must be examined to determine its effect on Mosaic law(s), not only cultic, ceremonial, or external laws, but moral injunctions and the covenant as a whole. See Fulfillment.
The other important factor is how the laws of the Mosaic covenant are classified—if they are to be classified at all. Brogden does not find the terms of the tripartite division helpful because they imply the non-morality of so-called ceremonial and civil laws[xiv]: “A Jew obeyed the law of God in its entirety. He did not make sure to keep certain laws because they were on the moral list, while not worrying too much about observance of other laws because they were on the ‘ceremonial’ list.”[xv] While acknowledging that the [Mosaic] law should be recognized as a unity and infused with the righteousness of God (Rom 7:12), it is apparent that certain laws are of a different character than others; i.e., not eating shellfish (Lev 11:10) compared with not having sex with your granddaughter (Lev 18:10).[xvi] “Assigning priority to the moral aspect of the law over both its civil and ceremonial aspects can be observed in a plethora of passages found in the prophets.”[xvii]
Some would also distinguish civil laws and induce from them societal norms and values incumbent on every culture.[xviii],[xix] For example, the law of the parapet (Deut 22:8), literally understood, positively commands the building of a parapet, or fence, on the habitable roof of one’s dwelling in order to prevent accidental injury or death. Maimonides inferred from this law that homeowners are responsible to ensure the safety of their guests by removing any object that could potentially cause injury.[xx] Some Christians advocate “continuity” of this law, albeit as a principle. Others would argue that this particular law is discontinued because the whole law has been upstaged, but that the royal law of love requires the same thing, and this particular law is merely an example of the love for neighbor contained in the [Mosaic] law. As this example shows, the terms continuity and discontinuity are meaningless if both groups end up agreeing on the practical application for the church. “Christians have long debated about what parts of the OT law, if any, carry over into the NT. Many in the past have categorized the law into three parts: ceremonial, civil, and moral. Although this has no exegetical basis, it is a broadly helpful way to conceive of the law. Many scholars disagree with such a tripartite classification of the law and see it as being overly simplistic. The attempt to fit the law into these three categories is indeed a complex issue, and it needs more nuanced argumentation…”[xxi]
Lastly, the primary reason for studying this topic is practical—How should the NT shape and define the normal Christian life and what laws from the Mosaic covenant appear to apply and if so, in what way and to what extent? The New Testament validates the practical necessity to engage the narratives of the Old Testament (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 4:11), therefore, a “New Testament Christian” should be well-grounded in Old Testament history. Indeed, the Christocentric motif of the OT is able to effect spiritual renewal (Matt 4:4; Jn 5:39-47; cf. 2 Ki 23:2-3). In addition, Jesus repeated two Mosaic laws (Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18) that epitomize our spiritual duties to God and fellow man. These laws were for the nation Israel while they were in the land, and obedience to them would bring personal and national blessings, but they are authoritative even for [believing] Gentiles. James claimed that believers would also reap blessings contingent on their obedience to this “royal law” (Jas 2:8). But equally significant is that the apostles did not urge obedience to laws such as: the prohibition against mixing materials in clothing, scourging a man for having sex with someone else’s concubine, the prohibition against eating the fruit of a new tree for three years, the prohibition against shaving or making tattoos, keeping the Sabbath and reverencing the sanctuary, standing in the presence of an old man, and the like. Certainly, for the follower of Christ, the relationship to Mosaic law is profoundly different. There is a picking and choosing of OT material as it suits the mission and goals of the new covenant, and there is a right way and a wrong way to relate to the law. Paul reminded Timothy that the purpose of the commandment is to “love from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith,” and that some supposed teachers of the law fail to understand it and focus their attention on unedifying topics. Furthermore, the law (as a moral mirror) still identifies sin so that the gospel may save sinners (1 Tim 1:3-16), yet Gentiles may still be saved without its use (Rom 2:12-16). “Nevertheless, the Gospel is a glorious superseding of and advancement over the Mosaic administration with its ceremonial ordinances.”[xxii]
Most outward Christian activities are affected by the answer to the earlier question, either consciously or subconsciously. Should a Christian vote, join the military service, or promote Israel? Should the church baptize infants, organize denominations, make religious art, or build elaborate structures for worship? May a Christian own a slave? Are Christians required to pay a tithe to the church? Are there roles for men and women both in church and in their community? Should children be present during the sermon? May our children marry at age 14? And, of course, are Christians required to abstain from all manner of work on the seventh day of the week? “As sure as it was His (Jesus’) to win and ascend the throne, it is His to prove His dominion in the individual soul. It is He, the Living One, who has divine power to work and maintain the life of communion and victory within us. He is the Mediator and Surety of the Covenant—He, the God-man, who has undertaken not only for all that God requires, but for all that we need too.”[xxiii]
In the context of continuity/discontinuity discussions, covenant theology (Reformed) generally favors the continuation of the Sabbath while dispensational theology (Evangelicals) does not. However, there are exceptions in both camps. The point is that neither system logically compels its supporters to adopt a particular view about the Sabbath. However, once someone identifies with a system, they are generally obliged to embrace the consensus or doctrinal position of that system. In other words, people accept the historic position of their denomination as a settled matter, assuming that its position is consistent within that theological framework and with the teaching of the Bible.
One argument for the continuity of the Sabbath comes from the maxim that OT laws continue into NT times unless they are specifically abrogated. For example, Bahnsen contends, “Indeed, the Bible teaches that we should assume continuity between the ethical standards of the New Testament and those of the old, rather than abbreviating the validity of God’s law according to some preconceived and artificial limit.”[xxiv] Of course, the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us to assume this rule. It is merely a man-made rule to bolster the position of covenantal theology. If anything, one could reason that because God is a moral being who does not change, we should not expect His definition of morality to change from one covenant to another. Additionally, one could reason that if God commands anything, it would always be a moral command. Therefore, none of the laws of the OT should change with the institution of the NT. However, the Bible does teach us that the NT introduces phenomenal changes respecting laws of the OT, leading others to advise, “When we read a command given to the Jews, we do not assume that we must do it, too.”[xxv]
Bahnsen restates his position, “Our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made.”[xxvi] Of course, were it not for the explicit NT teaching that the OT law of circumcision is now nothing, we would not be faced with the idea that any OT [formally considered moral] laws could change. In fact, it became immoral to require circumcision of Gentiles. This paradigm shift requires believers in Jesus Christ to redefine “morality,” so that even Jews could be free from laws that were previously considered moral obligations for a holy people. To explain this change, the earliest Christian apologists recognized that a parcel of OT laws were prophetical or eschatological in nature and were fulfilled/abrogated with the coming of Christ. So, our attitude must be to recognize at least two classes of Mosaic law: those that reflect God’s holy will from the beginning (i.e., moral, universal, or natural) and those that were introduced on a temporary basis to foreshadow Christ (ceremonial, cultic, or Jewish). The apostles distinguished between “royal” (Jas 2:8), “righteous” (Rom 8:4; Php 3:6), and “spiritual” laws (Gal 5:22-23), and another breed of ”fleshly” (Heb 7:16), “partitioning” (Eph 2:14-15), “weak and beggarly” (Gal 4:9), and “shadowy” (Heb 10:1) laws. For a first century Hebrew-Christian this realization must have been a jaw-dropping experience.
McKay reiterates, “The laws of the Old Testament are to be assumed to be fully in force unless there is a specific indication in the New Testament to the contrary.”[xxvii] In other words, would it not be wise and pious to err on the side of observing all OT laws that are not specifically annulled by a doctrinal argument in the NT? But those who state this rule cannot live with its application because great specificity is required to remove the force of a Mosaic law. None of the theologians who regurgitate this rule wear tassels with a blue cord even though great spirituality is associated with this law (Num 15:38-39). They don’t let the land lay fallow one in seven years even though the Lord punished Israel severely for ignoring this law (Ex 23:10-11). And they have no qualms about lighting a fire or driving for miles on their “Christian Sabbath,” let alone finding a NT teaching specifically moving the Sabbath to Sunday.
“Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Heb 7:11-12). The people received the Mosaic law under the authority of the Levitical priesthood, and the church received a “changed” or new law under the priesthood of Jesus Christ. “This text may suggest that in the mind of the author the law as a whole is bound up with the priesthood.”[xxviii] “The priority of priesthood over law is thus clearly affirmed.”[xxix] Indeed, Christ was not eligible under the [Mosaic] law to act as a priest for Israel. God the father appointed Jesus Himself, as High Priest for the new covenant (Ps 109:4). Whether the Levitical priesthood was the condition necessary for the giving of the law, or the law itself was the source of authority for the Levitical priesthood, the relationship is inseparable, such that the imperfection of the priesthood implies the imperfection of the law,[xxx],[xxxi] which in turn necessitates a change of law. “The best that the old covenant could offer was not good enough.”[xxxii] The end point or goal of the [Mosaic] law was the perfection of the people, but being unable to achieve that, a new priesthood and law were necessary. “With the appointment of the new order, the old is abrogated.”[xxxiii]
[i] Peterson, Rodney. “Continuity and Discontinuity: The Debate Throughout Church History” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg; p. 17. The ‘New’ Testament is also “Hebrew Scriptures.”
[ii] Osborne, G. R. “New Testament Theology” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 835.
[iii] To these very broad categories could be added the distinctives of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Messianic Theology, New Covenant Theology, Federal Vision Theology, Reconstructionism, Covenanters, Hyper- and Ultra-dispensationalism, and who knows what else.
[iv] Blaising, C. “Dispensationalism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 344.
[v] Karlberg, Mark W. Covenantal Theology in Reformed Perspective, p. 341-352.
[vi] And yes, science nerds, I know about super-heating. This illustration relates to the ordinary physical properties that people can observe and measure when boiling water.
[vii] Kruze, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology; T. Desmond Alexander, et. al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.
[viii] Hendrickson, William. Commentary on the New Testament, Vol 9, p. 147. (Gal 3:24)
[ix] Hagner, Donald A. “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, p. 118.
[x] Calvin’s Commentaries (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), Vol 21, p. 106-107 (Gal 3:23).
[xi] Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book, p. 12.
[xii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002) p. 40.
[xiii]Berding, Kenneth and Jonathan Lund, eds., Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
[xiv] A moral law is not ceremonial or civil; a ceremonial law is not moral or civil; a civil law is not moral or ceremonial.
[xv] Brogden, Stuart L. Captive to the Word of God, (United States: Parables, 2016), p. 105.
[xvi] I was going to say “sex with your daughter” only to discover that Mosaic law does not explicitly condemn it. It may be inferred, with good reason, but at the same time, it is not specifically proscribed.
[xvii] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. “God’s Law as the Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 189.
[xviii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, pp. 93-143.
[xix] Rushdooney, Rousas J. Law and Society (vol. 2 in Institutes of Biblical Law; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982)
[xx] Sandberg, Ruth N. Development and Discontinuity in Jewish Law, Lanham, MD: University Press of America 2001, p. 144-145.
[xxi] Beale, G. K. A New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 871.
[xxii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 99.
[xxiii] Murray, Andrew. The Two Covenants and the Second Blessing, London: James Nesbit & Co., 1899, p. 91.
[xxiv] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 2. (emphasis in the original).
[xxv] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 9.
[xxvi] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 3. (emphasis in the original).
[xxvii] McKay, David. The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal Relationship with His Church, p. 192.
[xxviii] Moo, Douglas. “The law of Christ as the fulfillment of the law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, Wayne G. Strickland, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 374.
[xxix] Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews, NIGTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 373.
[xxx] Ebrard, John H. A. Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, John Fulton, trans., 1853 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), p. 227.
[xxxi] Johnson, Luke Timothy, Hebrews (New Testament Library) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) p. 185.
[xxxii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 52.
[xxxiii] Macaulay, J. C. Expository Commentary on Hebrews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978) p. 105.
Glossary 19 Abrogation
Abrogation. To formally annul or nullify a legal agreement or parts thereof. Laws, treaties, provisions, stipulations, jurisdictions, institutions, ordinances, and the like, are usually the subject of abrogation. This is fundamentally an authoritative act, for instance, when a new regime invalidates or overrules laws of a predecessor. Abrogation removes the authority and power of a law to effect or hold accountable, “For where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). A variety of Greek words convey the idea to cancel or dismiss, to do away with or abolish, to revoke or repeal, to bring to nothing or make void. Examples: The Pharisees nullified [Gk. akurro “no authority”] God’s commandment by [the authority of] their own traditions (Matt 15:6). God’s promises cannot be disannulled, repealed, or made void [Gk. atheteo “to set aside”, Gk. akurro “unauthorized”, Gk. katargeo “rendered useless”] by men (Gal 3:15, 17). Faith does not invalidate [Gk. katargeo “make void” or “destroyed”] the law (Rom 3:31).[i] Christ made peace between Jew and Gentile by His death, having abolished [Gk. katargeo “rendered useless”] the law of commandments contained in ordinances (Eph 2:15). The glory of the Ten Commandments is done away with [Gk. katargeo “abolished”] by the exceeding glory of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6-14). The law that was delivered through the Levitical priesthood is changed [Gk. metathesis] and annulled [Gk. athetisis “to set aside”] by the oath of God to establish Jesus as a priest forever with His new covenant (Heb 7:12, 18). Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant intimated that the Mosaic covenant would become old and disappear [Gk. aphanismos “vanish away”] (Heb 8:13).
Abrogation is the net effect of Christ’s fulfillment of the OT, by means of His incarnation, lifetime, death, resurrection, and ascension, on both the [Mosaic] law as a whole and specifically on the legal ceremonies and rituals of the law. Personal types (such as Joshua foreshadowing Christ) may be fulfilled, but these are not subject to abrogration, annulment, or abolishment—only legal types that constrained the Jewish nation to act out prefigurations of the person, work, and benefits of Christ’s redemption. “He says, therefore, that it is not in the power of men to make us subject to the observance of rites which Christ has by his death abolished, and exempts us from their yoke, that we may not allow ourselves to be fettered by the laws which they have imposed.”[ii] By the authority of Him who once gave those laws, they are now abrogated or done away with and rendered inoperative. Jesus intimated as much by claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath—He may say what may or may not be done on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees have no such authority (Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5). As Calvin eloquently reasoned, something must be rendered void, either the ceremony or Christ: “Hence, the man that calls back the ceremonies into use, either buries the manifestation of Christ, or robs Christ of this excellence, and makes him in a manner void.”[iii] “The ceremonies, by which the distinction [between Jew and Gentile] was declared, have been abolished through Christ.”[iv] “The author here, as indeed everywhere throughout the epistle [Hebrews], designs to impress upon his readers the consciousness that the new covenant is not worse than the old, that Christianity is not something superfluous, something with which, at any rate, they might despise if only they have their beloved Judaism, but that the latter [the old covenant] rather has be made dispensable by Christianity.”[v] The fact that God abolished the old covenant and replaced it with the new gives us assurance that we belong to God as his children and that he accepts us in Christ.”[vi] The key to the relationship again is “fulfillment”—bringing to completion everything that was originally intended by God. The sacrifices will clearly be abolished, fulfilled once and for all in Christ’s death, while many moral principles will equally clearly remain unchanged.”[vii]
The fact that the Sabbath commandment is contained in the [Mosaic] law and/or in the Ten Commandments leads some to claim most emphatically that the Sabbath could not be abrogated by the new covenant. For example: “If Christ came to fulfill, and not to destroy, the law, then the commandment of the Sabbath is not abolished by Christ’s coming.”[viii] “Jesus’ New Covenant was not a completely new beginning. God did not send his Son to rescind all former covenants. Messiah did not entirely demolish the Old Testament and start afresh.[ix] “Jesus, therefore, does not abrogate the careful observance of the Sabbath but lays down principles by which we may properly keep the Lord’s Day holy.”[x]
Jesus said He did not come to destroy the law [Gk. kataluo, “break down” or “dissolve”] but to fulfill it [Gk. pleerosai, “fill up completely”]. Christ was not at odds with the law of God that He must bring it low. He is its author, not an illegitimate usurper; He is the Living Word, not an outside contrarian; He is its foremost interpreter and exemplar, not a foreign rebel and combatant; therefore, He must make it full, take it to completion, and achieve its intended goal. Jesus did not use any of the words that Paul used to describe the effect His death had on the law of Moses. His death did not destroy the law, but it did render aspects of it useless, since he fulfilled those parts. “It seems best to understand Jesus’ statement about coming to fulfil the law to mean his bringing into being of that which the law foreshadowed.”[xi] The following chart demonstrates the difference between destruction (what Jesus said He would not do) and fulfillment (what Jesus said He would do).
It is the viewpoint of non-Sabbatarians that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath laws by His life, death, and resurrection, and this in turn made Sabbath-keeping of no effect. This is not antinomianism—a decision to shun legitimate laws for self-gratification or self-promotion—but anti-Judaizing, a decision to shun illegitimate laws for the glory of Christ. For all that “rest” is, as presented in the OT, is to be found in perfection in Christ, who assured all who come to Him to find in full measure for their soul. Jesus makes full and brings to completion all that the Sabbath entailed for the Jews. As it was given in Exodus and described throughout their history, the Sabbath institution is entirely ceremonial and foreshadowing in its design. This is the only way that such a law can be fulfilled typologically (and annulled), and only Christ has the authority to do so. One may fulfill the requirements of a law in a legal sense (Ex 5:3; 1Chr 22:13; Jas 2:8), meaning observing it properly, but this “fulfillment” at the human level has no power to annul. Only by bringing in true redemptive rest can the ceremonial Sabbath be divinely fulfilled and authoritatively abrogated.
[i] Our faith is not an act of authority that gives us power to decide for ourselves how to live before God, but an act of submission to the authority and faithfulness of God. Our assent that Christ has fulfilled the law, and that we do, by God’s grace, follow Christ, we are in fact establishing the law. The defensive statement nearly echoes Jesus who asserted that He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. So, the sense of “establishing” the law must carry the idea of the primacy of faith as a response to the faithful outworking of God’s will as recounted through the whole law; and that by virtue of our union with Christ, His relationship to the law is our relationship. This verse hardly gives the impression that Paul is holding up the works of the law and the work of faith on equal footing.
[ii] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Col 2:16, p. 193.
[iii] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Col 2:17, p. 193.
[iv] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Eph 2:15, p. 237.
[v] Ebrard, John H. A., Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews in Continuation of the Work of Olshausen, John Fulton, trans., (1853), Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock (2008) reprint, p. 141-142.
[vi] Brown, Michael G. “Dawn of the New Creation:The New Covenant” in The Outlook, 68:3 (May/Jun 2018), p.20.
[vii] Blomberg, Craig L. “Matthew” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds. () p. 20.
[viii] Thomas Shepard. Theses Sabbaticae, p. 153.
[ix] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 63.
[x] Pipa, Joseph A. “The Christian Sabbath” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, John Donato, ed., (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), p. 144.
[xi] Kruse, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et.al. eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 634.
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 more 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.