Laying down the Law (2)

The following, additional excerpts are from Ben Witherington, “Excursus:  Laying Down the Law,” in Grace in Galatia (Eerdmans, 1998).  I think they are of the utmost significance and am closing this series on Galatians with them — and a bit of personal commentary.

The actual problem with the Law as a means of Christian living is at least sixfold:

  1. [The actual effect of the Law] is to imprison those who are under it in a form of slavery, the Law acting as a rather strict guardian.
  2. It involves God’s elementary principles which the believer, as he or she grows up, needs to get beyond.
  3. The Law is a temporary expedient … to go back to it is not only to be anachronistic, but is tantamount to a denial of the efficacy of the work of Christ and the Spirit.
  4. The Law is quite incapable of giving what Christ and the Spirit give – life, freedom, fruit, gifts, etc.  The Law is not bad; it is simply impotent.
  5. The Mosaic Law was intended for Jews, separating them specifically in social practice (Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, etc.), but also to make them stand apart in moral behavior and theological belief (contra immorality and idolatry). . . .  Although the Shema and Ten Commandments were at the heart of the Law, Paul was willing to place the Law in the categories of “ministry of death” and “form of fleeting and fading glory” while talking about those very ten commandments (2Cor 3)
  6. Paul opposes the mandatory observation of the Law by any Christians whether Jews … or Gentiles.  No doubt the reason he does so is because if some choose to be consistently and permanently Torah true, this will divide the community … into clean and unclean, sinner and holy one, first- and second-class citizens. . . .  In the Christian community the basis of association is simply being in Christ in whom there is no Jew or Gentile.

~ ~ ~

We may sum up by saying that for the Christian Paul, the Mosaic Law was a good thing, something that came from God … but that it was limited — limited in what it was a) intended to accomplish and b) could accomplish, c) limited in time-space, and d) limited in terms of the group it was meant to be applied to. . . .  The people of God were no longer to be under the Guardian, given the advent of the eschatological age.  Those in Christ could then be new creatures, walking in the Spirit.

My regurgitation of Witherington’s most forceful comparison of Old to New could at first seem to be aimed at certain teaching, teachers, or denominations.  It’s true that personal conversations and relationships pass before my eyes sometimes!  I’m concerned, for example, with an emphasis on modern, geopolitical Israel, which I believe has only a historical, relative place in Christian theology, and which I suspect has no place at all in Christian eschatology.  I do suppose that some, more than others, tend to place greater trust in the Old, but a strong and anything-but-silent majority appear to elevate the Jewish Law to a place of all-encompassing, lasting oversight, and I find this elevation ill-advised.  The Old was, and is, fulfilled in the New.

I rather think it is all Christian believers who need to hear the message of Galatians, and hear it well.

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This entire Galatians series, which includes text-based and devotionally oriented posts, may be accessed through this link.  If you don’t like heady or detailed material, try this post for starters.

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