The orthodox Christian position on the Old Testament is complicated at best. The standard narrative is that Jesus’ death on the cross freed us from a life under “the Law” and ushered in an era of grace. As Paul states, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast…. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:8-9,15-16).
As a result of verses like these and the teachings of various denominations, most Christians today do not believe that they are obligated to obey the laws as laid out in the Old Testament. However, this causes some problems, which I would like to explore briefly. In short, I think that this view is inherently inconsistent.
Law-ve at First Sight
As stated in the Bible, the Law (the list of rules given in the Old Testament) was given to the Israelites by God—the perfect Moral Lawgiver. He handed them to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses passed them on to the Israelites. This point should be fairly uncontroversial for Christians who take the Bible to be an accurate account of Jewish and Christian history. The Israelites, as God’s “chosen people,” were also intended to be a demonstration to the other nations. As Moses tells the Israelites, “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!'” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).
Since God took the time to give the Law to the Israelites, he thus clearly thought it was important for the Law to be given. In addition, since he is perfect, his Law must be perfect also, and it must be representative of the epitome of morality. Anything less would be short of perfection. King David himself proclaimed, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). So the idea that God would then abruptly change strategies and follow an alternate plan that makes the previous Law inapplicable seems strange.1 It is also inconsistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
It seems clear that Jesus is stating that the Law is still in effect, and will be “until heaven and earth pass away.” He tells the crowd around him to continue following the Law, and indeed he even makes more stringent guidelines for them to follow!
Let’s face it: Why would God give a set of laws to his “chosen people” if they weren’t the best things for people to do, and if he didn’t want people to follow them?
A Law for All Seasons
Of course, some Christian denominations teach dispensationalism, a doctrine that breaks up history into a series of time periods in which God relates to humans in different ways under different covenants. Such a doctrine states that the Law was in effect only for a period of time, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the beginning of a new covenant in which grace was the ruling factor. However, this simply dodges the problem. If one is willing to assert that God’s Law was intended to proscribe some standard of morality for the Israelites, then the problem cannot be averted. Dispensationalism would then claim that morality has a temporal component, i.e. that something can be fundamentally reprehensible at one point in time (even deserving of death!) and fundamentally permissible at another point in time. It would claim that morality is dependent on whatever God states it to be, and that he can change this moral standard at any time. For people who would like to anchor objective moral standards in some form of religious doctrine, this would seem to be the complete opposite. Here, morality is entirely subjective, based on the whims and fancies of God—however well-planned in advance they may be. Christians could certainly bite the bullet here and accept that their moral standards are subjective, but based on my own experiences with Christian rhetoric, most would not be willing to do so.
The necessity of the perfection of the Law (as coming from a perfect God) raises another point. If the Law is truly perfect—the epitome of morality—disobeying or disregarding it is necessarily falling short of perfection. There seems no way around this. If one desires to be moral, and if one desires to follow the command of Jesus to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), it seems clear that the only way to do so is to follow the Law. To disregard the Law is to fall short of perfection; to claim that grace has “superseded” the Law is to claim that grace somehow superseded a perfect standard. Thus, by claiming that the Law no longer applies to them anymore (though morality applies to everyone), Christians are necessarily disregarding attempts to become as moral as they can be.2 In addition, this disregard was apparently encouraged by God through his alternate plan that suddenly made grace an important factor rather than following the Law.
Law-ve It or Leave It
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that Christians start following Old Testament law once again. I am instead suggesting that Christians should acknowledge the inconsistency and make attempts to resolve it for themselves. I would argue that the real reason Christians no longer follow Old Testament law is because they can clearly see it is morally reprehensible. Death is a common punishment for a wide variety of offenses, it includes an archaic view of women that treats them as property, it implicitly condones slavery, etc. This is not to mention the needless slaughter of thousands upon thousands of animals for what apparently turned out to be one big metaphor for a Jewish guy who got crucified several thousands of years later. Why God would mandate the death of real animals when such sacrifices had no actual effect is a mystery to me.3
But because of these clear moral failings, Christians have increasingly used various passages in the Bible (instead of other, contradictory ones) that justify their disregard for the Law, and emphasized “love” and “mercy” and “grace” instead (though only to a point!), which are more in line with modern sentiments. I agree that the laws of the Old Testament are barbaric and extreme. But Christians must decide on a better way to reconcile their beliefs than simply saying, “Oh, those don’t apply anymore.” If the Law is truly God’s objective moral standard given to humans, such a moral standard does not and cannot change based on the passage of time or the culture in which it is developed. But if you acknowledge that stoning your child to death for being “rebellious” is barbaric and extreme, then you must realize that the moral standard you are using to judge such laws is not coming from God’s given moral standard, but from current cultural conceptions of morality. And if you are going to use that standard, please be consistent and throw out the whole thing instead of picking and choosing based on prejudices which you still have (like using Leviticus to condemn gay marriage).
- God is morally perfect.
- God’s moral perfection is based on an objective and unchanging standard of morality.
- God gave the set of commands listed in the Old Testament to the Israelites.
- These laws were intended to convey some form of moral guidance to the Israelites, and in turn, to humanity as a whole.
- The Old Testament laws are no longer in effect / Christians do not have to follow the Old Testament laws.
Discarding any one of these premises should do just fine. But discarding at least one necessary.
- I’m aware that my terminology here is inexact. Yes yes, God doesn’t “change” and the plan was not an “alternative,” but the idea that the Law was once in effect and now is no longer in effect implies a change. How you want to frame that change is up to you. [↩]
- Note also that the idea that “all have fallen short” does not apply here. I am talking about one’s current desire to be moral, not whether one has actually been successful in the past. To disregard the Law is to disregard the perfect moral standard, making one’s desire to be moral (or more moral, if you like) impossible to achieve. [↩]
- Well, it’s actually quite clear: Virtually every culture in the region used animal (and human) sacrifice as part of their religious rituals, and the Israelites just absorbed those rituals from them. But that’s a story for another time. [↩]