The Problem of the Law

One of the greatest tensions in the New Testament surrounds the Old Testament law, also called torah. On the one hand we read Matthew’s Gospel and hear Jesus make the solemn declaration: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). orig_05_Rembrandt_Mozes_a_kotablakkal_cimu_festmenyeIn Matthew, Jesus is not critical of the Pharisees for carefully observing the details of torah, even tithing their herbs and spices. He tells them, rather, that this concern for the details should go along with a passion for “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus tells them “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). Jesus certainly does call people back to the basic values behind torah, but he still expects them to keep all of its specific commands. The “spirit of the law” is not pitted here against the “letter of the law.” Jesus’ point is that disciples should keep the letter of the law, motivated and guided by the law’s spirit. Jesus may call for behaviour that is more rigorous than written torah requires, as when he sets aside the divorce allowance in Deut 24:1–4 and calls for marriage to be a life-long commitment (Matt 5:31-32). But this is a matter of doing more than the law requires, not breaking its commandments.

Then we turn to Paul’s letters, and especially to Romans and Galatians. There we find Paul emphasizing that believers in Christ are no longer “under the law” (1 Cor 9:18-23). Torah no longer has jurisdiction over someone who is “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 7:1-6). The redemption made by Jesus was made “apart from the law” (Rom 3:21). Keeping torah is no longer a necessary part of living in the community of God’s people. So Paul emphasizes that the non-Jewish Christians in Galatia should not be circumcized, and should definitely not try to observe all the law’s other commandments (Gal 5:2-4). When Paul comes to give ethical teaching he almost never quotes the Old Testament law. Instead he talks about believers using their minds to “discern” the will of God rationally (Rom 12:1-2), and he talks about keeping in step with the Spirit of God (Gal 5:16-26). When he wants, say, to convince the Corinthians not to eat meals in pagan temples, he does not mention the commands of torah. Rather, he offers a reasoned argument based on Israel’s past experience and the theological reality of being in relationship with God (1 Cor 10:1-22). It is important to Paul that the core of God’s moral will for humanity has not changed. So he emphasizes that by living a lifestyle of love, believers will “fulfill” the whole law (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; cf. Gal 5:23). But for Paul “fulfilling” the whole law clearly does not mean observing all of its commands. The biblical food restrictions, Sabbath-keeping and festivals, these parts of torah Paul treats as “indifferent” (Rom 14:2-3, 5-6, 14, 20). There’s no harm in keeping them, but God no longer requires it for believers. In theory, the members of Paul’s churches could still use torah as an ethical guide, perhaps using the principle of love to recognize the commands that reflect God’s permanent will for human life. But Paul does not actually teach his communities to use torah this way. He seems to be worried that such an ethical use of torah would too easily bring a slide back into the belief that torah, as a legal code, is binding on believers. So with very rare exceptions (1 Cor 9:8-12) Paul models an ethical discernment that avoids using torah’s commands.

So as Christians who read both Matthew and Paul, how are we to make sense of their disagreement? For Jesus in Matthew’s portrait, even the smallest command remains in full force. God’s people remain bound to keep all of torah until “heaven and earth pass away.” For Paul, believers are no longer obligated to keep torah, and many of its prominent commands have become “indifferent.” It is even possible to discern God’s will without using torah at all. Can we build any unified understanding of law and ethics on the basis of such diametrically opposed views?

Broad (But Not Complete) Agreement in Practice

The first step, I think, is to recognize that while their theologies differ greatly, Matthew and Paul would have agreed to a large extent about the actual lifestyle people should live. Believers in Christ should not steal, should not give false testimony in court, should help their poor neighbours, should remain faithful to their husbands and wives. Moreover, Paul accepts that, in many commands like these, torah does still reflect the permanent will of God. So, although Paul himself does not model using torah for Christian ethics, his theology leaves room for it. There is no reason why a Pauline believer and a Matthean disciple could not sit down together with Exodus or Leviticus and learn how God wants human beings to live.

There are even some of those commands that the Pauline and Matthean readers would agree could no longer be observed in a straightforward way. The legislation that guided conflict resolution in ancient Israel did not necessarily make sense in the Roman world of the first-century. Both of our readers would likely agree that stoning every adulterer to death was neither practical nor desirable. Under Roman law people did not have the freedom to kill other community members like this, and Jesus’ concern for “sinners” would suggest that the adulterer should be given the change to repent and change his life. Matthew was also written after the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed in AD 70. This meant that the laws around sacrifice and the festival rituals simply could not be observed. Without the temple rituals, most of the ritual purity system also became obsolete, since those instructions were only necessary as preparation to enter the temple. So both of our imaginary readers of torah would agree that quite a few of the commands would not be observed in practice. For our Matthean reader this would not be a matter of the commands “passing away,” but simply a matter of changing circumstances. For our Pauline reader, most of these commands could be safely ignored because they do not teach us anything about how to love.

Our Pauline and Matthean readers may have disagreed, though, over a few very prominent commands. Paul had treated the food laws, circumcision, and Sabbath-keeping as unnecessary. In Matthew, though, Jesus gives no hint that these commands are to be repealed. Mark comments that Jesus’ teaching on hand-washing implied that all foods were clean, but Matthew edits that comment out. Food, circumcision, and Sabbath—these were precisely the observances that had marked Jews most visibly as different from their neighbours. Indeed, that seems to be why Paul argued the commands were no longer binding. God, he believed, was building one new people in which there were no divisions between Jew and Gentile. Matthew, it seems, would have been uncomfortable with that idea.

Closer Agreement for Non-Jews?

Still, the disagreement here may not be as sharp as it seems. When Jesus talks in Matthew about the whole law remaining in force, his audience consists entirely of Jews. Matthew alludes in places to a time when Gentiles will become disciples, too. He does not explain, though, how those Gentiles will relate to torah. Some Jews believed that God only expected Gentiles to keep a small set of laws, those in force at the time of Noah. Matthew likely expected non-Jews to keep more commands than that. After all, Gentiles would have been among the readers of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ woes on the Pharisees. Speeches like this would certainly have encouraged non-Jews in Matthew’s audience to keep as much of the law as possible. It may well be, though, that Matthew would have stopped short of requiring Gentiles to keep the most distinctly Jewish commands: circumcision, food restrictions, and Sabbath. This would have made Gentiles in Matthew’s community a lot like the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who visited the synagogue and kept much of torah but stopped short of full conversion to Judaism.

If this is correct, then our Pauline and Matthean readers of torah would have agreed in practice about how non-Jewish believers should use the law of Moses. Both would have put a primary emphasis on the commands that taught Israel how to love, how human beings should seek the welfare of neighbour and community. Both would have set aside the laws around compensation for damages, except perhaps as illustrations of justice. Both would have set aside the laws for sacrifices, festivals, and ritual purity. And if both our readers were Gentiles, then both would likely agree that they need not observe circumcision, the food laws, or Sabbath. The Pauline reader might not believe that torah was the only way to learn what a life of love looked like, but he or she would still affirm that such a life of love is the same lifestyle that was encouraged by torah. So torah could be used as a helpful guide in learning how to live that lifestyle, provided one remained clear about which parts of torah no longer applied.

Navigating the Theological Tension

So, at least for Gentile believers, Paul and Matthew would probably have agreed in practice about how torah should be used. Paul would just have added that reason and the Spirit could also offer similar guidance. The real conflict comes at the level of theory. For Matthew, Jesus seems to renew the covenant with Moses. That covenant is changed, especially by the final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But the human responsibility in the covenant relationship still requires that God’s people keeps torah. Paul, by contrast, sees the new covenant in Christ happening outside and separate from the old covenant of which torah was a part. So, while torah has value as an ethical guide, keeping it is no longer a covenant obligation.

How do we reconcile these different models of the new covenant? I would suggest that we not try to harmonize them in a systematic way. Rather, we should pay attention to what each theology affirms. Matthew affirms that the covenant in Christ is a continuation of God’s relationship with Israel, and that the essential ethical requirements of that relationship have not changed—even for Gentiles. Paul affirms that there is some discontinuity, a partial break with the past. God’s new people does not relate to God in quite the same way that Israel did, and that means torah as a complete code no longer governs the life of this new people. If we seek to build a bibically-grounded theology, we cannot simply adopt either Matthew’s theology or Paul’s as the whole truth. We must, instead, seek to describe our relationship with God in Christ so that both Matthew’s continuity and Paul’s discontinuity are preserved. In expressing this systematic theology we are going beyond the Bible, but we are trying find an expression that preserves the truth in both the Pauline and the Matthean pictures. We might say, for example, that in Christ torah as a complete code no longer defines our covenant responsibility toward God, but that the lifestyle of love at the centre of torah does continue as our proper covenant response. In one sense we are no longer under the law, and in another sense the law has not passed away at all (even for Gentiles).

This is not the way many of us expect the Bible to teach. We tend to expect Scripture to give us clear, precise concepts that fit together as a consistent system. For whatever reason, though, that seems not to be the way God chose to communicate. Maybe that’s not so surprising, though, given that Jesus, the Son of God, taught primarily in parables. So maybe we should not be so surprised that God presents us with Matthew and Paul side by side, like two proverbs that appear to conflict, and tells us that we can find the truth when we try to be faithful to both. In fact, a Proverb is often powerful because it only focuses on one dimension of the truth. So it is a forceful guide when that dimension of the truth is what we need. Maybe God knew that at times we would need to focus, with Matthew, on the fact that God’s purposes have not changed. At times we need to feel ourselves to be the extension of ancient Israel, relate to Moses as our own guide, and find comfort in the solidity of God’s unchanging commands. And at other times we need to read Romans or Galatians and focus on the fact that things have changed. We are no longer wandering in the wilderness with Moses. The Spirit of God inside us has changed our experience fundamentally. Our re-made people of God now embraces every people of the world, a constant reminder that God loves every single individual no matter where they are from. By leaving this theoretical tension in Scripture, God makes the task of theology more complex. But maybe, like with proverbs, this tension allows God to speak into our lives more powerfully. And maybe, as with a parable, we are formed by God in the process of wrestling through this tension, not just by the system we discover at the end.

So What Now?

There are a lot of questions I have not answered here. What about the role of torah for Jewish believers in Christ? Paul and Matthew seem to disagree more sharply there. There are other voices, too, that need to be heard when we build our systematic theology of torah. Luke sees God setting aside specific “boundary marking” observances (like the food laws) for Jews, without setting aside all of torah. And Luke records the decision of the “Jerusalem council” that only a small number of torah’s distinctive commands need be kept by Gentiles. The author of Hebrews sees Israel’s temple worship fulfilled (and replaced?) by Christ. A complete systematic theology of torah would have to do justice to the truth in these positions as well.

In our day-to-day life as followers of Christ, though, we Gentile believers can fairly easily follow torah in a way that would satisfy all of these various voices. This is the use of torah developed by the early church. We can distinguish between the “moral” parts of the law (which we still try to follow) and the the “civil” and “ceremonial” parts of the law (which no longer apply to us). We can recognize what is the “moral” law by asking “Does this have to do with loving my neighbour?” We can recognize the “ceremonial” law by asking “Is this observance redundant now that Christ has died and been raised?” We can recognize the “civil” law by asking “Is this a practical instruction for judges or rulers in ancient Israel?” The “civil” and “ceremonial” commands are not to be ignored entirely. They still teach us about God’s values (like justice) and dimensions of God’s character (like holiness). But it is only the “moral” commands that we will observe in a literal, straightforward way. It will not always be clear in which category a given command should fall. The “moral” law certainly should not be reduced to the ten commandments, one of which (Sabbath observance) Paul did not consider an expression of love. Other commands can only be observed by analogy, even if we consider them “moral” commands, because the social context of the original command is now gone. Even for contemporary farmers, leaving the corners of a field un-harvested would not benefit the poor today in the way it once did (Lev 19:9–10). We also have to remember that none of the New Testament authors divide torah up like this. The terminology all comes from the later church’s thinking. But it defines a practical use of torah that (at least for Gentiles) satisfies both Paul’s theory of torah and Matthew’s.


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