Friday, November 23, 2018

Did Jesus institute a Law?

In Baptist Bible study one Sunday Morning we stumbled across an unusual expression in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2 RSV). It is an unusual statement because Paul was of the opinion that “Christ is the end of the law”; under Christ people are justified by faith according to Paul (Rom 10:4). Did Jesus institute a law? Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that he had not come to abolish the law [the Mosaic covenant], but rather to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-18). Can that statement be read as suggesting a “Christian” law of some sort remaindered from the Mosaic Code?

According to the Baptist student quarterly, the “law of Christ” is found in a saying of Jesus in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." The writer said: “This law of love is the rule believers are to follow.” I raised my hand to suggest that John 13:34 could not be the “law” to which Paul referred. The saying has no parallels elsewhere and the Gospel of John was written at the end of the first century, while Paul lived in the middle first century. In any case Paul knew very little about the details of Jesus’ life, apart from a very few sayings and events that had already become liturgical by his day.

Paul claimed to be “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21), which Gordon Fee describes as an informal “Christian ethical imperative.” Nevertheless, (Fee adds) that does not mean followers of Jesus now have a new law to obey. According to Fee the expression “law of Christ” is roughly equivalent to the kind of informal ethical instructions Paul gave in Romans 12 and Gal 5-6.1 Yet the use of the word “law” to describe an informal list of ethical behaviors does seem strange for a Paul who insisted that faith had replaced the law.

James also uses the word “law,” referring to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8), which he does not explain, except to say “If you really fulfill the royal law, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (RSV; Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Rom 12:8-10). In other words whatever the royal law is, the doing of it will include the loving of your neighbor. Or does James intend that the reader understand that the “royal law” is to be equated with Lev19:18? The royal law can be equated with the “perfect law,” that is to say, “the law of liberty” (Jas 1:22), under which people will be judged (Jas 2:12). The law of liberty is contrasted to the Mosaic covenant, which is a formal code (Jas 2:8-12). James is doubtless referring to this “law of liberty” when he calls for one to be a “doer of the law” (Jas 1:25). Are Paul and James referring to some kind of formal legal code in early Christianity?  That is likely not the case. In spite of the fact that Paul and James use the word “law” to describe certain prescribed Christian behaviors, there does not appear to be any such formal “law” preserved in the earliest canonical Christian texts. We modern readers are therefore left to ponder the unfortunate choice of legalistic language used by Paul and James.

One of the “Apostolic Fathers,” the Didache (dated 70-150), however, begins with a formal statement of acceptable Christian behavior called “The Way of Life.” The behaviors, while specific, are not described as a “code” or “law,” however. The following is a brief summary of the first two sections of the Way of Life in the Didache.

You shall:

Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; what you don’t want done to you, don’t do to another; bless those who curse you; pray for your enemies; fast for those who persecute you; love those who hate you; abstain from bodily and carnal lusts; if struck on the right cheek, turn the other; if pressed to go one mile, go two; if anyone takes your coat, give him your shirt; do not refuse what anyone will take from you; give to everyone who asks from you; let your alms sweat in your hand, until you know who you are giving them to.

You shall not:

Commit murder; commit adultery; commit fornication; use magic; use philtres [i.e., potions]; procure abortions; commit infanticide; covet your neighbor’s goods; commit perjury; bear false witness; speak evil; bear malice; be double-minded; be double-tongued; be covetous; commit extortion; be hypocritical; be malignant; be proud; make evil plans against a neighbor; hate anyone.

            The Way of Life in Didache (among the earliest parts of the Didache) suggests there is an element of legalism in early Christianity: here are certain acts that Christians do and others that they do not. The list finds a ready fit with the language of Paul and James. James was very outspoken that “faith by itself, if it have not works, is dead” (Jas 2:17), and what do you suppose Paul was thinking when he said that he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). There are some modern Christian groups for whom this information would not be a surprise, but rest assured it does not play well among Baptists.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 430.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Marginal Relevance of the Bible

The full title of my new book forthcoming from the publisher Wipf and Stock in their premier Cascade Series is: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Everything is completed except the indices, which I am now finishing.

Here is a description of the book from the back cover:

This book “aims to address many of the challenges to traditional Christian faith in the modern world. Since the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, human Reason, formerly tethered by the constraints of organized religion, has been set free to explore the universe relatively unchallenged. The influence of the Bible, on the other hand, weakened due to the successes of modern historical criticism, is found to be inadequate for the task of enabling the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), in that it cannot adequately respond to the many questions about religious faith and the world that human reasoning raises for modern human beings. In a series of short but tightly reasoned essays, Charles Hedrick explores the confrontation between traditional Christian faith and aggressive human reason, a conflict that is facilitated by Western secular education.”

I was brought to write this book upon my retirement, purposing in the closing years of my life to analyze critically my own personal religious beliefs and my place in the world. The essays are brief but collectively they form a cumulative argument that the Bible is only marginally relevant for developing a religious faith for the contemporary world. The book represents the results of ten years of critical reflection on subjects related to religion, ethics, the Bible, the nature of the world, and human values. Candidly I was disappointed that many of the fundamental ideas of my own personal religious faith did not stand up to rational scrutiny.

Here is a list of the table of contents:

1. The Nature of the Universe
2. Reason and Faith
3. On Being Human in the Contemporary World
4. The Bible
5. The Nature of God
6. Jesus of Nazareth
7. Traditional Christian Beliefs
8. On Being Christian in the Modern World

The book does not offer many definitive answers to the perplexing questions raised by an impartial study of religion, for religion is primarily opinion based. What I can promise, however, is that the book will take you on a rationally sound journey into selected details of religious faith in the twenty-first century.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University