Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Law 

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
This introductory passage from Foucault’s The Order of Things came to mind this morning as I was listening to Michael Horton and Doug Wilson debate the relative merits of the ‘Federal Vision’. A considerable portion of the conversation was occupied with attempts to clearly articulate the manner in which the threefold uses of the Law were understood and with attempts to rigorously distinguish Law from Gospel. I have heard this sort of thing hundreds of times before. However, this morning I was suddenly struck with how totally bizarre this way of speaking about the Law now sounds to my ears. Whether we are talking about the careful classification of the Law into ‘three divisions’ (moral, civil, ceremonial) or the discernment of the correct use of the Law (having already outlined the three uses and their relative positions of priority) in bringing it to bear upon the individual or the dividing practices whereby we maintain the Law-Gospel distinction, this entire conceptual structure seems quite ill-suited to actually getting at the heart of what the Apostle Paul was on about. Even if one were able to successfully divide up the Law into three distinct parts, completely distinguish Law from Gospel and identify three different uses of the Law (which I doubt), this entire structure seems doomed from the outset to enshroud the text of Scripture in a deep fog. Operating in terms of such a scheme one will continually be interrogating the text with the wrong questions. I recall an occasion when I sat in on a seminary lecture on the subject of Galatians, where such a manner of treating the text was very much in evidence. Almost no single point of exegesis escaped its effects. The validity of the scheme was taken as self-evident, but I doubt that they realized how powerfully such an understanding of the Law can skew your reading of the text. Wilson seemed happy to grant Horton the validity of such a framework for speaking about the Law, but I sometimes wonder whether it would be best to challenge the framework directly. Wilson was also willing to grant ‘stipulated definitions’ of such things as ‘grace’, which differed from his own. I see no reason to resist such differing definitions entirely. However, these ‘stipulated definitions’ quickly pile up and, after a while, you find that when you start trying to operate using scriptural categories and definitions you get condemned as an unconfessional heretic. The 'stipulated definitions' also tend to encroach into areas where they do not belong. The problem is that the Law (as this term is employed in Scripture) is not some timeless and universally applicable set of moral principles contained in the Decalogue. The Law came at a particular time in history (e.g. Romans 5:13-14), it was given to a particular nation and it included a system of sacrifices and many other commandments (but not just commandments) besides those in the Decalogue (even the Decalogue is not some static deposit — compare Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). When the Law is spoken of in Scripture, it is generally spoken of as a particular covenant document (or set of Scriptures) and a particular covenant order. If we persist in speaking of the Law in the manner that many Reformed people are inclined to do we will only confuse ourselves when we read Paul. The Gospel is essentially the declaration that Jesus is Lord, not the mere promise of grace and forgiveness through Christ. By its very character the Gospel summons us to believing allegiance — the obedience of faith. In some sense one might speak of sharp distinctions between the Law and the Gospel, but they are not where most people think that they are. The Law-Gospel antithesis (if we dare speak of such a thing) in Scripture is between two gracious covenant orders, one of which has been rendered defunct by the other. Is it not a timeless opposition between two principles, one of promise and one of command. It seems to me that, if we really desire to understand Paul correctly, it is high time that we take this bull by the horns. This may be traditional Protestant language, but when applied to Paul it is terribly misleading. Whilst it is important to keep faith with the tradition, keeping faith with the Scriptures is far more important.

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