Some Thoughts on Christian Ethics

As an ethicist, I often get asked whether something is good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is more common for me to be able to answer a clear “no” than for an absolute “yes.” In fact, many times my response is a very robust, “It depends.”

Whether something is morally praiseworthy depends on more than the act itself. It also depends on the circumstances and the reason for the action, at least. Processing moral events in our lives through three particular considerations is the start of the ethical decision-making process. We need consider at least the action, the circumstance, and the reason behind it.

Triperspectival Ethics

I believe that some version of a triperspectival approach to ethics is the most helpful. The most prominent advocate for triperpectival ethics is John Frame, but the foundations of the system are built on a much earlier theological tradition.

The Heidelberg Catechism, asks this pertinent question in question 91:

Q. What are good works?

A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.

There are three basic elements to this: (1) done out of true faith, (2) conforming to God’s law, and (3) done for God’s glory. For each action we need to consider the action itself, our reason for doing it, and the circumstances in which we do it. For example, eating shellfish is morally permissible, since Christ declared all food clean. However, if you believe you are sinning by eating shellfish because you misunderstand the law, then by violating your conscience you are sinning; your attitude is set against God. Or, if you eat shellfish in the knowledge that it is morally permissible to eat, but you do it to show how spiritual you are or simply out of gluttonous motivations, then you have stepped into sin.

All moral acts have at least these three components: (1) the action, (2) the circumstance, and (3) the reason. The first question to ask is whether the action is morally permissible. If Scripture puts it out of bounds, then it is sin to voluntarily perform the action. This is a fairly simple process, typically, but not always.

The second question is whether the circumstances support that act being just. So, for example, if I kill someone out of self-defense, Scripture makes clear that is not sin. However, if I kill an innocent person, then the same physical act becomes sin. Or, as another example, sex is a morally permissible action, but only with my spouse in the bounds of marriage. Who I am and what the situation is makes a difference as to whether something is morally permissible.

The third question is whether the motive is correct. If I kill someone in what appears to be self-defense, but I’ve really wanted to kill him for years or at that moment I hated him because of whatever he did, then that would be sin. If a couple has sex within the bounds of marriage but the man’s mind is solely on his own satisfaction and not on the glory of God and the good of his wife, then that sexual act became sin for him.

Nearly everything we do is tainted by the reason or motive for which we do it. That is the power of sin in this world and our lives. Repentance and prayer must be an ongoing process, because even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon quickly become tainted by our sinful motivations. Thank God for the cross.

A Case Study

For those still concerned that triperspectivalism is a form of moral relativism, I assure you it is not. However, I will offer a more complete example to illustrate the process.

If a hardworking janitor at the local hospital dresses in scrubs, goes into the maternity ward, and delivers a baby, we would consider that a morally impermissible event. Most of us would nod our heads in agreement if we saw the headline, “Hospital Janitor Gets 25 Years Baby Delivery.” That janitor is not the appropriate individual to perform the function of the doctor.

However, if we simply change the situation a little, the expert cleaner goes from criminal to hero. Consider the alternative situation where the same janitor helps a woman deliver her baby on a remote stretch of highway when her car had broken down. The action was the same, the individuals were the same, but the circumstances changed the situation radically. What would have been deemed a criminal action in the hospital is a heroic action for that janitor when there is no doctor available.

These are the two layers that the law and human society can consider. The action and the circumstances are the only things that we can measure and judge. However, God’s judgment goes a layer deeper, which further enhances Christian ethics.

To be a praiseworthy action, the action must be in accordance with God’s law, supported by the circumstances, and done with the appropriate motivation. If the heroic janitor delivered the baby on the side of the road for his own glory, with a view to getting into the newspapers, then that is a societally beneficial action, but it becomes sin in the eyes of God.

The Pervasiveness of Sin

Moral relativism tends to minimize sin by arguing that circumstances make an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Thus, some argue that killing a human is sin, but there may be circumstances (e.g., self-defense) in which it is permissible. Triperspectivalism takes the opposite approach. It argues that there are many events which may be morally permissible, but that other factors may make them morally impermissible.

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Killing a human is not sin in and of itself, otherwise God would be liable to the charge of sin, because there are unquestionable examples of God ending the life of a human in Scripture. However, killing an innocent human is a sin. Thus, murder is prohibited, while being a combatant is not. And yet, simply donning a uniform is not enough to make killing an enemy combatant morally praiseworthy. If a soldier kills for the joy of it (i.e., selfish pleasure) or out of pure hatred, then that event has become sinful and must be repented of. We must consider the action, the circumstances, and the motivation.

Similarly, sexual intercourse is not inherently sinful. Intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily sinful either, since the victim of rape is not responsible for the action being perpetrated on his or her body. However, willing sexual intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is sinful because the circumstances violate the norms of God. And yet sex within the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily without sin. Even with the correct action and circumstances, if the event occurs out of selfishness (e.g., a concern only for one’s pleasure), then it is morally impermissible and therefore sinful.

The reality is that most of what we do is tainted by sin. Even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon is often done with, at best, mixed motives. Our hearts are idol factories. We often do “good deeds” as much to get noticed or receive thanks as to honor Christ. The God of the universe is a jealous God, he will not share his glory with his creatures (Is. 42:8).

Total depravity is real. Sin taints every aspect of human existence. Aside from our blatant violations of God’s laws, our motives are likely never pure. This enhances the miracle of grace. We must continually repent of our sin and strive to serve faithfully, but ultimately any praiseworthiness of our actions is due to God’s undeserved grace toward us. Much like a child bringing a shaky drawing to a father, our actions are little more than colorful scribbles. Yet, out of love for us as adopted children, he takes messy works done imperfectly from a heart of faith, sees them as good in Christ, and puts them on the refrigerator. This is why Hebrews 11 extols imperfect people who did imperfect things for doing them through faith.

Ultimately, we are incapable of doing good outside of the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our worthiness is not based on doing good works (though we should strive to do them), because to do so might lead us to believe we should get to heaven. We can’t do truly good works anyway, because of our sin. However, God has called us to live faithfully and to strive to be holy, just like him. That command leads us to reject obviously sinful actions and circumstances and to pursue actions that do not violate clear revelation of Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that on our best days we are but sinners whose only hope is the substitutionary death of Christ.

Conclusion

Christian ethics is far from a simplistic set of cases where going to movies is bad, but reading the Bible is good. Both are likely to be tainted by sin. The truth is that we are much worse that we like to believe we are. Our sinful actions and attitudes should continually cause us to repent, turn back toward God, and place our hope in Christ for forgiveness of our sin.

Christian ethics should never lead us to be triumphalistic––that is, to look down on others who commit obvious, public sin––but should push us toward repentance. The judgment on those of us who are redeemed, who have been given the Holy Spirit, and yet who continue to be selfish would be much greater than those without that gift, were it not for the cross.

For the Life of the World - A Review

Miroslav Volf is a theologian that is always worth reading. Even when his conclusions are disputable, they are typically drawn from careful reason and charitably expressed. His latest book, coauthored with Matthew Croasmun, is no exception.

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For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference takes a critical look at the discipline of theology and how that field of study often misses the mark. In particular, the authors are critiquing the all-too-common reduction of theology to a cloistered, academic exploration. The thesis of this book is that theology ought to be done for the good of the world.

This book uses the term theology to refer to a range of disciplines that includes systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and other disciplines that naturally belong in a seminary or a divinity school.

In part, this book is another reflection on the shallow mind of our age. Too many people expend their numbered days chasing after frivolous goals without asking what is worth striving for. Volf and Croasmun argue that there is such a thing as “the good life” and that the function of theology is to explore what that looks like and communicate it to others.

However, theology is in a sort of existential crisis, as are many academic disciplines, because it has become more interested in scholarly navel gazing than fulfilling the purpose for which the theology was originally designed.  For some, theology has become a pure science that is studied for its own sake. Other see theology primarily as a means of gaining power and advocating for their favored groups. When these things become the primary goal of theology, they distort its actual purpose, which is to explore God and discover truth about the world.

The authors explore major themes in theology, including the study of God, redemption, etc. There are many valid themes for theology, but Volf and Croasmun argue that, ultimately, the main theme of theology should be human flourishing and should lead to “robust descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, livable normative vision of human flourishing.” This seems an honest and helpful assessment, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both essential attributes of the proper Christian life.

By making claims to truth and particularity, Volf and Croasmun leave the door open for criticism they are insufficiently broadminded. However, they take on this anticipated criticism by noting that pluralism is, to some degree, a desired end, since true faith is not social conformity by a personal response to the goodness of God. In addressing this topic, they open up the most interesting point for debate. They argue that the Christian life is improvised like an ellipse around two foci: Christ and one’s vocation and location. They state that there are multiple different ellipses that can develop that are all “valid” and that flourishing Christians will look differently based on a different vocation and location.

To a certain degree this is unquestionably true. The life of a first century Christian will, without doubt, look radically different from our own in a number of ways. The way faithfulness is demonstrated will vary based on circumstances. Even between contemporaries, there will be differences. For example, my wife’s faithful Christianity will look different than mine due to our different vocations. At the same time, Volf and Croasmun offer an analogy without noting that the goal of the Christian life should be to make our orbit as circular as possible. There may be multiple “valid” options for the Christian life, but not all are necessarily equally good.

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In the same chapter, the authors help explain the why some models of Christianity diverge more significantly from Scripture. They represent the relationship between the Life of Christ, which is the source of Christianity, and Ordinary Christians with a series of circles connected by arrows. The error in their model is found by differentiating the Life of Christ from the Bible and arguing that the Life of Christ influences the Bible, the Church, and Theology in different ways. This is a fundamentally flawed picture of theology, since the Life of Christ can only be mediated to the Church and theologians through the Bible, since the Bible is the only valid record we have of the Life of Christ. Volf is orthodox, and often very helpful, but this distinction helps understand why he and, often to a much greater degree, others find it possible to oppose the “True Jesus” to the rest of Scripture. The model leads to the possibility of prioritizing a part over the unity of the whole of the Bible.

The latter chapters of For the Life of the World offer encouragement for the theologian to live a life that reflects his or her theology and focused on helping others to live rightly before God. They more succinctly define theology here as “a way of life seeking understanding.” Such an approach helpfully breaks down the possibility of theology as pure science.  The authors are also careful to anchor their call to theology in a love of God that perceives truth as something concrete that ought to be presumed. Thus, pursuing love, peace, and joy as ends of theology cannot lead to vice indefinitely because these virtues are normed by truth founded in God.

This volume is a helpful book for amateur and professional theologians. Its value can be seen in their concluding sentences: “But though we are theologians for God’s sake, we are not theologians for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need theology. If anyone needs it, human beings do. Let us be theologians for the sake of the life, the true life, of the world.”

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Creation and New Creation - A Review

The doctrine of creation has largely been swallowed whole in evangelical and fundamentalist circles by questions of the age of the earth. For example, theology texts like, L. S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology, Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, and Elmer Towns’s Theology for Today deal with the creation as a question of origins. For Chafer, this discussion is embedded in a chapter about the doctrine of man, rather than in a standalone chapter. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has a chapter on the doctrine of creation, but the questions he seeks to answer are, “Why, how, and when did God create the universe?”

These are not unimportant questions or unworthy of discussion. However, the age of the earth and the exact time that it took God to make something from nothing does not exhaust the depth of the doctrine of creation by a longshot.

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In a recent book published by Hendrickson, Sean McDonough does a masterful job highlighting the importance of the doctrine of creation, especially as it relates to the new creation. He rightly recognizes that God’s first creation project was always intended to simply continue into his future creation project, with ongoing creation (or providence) in the middle.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter One shows how closely the new creation is connected to the account of the original creation. The second chapter deals with the nature of God as creator, since it is vital to understand his nature to recognize the distinctions between him and what he has made. In Chapter Three, McDonough presents various theories why God made the world. In the fourth chapter, the topic of the relationship of time to the created order is considered.

Chapter Five considers the nature of creation ex nihilo, in particular evaluating the relationship of God to his creation. In the sixth chapter, McDonough discusses the influence of Plato’s dualism on the Christian tradition’s understanding of creation. In Chapter Seven, the question of how creation was made is considered. This leads McDonough to consider the place of humans within creation in the eighth chapter. And, in Chapter Nine, the beauty of the world and its value for God and as a testament to God’s goodness comes to the fore.

Creation and New Creation: Understanding God’s Creation Project is largely an expository book. McDonough presents a survey of Christian thinking, digesting theological writing from Irenaeus to Karl Barth. The overall position McDonough presents is well within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, and he handles those on the fringes fairly with appropriate criticism.

The most significant aspect of this book is that it serves as a reminder to Christians that creation is not something that happened at some hotly debated point in the past. Rather, creation began when God spoke all things into existence out of nothing, but it is ongoing as he sustains the world by the power of his word, and will eventually be brought to perfection in the new creation when all things are made new. This has been God’s plan from the beginning and it is so much bigger than an argument over the number of hours in a day, the compatibility of scientific theories of origins, and a discussion of human origins.

Connecting creation to new creation emphasizes the telos of this world. God intended his handiwork of a purpose, and it is trending in a particular direction. His will cannot be foiled. This is a liberating reality. It frees us to delight in the goodness he has created while looking forward to the beauty of the renovated creation, once the sin has been purged. This book is an important one, particularly for evangelicals, seeking to remediate the lack of vigorous treatments of creation in our tradition.

Creation and New Creation is a valuable book. McDonough writes well and demonstrates that he has done extensive research. This is a volume that will be best suited to people with theological training or extensive reading in their backgrounds. Those that are equipped to engage with it will find it well worth their while.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Is the Sabbath Normative?

This post is the second part of a discussion on whether Jesus actually broke the Old Testament Law by healing on the Sabbath. This question was raised in an online argument, which is largely irrelevant to history, but which gives opportunity for worthwhile consideration of the nature of Law, the person of Christ, and, in particular, the place of Sabbath in the life of the contemporary believer.

To recap, the previous post argues that Jesus did not sin, that he did heal on the Sabbath, that this was disliked by religious leaders of his day, and that the OT Law has three divisions: civil, ceremonial, and moral.

Is the Sabbath in Play?

If the Decalogue is still morally normative, then the practice of Sabbath is still in play. The question, then, is how to practice the Sabbath in our contemporary context.

One school of thought believes that Sabbath is still necessary, but that the principle was fulfilled in Christ, so that Sabbath for Christians is a spiritual rest in Christ. This is a biblical concept, seen clearly in Hebrews 4. In particular, verses 9 and 10 declare, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Some who hold this view believe that the day of rest in the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, and therefore spiritualize present application. Although he does not argue for only a spiritualization of the Sabbath, J. D. Greear provides a helpful explanation of the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ in this blog.

There are some people, like Seventh Day Adventists, who take a literalist approach to Sabbath and have their worship services on Saturday. This is a consistent application, but it isn’t clear that such a literal approach is necessary. In fact, if we accept the tripartite division of the law described above, then it would seem that some of the particulars of the practice of Sabbath fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial, instead of moral law.

A third category, including much of the Reformed tradition, believe that the Sabbath is still in play and that we fulfill it largely through rest on Sunday, as a Christianized analogy of the Old Testament practices. This is witnessed in the history of the United States through the various Blue Laws. A famous example of this method of practicing Sabbath is found in Eric Liddell’s refusal to run a race on Sunday.

Synthesis

All of these three methods of applying the Sabbath have something to contribute to a robust practice of Sabbath for contemporary Christians. The literalist approach affirms the truthfulness of God’s word. Though we may argue about the actual practice, which deviates from traditional Christian practice and misses the significance of the Sunday resurrection, we can respect the importance of following God’s law.

The spiritual fulfillment is a valuable perspective for Christians because it is true. The practice of Sabbath was intended, in part, to point forward to the future rest that we will enter into by Christ’s blood, when the whole cosmos is redeemed and the toil from the curse (Gen 3:17-19) has been removed. At that time, though we will still work, we will have been glorified, creation will have been renewed, (Romans 8:18-25) and we will enter into the ultimate Sabbath rest. It remains to see whether that spiritual fulfillment eliminates any present practice of the principle of Sabbath.

The third approach, which entails the rigorous of customs adapted to contemporary contexts is good because it highlights the importance of rest, encourages corporate worship, and is an earnest attempt to honor God. At the same time, such an approach runs afoul of Christ’s own interpretation and risks becoming a burden to the people it is intended to help.

A fourth approach to the Sabbath argues, which I have not introduced before, treats the whole of the Old Testament as edifying, but believes that all forms of the Law were fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17). That argument is worth carrying, but would push this post beyond the current length. I will, however, offer a few simple objectives: first, those who hold this position generally create their own laws (no movies, no pants for women, ties on Sunday) to substitute for the Old Testament Laws, which put them in a worse position; second, this approach has to deal with the odd fact that most of the Decalogue is reaffirmed explicitly in the New Testament; third, this view raises significant questions about the nature of revelation in the Old Testament, specifically with the close connection between Jesus and the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

A fifth approach to Sabbath argues that the Decalogue is the moral law and is in play, but that the fourth commandment no longer applies because Jesus didn’t practice it in the passages discussed above. This is consistent with how most contemporary Evangelicals treat the Decalogue, whether or not they can formulate that perspective fully. Not lying is good, but Sabbath is unnecessary. This approach is exegetically inconsistent and seems to be argued more for convenience than otherwise.

Practicing Sabbath

Each of the first three interpretations is helpful, but I believe they each fall short for one reason or another. The fourth and fifth interpretations are less helpful, and I believe create more exegetical problems than they solve.

If we accept that the Decalogue is the moral law, and it reflects the immutable character of our Holy God, then we should see that it is still in play. The question is how to apply it.

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus shows that practicing Sabbath was not fundamentally about inactivity. Rather, he argues that doing good work is explicitly lawful (v. 12). Note that he does not argue that the law does not apply, but that doing God honoring work on the Sabbath is a moral positive. There is no category for moral neutrality, either an action is sinful or morally praiseworthy.

Instead, the Sabbath is intended to provide a rest from economic activity during the week, which helps to show our trust in God’s goodness and provision. This is consistent with the statement in the Exodus 20:8-11. Jesus’ own interpretation undermines a strictly literalistic understanding of these verses. Also, considering the expositions of the Sabbath, which focus on giving the land a rest in an agrarian context, it seems that the emphasis is more on stopping ceaseless striving than on a particular form of inactivity. For example, in Exodus 23:10-12, Moses specifically records the purpose of Sabbath being for the provision of the poor and the wild beasts, as well as the refreshment of economic actors.

It is no accident that immediately preceding Jesus’ Sabbath healing in Matthew 12, he calls his hearers into his rest:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Note that the rest Jesus proposes entails work—the image of a yoke could mean little else. This is not the absence of activity, but the redirection of activity to restorative purposes. This often includes working at rest, but not a legalistic rest, the fulfillment of which entails greater effort than simply continuing to work for economic gain. In one sense, Jesus is calling people into a spiritual Sabbath, since they can rest in the fulfillment of the ceremonial law through his future propitiation. However, it is not clear that Jesus is alleviating any regular practice of literal rest as an expectation of a holy life.

Mark’s Gospel provides a slightly different telling of the Matthew 12 account in the second chapter. In Jesus’ explanation of David and his men eating the showbread, contrary to the ceremonial law, Jesus illuminates that the purpose of Sabbath, when he says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In one sense this is entirely true in a spiritual sense. The spiritual rest of Hebrews 4 is a great blessing for humans. In another sense, however, a non-legalistic practice of Sabbath is needed now more than ever.

Jesus’ explanation of the blessing of Sabbath for humans ties closely to the ideas in Exodus 23:12, which is a refreshing rest from economic activity. If anything, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was designed to bring a greater blessing to the elect. He fulfilled the ceremonial law so that we can trust in his once and for all sacrifice for sin (Cf. Heb 10:1-18). This is a great blessing. But if the practice of Sabbath rest, particularly in the form of resting from economic activity, is intended as a blessing, then we would expect this to be amplified rather than diminished. Therefore, while the civil and ceremonial trappings of the Sabbath may no longer apply, with their limitations to a single day of rest each week, we should look for our rest to be more varied and greater.

A full consideration of the application of Sabbath would take much more space (and would reveal how terrible I am at this myself), but likely it includes a regular pattern of participation in worship, taking vacations, not being perpetually online, carving out time for physical fitness, prioritizing family activity over work, and other active, but redemptive practices. It is still likely to include simply resting and doing quiet activities, or at least activities that are refreshing to our bodies and our souls, and that differ from our daily economic toil.

Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?

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A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

We Need the Substitutionary Atonement

Not too long ago someone told me in an off-hand manner that the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention should have never happened.

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

I tend to agree, but for different reasons. I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence objected to based on it being divisive. Inasmuch as it was divisive (and for some it certainly was just a power play), it is a shame that the split happened.

However, most of the people I’ve heard object to the Conservative Resurgence do so because they don’t think that the doctrines in question were worth dividing over. Typically, these are individuals who are sympathetic with revising gender roles in the church and who want to undermine belief in the reliability of Scripture.

Those two issues were certainly the most discussed issues during the controversy in the SBC, which has become known as the Conservative Resurgence. In reality, though, they were simply the tip of the iceberg for a deeper theological debate. There were legitimate heresies that were being tolerated in the seminaries and churches of the SBC and the denomination needed to be called back to doctrinal faithfulness.

One of the major outcomes of the Conservative Resurgence was the formation of another association of Baptist churches. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) formed to support those churches who disagreed with the SBC on key doctrinal disputes. The CBF became a home for theological liberals and moderates.

The moderates were those who were willing to tolerate the erosion of traditional Christian doctrines, as long as they didn’t go too far. At least, that was the general idea. In truth, many moderates ended up tolerating outright theological liberalism, which eats at orthodoxy and the essentials of Christianity like a canker.

A Recent Example

A case in point is a recent opinion article by a Kentucky-based CBF pastor, who is a regular contributor to Baptist News Global, a partner organization to the CBF. The author, Chuck Queen, argues against the substitutionary atonement:

Popular Baptist preachers and evangelists over the years have emphasized trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death as essential for salvation. It is such a staple in many Baptist churches that pastors, even though they don’t believe it themselves, refuse to touch it.

He goes on:

Many Christians believe this to be the gospel truth. To deny this truth is to deny Christ. But this theory of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death is seriously flawed. The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?

His argument against the substitutionary atonement is actually a portion of a known heresy called Socinianism. It has huge theological and Christological problems. Sam Storms has helpfully posted a summary of this doctrine previously, in which he notes that the Socinian rejection of the substitutionary atonement requires a rejection of the essential justice of God. That is, Socinians must reject the idea that God must be just; instead he can simply ignore sin. Here is Socinus in his own words:

“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).

The Problem of Justice

The CBF pastor contends that God does not have to be consistent in his justice in order to be just. He argues,

If God is sovereign, as advocates of substitutionary atonement contend, then God is the source of all justice. God is not subject to some sort of cosmic principle of justice outside of God’s own nature. If God chooses to simply forgive sin the way a loving parent would forgive sin, without requiring some sort of pay off or sacrifice, there is no one to tell God that God is violating the demands of justice. God sets the standards of justice.

This sounds good to some, but what Queen has essentially done is simply picked one of the two wrong choices in the Euthyphro Dilemma. He is right to note that moral justice is not an absolute imposed on God, but he is 100% wrong to assert that God simply makes up what is just. This is a huge theological problem.

If God can simply change the rules at any point, then your sin today could be tomorrow’s self-sacrifice. There are many within the ranks of the sexual revolution that hope this is true: they hope that earlier condemnations of sexual immorality have been revised by God to say that more sex is good as long as it is “loving.” Or, they might hope that despite the clear prohibition of killing innocents as a private individual in the Ten Commandments, it is now a good thing to commit an abortion. This would be convenient.

The proper answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is “none of the above.” God isn’t bound by a moral law that existed prior to him. Neither can the moral law—and the just application of that law—change. Instead, the moral law is a reflection of God’s character. There is a reason that many times during the giving of the law, God commands the Israelites, “Be holy as I am holy.” (e.g., Leviticus 11:44) Since God does not change (cf. James 1:17), the moral law that reflects his character does not change.

But apart from the logical problems that Queen faces in trying to create a God that changes, he has many scriptural problems. The most obvious is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In contrast, let us compare Queen’s comments:

Jesus didn’t have to die in order to make atonement to God for sin.

And,

Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed.

Paul claims that the atonement is of first importance. Queen claims that the real issues is that “the sacrificial images employed by Paul and other New Testament writers carry a lot of baggage.”

This should not be overlooked. Queen is arguing that Paul got the core of Christianity wrong and that he has misled the vast majority of Christians since his time. 

In other words, what Queen is saying is that Scripture is wrong. He is also saying that orthodox Christianity for millennia have been wrong.  And they are wrong not about something that resides on the edge of Christian conviction, but the very heart of the message of Christianity.

Queen is arguing that the definition of the gospel—that Christ died for our sins—is wrong.

This is why I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence. We may spend time fighting about politics, but at least we can all agree on the gospel. As for Queen, we should pray that he repents and places his faith in Christ for the propitiation of his sins. I'm not sure what he places his hope in otherwise.

No Legitimate Support is Offered

The strongest part of Queen’s defense is that he has struck first and anticipated the logical response of orthodox Christians. He anticipates that those of us foolish enough to accept Scripture and traditional Christian doctrines will argue that the atonement that is at the center of the gospel is at the center of the gospel. By anticipating the argument, he is inoculating some of his readers against the response. But careful readers won’t fall for his trap.

Queen never explains why his capricious, ever changing god is consistent with the God of the Bible. Instead, he simply asserts that “the God of Jesus, however, does not need to be propitiated.”

He also inserts an ahistorical fact with no evidence that the so-called Constantinian shift pushed substitutionary language to the forefront of the Church’s discussions of God. This is a theory in search of support, which Queen can’t provide because it doesn’t exist.

The reason the Eucharist has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the beginning is because it remembers the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. It isn’t just a nice way to remember a nice guy that died because of injustice. If that were the case, there are a lot of Christian martyrs we should remember with meals.

Similarly, baptism, when properly performed, recalls the significance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s almost as if Jesus Christ himself and the authors of the New Testament anticipated the false gospel Queen and others like him present. In fact, they did.

Instead of making an argument, Queen makes some assertions based on a twisted, anemic idea of a false god that provides no justice. He makes no effort to deal with significant texts of Scripture, like the letter to the Hebrews, which makes it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” and that Christ is the sacrifice that enabled our sins to be forgiven. (Heb 9:15-28)

Conclusion

The cross is absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of our sins. If you lose the substitutionary atonement, you lose the gospel. There are certainly other aspects and significances of the atonement, but if we miss Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, then we’ve missed a central truth of Christianity. I'm thankful for the SBC where, despite our warts, we aren't arguing about gospel basics.

As we celebrate Christ’s death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection, ponder the truth of the substitutionary atonement. It is bloody and horrid. It’s meant to be. He took our place. We deserved that fate. However, it’s also joyful, because God used Christ’s sacrifice to make a way for our redemption.

Hallelujah, what a savior.

Celebrating Bibfeldt

Franz Bibfeldt was conceived in frustration on a Sunday afternoon by seminary students in Chicago many years ago. His conception was driven by the pernicious insistence on keeping the seminary library closed on weekends before Monday term papers. This led to students inventing their footnotes. One such footnote, fabricated and false, led to the birth of the infamous Franz Bibfeldt.

According to his biographers, "Franz Bibfeldt was born in the early morning hours of November 1, 1897, at Sage-Hast bei Groszenkneten, Oldenburg, Niedersaschsen, Germany, and was baptized the same day." His rapid baptism, of course, was to ensure all of the saints were appeased, which would set the course for Bibfeldt's life. "His birth was one day premature, since he was conceived on February 2 after a Candlemas party." There's just enough sex in his life story to make it interesting, but not enough to make it popular.

Like most of the great theologians of the 20th century, Bibfeldt was blessed with a funny name that starts with ‘B’. This has led many greater minds to stardom, like Brunner, Barth, Buber, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer. In fact, according to some sources, one reason Kierkegaard felt it necessary to publish pseudonymously was because he experienced a feeling of sickness unto death in his name’s unfortunate inadequate first initial. Kierkegaard never hit on the secret to success in his search for a marketable pseudonym; however, hindsight is 20/20.

Similar to most jokes told by theologians, Bibfeldt’s life story has a few groan-worthy punchlines buried in paragraphs of torturous reasoning. (What can you expect from people whose idea of fun is listening to papers being read about immutability, moral agency, and the problem of evil?) At the same time, part of the value a figure like Bibfeldt brings to theology is a critique of the theological enterprise.

Unlike books such as Wildlife in the Kingdom Come, that I reviewed here, or articles like the one on “New Directions in Pooh Studies,” that someone included in an academic journal years ago, Bibfelt is a figure of greater potential.

As Martin Marty describes it in the satirical book, The Unrelieved Paradox, Bibfeldt is a figure who is malleable to the needs of the day: ‘The Bibfeldt ideology has changed after twenty-five years; he embodies the principle of responding-although-he-will-be-changed gone awry. His coat of arms displays the ever-changing god Proteus atop a weathervane, and his motto is the Spanish line, “I dance to the tune that is played.”’

One of Bibfeldt’s most profound, hopeful, and representative theological statement is the inscription he left on a bathroom stall at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “God grades on a curve.”

He wrote his dissertation on the so-called Year Zero problem. After all, we went from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. What happened to the year in the middle? As a result of this confusion, Bibfeldt has very rarely been physically seen; he tends to show up exactly one year early or one year late. Though artifacts like the scrawl on the stall door described above tend to attest to his reality. Or, at least the possibility of his reality.

There is enough to the story of Bibfeldt (may he live forever) to encourage otherwise respected scholars to publish a book of essays about him. There is sufficient humor in the concept that a known publisher would print said book and even, to the surprise of literally everyone involved, publish a second edition of said book. Of course, it came out as the “18th perhaps 19th anniversary edition.” Whichever it is, it is worth the money. Maybe. If you need a joke.

One of the things that makes Bibfeldt funny is that it is written by people who are making fun of themselves. Too much humor these days is focused on trying to shame people in the outgroup. Viewers only have to look at late night TV and the way that the left uses humor to express their hatred of the right to see this. The one line “gotcha” against the other side’s strawmen is the order of the day.

(Of course, there is some of that on the right, too. The Babylon Bee sometimes takes cheap shots. They also dig in pretty heartily to their own conservative, Reformed foibles, contrary to the complaints of offended liberals.)

Bibfeldt is a figure that is useful for lightly mocking one’s own camp and maybe the other guy, too. However, because Bibfeldt is written in a long form scholarly format, it lends itself to a bit more consideration given to actually being funny and actually presenting the position being critiqued more carefully.

While you’ve probably never heard of Bibfeldt, and probably shouldn’t have, you could stand to read (of) him if you do theology. He’s worthy of a late night guffaw among a group of professional theologians. He’s also worth resurrecting from time to time to highlight some of the errors of the Zeitgeist. The world would be a better place if Bibfeldt studies continue among both conservative and liberal scholars and, from time to time, if new manuscripts are discovered.

Bibfeldt is a man of all seasons and a master of none. He’s an ever present goat in times of trouble, though he tends to be regularly late to dinner when called. The world needs a little more Bibfeldt. Perhaps Bibfeldt, and not more cowbell, is the prescription for the fever of the world today.

Kierkegaard - A Review

Sometimes it seems like the Church is asleep at the wheel. Some Christians cheerfully abandon cherished beliefs and live as if the gospel didn’t matter. Others act like forgiveness is for wimps and neighbor love is best expressed by yelling arguments to someone securely wrapped up in a headlock. Søren Kierkegaard may part of an answer to some of these problems.

I know that the answer to many modern conundrums can be found in Church History. However, I must say that I’m surprised to find so much that speaks directly to the present situation in Kierkegaard.

Like many evangelicals, I have avoided Kierkegaard. First, there is the eternal problem of how to say his name without sounding like an idiot. Second, I’m really not a big fan of philosophy. This is mainly because I see a lot of philosophy that has abandoned the pursuit of knowledge and has drifted into a pursuit of esoteric and sometimes solipsistic niggling. Third, everyone has always told me that Kierkegaard is a liberal. Combine these three things together and you have a recipe for bypassing Kierkegaard.

But Kierkegaard may be just what the doctor ordered for 21st century Christianity. According to Mark Tietjen, he’s much more orthodox than I’ve been led to believe and he’s always trying to be faithful. Most importantly, the main thrust of his work was intended to revive the gospel in Denmark. It had simply become too easy to be a Christian and play along. One became Christian by simply by being Danish and occasionally participating in churchish activities.

In addition to the laity presuming their Christianity, the clergy seemed to have lost sight of the purpose of preaching. The Danish church leaders talked about the Bible, but were ineffective in bringing it to bear on the lives of their congregants. There are some circles even among my strongly orthodox peers where that is the present condition. Frankly, it’s the sort of error that I am drawn to.

Enter Kierkegaard

In his recent book Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, Mark Tietjen shows how Kierkegaard’s writing can be used to help call Christians back to a more faithful life in Christ. According to this book, Kierkegaard can be best understood as a prophet explaining the weaknesses of the faith of the people of God. This is not an introduction to Kierkegaard’s work, but an apology for his usefulness for the contemporary Christian Church.

After a brief introduction, the book contains five chapters. In Chapter One, Tietjen gives a biographical overview of Kierkegaard, an apology for philosophy, an apology for Kierkegaard, and a brief overview of his work. In the second chapter the topic of conversation is Kierkegaard’s Christology. Tietjen highlights the fact that Kierkegaard was calling his readers to understand the radical, offensive truth of Christ as God-man. This is a truth that was being (and is again) overwritten by the redefinition as sin and.

Chapter Three discusses how Kierkegaard is helpful in showing what it is to be human. The psychological influence of Kierkegaard is highlighted here and the sinfulness of despair. Kierkegaard calls for the Christian to hope all things, even when things are hard. In the fourth chapter the topic is the Christian witness. Kierkegaard’s work was designed to rouse Christians to live rightly and allow the gospel to permeate their every day lives. In fact, as Tietjen describes it, Kierkegaard felt that right living was the most effective apologetic. In Chapter Five, Tietjen outlines Kierkegaard’s position on Christian love built around the three theological virtues. In a world that tends to misunderstand the nature of love, the refined nuance of Kierkegaard’s position could well be valuable.

Summary and Conclusion

As someone who has read a little of Kierkegaard, I cannot evaluate how accurate Tietjen is. I’ll leave that to other reviewers. However, Tietjen states that his goal “is to convince Christians as I have been convinced that Søren Kierkegaard is a voice that should be sought and heard for the edification of the church.” In my opinion, he has met his goal. I am encouraged to read more Kierkegaard and will recommend that to my friends.

This book met my expectations. I am intrigued by Kierkegaard and will read him soon. Tietjen provides a suggestion for secondary sources that introduce Kierkegaard, so there is a place for me to begin my understanding. In reading this book, I was encouraged, once again, by a figure from Church History that there is nothing new under the sun. The Church has been down this road before and, in this case, Kierkegaard helps to provide the necessary answer. This was an encouragement in a time when I needed some, so I’m thankful for the book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Did God Break the Law?

Recently a pastor of a megachurch declared that “God broke the law for love” when our sins were atoned for on the cross. The preacher's motives were good—he wanted to express the wonder of the gospel in terms people can understand—but his theology is terrible. In fact, there is direct biblical evidence that undermines his claim. Additionally, even without the direct claims of Scripture, God breaking the Law would undermine centuries of orthodox understanding of the nature of both God and the Law.

More significant than knowing who made this theological blunder is understanding why it is incorrect. It is easy to bash someone for being in error. It is more important to explain why they are in error, because it is much more likely to edify the body. The purpose of this post is to explain how we know that God did not break the Law.

Biblical Evidence

When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that action did not break the Law. He fulfilled the Law by bearing the punishment for the sins of others. He paid our insurmountable debt as a substitutionary sacrifice once and for all. Taking the penalty for others did not, in itself, violate the Law.

Where do we get this in Scripture? For one, Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Assuming we accept that all three persons of the Trinity are equally God, we have pretty good evidence here that the God did not break the Law.

Rather than breaking the Law, Christ fulfilled it. Failing to keep the Law is sin. We know that Christ was tempted just like we are but he did not sin.

He did this in his life and ministry by keeping Law in every way, though he sometimes kept the Law in a manner that confused many of the religiously wise of his day.

In some cases, the way that Jesus lived out the Law was different from the way that it had been interpreted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the religious elite of his day. Thus, they got upset when he healed on the Sabbath and had contact with people that were taboo.

In these cases, Jesus points to the Law and explains how he is fulfilling it. In most cases, he points to the principle behind the particular expression of the Law. For example, when Jesus’ disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath, they are accused of breaking the Law. Instead of telling his accuser that the law didn’t matter, he explained that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In other words, Jesus explains that the Law still applies, but that the practices built around the Sabbath had a different function than what was commonly understood. The point of Sabbath was not to enforce inactivity, but to offer rest and remind the Jews that their financial well-being depended on God. The Sabbath was a gift from God, it was not meant to be an onerous duty.

Looking back at Matthew 5:17-20, we get a fuller picture of the relationship between the Trinity and the Law and it does not point to God breaking the Law but to the continued force of the Law for true worshipers:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

We know simply based on the words of Christ that God did not break the Law, because heaven and earth have not passed away. Until that happens, Christ calls his followers to teach and follow the Law, though how that is fleshed out in contemporary Christianity is a topic for another post.

God Can’t Break the Law

The clear evidence of Scripture shows us that God did not break the Law when Christ paid the penalty for our sins. But we didn’t need that evidence (though I’m glad we have it) because the very nature of God and the Law prevent God from breaking the Law.

This goes back to a famous philosophical dialog in Plato, which is referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ll leave you to read that on your own.

To summarize the dialog, however, the two horns of the dilemma are whether the Law is good because God declared it to be good or whether the Law was given because God recognized it as good. In both cases, there is a good God and a good Law.

However, neither explanation of the goodness of the Law and the goodness of God is sufficient.

In the first case, if God arbitrarily declared certain things to be good, then the Law is no longer grounded in the moral order of the created order or in God’s character. In other words, there is little reason to expect that obeying God would naturally result in better ordered societies and greater peace with universe. At some point in the future God could change the Law so that a new set of things is good.

For example, though God has declared not murdering to be good, by this logic he could have just as easily declared murder good. If this explanation of the relationship between God and the Law is accepted, then the Law is arbitrary and God may be capricious.

In the second case, if God merely recognized the Law as good and chose to communicate it to his people, then the Law precedes God and God himself is bound by the Law. This is problematic because it implies that there was something that exists prior to God. Additionally, in this understanding of the relationship between God and the Law, the Law becomes the supreme norm of the universe instead of God. In theory, God could sin in this second understanding. Indeed, according to the megachurch preacher’s statements, God did sin by violating the moral order of the universe. (However, it is unlikely that the preacher actually believes this implication.)

Both of these explanations fall short of orthodoxy. Neither describes a God who is worthy of worship in the way that Christians recognize. Thus, a third explanation of the relationship between God and the Law is needed.

This third option is that the Law is good because it reflects the character of God. In this solution God is self-existent, logically and temporally prior to all else, and wholly good. The Law reflects his character, in part. By conforming to the Law, the Israelites were communicating something about God to the surrounding peoples and to each other. Thus, the Law was never about earning salvation it was about worship and evangelism.

There’s another way to explain this. God is the ultimate good in the universe. He is essentially good and there is no mixture of evil in him. God wants his creation to be good, like him. Therefore, he tells his people to be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44-45). To show how to do this, God gave his people the gift of the Law. The Law reflects his character, so that by obeying the Law—by embodying the Law—his people were acting consistently with God’s character.

Based on this logic, then, God cannot break the Law. To break the Law would be to deny his very character. It would, so to speak, unGod God. He would cease to be good and thus cease to be worthy of worship. The view that God can break the Law is questionable. The view that God did break the Law draws close to blasphemy, if the speaker rightly understands the import of his words.

This third view of the Law is consistent with the Reformed understanding that has been passed down through the ages. It is part of the foundation of argumentation from Natural Law in other traditions, as well. There is nothing new under the sun, so in this case, being aware of historical theology could have saved confusion for many.

Conclusion

As I began by stating, the bad theology that God broke the Law was proclaimed for a very noble purpose: to illustrate the astounding reality that the God of the universe took action on our behalf to redeem us. This is part of the gospel message, and an important part. I am thankful that the earnest preacher is trying to communicate that message.

However, logic and sound theology don’t become unnecessary when we try to preach the gospel. It is important to preach Christ and to preach Christ rightly. Understanding the relationship between God and the Law is important, and particularly important because this third understanding requires stability in moral norms throughout history. It is, in fact, the basis for the claim to objective morality within Christianity.

Obviously, there is more to be discussed about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and Christianity. However, that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that there are reasonable answers to that question. In the meanwhile, we should never say that God broke the Law because that is logically impossible and contrary to Scripture.