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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 11 2024

Changes in Christian scholars perspective on God’s Law

Unitil the Protestant reformation the Ten Commandments were considered by many as the greatest moral law mankind had ever known but, as a result of the impact of Martin Luther's interpretation of the Scriptures, the ten commandments are now often regarded as too inconsequential or arbitrary to be obligatory for Christians.

These contradictory views of God's commandments first began to become evident in the 16th century with the theological differences between Martin Luther and John Calvin, the principal founders of Protestant theology. Calvin believed Christians should keep the Ten Commandments, even though he bowed to tradition and changed the Fourth Commandment by substituting the first day of the week for the seventh day.

Calvin’s approach, though popular in past centuries, steadily lost ground during the 20th century. Today most Christian denominations reflect, at least in practice, Luther's view about the commandments of God. Luther incorrectly assumed that the Apostle Paul had rejected the authority of the Old Testament, just as he had rejected the authority of the Catholic hierarchy of his day.

Luther understood Paul taught salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), but he took this teaching too far, resulting in a colossal error that later shaped the views of millions of people around the world. He taught that salvation is by faith alone, and a simple belief in Christ is sufficient. By this he meant the laws in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, are not binding on Christians. As a result, Luther pitted the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments against each other. Because of these inaccurate assumptions, Luther concluded Christ's death abolished the laws of God in the Old Testament, and mistakenly deduced Paul taught the same thing.

But that was not what Paul believed or taught. In recent times Paul's obedience to the teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures has been confirmed by many Christian and Jewish scholars. Following are some comments from scholars on this subject from Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (edited by Howard Kee, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Boston University, and Irvin Borowsky, chairman of the American Interfaith Institute, 1996).

John Pawlikowski, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union of Social Ethics, Chicago, says: "It is now becoming increasingly apparent to biblical scholars that the lack of a deep immersion into the spirit and content of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves the contemporary Christian with a truncated version of Jesus' message. In effect, what remains is an emasculated version of biblical spirituality" (p. 31). Also: "The claimed total opposition to Torah [Old Testament teachings] which theologians, especially in the Protestant churches, frequently made the basis for their theological contrast between Christianity and Judaism (freedom/grace vs. Law) now appears to rest on something less than solid ground" (p. 32).

Robert Daly, professor of theology and a Jesuit priest, tells us, "Expressed bluntly from the Christian perspective, to be anti-Jewish is to be anti-Christian" (p. 52). Frederick Holmgren, research professor of Old Testament at a Chicago seminary, explains the significance of the discoveries of these scholars: "Despite Jesus' conflict with some interpreters of his day, both Jewish and Christian scholars see him as one who honored and followed the Law….Jesus embraced the Torah of Moses; he came not to end it but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17)—to carry its teachings forward. Further, to those who came to him seeking eternal life, he held it up as the essential teaching to be observed (Luke 10:25-28)" (p. 72).

These and other Christian scholars are changing their views of the status of God's laws in the New Testament. However, it is most unlikely that this position will be widely believed and accepted because "the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God" and "does not submit itself to God's law, for it is unable to do so" (Romans 8:7).