Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Paradox of Faith and Law: Is the Law of Faith or Not?

There are some who, following Gal 3:12, say that the law was not of faith. I can say that too, but the question is what do we all mean when we say that. Some scholars understand the idea that the law is not of faith to mean that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant that operated on the basis of works, which determined solely the temporal blessing of Israel in the land; eternal blessing was to be found in the Abrahamic covenant, and was to be inherited by faith alone. There are yet other scholars who take the Mosaic covenant to be a covenant of works that demanded perfect obedience from Israel, which means that Israel inevitably could not keep the covenant with God.

I agree that the language of obedience and doing dominates in the section of the Pentateuch that deals with the Mosaic covenants (i.e., Exod 19–Deut 34). I think that we must say that the Mosaic covenant demanded the works of the law (Deut 6:25; Ezek 18:5-9; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). But it is not as if the language of faith is not employed at all in relation to the Mosaic covenants in the Old Testament. A classic case in point is the author of Ps 119 calling obedience to the Mosaic law the way of faith (Ps 119:30). He also identifies the law of Moses as the object of his faith: “I believe in your commandments” (Ps 119:66).

The key to sorting out this issue, I believe, lies in understanding that faith was typically viewed in a holistic way by Moses and the prophets. The consequence of this is that, under the Mosaic covenants, faith and obedience end up being co-relative concepts. Paying attention to Old Testament anthropology, in particular the role of the heart as the integrating center of the human psyche, is important for understanding why a holistic concept of faith was employed by Moses and the prophets.

So, the law is not of faith, but in another sense it is. It is interesting that when Jesus forcefully critiqued the scribes and Pharisees in Matt 23, he accused them of hypocrisy for being particular about the law of tithing but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23).

It is significant that Jesus views faith/faithfulness as being one of the important ethical truths prescribed by the law. It is also important to note in this regard that Jesus’ language does not allow the law to be bifurcated, enabling us to single out faith as operating on a level of its own, separate from the law or the commandments. Faith is spoken of here by Jesus on a par with justice and mercy as the human response required as Israel’s covenant obligation—the parallels with Mic 6:8 are intriguing. And faith, along with justice and mercy, and tithing, are equally (according to Jesus’ teaching in this verse) what the law commanded Israel to do. Jesus clearly says that faith is one of the weightier matters of the law that Israel was to do: “these it is necessary to do, while not leaving aside those.” In other words, Jesus is saying that faith was commanded as part of the law of Moses.

The law is not of faith, but … it is!

The paradox of continuity and discontinuity strikes again.

2 comments:

Joseph said...

Steven,

You have explained well what Paul didn't say, that the law is of faith. But please explain what Paul did actually say - the law is not of faith :)

Thanks!

Joseph

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Joseph,

Please see my response The Law Is Not of Faith: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation.