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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, February 11 2021

God's law and the Christian perspective

Regard for God's law in mainstream Christianity has been remarkably inconsistent since the Protestant Reformation, when Luther incorrectly assumed the Apostle Paul had rejected the authority of the Old Testament, just as he had rejected the authority of the Catholic hierarchy.

Regard for God's law in mainstream Christianity has been remarkably inconsistent since the Protestant Reformation. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments have been considered the greatest moral law mankind has ever known. On the other hand, they have usually been regarded as too inconsequential or arbitrary to be obligatory for Christians.

These contradictory views of God's commandments became 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 by substituting the first day of the week for the seventh day in the Fourth Commandment. Calvin's view, though popular in past centuries, steadily lost ground during the 20th century.

Today most Christian denominations reflect, at least in practice, Luther's view toward the commandments of God. Luther incorrectly assumed that the apostle Paul had rejected the authority of the Old Testament just as Luther had rejected the authority of the Catholic hierarchy of his day. But Luther's perception of Paul's teachings was inaccurate.

Luther saw that Paul taught salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But Luther took this teaching one step too far, and therein lies the source of his colossal error that later shaped the views of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

He taught that salvation is by faith alone. By this he meant that laws in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, are not binding on Christians. He taught that a simple belief in Christ is sufficient for salvation—that faith alone is all that is necessary. As a result, Luther pitted the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments against each other.

James Dunn, Lightfoot professor of divinity at the University of Durham, England, explains that Luther's first incorrect assumption was that Paul's personal experience in Judaism was identical to his own experience in the Catholicism of his day. Luther incorrectly assumed Paul was troubled by his personal relationship to God's law.

Dunn then explains: "The trouble with all this is that when Paul speaks explicitly of his own experience before he became a Christian there is nothing of all of this...In Philippians 3:6 he states quite simply that prior to his conversion he regarded himself as ‘blameless as regards righteousness within the law.' In other words, there is no indication or hint of a period of guilt-ridden anxiety [in Paul], like that suffered by Luther."

"The second assumption Luther made," continues Dunn, "was that the Judaism of Paul's time was just like the mediaeval Catholicism of Luther's day, at least so far as the teaching about God's justice and justification were concerned. The second assumption was natural, given the first. If Paul had made the same discovery of faith as Luther, then he must also have been reacting against the same misunderstanding as Luther" (The Justice of God, 1994, pp. 13-14).

As a result of these inaccurate assumptions, Luther concluded that Christ's death abolished the laws of God in the Old Testament. He mistakenly deduced that Paul taught the same thing.

But that was not what Paul believed or taught. During the past 30 years, Paul's obedience to the teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures have been categorically confirmed by many Christian and Jewish scholars.

Here 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: "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). Also: "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, emphasis added throughout).

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."

Professor Holmgren also explains that "Jesus embraced the Torah of Moses; he came not to end it but to fulfill it (Matthew 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. One cannot help but hope that many others will be encouraged by their example to change their prejudices against obeying the Ten Commandments. 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, HCSB).