In a recent article Patheos blogger Benjamin Corey tackled what is quite literally the oldest issue in the faith: what is the role of the Mosaic Law in contemporary Christian life?
The gravity of this topic cannot be overstated. This debate is so old you can trace it back to Acts 15. How many other controversies can make such a claim?
Corey is not ignorant of the task before him. He admits that dealing with the OId Testament is “tricky ground. It always has been.”
Thinkers before him vindicate his statement. The Great Awakening Theologian Jonathan Edwards, who enrolled in Yale at age 13, said
“There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ.”
In plain English, this question/topic is hard.
One should exercise extreme caution before making positional statements on this issue. Furthermore, critiques of said positions should be handled with equal or greater care.
That said, Corey’s analysis demands a graceful response.
Corey begins his theological solution to the inconsistent use of the Law by rejecting the traditional division of the Mosaic Code into ceremonial and moral categories, arguing that such divisions do not exist in scripture. From there, he uses Galatians 5:3, a verse concerning the dispute of circumcision, to argue,
“As far as Paul was concerned, there were no categories of laws where some applied and some didn’t– he taught that if one felt they had to obey any of the law, they would have to obey all of it.”
Corey then invokes a number of Pauline texts to say that following the Mosaic Law is spiritually immature, (I Cor. 8:11), that Christians have no obligations to the Mosaic code (I Cor. 9:20), that the Law was a shadow of Christ rendered useless upon His arrival (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10), that the Law was canceled (Heb. 7; Col. 2:14), and that Christ “abolish[ed] the law of commandments” (Eph. 2:15).
Finally, Corey tackles the biggest scriptural obstacle to his thesis: Christ’s claim that He had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).
He claims that that though the concepts are different, the results of the words “abolish” and “fulfill” carry the same function, namely that the Law “in both cases has ended.” In the first case, “something ended prematurely,” but in the latter it came to its “proper ending point.” To drive this point home, Corey reminds his audience that Christ’s last words on the cross were “It is finished.”
Corey concludes by saying that “the Law [all of it] is no more in the life of the Christian” and that we are now under the “Law of Christ” (I Cor. 9:21). With this in mind, he claims that Christians have two moral duties,
“If you’re a Christian, you’re not under the old Law, but a new one: the teachings of Jesus found in the red words of the Bible. All this he said, could be summarized via ‘love God’ and ‘love everyone else, too.’”
This is a strong statement that has radical implications in how Christians interact with the culture.
Corey is not the first to hold this position either.
Tony Campolo, a religious leftist who recently announced his support for Gay Marriage, named his group the “Red Letter Christians” for this very reason.
President Obama justified his support for homosexual civil unions with Red Letter hermeneutics,
“If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.”
It is not an accident that people of leftist political persuasion are attracted to this view.
When one’s moral guidance comes solely from the red letters, which are then divorced from the narrative of scripture, it is nigh impossible to support war (Matt 5:38-46, Matt 26:52), capital punishment (John 8:1-11), find grounds to criticize abortion and homosexuality, push for faith-based convictions in the public square (Matt 6:6, John 18:36), or jump start Christian initiative in the face of the command to uphold a vague all accepting, nonjudgmental notion of “love” as the highest ethic (Matt 7:1, Luke 10:27).
This brings us to one question: is Corey correct in saying Christians are bound by the red letters alone?
In my humble opinion, he is mistaken.
Corey’s notion that Christ’s command to love God and love others replaces every command before it falls apart when one remembers that Christ said that you prove your “love” for Him by obedience to his commands (John 14:15). If “love” was the only way we demonstrate obedience, then Christ would effectively be saying that we are commanded to love him and we love him by loving him. This tautology is nonsensical and cannot be remedied without appealing to verses outside the red letters.
Second, the red letters don’t stick to the red letters. Jesus claimed to be the God of the Old Testament (John 10:30), which means all of God’s commands and actions were given and performed by Christ. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would echo what he tells him to say (John 16:13-15). Furthermore the Holy Spirit is God, just as Christ is (Acts 5:3-4), which means all of the Holy Spirit’s words and deeds belong to Christ. The Holy Spirit fell upon Peter (Acts 2) and he said that Paul’s epistles were scripture. Paul said that all scripture is God breathed (II Timothy 2:16-17), which means all scripture came from Jesus himself. This means that all scripture (both the Old and the New Testament) is “Red Letter” to some degree.
Corey’s position may be partially compatible with this last point, but he is likely to counter it with his argument that Christ “ended” the laws He gave in the Old Testament when he “fulfilled” them.
However, this argument is problematic in light of the fact that Paul and the Apostles use the Mosaic Law as normative for Christians.
Peter used Leviticus 11:44 to tell his flock to be holy (I Peter 1:16).
Paul invokes Deut. 25:4 to argue that ministers should be compensated for their services (I Cor. 9:9-12; I Tim 5:18).
Paul also said that we establish the law through faith in Christ rather than make it void (Romans 3:31).
Finally, Paul claimed that ALL scripture (including the Old Testamant law) is useful for instruction in righteousness (II Tim 3:16-17).
With all of these positive affirmations of the law, there is no way one can claim that Matthew 5:17 is proof that the authority of the Mosaic Law is over.
This is enough to disprove Corey’s contention that Christ ended the authority of the law when he “fulfilled it.”
The fact that Corey’s position is refuted with but a few verses is not a cause for ridicule. Rather it is a testament to the complexity of the issue. Christians who study the Bible in general and the Law in particular should adopt a careful line by line exegesis of passages rather than recklessly broad formulas that produce overly simplistic answers.