Another attempt to find a new hermeneutic
Fulfilled and Obsolete
The reader may be wondering where the first attempt is, seeing as there’s no article in the listing that has this title. I wrote a few comments under the title ‘A new hermeneutic’ on the web page ‘Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 11 (The Food Laws)’ and noted there that, as far as I could determine, a new hermeneutic (a way of systematic interpretation) was probably impossible to arrive at when it came to the Law and which statutes and ordinances were still binding upon believers under the New Covenant. I said there that, at some point or other, our assessment of what’s equally applicable becomes subjective and arbitrary because we often have no other point of reference by which to make a decision on laws which, to us, seem archaic and obsolete.
At that time, I was assessing North’s statement (page xxxviii) that
‘Some of the laws of Leviticus are still binding. Which ones? This is a difficult question to answer, but Christians need to find the correct answer. This, too, requires a hermeneutic: a consistent, coherent principle of biblical judicial interpretation that enables us to study other books of the Bible and their case laws. A serious Bible commentary on the Mosaic law should instruct the reader on how to do this work of interpretation. Very few commentaries on the Old Testament do this’
but I failed to consider most of the New Testament principles for the interpretation of the Law that are recorded for us. Very briefly, this is what I want to do here so that, even though we may not arrive at a systematic hermeneutic that can be applied in every situation, we will at least see how the early Church understood parts of the Law and their relevance to the believer.
In a passage that sees Paul refuting the assertions of those who were actively promoting obedience to the Old Testament written code, he writes (I Tim 1:8-11 - my italics)
‘Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted’
Initially, it must be said that Paul doesn’t envisage the New Testament believer as being under the rigours of the Old Covenant legislation - not that he may now do as he please regardless of any moral responsibility on his part, but because the requirements of the Law are written upon the heart upon conversion (Jer 31:33) and the power of the Holy Spirit should guide the believer into doing the right thing in every situation (John 16:13, Rom 7:6, 8:4, 8:13).
This doesn’t mean that the Law is irrelevant but that it’s changed location. Instead of being an external written code that’s to be legalistically observed, it’s become an internal guiding system that shows the believer the correct course of action in each and every situation that they find themselves in.
The Law is still useful for the lawless, though. It demonstrates to him the state of his life before God and the sentence that’s pronounced upon it - the Law is good (Rom 7:7) and useful, but a legalistic observance of a written code isn’t pleasing to God.
However, it’s quite obvious that Paul isn’t referring here to the sacrificial legislation but to the ‘Thou shalts’ and the ‘Thou shalt nots’ - he doesn’t provide a framework for us to assess which are still binding upon believers but he does hint at the uselessness of their observance because, under the Law, righteousness could never be achieved (Rom 10:3, Gal 3:11, 3:18).
Therefore, a believer should, when he reads the Old Testament Law, have an internal witness within as to which rules and regulations are still applicable and which are no longer necessary. That the Church has stumbled along blindly in disagreeing on matters, for example, of abortion and capital punishment may be due more to the quality of our lives before God than to any problem with a sought after hermeneutic.
If God writes within what’s required of us, why do we disagree? In that case, the problem lies with us and not with the provision of God, whether that may be a result of our culture or of our unwillingness to follow after the Spirit or even, as in some cases, our failure to have received the new nature and to live according to its ways.
However, there are a number of Scriptures that teach us how the Law needs to be understood within the context of the New Covenant, some of which appear to be contradictory. The problem in these cases is not that they are, but that different parts of the Law will have been commented on rather than a universal principle being applied. Which statutes come under each category, though, again becomes subjective!
Jesus says (Mtw 5:17-18)
‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’
The Law, then, was never intended to be abolished but fulfilled by Christ. Jesus said to the Jews (John 5:39) that
‘You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to Me’
What they had failed to do was to see that the Scriptures pointed forward to a fulfilment in Christ - they foreshadowed what Christ was going to both do and be but they saw them only on one level devoid of any real promise of a future time when a New Covenant as promised to Abraham was to be inaugurated (see Jubilee part 2).
Paul also noted (Col 2:16-17) that
‘Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ’
where the dietary and festival laws are singled out for treatment and (Heb 10:1)
‘...the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities...’
where the entire sacrificial system is being commented on. Therefore, one way of seeing the Old Testament Law is that it has been fulfilled.
Another way of dealing with the Old Testament Law is to see it as obsolete. The writer comments (Heb 8:13) that
‘In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away’
We’d be going too far to say that the Law is irrelevant (see on I Tim 1:8-11 above) and we’d also be wrong in thinking that the comment here is a direct and specific reference to the Law - the comment goes much wider than that, speaking of the Old Covenant that had been made with Israel. The Law, being a part of the covenant by extension, is seen to be obsolete as well.
Guthrie (page 178) notes that
‘The word translated obsolete...is in the perfect tense which suggests that the first covenant has already become obsolete, the result of which is still evident in the present’
That Israel thought - and continued to think - that salvation could be achieved through the Law has been shown to be irrelevant, and the conditions for service under that Old Covenant agreement are now treated to be ‘obsolete’ in this context. Let me repeat, this doesn’t mean that the Law is worthless or that it was flawed - it can still be used and applied to the unrighteous - but that as a series of regulations that can be observed and obeyed it’s no longer in force now that the New Covenant is available to all.
A second aspect of viewing the Old Testament Law, then, is that it’s been rendered obsolete.
The Council of the early Church that met in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) to discuss the assertion of some of the new believers that the ceremonial law of the Old Covenant was equally binding upon New Testament believers made a very unusual statement.
Maybe you’ll disagree with me here, but I’d have expected them to have upheld, at the very least, the authority of the ten commandments as being obligatory - but, instead, they limit the observance of the Law (Acts 15:29) so that the believers are to
‘...abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity...’
The problem here is that, presumably, a believer could consider that he was outside the Law or above the Law now that he was ‘in Christ’ and that he could do virtually as he pleased. But the initial reason for the meeting needs to be seen. Some of the believers were asserting that circumcision was obligatory in order for a person to be saved (Acts 15:1). This rite, however, was what gained a man access into the nation of Israel and the believers who were asserting this teaching seem to have thought that salvation could only be achieved if the person converted into the physical nation.
It was important that the Church refuted such a teaching (as Paul did later to the Romans in 4:9-12) because salvation wasn’t to be achieved through ceremony but through a dynamic relationship with God through the work of Christ on the cross. The Church’s response to the ‘circumcision party’ therefore was to assert the inappropriateness of the Old Covenant for salvation - though why they chose the items they did as binding upon the New Testament believers doesn’t make too much sense to me!
However, there’s an important principle here - if any law can be shown to be solely applicable to the maintenance of the Old Covenant, then it’s relevance to the New Testament believer becomes minimal.
While there may be principles at stake that can be applied, the twin principles of obsolescence and fulfilment should be applied as previously noted.
The sum total of the Law is expressed in the following two sentences.
Firstly (Mtw 22:37)
‘...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind....’
and, secondly (Mtw 22:39)
‘...You shall love your neighbor as yourself’
Those two principles of the Law should be written upon every believer’s heart and it’s these that should be guiding every disciple of Christ from within. We can allow ourselves to become bogged down by attempting to discover a new hermeneutic that can be applied universally throughout the Old Testament Law but, apart from the two principles noted in the New Testament Scriptures (obsolescence and fulfilment) and the decision of the early Church that met in Jerusalem, all that can be said is that whoever lives their life in accordance with these two sentences is being obedient to the requirements of the Law.
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