I’ve done a fair bit of reading on Christ and the law over the years, but today I reread an article that I remember being especially provocative and insightful. Written 17 years ago by David Dorsey, it’s called, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34 (1991): 321-34.
Dorsey intends to propose a “compromise view that in my opinion is more in keeping with the spirit of both the OT and the NT, is less encumbered by logical fallacies, and best accounts for the apparent ambivalence of the NT on the issue of the law.” What, then, is his view? “Simply stated it holds that, legally, none of the 613 stipulations of the Sinaitic covenant are binding upon NT Christians, including the so-called moral laws, while in a revelatory and pedagogical sense all 613 laws are binding upon us, including all the ceremonial and civil laws.”
The questions below are mine; the answers are from Dorsey’s article:
What was the purpose or design of the law of Moses?
- The corpus was designed to regulate the lives of a people living in the distinctive geographical and climatic conditions found in the southern Levant, and many of the regulations are inapplicable, unintelligible, or even nonsensical outside that regime.
- The corpus was designed by God to regulate the lives of a people whose cultural milieu was that of the ancient Near East.
- The Mosaic corpus was intended to regulate the lives of people whose religious milieu was that of the ancient Near Eastern world (particularly Canaan) and would be more or less inapplicable outside that world.
- The code of laws was issued by God to lay the detailed groundwork for and regulate the various affairs of an actual politically- and geographically-defined nation.
- The corpus was formulated to establish and maintain a cultic regime that has been discontinued with the Church (cf. Heb 8:18; etc.).
Won’t it work to divine the law into three parts—moral, ceremonial, and civil–such that the ceremonial and civil have been fulfilled by Christ, but the moral continues on into today?
- The scheme of a tripartite division is unknown both in the Bible and in early rabbinic literature.
- The categorizing of certain selected laws as “moral” is methodologically questionable.
- The attempt to formulate this special category in order to “save” for NT Christians a handful of apparently universally-applicable laws—particularly the ones quoted in the NT—is an unnecessary effort. There is a more logical, Biblically supported approach to the law that retains for Christians not only the very heart of the so-called “moral” laws but also the underlying moral truths and principles, indeed the very spirit, of every one of the 613 laws.
What role does the Mosaic law play in the lives of Christians today?
Having suggested that the Mosaic law in its entirety be removed from the backs of Christians in one sense, I would propose that the corpus be placed back into their hands in another sense: the entire corpus—not just the “moral” laws but all 613—moral, ceremonial, civil. If on the one hand the evidence strongly suggests that the corpus is no longer legally binding upon Christians, there is equally strong evidence in the NT that all 613 laws are profoundly binding upon Christians in a revelatory and pedagogical sense.
How then do we apply the OT laws to our own lives today?
I would suggest the following theocentric hermeneutical procedure for applying any of the OT laws, whether the law be deemed ceremonial, judicial, or moral:
- Remind yourself that this law is not my law, that I am not legally bound by it, that it is one of the laws God issued to ancient Israel as part of his covenant with them.
- Determine the original meaning, significance and purpose of the law.
- Determine the theological significance of the law.
- Determine the practical implications of the theological insights gained from this law for your own NT circumstances.