Here’s an easy topic to wrap up in a few hundred words in a short blog post: How do Christians view the law of the Old Testament?
John Wesley followed the practice of the Church of England in his day and divided the law into the ceremonial, the civil, and the moral. Only the moral law was considered still binding as the others had been made obsolete by Jesus.
This week, I read the following summary of the early church approach to Torah. It comes as a comment on Jesus’ teaching about divorce in Mark 10. It is there where we find Jesus noting that Torah’s allowance of divorce was a concession made in the face of the hardness of human hearts, but adding that the concession did not remove God’s will for humanity revealed in creation.
David deSilva sees in that exchange an important insight into Christian reception of the Torah.
This is an important principle for the early church’s handling of Torah — not as it pertained merely to divorce but as a rule of broader application. God’s earlier purposes and designs are not limited or set aside by the Torah, which begins increasingly to appear as a mixture of God’s will for people, God’s concessions to fallen people and God’s temporary provisions for a particular people “until the fullness of time.”
So, Torah can be seen as including three kinds of laws.
- Those that reflect God’s eternal will for people (no murder)
- Those that are concessions to a fallen people (divorce and slavery)
- Those that form and guide Israel in its particular vocation (food laws, animal sacrifice, purity)
The second and third category do not apply in the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. Whether the second category applies today depends on your eschatology, I suppose. The United Methodist Church certainly speaks of divorce and abortion — for instance — in terms of a fallen and broken world. We might infer from this that the UMC sees some of the concessions of the second category still in effect.
Of course, working out what goes in those three categories is not a simple task. We can see how difficult it is by reading our New Testament. But having such categories might allow us to avoid the common — but no less silly for being common — argument that people offer up when we speak of the moral law of God. It usually turns on asking whether football teams can touch a pigskin or whether it is okay to sell a daughter into slavery.
The answer to such questions depends on how we receive Torah in the light of Jesus. I’ve not worked through the implications of deSilva’s brief summary, but it does seem like a fruitful option for those who find talk of ceremonial and moral law outdated.