Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Balanced Protestant Biblical Hermeneutic on Law and Gospel

Understanding the teaching of the Apostle Paul regarding law and gospel in the light of Old Testament theology and prophecy suggests that Protestant exegetes of Paul have frequently overemphasized the condemnatory power of the law, resulting in an overly-rigid law versus gospel hermeneutic.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the need for a balanced biblical hermeneutic on law and gospel in Paul:

“Traditional Protestant exegesis has exhibited a strong tendency to understand the righteousness terminology of the Bible, and of Paul in particular, in absolute terms, which in turn means that the condemnatory function of the law is emphasized with no place left for the justifying and vivifying function of the law when written on the human heart by the Holy Spirit” (pp. 141–2);

“A more balanced biblical hermeneutic on law and gospel would ... pay attention to the Old Testament teaching on the gospel as including the concept of the Holy Spirit writing God’s law on the hearts of his people. The biblical position is that where the Spirit is present writing divine law on human hearts, law is effectively gospel, and gospel effectively law” (p. 143);

“the Old Testament view of the gospel, which speaks of the triumph of the justifying and vivifying function of (eschatological) torah over the condemnatory and mortifying function of (Mosaic) torah, is the correct perspective to bring to our reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans” (p. 143).

My view is that Paul’s law versus gospel distinction should to be understood as being Paul’s way of distinguishing old covenant revelation from new covenant revelation. In other words, Paul’s law versus gospel distinction is primarily a salvation-historical distinction rather than being a distinction of linguistic form wherein command is strictly opposed to promise.


sujomo said...

Hi Steve,

your readers might be interested in some of what Bullinger say bout the law:

In De Testamento Bullinger concludes that the “holy patriarchs” (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) were pleasing to God without the “ceremonies” (29a). In citing Galatians 3:16-17 he affirms, “Hence the patriarchs were saved by the blessing of the covenant, not of the law or of the ceremonies”. Significantly, Bullinger emphasizes at this point that the law which “originated later does not make void this covenant established earlier by God in Christ”.

Bullinger’s understanding is that because of the idolatry of Israel at the time of Moses so “it was pleasing to the wise and merciful Lord to come up and aid the collapsed covenant with certain props”. This is explained as follows, “God restored the main points of the ancient covenant, but unfolded it more fully, and inscribed it on tablets of stone with his own finger” (30a). That is to say, Bullinger understood that at the beginning the covenant was written on the hearts of the patriarchs but was codified in stone later on because of the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel. That is why, in his discussion of Genesis 17 earlier on, Bullinger makes this observation about “the record of the covenant”, viz “I should explain why there is no mention of legal records. Indeed, in place of such records are the words of Moses which we have already quoted, or, if you prefer more abundant words, the whole canonical Scripture” (6a). Bullinger’s assertion that the ‘conditions’ of the covenant were inscribed on the hearts of the patriarchs is directly alluded to in (45a): “The Lord did not bother to have any records written for the ancient patriarchs, for they bore the covenant in their hearts, inscribed by the finger of God”.

Bullinger further explains concerning the “ceremonies” in that “when they continued to be unfaithful and wicked, the burden of worthless ceremonies was thrown on their shoulders, ceremonies that the patriarchs did not have. Nevertheless, it is evident that the burden was imposed for an urgent reason, for this aim and with this plan, so that they would not introduce the worship of strange gods” (30a). In referring to the worship of God in Psalm 50 in this context, Bullinger employs some mental gymnastics to conclude, “Therefore, God instituted his own worship, and he declared that it was pleasing to him (Psalm 50), which he actually despised, so that, with this plan, he confirmed the covenant, and in addition to that he enveloped the mystery of Christ in these ceremonies as types”. In making this analysis Bullinger cites Tertullian, “For Tertullian, in his Against Marcion, book 2, says, ‘No one should blame God for the burden of the sacrifices, or the troublesome scrupulosities of the ceremonies, and oblations, as if he had desired such things for himself who clearly exclaimed, ‘What are the multitude of your sacrifices to me and who requires them from your hands?’ (Isaiah 1:11-12)’” (30b).

In Bullinger’s understanding, contrary to what he has to say about the “ceremonies”, he points out, “Now, therefore, in respect to the Decalogue and civil laws, no difference at all has arisen regarding the covenant and the people of God. For everywhere the love of God and the neighbour, faith and love maintain the mastery” (31a). In the same breath Bullinger underlines that “all the ceremonies were fulfilled by Christ, by whom alone it proclaims. Since they were types and shadows of eternal things, they become obsolete. So, that ancient religion, which was thriving in that golden age of the patriarchs before the law was brought forth, now flourishes throughout the entire world, renewed and restored more fully and more clearly by Christ and made perfect with a new people, namely, the Gentiles, as though a new light had been introduced into the world”. Bullinger firmly defends his view that it is not correct to “stigmatize…all the fathers preceding the coming of the Lord by the name of carnal Israel” because “antiquity also had the spiritual Israel”.

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, sujomo. Bullinger has definitely done lots of thinking about the covenant(s). From your description, it sounds like he operated with the “traditional” three-fold division of the law with the moral and civil aspects normative throughout, but with the ceremonial aspect being unique to the Mosaic administration.

I reckon that his language that the ceremonial worship was “worthless” is a bit harsh. Similarly I wonder how much the idea of the Mosaic ceremonies as being a burden is a Western antiritualistic idea. I certainly don’t get the impression that the worship of God at the temple was a burden for the Israelites when I read verses in the Psalms such as Ps 54:6; 66:13–15; 96:8–9; 119:108, which imply a feeling of joy when offering sacrifices to God in the temple. God also denies that his ceremonies have been burdensome for Israel in Isa 43:23.

In the Old Testament the sacrifices were only burdens to God, and that when offered up to him as part of hypocritical worship (e.g., Isa 1:11–15). I would prefer to speak of the whole law as a burdensome yoke to carnal Israel (as per Matt 11:28–30) rather than to link this with the ceremonies per se.