Monday, 2 May 2005

The relationship between the Law of God and the Christian

Christian Tradition Selector : Question 2

James and I are taking it in turns to explain why we, in our arrogance, have definite beliefs that allow this quiz to categorise us as 100% Catholic.

In case anyone was wondering why this mattered anyway, I wrote a post about the resurrection a while back, which I like to point people to from time to time.

In any case, here's question number two. James does not follow the MLA manual of style, which I thoroughly recommend. Just for now, I'll mimic his crazy formatting:

2. What is the relationship between the Law of God and the Christian?

a. "We are not under law but under grace" - This statement not only means that the Law cannot condemn believers, but also that they may live whatever life they want and still be saved.
b. Only those portions of the Law that are re-stated in the New Testament are binding on believers - all of the Old Testament has been set aside for the Christian unless re-instated in the New.
c. Only the ceremonial (and possibly judicial) portion of the Old Testament Law has been fulfilled, and believers are still obliged to obey the Law, though it no longer condemns them. If they violate it without repentance, however, they show they are not Christians.
d. Not sure

Better start with answer a. I don't like to say it, but this really has to be answered by looking at context.* So here we are:
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:[...] your faith is proclaimed in all the world. - Romans 1:7-8
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? - Romans 6:12-16
So Paul is speaking to the faithful, Christians, in Rome and is presenting them with their choice; sin and death, or obedience and righteousness - life by implication. The simplest thing to say therefore is that Paul has clear instructions for living so as to be saved, and that does rather suggest an alternative. So far as I can make out, the actual quote is the part I have put in bold, the more convincing passage for the purpose of defending this view I have put in italics. Using the bold part seems to me like an exegetical suicide attempt, but part of being contextual, in looking at Scripture as an authoritative revelation of God, is making sure that you don't leave out the bits that don't float your boat. This answer is more to do with "sin will have no dominion over you" to my mind, but this is obviously future tense, and it seems to be conditional on yielding to God in any case. If we make God our master, we will not be mastered by sin, we have the grace of God's protection from the penalty of the law. Otherwise we don't, and it is Christians who have this choice, as much as those who do not currently know God in this way.

B seems like the most intuitive way of approaching the relationship between law and grace. It accounts for the ambivalence shown towards the law in the New Testament. Not having read James' entry for the Scripture and Tradition, I can't say with certainty how this answer will overlap, but I think that it will because the adequacy of this solution rests on the adequacy of the New Testament as a complete record of the revelation of the Word. In light of the force of Jesus' words about the eternal validity of the law, we need a stronger reason to take this view than we have:
"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." - Matthew 5:17-20
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. - John 21:24-25
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. - 1 Thessalonians 3:13
To [salvation and sanctification God] called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. - 2 Thessalonians 2:14-15
I don't really have much more to say. The passage from Matthew is not readily reconciled with any kind of palliation of the force of the law. Suffice to say for the moment, that it cuts against the idea that only re-stated portions of the law are binding, and I can't think of any Scripture which does explicitly support it, so I can't really accept it.

I'm not convinced by the wording of c, but it approximates to the answer that I would give. I'd like to suggest that the law is not neatly divided into sections so that you can lift out those in the category of "ceremonial" and "judicial" and be left with that part of the law which binds believers. Frankly, I think that this question of law vs. grace is still too difficult for me, and I though I agree with this in principle, I still depend on the guidance of the Catholic Church, under the protection of God, to see where that line may safely be drawn. I think I would like to re-word the final part, if it doesn't do an injustice to the original thought - and believers are still obliged to obey the Law, though it no longer condemns them because both their righteousness and protection come from the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, in which the whole law finds its' fulfillment. If they violate it without repentance, however, they show that they are not participating in the life of Christ.

As I say, an ambivalence towards the law exists in the New Testament, and I simply think this is the best way of reconciling these attitudes.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree" - Galatians 3:10-13
And I think that's all I have to say about that.

As to answer d, I don't blame anyone who feels over-extended in trying to feel their way through this, but it really is a pressing question.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? - 2 Peter 3:10-11
I think that to answer this question you have to think about the relationship between law and grace.

* The notion of context having been debased by it's use as a magic word to discount other, necessary words.
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