Why the Biblical Story Matters More than the Law

I have been working away this afternoon on the last of three long essays on sex, love, and marriage in scripture (the first two are here and here). In fact, I found myself buried in Hosea and Ezekiel and realizing that the essay was careening out of control. Which my essays are sometimes likely to do.

In part, it is because I stuff this digression in the middle of it. So, I thought I’d pull it out and let it sit on its own. The piece on marriage — what kind of marriage God and Israel really have — is still coming. 

I have written these pieces not to undermine the historic teaching of the church, to disregard or discard those teachings, but to note where the teaching of the church actually seems to come in conflict or even directly contradict scripture. I understand and appreciate that the church itself is a legitimate authority for both revelation and teaching. This is especially true for those Christians connected to churches and confessions with some kind of connection to apostolic succession.

(Even protestants who claim “sola scriptura” find themselves creating some kind of magisterium with teaching authority, usually unconnected to the historic church. But hierarchy and authority are inescapable.)

Again, I think the teaching is generally true. But the problem is always where the teaching conflicts with the story.

The Christendom church was a church of rules. Because it governed and administered. Everyone was assumed, in Christendom, to belong — to be Christian. There were no outsiders in Christendom (with the exception of Jews, who were tolerated — or not — to varying degrees; some Christendom states in the West managed to expel most or all of their Jewish residents, and never really had to deal with anyone outside Christendom. *This* is what I mean when I say Christendom has a problem with pluralism.) A person in Christendom was assumed — by culture, custom, and law — to be a Christian (unless they were Jewish, when and where *that* was allowed). There was wiggle room to determine how Christian someone would be (which is why most Christendom polities had laws mandating some kind of minimum worship attendance, like Easter and Christmas), but there was no *not being Christian* in Christendom.

Which meant the story which held people together was not the Gospel, and not the story of Israel, but the story of the people who shared a language and a heritage and even rulers.

And, of course, the rules. Within the church, the rules would distinguish how Christian a person might be, whether they might be subject to the discipline of the church (or even the state).

The rules, however, are no longer helpful. Or rather, they cannot hold us together anymore. Not in post-Christendom. (My assumption here is that the nation-state assumes many of the functions of the church in modernity, including the monopoly on truth and meaning in a polity. That, however, is another argument for another time.) Some conservative Christians might make an argument that assumes everyone around them should be Christian, but they are clearly not paying attention to the world around them. Catholics making a natural law argument are trying to have the fruits of revelation without actually resorting to the revelation itself, and that has always struck me as somewhere between hypocrisy and outright fraud.

Regardless, the church cannot be held together by rules and assumptions of a shared national culture that hold and support (and is held and supported by) those rules. Those things are slipping away from us.

And frankly, I say good riddance.

Instead, we should be held together by a story — the story of Israel in scripture. We should be held together by the revelation. This story has some tremendous advantages for us — it is the story of a failure of a people to be faithful, their defeat, conquest, and exile, and their eventual redemption. If we take the story of Israel as the history of the church, then we can see that the forces of modernity and enlightenment (which were launched in and by Christians in late Christendom) are like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They are, I believe, God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church that became too enamored of its own power, prestige, and position, a church that believed more in the order it brought rather than the poor it came to serve. Assyria and Babylon cannot be negotiated with. There is no cooperation. There is only defeat. There is only surrender.

This frees us, though, from having to wage a pointless struggle. It frees us from despairing of our coming defeat and exile. Because we know we shall be redeemed. (Indeed, we are already redeemed in Christ, who is our home in the midst of exile.) We can face the Assyrians with confidence the way Elijah and Elisha did (that there are prophets in Israel!), remind the church as Babylon besieges us that this fate is a result of our sins — and not the world’s — the way Jeremiah did, and counsel each other the way Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount as to how to most faithfully and lovingly live under the violence of conquest and occupation.

(If a gay couple compels you to bake them a wedding cake, bake them two.)

But we can have this kind of faith only when we know the story backwards and forwards. We can have this kind of faith when we make this story our own. And this is why I focus on the story, as opposed to the rules. The rules tell us we must not sin, and we get excited about that, and fear the consequences should we do so. The story, however, tells us that we are sinners — our ancestors married their half-sisters! — and that the sin we pay for as a people, that all other sins arise from, is idolatry. (And we’ve not even identified our idolatry, much less begun to reflect upon it.) The story tells us that even as we bear the consequences of our sin, God has not abandoned us. The story tells us we are not the authors, or even the agents, of our own redemption. God will raise a remnant. Breath will give life to dry bones. We still have the promise of redemption, promises to us in the midst of our sin, our despair, our defeat, our exile. Promises that are true.

We want to avoid the consequences of our sin, and we think we can do that by following the rules. The story of Israel in scripture tells us we cannot, however, and that even trying is a fool’s errand. It’s not about our virtue or our sinlessness. It’s about God’s redeeming acts. For us. For lost, miserable, sinful us.

We need the story to remind us who and whose we are. And who really fights for us.

7 thoughts on “Why the Biblical Story Matters More than the Law

  1. I agree entirely here (with reservations on the authority and hierarchy part). Loved the wedding cake rule. I know that my dream of a renewal of liberal education based on the classics is a lost cause, at least for a couple more generations. [I loved the book “Who Killed Homer” just for having the monumental chutzpah to advocate such a renewal with a straight face. But who knows? The west has fallen back in love with Greek on a regular basis every few centuries.] But the biblical story is infinitely more important. And it will be remembered and taught. And we are redeemed.

    As regards the statement, “hierarchy and authority are inescapable”, this is true. Or rather, multiple hierarchies and authorities are inevitable. How useful any of them might be is a matter of opinion. My view: the only hierarchy which really matters is the lordship of Christ over all believers, working through the spirit. Bureaucracies may be useful now and then. They might even be works of the spirit. Or not. We will always need, for example, theology faculties and biblical publishers, but then each one carries its own down side. Scholars can be so intellectually inbred that they fail to see unfamiliar possibilities. Publishers have to make money, and produce ever more diverse products with questionable usefulness – I’m surprised we haven’t had a ‘Twilight’-teenage-girl-fan’s-vampire-friendly-bible: there’s power in the blood, after all.

    But I am not engaging in disputation here. God will do what he will, even if I don’t like it. We may become captives in Babylon – ‘how can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land’?
    And there we will weep when we remember Zion.

  2. Did you come up with this yourself? This is wonderful. This is what I have been waiting to hear – someone engaging with what it might look to be a gospel-shaped people. The only rejoinder I could imagine someone making to your argument would be: while it is critical to be gospel-focused, gospel-focus does not negate the Law. The Law reveals our sin to us, and that is why it still matters. You needed the Law to know the reality of your sin. I am not familiar enough with Lutheran theology to engage in thoughtful argument on this. I just have faint acquaintance with terms like “law and gospel”. It seems like there ought to be a right way to make use of the Law; one that doesn’t allow us to ignore our need of the good news of Christ that redeems us. Or perhaps are we to most prominently look to Christ as a new Moses to explicate the deeper meaning of the Law in our time?

    • Well, I do believe the teaching — the law — needs to be taken seriously and needs to be taught. But all within the context of the story. The Torah teaches us what it means to love God and love our neighbor as our selves. Mostly, though, what I’m trying to do here is state that God calls us together as a people first, and then gives us the teaching. We are God’s people regardless of whether we follow or not.

      And I think I came up with this on my own. A lot of reading, Bible and otherwise, and thinking about it.

  3. Hi Charles,

    You wrote:
    “The story, however, tells us that we are sinners — our ancestors married their half-sisters! — and that the sin we pay for as a people, that all other sins arise from, is idolatry.”

    I would say that the Church pays for sin by becoming either indistinguishable from the society around it and irrelevant, or so arrogant that it becomes unreachable. This is reflected “ad infinitum” in the many faces of Christendom of today. The idolatry is in not wanting to “back down” & look at post-Apostolic history (pre-middle ages) as relevant rather than as a “museum piece”. In not wanting to come to unity, it works against God’s will in John 17.

    This wasn’t a pure “golden age”, but in maintaining unity and delivering a fair certainty, it provided a clear contrast of a kingdom (the Church) within a kingdom (the State).

    Sure we are part of Israel’s story. We are an extension of it. However, we should be a “better” extension, in that Jesus has come & His Spirit has been sent. He is “God with us” now. If we see the Gospel & “plan of salvation”, as transformational, we will work at making ourselves “better humans” by the power of the Spirit. God’s plan is for us to be “fully human” as per His initial intent. If we see it as “snow masking a dung heap”, we give up with the “I can’t change my bad habits” addage.

    The seeds and direction for what the Church should be can be found stemming from a “prima scriptura” based Patristic Christianity that venerates “Holy Tradition” (which is what Apostolic succession was supposed to guard). When the Church steps into “sola scriptura” or “sola Tradition” then that’s when the idolatry “assembly line” begins to spit out its creations, I believe.

    • You make a very good point here, though I confess I am not entirely sure what it means to be a “better” extension of Israel. But this is the weak point in my argument, one I will need to consider, contemplate, and discuss. And I do want to make it clear — that while I see God’s judgment on the church as real, I also see the fate of Israel before the Assyrians and Babylonians as a “metaphor” rather than a repetition. (Not “all of this has happened before, and it will happen again.”) Which means that instead of generating panic, any looming defeat can be seen through the eyes of our history as God’s people. Mostly, though, what does matter is the resurrection — that we are victorious in Christ not because we survive and prevail but because, as God’s people, we rise from the dead.

  4. Re: “Well, I do believe the teaching — the law — needs to be taken seriously and needs to be taught. But all within the context of the story.”

    Purim is probably the most purely joyful of the Jewish holidays, joyful in an earthy sense. A friend of mine once told me that Purim is the one day of the year on which it is practically an obligation for a Jew to get a little drunk. (He was not Orthodox, but he was seriously observant.) And on Purim, they read “the whole Megillah” – the book of Esther. And everyone is supposed to cheer when the name of Mordechai is mentioned, and hiss whenever the name of Haman is mentioned. Which the kids did with enthusiasm at the one celebration I was present at many years ago. This was an informal reading at a Hillel center, not at a synagogue, so the reading was entirely in English. But however it is read, the focus is very much on the transmission of the teaching through story.

  5. Hi Charles,

    I guess what I meant by an “extension of Israel”, is that the Church had it’s foundation in Israel as we are on the same trajectory, being part of “God’s plan of salvation”, beginning with Israel. However, if you take Hebrews with an accent on chapter 12 , all the things Jesus did was so the Church could “live” in Him & through Him. Living out the new kingdom type of life in conjunction with the saints both in heaven and on earth. It is a high calling, a triumphalistic vision.

    I think some portions of the church on earth has caught on, during its history and it is the goal we should aim for. This is in opposition to all the failures of what Israel had become, I think. But unfortunately a lot of the church also falls in the same way, and as it morphs from what it was intended to be (& disjoins itself from its historical roots, or re-interprets them), it falls into the same type of apostasies.

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