Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cruciality or Centrality?

At the risk of scandalizing my Reformed readers, I just have to get something off my chest (and please feel free to stop reading at this point if questioning the tradition makes you queasy).

Is justification really as central to Paul as we have made it?

I'm not questioning the doctrine's status as the artculus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae or anything, nor am I loath to insist upon our strict, confessional understanding of the doctrine. But I sometimes wonder if our emphasis on it can can skew—and even bias—our reading of the rest of the New Testament, especially our reading of the law.

Take the law/gospel antithesis for example. Is it crucial? Absolutely. Is it Reformed and not simply Lutheran? Without a doubt. But should it apply to all of Scripture as a hermeneutical straitjacket? Perish the thought.

There is no question that the distinction between the law and the gospel is indispensible for maintaining a Protestant doctrine of justification, for when the question being considered is how a sinner can secure divine, heavenly blessings, the only answer is that his works, be they ever so sincere and even Spirit-wrought, are of no avail.

But is the question of how a person can be acquitted before God's holy bar the only question ever asked in the Bible? Of course not. And yet when the law/gospel antithesis is applied to every Pauline imperative (placing those commands into the theological category of "law" which, in turn, accuses us and drives us to the gospel), the implicit message is that yes, justification is the only thing Paul was ever concerned with.

Is it me, or is this an example of legitimate, albeit misguided, devotion?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fear, Servile and Filial

I have been arguing that one of the benefits of the New Covenant is that the believer may now serve the Lord without fear. A question has arisen, however, concerning the passages in the New Testament that speak about "working out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) or it being "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). What do we make of these verses?

What we must not do is simply interpret them in such a way as to place us in the same precarious situation as the saints under the Old Covenant. There is too much written in the New Testament about our belonging to a community whose covenant is "better" than the Mosaic (since it is "founded upon better promises") for us to take the approach that these two sets of verses just cancel each other out, placing us back at the foot of Sinai (Heb. 8:6; cf. 12:18).

To be sure, the New Covenant (and its sign of baptism) places dual sanctions upon its subjects, meaning that our failure to trust Christ places us in the position of earning a harsher judgment than those outside the covenant community. Furthermore, the grace promised in the gospel, once received, should make us deplore the thought of (ab)using that grace as a license to sin. It is precisely for these reasons, therefore, that the New Testament instructs us to serve Christ "with fear and trembling."

But there are crucial dissimilarities between the saints under the Old and New Covenants that must not be glossed over. The Israelites served God according to a covenant whose underlying principle, according to Paul, was antithetical to faith (Gal. 3:12). The reason God placed his people in such a situation was to demonstrate to all the sheer impossibility of securing one's inheritance by means of one's own law-keeping (hence the "pedagogical use" of the law, Gal. 3:19-25). Israel's eventual exile proved the nation's need for a "true Vine" whose fulfillment of "the work that the Father gave [him] to do" would result in his "giving eternal life to as many as the Father had given [him]."

So yes, we serve God in holy fear, but that fear is not the servile fear of underage children who "differ not from slaves," but the filial fear of those before whose eyes the love of God has been consummately demonstrated at the cross (Gal. 4:1-2; Rom. 5:8).

A love that, in turn, "casts out fear" (I John 4:18).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Should the Kernel Leave the Husk?

I'm still in the U.K. (Oxford, no longer Aberdeen), but I finally have some internet access, so I thought I'd post a long-overdue installment in our discussion on the law and the believer.

The tendency of some of our Reformed systematicians to (unnaturally) separate the demands of the Mosaic law from the context of its delivery on Mount Sinai creates, for me, some tension with respect to the New Covenant saint's motives for obedience.

Sometimes the "kernel" can't live outside the "husk."

According to the writer to the Hebrews, the giving of the law to Moses was accompanied by darkness, by tempest, by thunder, and by threat. Moses "exceedingly feared and quaked," we are told. Its preamble notwithstanding, the function of the Decalogue was to instruct God's people in the context of a covenant that threatened disinheritance for failure to "keep all things written in the law, and do them."

To ignore the relationship between the Mosaic law's form and its content (i.e., the fact that its demands had concomitant threats of curse, albeit typological) is to fall into the very trap I've been warning against: Wrenching Moses from his covenantal and canonical context and simply plopping him down wherever we think he'd look best (he's not a piece of furniture, after all).

The New Covenant saint's instruction, as I've been arguing, comes from the hand of Jesus, who, contrary to what we are often hearing of late, is not simply a kinder, gentler Moses. Rather, he is the One who could only issue his will to his church sans curse by actually becoming a curse for us by his death upon the cross. The law of Christ, therefore, can command us in the context of an already-fulfilled law of God. That's why we needed a New Covenant: so that we can obey without fear.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Does "Lex Semper Accusat"?

It is precisely at this point in our discussion of the law that our nomenclature becomes important. Since the law of Christ is covenantal (i.e. formulated for the redeemed new covenant community) it therefore has no "first," pedagogical use, for, according to Gal. 3:19 - 4:7, the primus usus legis has already been fulfilled and displayed in Israel's infancy for all to see. It must be remembered that, in the taxonomy that I am suggesting, it is a particular law’s design, not the myriad of its possible applications, that is the issue. While God’s moral will expressed in creation and written upon man's conscience certainly has an accusatory function, and while the saints often recognize their own failure to bear up under Christ's yoke (easy and light though that burden may be), this is a far cry from the Lutheran insistence that lex semper accusat. Law does not "always accuse," for the hands that guide the church are nail-pierced, and the lips which instruct her have already cried aloud, "It is finished!"

Furthermore, the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms that is the by-product of the church's unique semi-eschatological situation precludes the law of Christ from having a "second," civil use. The new covenant community, being dispossessed of its heavenly homeland, has returned to a pilgrim ethic akin to that of the patriarchs before the giving of the Mosaic law (Heb. 11:13; cf. I Pet. 2:11). We exist as members of two kingdoms, that of cult and that of culture. The latter is ruled by God as Creator, the former by Christ as Redeemer.

Logic (and math) would dictate, then, that if the law by which Jesus directs his pilgrim people has no "first" or "second" use, it by implication has no "third" (in fact, if there is no first or second use of the law of Christ, then to speak of Christian obedience as "the third use of the law" would be tantamount to Bobby Brady claiming that he is the third oldest child in a family with no siblings).

The purpose of the law of Christ is to instruct those who have been united with him and endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit. Further, it is instruction that is meant to be obeyed, not feared. To insist, then, that Paul's command to "reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God" (Rom. 6:11) is "law" whose accusatory nature allows it to find its way into the "Reading of the Law" section of the worship service, is to undo what Christ has done at Pentecost and place the church back in her infantile condition during which she, with Moses, "trembled greatly with fear" (Heb. 12:21).


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The New Covenant and the Law of Christ

The moral will of God was not only expressed in the law of creation and then covenantally formulated for God’s old covenant people at Sinai, it is also given to the church by means of the new covenant, and its law, the law of Christ. It would be a grave mistake, however, to insist that, since God’s moral will is immutable, therefore the law of Christ is no different from the moral law expressed in the Decalogue (which, according to WLC 98, is where the moral will of God is "summarily comprehended").

While it is certainly true that the moral commands of the Decalogue are of perpetual validity (as Paul’s numerous quotations of them demonstrate), it must not be forgotten that it has been a while since Israel was led out of Egypt, and some significant things have transpired in the meantime. As Paul’s indicative/imperative paradigm suggests, the entrance into redemptive history of new indicatives opens the door for the entrance of new imperatives as well. For this reason we ought not think it strange that the moral will of God should undergo certain nuances that reflect the unique post-Pentecostal period of fulfillment in which we are now living (the shift of the church's worship from the last to the first day of the week comes immediately to mind).

For a further example consider I John 2:7-8. Concerning the command to love one another the apostle writes:
Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining.

Here we see that a command that John's readers had had "from the beginning"—and therefore an old command—is called new because "the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining" (or, because the kingdom has been inaugurated and the last days have begun). What we have here is not "eternal moral law," nor is it "the third use of the law." Both of these formulations tend to flatten salvation-history by lifting principles from one redemptive epoch and placing them in another, as though the Bible were a collection of "timeless truths" that fell from the sky, leather-bound and thumb-indexed for easy use. Rather, what is exemplified in I John 2:7-8 is an application of the law of Christ, which consists of an old command repeated with new spin, grounded upon the indicative of Christ's love for his sheep expressed in his death, resurrection, and ascension to glory.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Tyranny, Liberty, and the "Wretched Man"

Most would agree that there is some form of contrast between the subject of Romans 7 and the subject of Romans 8. One is "carnal" and "sold as a slave to sin" while the other is "indwelt by the Spirit" and, liberated from bondage, is able to call God "Abba, Father."

It is not the presence of the contrast that occasions debate, but the nature of it. What accounts for such a wide discrepancy between the experience of the subjects of these two chapters? Is one a carnal Christian while the other is a victorious one? Has one received the "second blessing" of the Holy Spirit's power while the other remains woefully untouched by such a reviving influence? Or should we insist with the traditionalists that these chapters present no tension at all?

I would reject all of these solutions in favor of the suggestion that the contrast between "under the law" and "under grace" specifically, and between Romans 7 and 8 more broadly, is clearly set forth in 7:6.
"But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit."
Notice that the supposedly mysterious contrast, which Paul actually takes time to explain in no uncertain terms, is not the existential contrast between a believer and an unbeliever, or between a spiritual Christian and a carnal one, but the redemptive-historical contrast between serving God "in the old way of the letter" (the law of Moses) described in chapter 7, and serving him "in the new way of the Spirit" (the law of Christ) described in chapter 8.

Unless we are willing to bite the traditional bullet and affirm that a New Covenant saint is "carnal" (7:14, contra 8:9) and in bondage to sin and law (7:14, contra 6:14), we are left with little choice but to conclude that the explanation for the discrepancy between the saint of Romans 7 and the saint of Romans 8 is found exactly where Paul told us it is found: The former served God under the tyranny of the Mosaic law, while the latter serves God under the liberty of the gospel.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ridderbos, Moo, and Fee on Romans 7

I still plan to argue my own position on this much-disputed text, but for now, consider what these men have to say:

"It is this redemptive-historical contrast of the old and the new (7:6) which governs everything and in the light of which one is to answer the anthropological questions. If, on the other hand, one turns the matter about and takes his point of departure in the anthropological description of what is then conceived as the struggle between the old and the new man, it is no longer to be comprehended how one could still maintain the real, redemptive-historical theme of these chapters (the antithesis between law and Spirit) in an intelligible manner." Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline Of His Theology, 143-44.

"... This clause ['I was once alive apart from the law'] depicts the situation of Israel before the giving of the law at Sinai—when sins were not yet 'being reckoned' (5:13).... Paul is looking back, from his Christian understanding, to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him, living under the law of Moses.... We might say, then, that Rom. 7:14-25 describes from a personal viewpoint the stage in salvation history that Paul delineates objectively in Gal. 3:19 – 4:3." Douglas Moo, Romans, 437, 448.

"The personal dimension thus refers to life under Torah. That, and that alone, is under scrutiny.... Whatever else, this passage does not describe a struggle within the believer between his or her flesh and the Spirit, but rather describes what it is like to be under the Law while in the clutches of sin and the flesh; and according to both 7:1-6 and 8:1-4 for the believer that all belongs to the past." Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, 513. Fee also cites Romans 7:5 ("When we were in the flesh, the passions of the flesh used to be at work, aroused as they were through the law") adding, "Only a theological or existential a priori can get around something as transparent as that."