Christians nowadays don’t like “law” much, and I think it has less to do with interpreting Paul’s ideas on law and grace than our general societal attitudes. I’ve been in private e-mail correspondence about the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, one of which is said to be a historic tendency of the Latin church to look at biblical terms forensically, which the Greeks don’t.
Meanwhile, over on BioLogos frequent and indefatigable contributor Roger Sawtelle, in his characteristically generalising way, says that a defining characteristic of our “Fundamentalist brethren” is their legalism, whereas Christ does away with law: a rather inaccurate oversimplification it seems to me, but showing a prevalent attitude. And in another series there, N T Wright has been keen to point out the Bible’s nature as narrative rather than as authoritative text – which is essentially a denial of any legal status for it.
Then again there has been the recent controversy over penal substitution, which has not only been accused of being a legalistic teaching even within the Evangelical churches, and claimed to have no place in Eastern Orthodox tradition, but has also received some sideswipes in the restricted field of science and faith, where divine law often seems to be an embarrassment whilst God’s scientific laws are nevertheless inviolable.
Part of the issue lies with our restricted idea of “law”, as applied to the Bible. It’s ultimately a translation of Hebrew “Torah”, referring to the Pentateuch, which embodies a much wider idea of God’s “teaching”, rather than merely a set of rules and penalties. Nevertheless that does not preclude its normative – that is legal – nature. Just as natural law provides the framework by which purposeful existence becomes possible, so the Jews saw Torah as God’s gift to make human life effective in the world God had made. As E J Gottlieb has said:
If there is a God who did create the world and man in it, then he could, moreover he must, have communicated with man.This creator of man had to guide man with definite and proper directives in order to enable him to reach the desired destination… if there a God, there must be a law from God. One could hardly be without the other.
The Rabbis even considered the Torah the means by which God created the cosmos – effectively bracketing the teaching of Moses with the patterns of physics in modern terms.
Whatever the position of the Greek Church may be now, in New Testament times there was a significant universality about this high concept of law – maybe that’s one thing that attracted God fearers and proselytes to Judaism. The Romans certainly had a high view of law, but like the Hebrew concept, that included the ideas that what was passed down by tradition was ultimately guidance from the gods about how to achieve harmony in civil society.
Yet even the Greeks shared this elevated concept of law. Hesiod attributed the giving of law to mankind to the proto-god Cronos. Demosthenes told the people of Athens that “every law is an invention and gift of the gods.” All the major philosophers dealt with the issue too, at length. Philo, that first century bridge between Greek philosophy and Judaism, equated torah with the law of the philosophers and Moses was the perfect lawgiver. He said:
The world is in harmony with the torah and the torah with the world .
None of this is conclusive, of course, but does suggest that the culture of the New Testament, whether that of Jesus and the Jews or of Paul and the Hellenist, or even that of the first church in Rome, had a common cultural category of thought that was deeply forensic in nature, and so it’s no surprise (and no illusion) to find that reflected in the New Testament writings. That’s not to say that the Gospel is a form of law, but it is to suggest that its nature cannot be properly assessed without relating it to God’s law.
What brought this into my mind was being asked to preach at my church, and finding that the date I was given corresponds to covering chapters 6-10 of Hebrews. Fortuitously we did a Bible overview last year and I was asked to deal with all 13 chapters of Hebrews in half an hour – a good discipline since the only commentary I have on the book is by the Puritan John Owen in seven large (and sad to say unread) volumes. In that talk I pointed out that, though I had no time to deal with it properly, the writer spends five chapters stressing the centrality of the legal basis of Christ’s priesthood and the forensic efficacy of his death.
Now I have the luxury of covering those five chapters in half an hour, and still won’t be able to do them justice. But you can bet your life it will be impossible to do them any justice at all outside the context of law and justice itself.
Reference: Evans CA & Porter SE, Dictionary of New Testament Background, Leicester IVP 2000.