Divorce, Torah, and that annoying pigskin

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.

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8 thoughts on “Divorce, Torah, and that annoying pigskin

      1. I ask because you practically quoted Bartlett in that bit about football teams. I’m not sure, however, that I’m comfortable with the word “concession,” as if God’s will is negotiable in the short-term.

        1. I am certain his words influenced how I wrote it. Did not mean to say otherwise. Just have not been watching it lately.

          I’m happy to come up with a different word than “concession.” It is deSilva’s word. But the point he is making is that the early church — taking its lead from Jesus — did interpret aspects of Torah that way.

          That, of course, is an arguable point. Perhaps his reading is wrong. What I’m trying to nail down is a way to engage with Torah as a Christian that is not — as Bartlett’s speech implies — arbitrary.

          Since it clear that Jesus interpreted Torah differently than some Jewish leaders, I’m trying to understand his approach. deSilva offers what appears on the surface to be one way that might be fruitful.

  1. With regards to this, do you know how we interpret Jesus in Matthew 5:18? (The not a jot or tittle verse)

    1. A good question. I think — just my provisional theory — that the key part of that verse has to do with that phrase “until all is accomplished.” Does that mean the second coming of Christ? Does it mean the Cross? Easter?

      I’m not sure. I read the parts of the Sermon on the Mount that come after his as showing what the law fulfilled looks like.

      I am also mindful that the Jesus of 5:18 is the same one who declared all foods clean, touched lepers, and reinterpreted Sabbath observances. So, 5:18 has to be read in a way that makes sense of all that.

      I don’t have a complete answer, yet.

  2. Having just read Wesley’s “The Original Nature, Property, and Uses of the Law” (sermon #34), I can say that I can think of no-one among the movers and shakers of Christian history with as much enthusiasm and admiration for the written Torah as John Wesley. It is true that he reiterates the standard distinctions between moral, civil and ceremonial laws, but that in no way dulls or diverts the continuing validity of the written code, according to John Wesley. John Wesley considered the Laws of Moses to predate the creation of the world, and to remain in effect to the end of the world, and beyond it.

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