40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law

Written by Thomas R. Schreiner Reviewed By Peter Sanlon

There are a lot of questions that can be asked about the Mosaic law. This book gives some answers. Careful exegesis and argumentation mean that even those who refuse Schreiner’s conclusions ought in good conscience to engage with his claims.

Questions about the Mosaic law are answered from the vantage point of a NT scholar persuaded, it seems, by the position Moo terms “modified Lutheranism.” That is, if Calvin was a theologian who emphasised continuity between the covenants, Luther preferred to highlight discontinuity. It is modified in that it has more exegetical precision than Luther was able to offer. As Schreiner puts it, “In making the argument about the temporal difference between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, Paul claims that they are different kinds of covenants” (p. 69). This comment makes discontinuity central to interpreting the covenants and is predicated on a careful redemptive-historical exegesis.

The forty questions are arranged into five sections covering (1) the law in the OT, (2) the law in Paul, (3) the law in the Gospels and Acts, (4) the law in the General Epistles, and (5) the law and contemporary issues. These sections are far from evenly distributed. “Contemporary Issues” comprises four questions: discussing the Sabbath, tithing, theonomy, and preaching. Part Two, “The Law in Paul,” has the most ink spilt on it. This is for good reason, covering as it does questions such as “What does the word justify mean in Paul?” (question 19), “Does the Pauline teaching on justification contradict Jesus’ message?” (question 21), and “Does Paul teach that Christians are judged by their good works on the last day?” (question 24). Answering these questions, while attempting to deal sanely with literature about the new perspective, is a mammoth task. To manage it while restricted to only a few pages for each question is remarkable.

Some people may find books arranged around questions rather artificial. This genre of book seems somewhat constrained by the publisher’s arbitrariness. Why not forty-two questions? Or a second volume with the same questions answered from another perspective? As a skeptic of this seemingly endless publishing phenomenon, I should perhaps alert readers to two excellent strengths of this book, arising from its question-and-answer format.

First, the format allows for a huge range and complexity of material to be explained in manageable sections. This fosters precision and clarity. Second, the discrete breaks between questions create breathing space. Part of the reason people get upset about issues to do with the Mosaic law’s interpretation is that so many issues get jumbled up—Sabbath, new perspective, reformation beliefs about faith, Galatians and James, etc. The question-and-answer format of this book enables these issues to be disentangled and considered in a logical order.

In the final analysis the reason this book is worth reading is the theological exposition of the gospel it offers. Again and again, as you read through it, you will see the gospel in a new light. This book is a testimony to the fact that one of the NT’s grandest ways of clarifying the nature of the gospel is by means of contrasting it to the Mosaic law. Consider how this helps us live a life of love: “Love is not summed up in the keeping of commandments, for one may keep the commandments and still fail to love. Love is more than keeping the commandments, even if it is not less than keeping them” (pp. 106–7).

This is a valuable book, all the more so for its scholarly brevity. Focusing on exegesis and biblical studies, it considers related interpretive issues such as the threefold division of the law and the new perspective on Paul. It is surely right that biblical studies take the lead in the matter of interpreting the law. Still, there would be value in a book which integrated this with the other theological disciplines. Systematics would justify and deepen the foundations of many conclusions drawn in this work. Ethics needs to come to terms with the portrait of love drawn by this reading of the Bible. Church historians could explore where the divergent (and often entrenched) readings on the role of the law originated.

Schreiner has done us a great service in arranging part of the jigsaw so cogently—the biblical studies section. He challenges us all to reconsider the nature of the gospel we believe in and invites us to look at all areas of theology and ministry through that lens.

Peter Sanlon

Peter Sanlon is writing a systematics theology PhD at Cambridge University on Augustine’s preaching. As an Anglican ordinand, he attempts to be involved in local church ministry alongside academic research. He edits the journal Still Deeper at www.stilldeeper.com. When possible he helps his wife restrain their pet kittens from eating their furniture.

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