The extent to which Biblical Law applies todayIntroduction
Our task in this study is to determine the following:
If there are commands and injunctions in the Bible which are timelessly true in their stated form;
If it is possible to allow exceptions to unchanging moral law;
If laws/regulations of local application are binding today, including cultic law, and;
If the laws/ethical teachings of Jesus are to be applied literally today.
The unchanging Moral Law
In both the Old and New Testaments there are specific injunctions common to both. Such injunctions include the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, various sexual offences, stealing, lying, coveting, etc. These offences are presented in the Bible as the absolute/unchanging Law. They are offences which invite the wrath of God, Eph.5:6, and exclude those who practise them from the Kingdom of God, Rev.21:8, 22:15. Thus, although only normative, they remain clear expressions of the mind of God. They reveal God's "good" and "perfect" will for his creation, and obviously that includes the followers of Christ.
Exceptions to the absolute Law
A difficulty arises in ethics when we realize that there are times when it is "right" not to obey absolute/unchanging law. Even within the Bible itself exceptions exist, e.g. 1Sam.16:2, 2Kin.5:18. The question is then "On what grounds can we set aside seemingly unchanging moral law?"
The simple fact is that Biblical ethics are contextual. That is, it is not possible to make moral judgements without considering the circumstances. Thus Biblical moral laws are normative and Biblical ethics teleological (ie. where an action is regarded as right or wrong on the basis of its consequences). When the circumstances surrounding a certain act are considered, it is necessary to recognize that an exception may well exists to the moral law because of, say, a conflict of obligations, e.g. adultery, theft, etc. performed under the threat of blackmail.
We are bound to have to assess:
i] the extenuating circumstances and
ii] the intent of the offender, 1Cor. 8.
Of course, it is essential to properly define the offence. There are times when lying, thieving, adultery, fornication, murder, etc. are not condemned because they are no longer these offences by definition. Sometimes the vocabulary exists to enable us to make this distinction, e.g. forced illicit sex is not classed as adultery, but as rape. The victim is in no way an adulteress. Within human relationships a person may forfeit the right to know the truth or to possess certain property or even (say in the execution of a murderer) to live. This being so, we may kill without murdering, or mislead as to the truth (lie) without lying, and deprive of property (steal) without stealing. On such occasions the offence is by definition not the moral offence denounced in the Bible, even if we have to use the Bible word to describe it, e.g. lying without lying.
Cultural and transitory Law
Both in the Old Testament and in the New there is quite a deal of ethical advice that is of a temporary nature, related to the particular culture of the time, or simply just common sense. With such law it is important not to regard it as automatically part of the Christian ethic and therefore binding on us today. The way forward with such law is to seek to locate the principle or principles involved and then attempt some current application. eg. 1Cor.11:1-16. This is no easy task as such a procedure often produces conflicting moral principles. eg. Gen.1:27 is used by many theologians to establish the sanctity of life and thereby oppose abortion, contraception etc. The problem is the verse teaches that God is our sovereign creator and that life has no intrinsic value of itself outside of a relationship with Him.
In dealing with Old Testament law we usually say that moral Law is still binding on all created in the image of God, but that social Law (including the health regulation) and cultic Law, has been fulfilled by Christ and is therefore no longer binding. It is truer to say, that Christ has fulfilled all the Law. In his life and in his teachings he has displayed pure righteousness/morality. He did not sin. Old Testament moral law is clearly embodied in Christ's life and thus the New Testament writers had no hesitation in restating it. Social and cultic law, because of its local and transitory nature, has only a limited embodiment in Christ's life and thus may or may not be of value in human society. Some such laws may in fact be very poor reflections of the mind of God and thus need to be repudiated, eg. Divorce. Matt.19:3-9.
The Law of Jesus
Applying the ethic of Jesus today is by no means an easy task. There is little problem with his clear statements on the moral law, but his life-style and his ethical sayings are, to say the least, an enigma.
Jesus has made it very clear that his way is the way of truth, Mk.8:34-38. If he means by this statement that we are to live his life-style, then we face an impossible task. We are dealing with someone who was culturally of the ancient world, a full-time nomadic teacher for the last three years of his life on earth and, last but not least, sinless. The best we can do is understand the quality and direction of his life and seek to emulate that in our own life, within the cultural environment we might find ourselves at the time. The quality of our ethical behaviour may be at quite a low level of achievement. The right direction may be clearly discernible in our behaviour, but the goal may still be far off. So Jesus' call to follow him sets for us a direction and quality that was displayed in his own life. He doesn't expect perfection. All he expects is that we aim at it.
Yet above all we need to understand that much of Jesus' life-style teaching, as well as his teaching on ethics, has moral improvement as a secondary purpose. The prime purpose is to expose the sinful nature. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to "complete/fulfill" its prime task of exposing sin. The exceeding righteousness taught by Jesus serves to expose self righteousness, and thus drive the sinner to seek God's mercy.
So Jesus ethical teaching, as it applies today:
i] exposes sin and so brings us to the foot of the cross;
ii] gives quality and direction to godly living.
In seeking to apply Jesus' ethical teachings, the following needs to be noted:
i] Some of his ethical teaching is cultural - it applies to members of the Jewish community bound under the details of the Law of Moses. He endorsed the roles of the Scribes and the Pharisees while deploring their inconsistencies, Matt.23:1-3. He even devoted some of his teachings to an exposition of traditional Jewish obligations, eg. Matt.6:1-18. We know full well that even within the New Testament, Gentiles were not expected to fulfil all the details of Mosaic law, Act.15:19-29, 1Cor.9:20-21. Thus some of Jesus' teachings may have little application to us.
ii] Some of Jesus' ethical sayings defy literal application eg. Matt.5:39-42, 6:19-34, 18:8-9, Lk.14:12-13. These sayings are really not meant to be taken as detailed guides for conduct. They are pictures of the absolute standards of the Kingdom of God. As such they reveal what is meant by Jesus, to "fulfill" the Law, Matt.5:17. We have to treat these sayings in much the same way as we treat Jesus' life-style. They are only a pattern for behaviour. They are dramatic pictures of the quality and direction of behaviour which conforms to divine love. As such they are guides to behaviour rather than literal rules.
iii] Some of Jesus' ethical teaching was given amid certain controversies of the day. Some issues he dealt with quite clearly eg. Mat.22:23-32. Yet on trick questions concerning matters of practical obligation Jesus combined subtle evasiveness with striking relevance, eg. Matt.19:3-12, 22:15-22, Jn.8:1-11.
In simple terms much of the moral Law applies today as a guide to godly living, but is normative rather than prescriptive.
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