Debating the Law: Into the Fray

I owe any opponents paying attention some account of what in Christian tradition and the Bible would push a strict, serious, literal reader looking out for "plain sense" to apply the Leviticus punishment today. This is something of a target; where is the soft spot in the Reformed Reconstructionist case, say? Ideally, the conservative wants a reading of Scripture in plain sense fashion that would...

(1) not rest on an appeal to secular morality,
(2) would cogently maintain the wrongness of all homosexual activity whatsoever as Biblical,
and (3) cogently show on nonsecular, strictly Biblical the death penalty should not be applied,
while (4): the reasoning in (3) would not lead to trouble for (2)--that is, there would be no contradiction between (2) and (3).

A tall order--can it be done? First, here is the Target.

I. A Touch of History
Full disclosure: when I threw down the gauntlet to the any part of the Anglican right willing to take it up, I had John Calvin's commentary on Deuteronomy in mind. I figured that at least Calvin would be a good authority to go by on what the Calvinist or Reformed sector of Anglicanism would be committed to on pain of inconsistency:

Let us not think that this Law is a special law for the Jews, but let us understand that God intended to deliver us a general rule to which we must tie ourselves!

That's speaking to Deut. 13:5 (NRSV): But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

That's just the kind of principle that they might try to say does not apply for Christians; evidently Calvin thought differently. And not only that: Calvin backs up the OT death penalty for apostasy (commenting on 17:2-6), for perjury in capital cases ( 19:16-21 ), for troublesome kids (21:18-21).

Prima facie, Calvin and Orama are close on the applicability of OT Law--complete with penalties--to modern Christians.

And they would not be alone; Calvin's followers de Bres and Bullinger felt the same way about the appliciability of OT Law. Icing on the cake: here is John Knox defending the execution of Servetus under Calvin's watch and with Calvin's vigorous support by reference primarily to Deut. 13. Do we need to get into witch trials? Execution by reference to OT law, complete with penalties: this is how things were done, and how they were done in Massachusetts and elsewhere, in this country, before there was a Bill of Rights, how they were done by serious Bible-Christians who did not get squeamish with bourgeois sentimentality, but had the awful courage of their convictions. And we should never forget.

II. Support In the Bible
On the face of it, Calvin had excellent grounds in the words of Jesus:

Matthew 5:17–19 NIV: 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 23:1–3 : Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

And Paul:

Romans 3:31 : Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
7:7 : What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law…

7:12 : So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

6:1,2 : Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!

6:15: Shall we sin because we are not under Law but under grace? By no means!

7:22 : For in my inner being, I delight in God’s Law.

8:7 : The mind of the sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s Law, nor can it do so.

Even better for Calvin: a host of OT prophets imply that OT law will be binding at the end of all things, at what Christians woudl call the Parousia; I won't quote, but encourage you to look it up for fun:

Zechariah 14:3–4,16–17; Isaiah 66:15–17; Isaiah 2:2–3. I can't help but note it's Torah going out to all the nations in Is. 2.

And you can find more than one place where the OT claims the law(=Torah) is eternal--a view with which Jesus above and Paul too seemed to agree:
Psalm 119:152; Psalm 119:160; Exodus 12:24; Exodus 29:9; Leviticus 16:29.

Yes, I'm proof texting in the worst way, adopting the David Virtue "grammatical-historical"/ ACI's Edith Humphrey "plain sense of the Scripture" hermeneutic of my opponents. Anglicanism a la Holmes/Griffiss/Westerhoff/Williams/et al has resources to parry this general trend in the Bible and its logical, historical outcome in atrocity. But my opponents don't buy into Holmes/etc. How will they escape, especially in view of Orama's apparently clear grasp of Scripture's "clear sense"?

III. Theological Reflection
Probably the best living Reconstructionist Covenant theologian--one who speaks for what seems to me the strongest branch of Reformed theology--is the formidible Greg Bahnsen (in this article Bahnsen's target is Norman Geisler; it sounds to me like my opponents might be trying to take a Geisler-like line here). He is in the excellent company of John Frame, Van Til, Clark, and others--all of whom are good theologians with philosophical skill (though not all would share exactly Bahnsen's version of Covenant theology). Note too as an aside, early Anglicanism in what would become the US indulged in a fair bit of Covenant theology (dispensationalism is another crazy ball of wax altogether).

Bahnsen makes the point (Rom. 3:19) that the Law as Paul understood it (and yes, the "New Perspective" on Paul does seem friendly to Bahnsen's point here, Wright and Dunn being perhaps closer to Calvin than Luther) is meant to apply universally, to all nations, "all the world." The argument of Romans 1:26-7 presupposes that universality; as Gagnon notes, Paul is looking back after Christ to the OT in order to condemn Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom. 3:11, 23).

Moreover, this universality/eternity to the law is shown in its full application to the Gentile nations before it was given to Moses (consistent with Paul in Romans). In Lev. 18:24-8 the Canaanites are guilty by the Law. And for those still reading the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah as a matter of homsexual activity run amok, Bahnsen's point is especially sharp: the Gentiles of these cities are judged and destroyed according to what became known as Mosaic Law.

One and the same eternal law: before Moses, with Moses, after Moses, after Christ, no? as Bahnsen notes, Mosaic law was not thought to be tribal morality, but a light even to the Gentiles (Isa 51:4; see also Ps 119:46 & esp. 118-9; 94:10-12). We could go on and on and on.

In the NT too, the Law/Torah applies to Gentiles, who are condemned by it: Mark 6:18, 2Peter 1:21; 2 Thess. 2:3 and 1 John 3:4; Rev. 12:17; 14:12).

Those on the Anglican right who'd say Orama is wrong in effect want NOT the plain sense of Scripture whole, but some mutilation of Scripture worked by their own hands, one conveniently sanitized for snazzy altar calls. A strong case with good Scriptural and traditional grounds can be made for seeing the moral Law, of which Leviticus is a part, as being eternal--and as Calvin et al saw--that would include ALL the Law, including the nasty parts about execution.

Modernity frowns on all that, and those mutilating the Law without Scriptural principle by removing the punishments from the principles are acting, it seems to me, from within the framework of Modernity and the European Enlightenment--the very thing they would disavow as Barthians or narrative theologians. Too many tend to forget it was exactly the savagery of the Law in action that helped deliver the Enlightment and Modernity--as well as Anglicanism.

No comments:

Post a Comment