Torah – as sure as gravity

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Torah – as sure as gravity

  1. Cal says:

    2 points:

    1) The penal aspect of the atonement has been over emphasized (sometimes to the exclusions of others) in the West and under emphasized (sometimes to non-existence) in the East. It is important but just one aspect of the atonement brought upon the Cross. The legal ramifications (sins being blotted out before the Judge) is important as the creative ramifications (restoration of creation) and political ramifications (Christ defeating the powers and sitting at the throne in Heaven). I use to disregard penal substitution completely, but I realized it has a biblical precedent though not primarily.

    2) I think we get stuck in the same rut of misunderstanding the sweep of ‘law’. James calls living by Christ the ‘royal law’ and when we reflect on the ‘perfect law of liberty’ we are blessed(happy). The law wasn’t evil but it created evil because it was always external. The Law of Moses had in itself the seed of pointing to the True Torah, Messiah Jesus. As His Spirit gives us a new heart, we’re no longer under law (Torah/Moses) but we’re free in the law of liberty (living by trust in the commands of the Son of Man). One was external, the other internal. All the laws of Moses, all 613, led to point to ‘Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself’, which is Messiah Jesus.

    Your pal,

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I think we’re fully agreed on “law”: it’s not the eradication of law but the internalisation (if you will) that Christ brings.

    However, I do urge you to do a New Testament survey actually to plot the “column inches” devoted to each facet of the fruits of Christ’s work. How many verses (or mentions, even) of sacrificial, ransom, forgiveness, justification, and other “forensic” language; how many on the restoration of creation; how many on the defeat of evil and so on. It might surprise you.

    In fact, maybe I’ll do it myself – might open up some little explored categories for comment!

    A full survey including the Old Testament would be harder – one would need to review not only the promises made about the New Covenant (a legal category in itself!) but also the typological preparation for Christ, the delineation of the problems that Christ alone could deal with and so on: he did not, after all, arrive out of the bloue but as the culmination of the hope of Israel.

  3. Cal says:

    The problem is perhaps we try to separate them too much. I think they might be refractions of the same pearl, if you know what I’m saying. I think the overturning of the powers is the central theme, evinced in Jesus saying His primary point in coming was to “destroy the works of the devil”.

    His death and resurrection, becoming the True Israel, and His indwelling are understood and true in many facets. I do agree that there was a huge amount law-court language. Covenants, justice/justification(or righteousness/’rightifying’, trying to use the same set of words), accuser/liar (satan/devil), advocate, mediator. Yet I think we do wrong when we imagine something closer to Roman law rather than Jewish law in how it was conducted. Jesus being Messiah meant He was King, Priest, Prophet (Judge being a subset of King). Being the utmost of such alluded to His being the very YHWH of old.

    I guess despite how often it was used, to say therefore it is the primary understanding does no service to the other realities. I fully accept penal substitution (when properly articulated, not the mangled version that comes out of American evangelicalism), I’m just setting it in place among others.

    I’ll look into doing the research sometime though.


  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Too right about the difficulty of separating the strands, since it’s a whole package: out of interest I made a start on Matthew’s gospel, and found that the whole thing is a tapestry (as you’d expect really, rather than a neat scheme of separate headings). So far I can’t say that I agree on the overturning of the powers as the main theme – though of course the first major atonement theory (pre-Anselm) was the idea of tricking Satan.

    But it’s a question of emphasis partly: the commonest descriptor in the gospels is “kingdom” talk, the establishment of Jesus as king-priest, as shepherd of his people, inaugurator and guarantor of the covenant, and Saviour from sin and death – in which context of course the usurpation of Satan as pretended ruler, accuser etc is an important aspect. It is surprising how much the role of judge is emphasised – not of powers, but of people.

    But in Matthew (all I’ve done so far), with reference to the people themselves, forgiveness of sins as the means to defeat death is central. There is one reference to Jesus’ death as a ransom, but one has to remember that in the gospels the disciples are being let into the fact of Jesus’ death gently – the main teaching on its achievements comes from Holy-Spirit relection after the resurrection.

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