Monday, April 30, 2012

Preaching the Law and the Gospel

Saturday I started outlining some material relating to preaching from various literary forms in Scripture. I started with preaching from the narratives of the Bible (after looking at Long yesterday, I see I missed a relevant sub-category of narrative, namely, Jesus' parables). This morning I want to outline briefly what a piece on Preaching from the OT Law might look like.

Law in the Old Testament
The piece might begin by setting forth 1) the Law as a literary unit within the Jewish and Christian canon, namely, the first five books of the OT, the Torah, the Pentateuch. This is a layer of "original" literary context in the sense that these books were brought together and edited together into one unit at some point.  However, 2) there are several sub-genres within the "Law." There are narratives, such as Genesis, much of Exodus and Numbers, etc.

But what this article is concerned with is primarily the legal material in the Pentateuch. How might a Christian preach from the "apodictic" and "casuistic" laws of the Torah? For that matter, how might a Christian preach from any of the prescriptive material of the Old Testament?

Differing Hermeneutics
It might be worthwhile to sketch some of the different (Protestant) approaches to how "Law and Gospel" fit together. For example, both Lutheran and Reformed traditions generally have a three-fold sense of the Law's purpose: 1) curb the sin of the wicked, 2) show us our sinfulness, 3) a guide of what righteousness is. However, the Devil is in the details, especially in arguments over exactly how the Law might apply as a guide.

Much of popular nineteenth century Christianity, however, found itself applying a great deal of the Law directly to today.  The rise of the Seventh Day Adventists is a case in point. Many of the holiness and Pentecostal traditions also had a tendency to consider much of the legal material of the Law still very much applicable to today. Meanwhile, the Lutheran tradition in particular has sometimes emphasized strong discontinuity with OT law.

Categories of Application
Christians since long before the Reformation divided Old Testament legal material into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil. These are not of course the original categories by which either  the Old or New Testaments classified laws. We might reasonably divide the Law into case law (casuistic, that comes in the form of "if this happens then the consequence will be that") and law in the form of a kind of decree (apodictic, thou shalt not, following the form of ancient suzerainty treaties between kings and subjects).

Nevertheless, the three fold categorization is not an entirely inappropriate way of approaching what the NT does with OT law. We might finesse the categories a little to give a largely Pauline hermeneutic for appropriating (and thus preaching) from the OT Law:

1. "ceremonial" category
The NT does not consider a good deal of Old Testament legal material to be binding on Gentile believers. This category especially relates to boundary issues that separated Jew and Gentile ethnically. Thus Paul does not consider circumcision or Sabbath laws binding on Gentile believers. Mark and Acts clearly do not consider food or OT purity laws to be binding on believers.

Christians usually include in this category also sacrificial or "cultic" laws relating to the Levitical system. The book of Hebrews indicates these laws no longer apply. Thus we have laws that some part of the NT considers to be fulfilled in Christ in such a way as that believers no longer need to keep them. These laws can be preached as figures or types of Christ, although certainly they were not perceived that way by Israel originally.

This is the "does not literally apply" but "can be preached as figures" category of OT law.

2. "moral" category
All the legal material that the NT does carry forward fits here.  These are those parts of the Ten Commandments that the NT considers still in force (remembering that the NT does not carry forward the Jewish Sabbath rule). In particular, the NT generally considers all the sexual prohibitions of the OT to apply.

3. "civil" category
Christians debate to what extent the rules relating to the political operation of Israel according to law might apply to today. Should we stone criminals? Interestingly, no one these days seems to argue we should set up a monarchy. In general, immense care and hermeneutical sophistication should be used when trying to apply such laws to today, a quite different context. Such laws must be filtered through a NT lens, as with all the OT.

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