The Law in Holy Scripture

I call your attention for a bundle of essays published more than fifteen years ago; a bundle that is still very relevant. Just as the title indicate its topic is: the Law in Holy Scripture. With one exception the authors all belong the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; a conservative Lutheran body that wants to uphold the heritage of classical Lutheranism as expressed in the Formula Concordiae.

We live in an age with a strong antinomian atmosphere. Man wants to be his own master and make his own decisions. The articles in The Law in Holy Scripture makes clear to us that the ‘law’ (thora) in its several aspects ought to have a fundamental place in the faith and life of a Christian. That makes that this bundle is a bundle just for our time. Not only antinomianism but also legalism is a problem of all ages. Do we find our only ground of acceptation in the sight of God in what Christ did on Calvary or somewhere else? The essence of the Reformation is that our justification is only based on the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us and received by faith.

From the side of a large number of New Testament scholars this perspective is seriously questioned. A so called new perspective on Paul has been developed especially the last decennia of the former century until now. According to the new perspective on Paul justification has not to do with soteriology but with ecclesiology, ethnic exclusivism and salvation history. Without denying element of truth in the new perspective its fundamental orientation is wrong and it actually embodies a new form of legalism. Finally, our acceptance in the sight of God is based on our own behaviour. The elements of truth of the new perspective can easily be incorporated in the classic perspective of the Reformation. This cannot be said of the reverse.

At the least three articles in The Law in Holy Scripture deal with the new perspective, namely that of Charles A . Gieschen, A. Andrew Das and Arthur A. Just jr. They are all painstaking and important. It is shown that the new perspective does not do justice to important elements of Paul’s teaching. Especially the article of Gieschen I think to be very refreshing. He shows that Paul’s message of justification is intrinsically linked to his view on man.

Since the Fall man is not able to obey God perfectly. The fundamental difference between Paul and early Christianity in general at the one side and (proto)-rabbinic Judaism at the other side is their anthropology.  Gieschen denies with convincing arguments that the law does not demand perfect obedience. When we understand that actually the law does demand that and man is unable to give that, the new perspective falls down and the strength and truth of the classical perspective of the Reformation becomes clear.

In the opening article Dean O. Wenthe shows that The second the Hebrew word ‘thora’ does not only mean ‘law’, but also the Pentateuch and its story of salvation. ‘Thora’ means ‘instruction’; not only making clear to us what God commands us to do, but also what he promises to us.  In accordance with the doctrine of the Formula Concordiae in almost all articles in articles in The Law in Holy Scripture explicitly the positive place of the law in the life of a Christian an embodiment of the identity and duty of a Christian is emphasized.

In his article ‘Law in a Law-less World’ rightly says the not only classical Lutherans but also classical Reformed Christians affirm that for the sinner as sinner the law always accuses. The accusing function of the law has a place in the life of a Christian till his death. However, Daniel L. Gard states in his article ‘Law and Freedom in the Old Testament’ that knowledge of the distinction between law and Gospel is fundamental for the understanding of the Word of God is far removed from the perspective of Calvin and Barth. I would strongly emphasize that this is true for Barth and for among other neo-Calvinists, but not for Calvin himself and many of his followers during the centuries.

Till his death Calvin has considered himself as a spiritual pupil of Luther. Especially in his early writings you feel Luther’s influence. But also when you read the final edition of the Institution you see in its chapters on justification how fundamental the law-Gospel distinction remained for Calvin. Apart from the doctrine of sacraments the difference between Calvin and Luther is more in difference in personality than in theology. It is true that we can and must say that Calvin spoke more explicitly than Luther on the third use of the law. But the same can be said of Luther’s colleague Melanchthon. And when we read for example Luther’s Great Catechism we see how important were for Luther the Ten Commandments for the identity of the life of a Christian as Christian.

In The Law in Holy Scripture again and again it is emphasized that the accusing function of the law is not its only function. A Christian is free from the condemning power of the law, but jut for that reason wants to fulfill the law and life in accordance with God’s commandments. He shows the realness of his Christianity in his fruits. David P. Scaer points to the fact the reducing the content of the Word of God to Gospel alone is used nowadays to justify women in office. However, the Gospel was never meant to disintegrate the law. A Gospel without the law not only in ifs accusing function but also as embodiment of the identity of a Christian is another gospel.

It is true that several aspects related to the Mosaic law are not any longer binding for a believer under the new dispensation. In the articles of Dales C. Allison and Peter J. Scaer it is shown that Jesus, when he as on earth, was both a law observant Jew but at the same time put into perspective the importance of the food laws and purity laws. 

When Luke in his gospel and the book of Acts speaks about law with regard to its specifically Mosaic elements, law has the meaning of custom (ethos); a custom that is respectable but no more importance must be given to it. When we see this there is no real difference between Paul as we see him in own letters and Paul as portrayed by Luke. Paul was a gentile to the gentiles and Jew to the Jews but knew that for Jews and gentiles salvation could only be found in Christ who redeemed us from the curse of the law.

I can highly recommend the reading of The Law in Holy Scripture. To be a Christian we have to know the distinction and relation between law and Gospel not only in theory but above all in practice. Studying the articles of The Law in Holy Scripture can be a help.

Charles A. Gieschen (ed.), The Law in Holy Scripture: Essays from the Concordia Theological Seminary Symposium (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 252 pp., $ 26,99 (ISBN 978-0-7586-5758-9)

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