How should Christians relate to the Old Testament Law? Ever since Paul addressed this issue in his epistles, theologians have agreed that our relationship to the Law has changed on account of the death of Christ. But grasping the exact nature of that change has proved more difficult—not to mention controversial. Martin Luther proclaimed “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”
Tom Schreiner has entered into this centuries-old debate with his work 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Praised by Simon Gathercole as “an enormously valuable volume”, this work contains timely answers to Christians’ questions regarding the role of the Law in the Christian life.
I sat down with Schreiner to learn how modern-day Christians should think about the Old Testament Law.
Can you give readers a brief rundown of what you are trying to accomplish in this book?
My goal in this book is to give a basic and clear presentation of the Law in the Bible. There are many technical books on the Law, but there aren’t many that are accessible to an ordinary reader.
I tried to write this book so that any interested reader could pick it up and gain some understanding about the role of the Law for Christians. The topic is enormously important since our understanding of the Law shapes how we put the whole Bible together.
In the book, you move from the Law in the Old Testament to the Law in Paul. Why didn’t you move chronologically from the Gospels to Paul?
It could have been done the other way, but I moved to Paul first so that readers would get a clearer sense of how we should understand the Law today. I think that is clearer in Paul than it is in the Gospels since Paul reflected on the implications of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel writers, of course, also do this to some extent, but they are also constrained in a good way by the story they tell.
In other words, the full implications of the coming of Jesus Christ, aren’t traced out in the same breadth and depth in the Gospels. For instance, we understand Luke’s treatment of the Law better when we also read the book of Acts. If we read Luke alone, we wouldn’t see his full perspective on the Law.
You take issue with theologians and scholars dividing the Law between moral, ceremonial, and civil Laws. What is the problem with doing that? Is there a better way to understand the Law besides using these divisions?
Dividing the Law into the categories moral, civil, and ceremonial is useful in some ways. I think there is some truth in that perspective. Still, I would argue that none of the New Testament writers provide a theology of the Law based on such distinctions. Instead, what we see in the New Testament is that the Law as a whole has passed away. We are no longer under the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, and the Law is tied to that covenant. The New Testament thinks of wholes instead of parts when it considers the Law. So, as believers we are no longer under the Law and its provisions.
At the same time, the Law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and so there is a tension here. We are no longer called upon to offer Old Testament sacrifices, but those sacrifices are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We aren’t required to circumcise our children, but by the Holy Spirit those who are regenerated are circumcised in the heart. We obey the commands not to murder and not to commit adultery. Those commands represent God’s word to us today because they represent the character of God—the Law of love. So, they aren’t normative because they are in the Mosaic Law but because they represent the very character of God. This is a big and complex issue of course. Read the book for more!
How does a proper Christian understanding of the Law affect our views of homosexuality and gay marriage?
Some of the Laws in the old covenant represent the character of God. We must see that marriage was instituted before the Law was given in Genesis 1–2. Marriage is a creation ordinance and is not the result of the Fall, and God designed that one man be married to one woman for life. The Laws in the Old Testament prohibiting homosexuality and hence gay marriage reflect that creation ethic. The New Testament verifies this reading in Rom. 1:26–27, for Paul says that same-sex relations are prohibited because they violate nature. By nature he doesn’t mean our psychological dispositions. He means by nature what God intended when he created man and woman. In other words, Paul points us to Genesis 1–2. It is clear, then, from a canonical reading, from reading the whole Bible, that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s will.
Can you provide pastors with advice on properly preaching the Law?
We must always read the commands of the Law in light of the entire Bible, and thus our preaching of the Law is always shaped by the canonical context. Notice how the New Testament writers apply the Law. They are our inspired guides! If you see how they use the Old Testament Law, then you receive instruction about how you should preach it as well. For instance, God isn’t interested in a physical temple anymore since Jesus is the new temple (John 2 and 4), and believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). Finally, all of creation (Rev. 21:1-22:5) will be God’s temple. As we trace out various themes in Scripture, we see how they applied the Law and that is our guide today.
Explore more about Old Testament Law in Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law.