I am letting some scholars who disagree with Mark Kinzer’s Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism write a few articles on the blog. Rich Robinson here offers a respectful view of the role of Torah that differs with mine. I do think Rich is wrong, but I am pleased with a bit of a higher view than is sometimes held. I do hope Rich doesn’t imagine for a second I couldn’t write a paper challenging some of his points here. Maybe that would be a fruitful debate for a future week on the blog — to Torah or not to Torah, that is the question . . .
The Torah and the New Covenant
by Rich Robinson
I am grateful to Derek Leman for allowing me space on this blog.
Today I want to put forward some thoughts on one theological issue concerning the Scriptures, namely the place of the Old Testament and of the Law of Moses in Christian theologies and teaching.
I appreciate Derek’s honesty in sharing his own spiritual journey both here and in his books, because he has put his finger on one problem that is endemic in the American evangelical church, and that is the comparative neglect and de-valuation of the Old Testament in favor of the New. I’m reminded of Walter Kaiser, in the days when he taught Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He had his finger on the very same problem, and insisted that the OT not be neglected nor devalued. He even gave it hermeneutical priority over the NT. “Antecedent theology” was his name for this approach. Though he always had a twinkle in his eye as he said it, he had strong words for those who spoke of the “Ooooooold Testament” as though it were a relic of a bygone era.
So I can sympathize with Derek’s reaction to a very real problem. However, I fear that he has greatly misunderstood evangelical theology of the Old Testament; whereas my concern with Mark Kinzer’s book is that he has neglected to interact with these same evangelical theology(ies) of the Old Testament.
As to misunderstandings, and this is not to single out Derek, because I think many, many people in the messianic movement share a similar view – there is a great difference between saying that the Mosaic Law does not apply as a body of law today, and saying that such a view is anti-Torah or relegates the Old Testament to a lesser position.
There is no doubt that evangelical theology as a theology (communicating it to the person in the pew is another matter) takes a high view of the Old Testament as well as the Law of Moses within the Old Testament. Books have been written addressing the question of how we know the Old Testament is inspired, and much of the answer comes from the way Jesus, the apostles, and the entire New Testament treats the OT. In fact, it may be easier to demonstrate the inspiration of the OT than of the NT! But let there be no doubt, the OT and NT are both the Word of God. Both are relevant to us today, both find application into our lives now, and both are equally the inspired Word of God. There is no division of inspiration as in rabbinic theology whereby the Torah is more inspired than the Prophets. No, Genesis, Leviticus, Obadiah, Mark, Philemon, Revelation – all are equally inspired and given by God for our instruction and guidance.
The problem comes with the Law of Moses in particular. Here again, it is crucial to see that all evangelical theology upholds the Law of Moses as inspired Scripture. Yes, there is much popular theology that dismisses the Law as a burden, something we are now free from, and good riddance at that. However, that is not evangelical theology. There is often a major disconnect between what theologians say and what ends up in the pew. That is a problem of pastoral training and education, but it is not a problem of theology itself. The Reformed wing of the Church in particular, has always taken a very high view of the Law, enumerating its various uses even in the life of a Christian today.
If that is the case, why aren’t Christians keeping kosher or observing the festivals?
It is not due to an anti-Torah bias. Rather, it comes from the understanding that the Law of Moses was part of a particular covenant that was made with Israel, a covenant that was good because each law reflects something of the goodness of God. However, it is also understood that that particular covenant was only intended to be temporary, and that at this time in redemptive history, it is no longer binding; instead we are under a New Covenant. This understanding does not arise out an assumption of supersessionism or anti-Semitism; it arises from an examination of the texts, from exegesis. There are many, many non-supersessionists and pro-Jewish theologians who would nevertheless agree with this redemptive-historical approach to the Law of Moses.
Therefore is it not a question of being anti-Torah, but of our place in the history of redemption. An analogy may help. In the Law of Moses, sacrifices were meant to be done at “the place the LORD your God will choose,” meaning the Tabernacle or later, the Temple. Prior to that, sacrifices could apparently be offered anywhere. Suppose after the Law had been given, someone complained that the Law was “anti-anywhere,” restrictive, denigrating to the freedom that we had to sacrifice at any place prior to that time. The answer would simply have to be, we are in a different time in redemptive history, God has now given a Law, now we are to follow it. It does not follow that the Law is anti-pre-Law or somehow devalued the experience of the patriarchs before then.
So our time in redemptive history is one factor. Someone may disagree with this understanding of the text, but let us not imagine that this is “anti-Torah” or devaluing to the Law.
A second consideration that also upholds the value of the Law is that the specifics of the Law of Moses reflected a more general “law of God” behind those particular enactments. This is what Reformed theology seems to be getting at when it speaks of the high value of the law for the Christian. For example, the specific commandment in Deuteronomy that we put a parapet around our roofs (for the safety of guests, as entertaining was rooftop in those days), is a specific expression of larger principles that comprise “God’s law”, i.e. his character: concern for safety in general, which is an expression of God’s love. If anything, in the NT we are to apply “God’s law” in this sense, in ways that go beyond the specifics enumerated in the Law of Moses.
A third consideration is that it is very likely that some laws, such as those of kashrut, were intended as a symbol system to indicate that Israel was set apart from the nations. Under the new covenant, while Israel continues to play a role in God’s plan, the nations and Israel are not separate in the same way. It follows then, that the system of kashrut would not be obligatory. This is an anthropological approach to OT law, and while not everyone will agree, there is much to think about here. Gordon Wenham in particular has unpacked this in his commentaries on Leviticus (series New International Commentary on the OT) and Numbers (series Tyndale OT Commentaries). (This is substantially different from Derek’s remark that some say kashrut was a “primitive earlier” stage of revelation repealed as “unworthy.”)
In short, there is a complete difference between what I have outlined as (just a few) aspects of evangelical theology of the OT/Torah, and a devaluing of the OT. Many more points could be brought forward, but those are enough for now. As Walter Kaiser might have said about devaluing the OT and the Law of Moses, “Me genoito! (Paul’s words in Greek for ‘May it never be!’)
For a good look at evangelical interaction with the Law of Moses, I suggest not only Walter Kaiser’s books but also the Zondervan volume, “Five Views on Law and Gospel.”
I’m afraid that by confusing popular neglect of the OT with evangelical theology, we are not only throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but the entire tub and the plumbing as well!
May God be glorified by his entire Word.
ONE MORE POST TO COME…
Me (Derek) again. Good paper, Rich. I do not think your view of Torah and the New Covenant is truly doing justice to all the texts. There are points and counterpoints to consider, but the system that is persuasive makes all of them fit. Your system does not, for example, do justice the Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant passage, which states (a) that the New Covenant is for Israel and Judah and (b) that when the New Covenant arrives, no one will need to teach his neighbor about God (sounds like we’re not fully there yet, now but not yet) and (c) the Torah (scripture uses this term for the Torah of Moses) will be written on hearts. Torah is not obsolete in the New Covenant, but written on hearts instead of etched in stones. I do not believe our present experience of the Holy Spirit is yet the fulfillment. We have yet to see Torah written on hearts, a day when all will love God heart and soul and be glorified and sinless. Anyway, the conversation continues . . .