Tag Archives: law

Reforming the Law: John Calvin and the Use of the Law in Geneva (Pt. 1)

A Portrait of John Calvin

Addressing “The Pattern of the Law for Piety,” John Calvin states that the law profits believers in two ways: 1) it instructs us about God’s will and 2) it exhorts Christians to obey it. Given these two functions of the law, which are related to its “third use” (McKee, 266), we may wonder what role the law played in the daily life of Christians in Geneva. We may also wonder how important biblical law was for everyday Christians and how the law was enforced. At one point Calvin says,

Now this scriptural instruction of which we speak has two main aspects. The first is that the love of righteousness, to which we are otherwise not at all inclined by nature, may be instilled and established in our hearts; the second, that a rule be set forth for us that does not let us wander about in our zeal for righteousness. (McKee 271)

Here Calvin seems to indicate that the law has two ways of reforming behavior and inculcating a love for righteousness. First, it seems to establish a natural desire in the believer’s heart to obey the law, which prior to regeneration was not there. Second, the law acts as an external form of enforcement,  as a rule that does not let believers wander. In this brief essay I argue that Calvin’s method of instilling of God’s law into God’s people manifests itself in two ways — one, in the organic and unforced social process; the second, externally imposed by legislation. Calvin seeks to navigate between two ways of imposing the law. On the one hand, to leave law-keeping simply up to organic growth may lead to a lack of true enforcement. On the other hand, legislating conformity may create mere external obedience rather than real heart change. As we shall see, both manners of enforcing the law play an important role in Calvin’s Geneva, but both bring potential dangers. We shall begin the discussion of Calvin’s reformation of the use of the law for Christians by highlighting a few examples of how Calvin sees the law play out in Christians’ lives, then  turn our attention to each manner of enforcing the law.

The Pattern of the Law for Piety

Calvin argues that at the core of God’s law there are simply two principles. The first concerns what we owe God, and the second concerns what we own our neighbors. (McKee, 256) Thus all of the law can be considered to fall within the scope of these two concerns. Accordingly, it is the Christian’s duty to learn the law and internalize it. The Christian ought to be like a servant prepared to “search out and observe his master’s ways more and more in order to conform and accommodate himself to them.” (McKee, 266). This is the duty of all Christians, and it  ought to be pursued on a daily basis.

An important aspect of coming to internalize the law involves learning to recognize that other persons are made in the image of God. Learning to see, respect, and honor the image of God in others is a way of owing God what God is due and owing our neighbors wat they are due as well. The recognition and reverence of the image of God imprinted upon each person will keep Christians from shedding the blood of others, stealing from them, and bearing false witness against the. Recognizing the image of God in others will help Christians see the stranger and give them honor and love. The image of God recognized in others will generate a desire to be generous, giving them what they deserve. (McKee, 276) If honoring God and neighbor through the recognition of a shared image of God is the goal of Christian law keeping, we may wonder, how do Christians grow in their desire to follow the law? As mentioned above there are at least two ways. We will jump into these next time…


40 Questions about Christians and the Law – (Free Book)

Don’t miss out on this chance to expand your LOGOS Bible Software library for free. This month (July 2015) they are offering ‘40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law’ by Thomas R. Schreiner (Kregel Academic, 2010). Order yours here: LINK.

About The Book:
This volume by Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner on the interplay between Christianity and biblical law is an excellent addition to the 40 Questions & Answers series. Schreiner not only coherently answers the tough questions that flow from a discussion about the Old Testament Levitical Law, but also writes clearly and engagingly for the student. The pastor, student, and layperson can easily understand Schreiner’s biblical theology of the Law.

The reader will enjoy the clarity and encouragement of 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. The simple Q&A format allows readers to skip to questions of interest.

(HT: Bible Geek Gone Wild)

Legalism and Law-Keeping

J.I. Packer on Legalism and keeping biblical law:

No doubt ever appears about the universal applicability and authority of laws commanding and forbidding particular things… and John tell us ‘this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” In 1957… John Murray wrote: ‘It is symptomatic of a pattern of thought current in many evangelical circles that the idea of keeping the commandments of God is not consonatn with the liberty and spontaneity of the Christian man, that keeping the law has affinities with legalism…’ He then quotes the passages referred to above, beginning with John 14:15, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ and ending with 14:21, ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me, and concludes ‘When there is a persistent animosity to the notion of keeping commandments the only conclusion is that there is either gross ignorance or malignant opposition to the testimony of Jesus.'”

-Situations and Principles, J.I. Packer

Reading the Old Testament with Martin Luther

Why should we read the Old Testament? It seems pretty obvious to us today, but  in 16th century Germany there was a tendency to look down upon the value of the Old Testament. (No doubt Luther’s Law/Grace dichotomy had something to do with this…) Nevertheless Luther advocates for a figural sort of reading of the Old Testament, in other wrods he asks us to read the Old Testament in light of the New:

There are some who have little regard for the Old Testament. They thing of it as a book that was given to the Jewish people only and is not ouw ot date, containing only stories from past times… But Christ says in John 5, “Search the Scriptures, for it is they that bear witness to me… The Scriptures of the Old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read….Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the riches of mines that can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and manger in which Christ lies… Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but ear is the treasure, Chris who lies in them.

Just as our treasured messiah was hidden and wrapped up in the swaddling cloths while he was in the manger, Christ our messiah is wrapped up in the swaddling cloths of the Law, Writings, and Prophets.

No Martin Luther! Don't Burn that Old Testament! Oh you aren't... its a Papal Bull. Okay proceed with the burning.
No Martin Luther! Don’t Burn that Old Testament! Oh you aren’t –  its just a Papal Bull. Okay proceed with the burning!

Atonement, Law, and Justice (Book Review)

There are several topics that have dominated theological discussions over the past several years. Prominent among these discussions is the topic of the atonement. Although the atonement has been a popular theological topic among non-evangelical Christians for some time now, it is only in the last decade or so that the atonement has become a hot button issue for evangelicals. Usually the discussion among evangelical theologians about the atonement has revolved around debates over penal substitution (PSA). Opponents of PSA have claimed that it “paints a picture of God as a bloodthirsty tyrant or a cosmic child abuser.” Although Adonis Vidu does not spend a lot of time addressing PSA – he believes that these objections are misguided – he roots his apologetic for traditional atonement theories in the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Vidu’s primary thesis in this book is that “the history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law.” He is clear on the fact that he does not think justice theories explain the development of atonement theory, rather that theologians are influenced by contemporary theories of justice and that contemporary atonement theories also influence theories of justice. In order to show the relationship between theories of justice and atonement theories Vidu takes the reader on at +2,000 year long journey detailing various theories of justice and their relationship to atonement theories. He begins by tracing the contours of justice and divine forgiveness in ancient Greece and Rome, however this is primarily for the purpose of setting up a discussion of Patristic thoughts on justice, the law, and Christos Victor (or dramatic theories of atonement). Here he covers Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s understanding of law and of atonement. Vidu goes on to address what he calls the “Legal Revolution” during the medieval period. During this period law became more professionalized than ever, and canon law came to the forefront. This created a shift from the patristic age, which saw justice as primarily about reconciliation to seeing justice as objective and commensurate with divine justice. This leads to the “legal based” atonement theories of Anselm and Aquinas, though Dun Scotus bucks this trend. However Dun Scotus deviation from the norm can still be understood as participating within the same overall conversation – except he concludes that law is completely arbitrary, so atonement need not have occurred in a way that “satisfies” the conditions of justice. Vidu also discusses Abelard’s atonement theory, which contrary to popular belief still has justice at its center point. Eventually we get to the Reformation, here the relationship between Law and Atonement becomes even more complicated – due to diverging views of the nature and purpose of the Mosaic law. This variance in views on the Mosaic law leads to a split between how Luther (crudely anti-law) and Calvin (crudely pro-law) understand the atonement. Modernity however represents a completely different shift in the conversation. During modernity morality was severed from legality and law began to be defined primarily as the will of the people. This led to the search for atonement theories which emphasized morality over the legal nature of atonement. Finally we get to the postmodern period which Vidu believes is tied together by its rejection of violence within atonement. Post-modernism has rejected any and all violence and has rejected law as a form of perpetuating violence, and therefore tries to disentangle God from this violence, thereby rejecting violent atonement theories.

“The history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law.” – Adonis Vidu

The most interesting chapter in the book is the final chapter, Adonis Vidu’s discussion of atonement theory and divine simplicity. In this chapter he argues that tradition by and large has always affirmed Divine Simplicity the upshot of this affirmation is that it will affect the way we describe divine action. Unlike all other agents God’s actions spring uniquely from his nature, in the sense that they have unity in ways that are unlike human agents. Human agents are fragmented in a sense, we often feel “a strife of attributes,” God however experiences no such strife because God is simple. That is, there is no action of God that is more just than loving or more loving than just, etc. because all of God’s actions are motivated by all of God’s attributes, which just are God’s being. Vidu notes that this has several implications for atonement theory:

1) God never enacts certain attributes more than others – God simply is his attributes. This makes the opposition of love and wrath impossible. While his attributes remain distinct they are never in competition

2) There is unity in divine action. This means that the Father cannot stand against the Son, etc. The Godhead is the subject of each divine action, the works of the trinity are undivided.

3) God is not moved from wrath to mercy. Divine simplicity and immutability does not allow this. There can be no change in how God feels about humanity, only his treatment of humanity has changed.

The final upshot of his thesis is that since God – being simple – acts in different ways than human beings do, we cannot strictly speak about law, justice, and atonement as tough God were simply some really big, wise, powerful human being. God’s justice, and how he enacts justice, is different than our justice and how we enact it. At best we can speak of God’s justice analogically, not univocally.

Overall this was a very fascinating book. A couple of my biggest takeaways were that…

1)The Patristic theologians (contrary to popular belief) really were concerned about justice, though their understanding of justice is different than ours.

2)Abelard’s moral exemplar theory (unlike modern moral exemplar theories) really is concerned about justice too.

3) Divine simplicity is vital to the doctrine of atonement.

If you are looking for a book that is both a survey of atonement theories in their historical and cultural contexts as well as a constructive contribution to the atonement conversation then look no further, because you get both of those things in Atonement, Law, and Justice. This book is definitely a contender for my top books of 2014 list.

This is definitely the most interesting book on the doctrine of atonement published this year.

Note: I received this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

The Righteousness of God

What does Paul mean when he says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Romans 3:21a)?

Romans 3:21-26

21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Recently I asked this question to some of the students in my Missionary Epistles Class. I got some really great answers, however it seemed that the phrase “righteousness of God” kept tripping up a lot of students.

I was discussing this with a couple of students online and you could really tell that a certain understanding of this phrase has permeated our evangelical minds. Usually we take this to mean the righteousness that comes from God. In many cases this is the right way to understand the phrase – not in this passage though….

Here is my quick reply as to how we should understand the phrase “righteousness of God” in this passage:

I think a fair amount of confusion is coming up because of how we are understanding the phrase “righteousness of God.” This passage is implying that now the righteousness of God is being made known apart from the law. Implying that before the righteousness of God had been made known through the law. How we understand this concept hangs on what we understand by the phrase “righteousness of God.” If we read it as “God’s righteousness which he reckons to us” then it sure seems to imply that in the past God reckoned us righteous through the law. However we might read God’s righteousness in a different way, we might read that phrase and understand it as God’s own righteousness, i.e. his saving righteousness through which he is committed to restore humanity’s broken relationship with himself. (Or as N.T. Wright puts it – God’s righteousness is his unswerving commitment to be faithful to rescue humanity). If we read it this way then it really makes sense of the passage – in the past God revealed his commitment to rescue humanity through the law, primarily because that was one stage of the plan, however, now we have entered the final stage of the plan in which God reveals his commitment to rescue humanity through the atoning work of Christ. It is not as though plan A – the law failed – and now Plan B – Jesus – has to be enacted, no, Jesus was the point all along, and Jesus is how God is revealing his saving righteousness.

In other words in this particular passage “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s saving righteousness, not something he gives to us.

Baker’s Spring 2014 Academic Catalog

I visited my mom’s house recently and found that I had been sent Baker Academic’s Spring 2014 Catalog. I don’t know how long its been sitting there… days? weeks? years?!?! Either way, there are some upcoming titles that I am pretty excited about! Here they are, I hope you are as excited about them as I am!

Galatians and Christian Theology by Mark Elliott, Scott Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick

This is a collection of essays on various interesting topics stemming from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In this volume some cut-rate scholars address issues related to Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics. You can look forward to reading essays by: N.T. Wright, Bruce McCormack, Beveryly Roberts Gaventa, Richard Hays, Scott R. Swain, Oliver O’Donovan, and John Barclay, among others. It comes out July 2014!

Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict by Chris Keith

This book has been endorsed by a diverse swath of scholars, ranging from Barth Herman to Craig Keener, to Larry Hurtado, to Richard Bauckham. In this is informed by the latest discussion of historical Jesus research, memory, orality, and literarcy within the 1st century. At the heart of the book is how and why Jesus found himself in conflict with the Jewish ruling authorities. Stuff is about to get political! It just came out this April!

From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story  by Mark Noll

Mark Noll is one of the most distinguished religious historian alive today. On top of that, he is an evangelical. In this book, Noll writes about the shift in Christianity towards the global South and the East. He has written about this before, but what is unique about this book is that he writes how studying this shift has changed and enriched his understanding of Christianity.  It comes out October 2014.

Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts by Adonis Vidu

Out of all the books in this Spring’s catalog, this is the one I am most excited about. Atonement theory is one of my favorite subjects, so when I saw this book was coming out I jumped at the possibility of getting my hands on it a bit early. In this book Vidu offers an in-depth analysis of the legal and political contexts within which the various atonement theories arose. According to Baker Academic, “this is the only book that explores the impact of theories of law and justice on major atonement theories.” Well… if you say so. I think that this book will be a valuable resource as a textbook for graduate level classes on soteriology or atonement theory. This book will be released in August 2014.