This week I picked up a book by a phenomenal Baptist scholar named Thomas Schreiner from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary entitled “40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law”. Schreiner has been a heavy critic of the New Perspective on Paul and of N.T Wright. He also defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone via imputed righteousness so as to earn my deep respect! He’s a very perceptive author and quite easy to read. His vast array of knowledge has earned him a spot with some of the top theologians of our day.
With that said his views on the law and the covenants is inferior, poor and contradictory.
One of the main questions he tries to answer is “Is the Mosaic law still normative for believers?” (pg. 13) He doesn’t go through the theological systems that deal with this, and similar, questions. However, if I were to classify him he would be closest to New Covenant Theology.
Be that as it may I want to quickly run through some of the arguments Schreiner gives in defense of his view and interact with it.
Schreiner starts off question number one by defining the terms. A very good place to start. His question is “What does the word law mean in the Scriptures?” Here’s where I think our foundations are established enabling us to move forward. Schreiner defines “Torah” as “keeping of commandments” and what “human beings are commanded to do” (pg. 19) focusing on the obeying, keeping, doing etc. It makes sense to establish this view in the very first question so that you can elaborate your vies in light of your starting premises. Here’s exactly where we disagree. I take Torah to mean instruction…more of a relational and gracious guide for Israelites.
Here are some of my reasons why. These will be based off Hebrew etymology and specific texts
Hebrew Etymology– “Towrah”- somewhat misleadingly rendered “nomos” in Greek. Torah should not be reduced to regulation but wider to represent instruction or teaching.
1. Torah comes from the verb “yara” which means to teach, instruct, direct, inform, etc. (Gen. 46:28, Ex. 4:12, 15, Ex. 15: 25, Ex. 24:12, Lev. 20:11, etc)
2. Torah is much richer than just “regulation”; it means teaching or instruction that guides. (Ex. 24:12, Isa. 2:3, Deut. 29:29, etc)
3. Torah is not just “Do this. Don’t do that”, its instruction pertaining to salvation and point out the spiritual way of life. (Ps. 119, 19, Deut. 31:12, Deut. 33:9-10, Ps. 78:10, Ps. 1:2) Psalm 1 says that some people walk a certain way “council of the wicked”, others take “council in the way of Jehovah”. This is more than “do’s and don’ts”. Ps. 37:31. Torah is the way we walk.
3. Torah is the Divine Instruction guiding his people for their walk in the path of life. Deut. 32:46, “Torah… is your life”.
Leviticus 18:5- “you shall keep my ordinances, if a man do he shall live in them”. This is a controversial verse. The Pharisees laid hold on this verse to prove their point. Paul uses this against them. So does this prove that by keeping the law one earns his salvation? No! Moses has already said that Torah is a way of living, thus we do what God commands not as a way to enter life, but as our lifestyle. In the Old Testament there never was an offer of life by our works. Never did God say do these things and I will save you. Torah is not a stairway to heaven!
Deuteronomy 4:1- how do we take “that you may live” portion? As a presumption that they were dead and if they obeyed God would save them? Or that God has saved them and this is their life now, as their blessing. (Deut. 10:12, Deut. 5:33, “that it may go well with you”, it doesn’t say and it *will* go well with you (as if it were a covenant of works)”, here is your life now enter into it abundantly; Deut. 30:15-16, 19, Prov. 13:14, etc.)
Hebrews 3:19- “they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” Unbelief kept them from the Promised Land. And then he turns around in Hebrews 4:2 saying- the gospel came to us exactly as it came to them, but there’s was not united by faith.
Greatest Men of the Torah- Abraham and Moses
Romans 4:3, Paul quotes from the Torah to prove justification by faith alone. The Torah (broadly and narrowly) was always God’s gracious dealings with His people.
Exodus 19:4-8- Israel obeys God’s gracious dealing.
Full enjoyment of all that God has given comes through covenantal obedience. God said I’ve have saved you, now if you want to enjoy the full blessing of this covenant then you must obey. This same blessing is repeated in the church, in 1 Peter 2. So how can the same blessing in the NT be gracious but the one in the OT be works based?
Deuteronomy 6:20-25- the meaning of the law is that God has saved us! He wants us to enjoy life and has given us an instruction by which to enjoy it by. The law meant grace in the OT!
Romans 9:30-10:8 Paul won’t even say “They did not pursue it by faith but by works” BUT “as if it were of works”, meaning that it’s not even possible, thus they turned the gracious covenant into a covenant of works. As if God ever approved of the works approach. They never did what the law told them, they fell short. Having said that Paul says “they stumbled at the stone of stumbling”. Because Israel approached the torah by works as it were, the completely stumbled over the Messiah to come. When Israel misconstrued there idea of law and grace, when they didn’t see that faith was the way should approach the Torah, for righteousness, and then when the promises of the Messiah were given, they completely fell down. That’s why Paul’s heart was broken (ch. 10:1), because the Jews had the Torah, “how could they miss it” he thought. And then (v. 2) he says they want to do what God wants them to do, but they don’t understand properly, because (v. 3) “being ignorant of the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” When you approach the Torah not by faith but as it were by works, then you don’t establish God’s righteousness but your own, and that’s what Paul says they missed! Now how could Paul tell them that they’ve missed it when our opponents say that the OT is legalistic and works based? He says they didn’t understand the Torah, the very thing that did reveal righteousness by faith alone. Had they understood it they would not have stumbled! Next, (v. 4) if they stumbled at the stone of stumbling because they didn’t approach the Torah right, “Christ is the aim of the law”, Christ is the very purpose of the law the end goal of the law for righteousness. For since Christ was the end and the Jews didn’t believe they tried to establish their own. Again, (v. 5, 6), now most commentators will say that Paul presents one approach and it’s pitted against another approach “shall live by them” (Covenant of Works), “shall believe” (Covenant of Grace). Or, Moses sets out legalism, so that you have to follow the law to live, and then “BUT”, the righteousness of faith says this… the only problem is that that isn’t what Moses meant in the Old Testament by saying that. Finally (v. 8) Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30, speaking about the commandments of God as the faith which we preach.
Anyways back to Schreiner… He writes concerning the Mosaic covenant that “the common covenant pattern (obedience as a result of salvation) exists between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant”…granted that does not mean they “are the same in every respect” (pg. 27). So does he then take back what he said about the definition of torah? Because if torah is strictly regulations and commands then that carries over into the new covenant because we are called to obey after being redeemed; but since Schriener doesn’t want that…will he change his definition of torah to instructions or teachings? Beware Schreiner does this often…
In question #6 about Paul addressing Legalism, Schreiner writes “Paul stresses that Abraham did not live under the law (cf. Rom. 5:12-14; Gal. 3:15-18). According to Paul, Abraham could legitimately boast if he did the necessary works.” (pg. 49) However I ask “works according to what?” If Abraham had no law what works would have given him opportunity to boast? Only he who works out the law perfectly has a right to boast.
Going back once more to page 25 we find Schreiner saying “the Mosaic covenant [Torah] was not legalistic in this sense” [referring to the idea of earning salvation by obedience]. Now coming again to page 50 on the topic of Paul and legalism he writes, “[Paul’s] Pharisaic devotion to the law [torah] (Phil. 3:5) demonstrates that he was also proud of what he accomplished, of his own obedience to what the Torah required.” So which is it? Does the Torah require obedience unto salvation as per Schreiner’s comments on page 50 or is the Torah not legalistic in it’s offer of salvation as per his comments on page 25? But wait there’s more…
In Question #9 he asks “Does Paul teach that the old testament law is now abolished?” His first argument is very mixed up and I’ve witnessed people fall into it often these days. He in essence argues that since the pedagogical function of the law has ceased because faith has come that therefore the normative is gone too because Paul is writing we are no longer under the law (Gal. 3:23). Skipping over arguments 2 and 3 his fourth and fifth argument suggests that the law is no longer normative because of Paul’s apparent denunciation of “food laws, circumcision, sabbath and Ephesians 2:15″ (pg. 70-71). All of which point to the ceremonial law with some heavy exegesis on the distinction between the moral Sabbath which is perpetual and the ceremonial sabbath which is abolished. I understand Schreiner doesn’t think the distinction into moral, ceremonial and civil is valid but even he says that it “has some cogency” and “seems appropriate to designate such commands as moral norms” (pg. 93) Hopefully in future post I can discuss the validity of such a distinction and be able to defend it clearly from the pages of Scripture if time permits maybe we can interact with the contrary view later on…In the mean time if we can play by my rules for a second, I ask for Schreiner or anyone for that matter to point to a moral law that finds its abrogation from Old Testament to the New Testament. Good luck.
Lastly (as I need some sleep and don’t want to make this post extra long) I want to highlight what Schreiner believes to be a biblical position but contradicts himself literally in a matter of sentences. On page 91 he writes, “…the entirety of the Old Testament [Mosaic] law is abrogated in Christ” indicating that all the law (if I may…moral, ceremonial and civil) is abolished, abrogated, obsolete to the Christian in every way imaginable. But yet on page 92 he writes on the “civil” law, “I’m not suggesting from the above comments that the Old Testament “civil” laws have no relevance to nation states today. Rather how and whether those laws apply requires careful theological discussion.” What?! To quote Rushdoony this is classified as “Intellectual Schizophrenia”. If the entirety of the Mosaic law is abolished then we can’t draw anything normative for us, remember it doesn’t apply to us because God didn’t covenant with us (according to Schreiner’s previous comments). It would be inconstantly commendable for Schreiner to stop at the moral law having relevance to us but he goes further to the civil law and suggests that it can have relevance to nations today! Schreiner sounds like a theonomist! He even says this while commenting on 1 Corinthians 5:13, “the law is both abolished and fulfilled” because “believers are no longer called upon to execute those who commit the sins specified in Deuteronomy, but it does not follow that the commands to purge evil from the community has no relevance to the church…instead [and I’m dead serious] the Mosaic law and covenant are no longer normative for believers.” (pg. 92-93). In one paragraph he blatantly contradicts himself.
All in all I wish I could write more on Schreiner’s views and some good points that he highlights in his book (Interpretation of Matthew 5:21-48, upholding Justification by faith alone, comparison of James and Paul, etc) and criticize some short-comings, but time does not permit.
I do in the end recommend this book to more serious students of the law and it’s application to Christians. Whether you are strictly reformed and want a scholarly modified baptistic view which will challenge some of your exegesis or a proponent of new covenantal theology and need a good work to read agreeing with 90% of the teachings.
I give this book a 4/5 in it’s writing style and a 3.5/5 in it’s theological content.