The Confident Christian
9/13/15 at 03:30 PM 16 Comments

Do Old Testament Laws Apply to Today?

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The recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage and the visible pushback and protest by Christians has resurrected a bad argument wielded by those who don’t value the Bible. As Christians cite Scripture verses (especially those that come from the Old Testament) to support their moral position, critics have countered by posting on social media the Internet-famous “Dr. Laura” letter written by Kent Ashcraft, which spawned a scene from the now defunct TV show The West Wing where the actor portraying the President ridicules and belittles a “Dr Laura” character for condemning homosexuality because of statements found in the Old Testament.

Bible critics sit back and squeal with delight thinking they have checkmated their Christian opponents on the matter with such material. Have they?

In short, no. Ignoring the fact that The West Wing scene deliberately misstates what the Old Testament actually says about certain practices and their penalties (perhaps for added dramatic effect?), the overarching argument is flawed because it fails to understand key distinctions found in the Old Testament between universal moral laws – ones that are intended by God to be prescriptive for today – and directives given only to Israel for that time.

Let me explain.

Picking and Choosing

The thrust of the Dr. Laura letter and parroted West Wing scene is that Christians are guilty of indiscriminately picking and choosing what commands in the Old Testament to follow. How can we assert that some verses still matter and are universally binding on everyone today while constantly ignoring others that seem rather strange?

For example, alongside verses condemning things like homosexual behavior[1] and bestiality, a verse in Leviticus says: “You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together” (Lev. 19:19).

Seriously? Are wool and polyester blends really off limits today?

Answering such questions and the argument in general isn’t hard, but it does require an understanding and acceptance of the fact that theology and Biblical interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics) is a science that necessitates adherence to methods and principles just as any other discipline to achieve the correct end result. In the same way an untrained person can careen through a chemistry lab and cause great harm to themselves and others, so those unskilled in theology and hermeneutics can make quite a mess of things and do no one any good by getting their Biblical instruction via Internet sound bites and the liberal media.

Getting Started

The first thing to understand is the backdrop against which the various Old Testament commands were issued. The Biblical text tells us that as Israel approached its land of promise, they would be confronted by the existing inhabitants (the Canaanites) and their pagan activities. To resist the ways of Canaan, Israel needed to learn the proper ways to worship God and run the nation, be reminded of His truth, and avoid the same immoral practices that brought God’s judgment against the Canaanites.

This three-fold mission was carried out via the delivery of numerous laws, which broadly fell into two categories: (1) ceremonial and civil laws given only to Israel; (2) moral laws that blanket all of humanity. The first category deals with how to approach God, dietary restrictions, worship rites, civil procedures, and physical reminders that delivered spiritual truths designed to help keep Israel away from their neighbor’s pagan practices.

An example of the latter is the verse above telling Israel not to use “multiples” of things together. Why? The Canaanites were a polytheistic culture that worshipped many false gods. To remind Israel there is only one true God and urge them not to mix their pure religion with the false religions around it, the Creator kept the concept of “one” in front of Israel: one set of cattle, one type of field, one fabric.[2]

But the second category – the moral class of commands – these were meant to apply to everyone for all time. How do we know that? Read on.

An Objective Moral Law

First, let’s admit that, outside of hardened naturalists, few dismiss the idea that there are objective moral laws that apply to everyone, everywhere. Rare is it to find a person that thinks gratuitously torturing babies for fun or rape is morally OK.

This being the case, it’s not unreasonable to believe that universally binding moral laws would be given to Israel. The issue is how to smartly separate them from the first class of laws (ceremonial/civil) found in the Old Testament.

Fortunately, there are solid guideposts in Scripture that help direct us in properly identifying each. The most important of these are statements made regarding God’s displeasure and judgment upon other peoples who have broken the moral directives being discussed in the text.

For example, Leviticus 18 supplies numerous moral law commands and then ends with these important statements:

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 18:24–30, my emphasis; cf. Deut 9:5).

Note that the moral directives made previously in the chapter are clearly being referenced. The violation of them by the land’s current inhabitants is why God was bringing Israel against them and why they were being evicted from the land.

By contrast, you will search the Old Testament in vain for examples of God bringing judgment upon non-Israelites for violating the Jewish ceremonial, dietary or other non-moral laws.[3] When we see God’s wrath coming down on non-Jewish peoples (e.g. Sodom and Gomorrah), it wasn’t for wearing a shirt made with two fabrics, but because the people were violating God’s universal moral laws.

Another Biblical clue that helps separate moral vs. ceremonial/civil laws is whether they carry forward into the New Testament. For example, Paul appeals to Levitical moral laws (e.g. 2: Cor. 6:16 references Lev. 26:12; 1 Cor. 5 looks back to Lev. 18:8; Deut 22:30; 27:20) as does Peter (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:16 quotes Lev. 11:44).

Plenty of other similar examples could be given, but suffice it to say that with a careful handling of both the New and Old Testaments, the process of identifying universal moral laws is not hard to carry out.

Moral Law and Penalty Differences

Another important distinction needs to be made between the moral Law delivered in the Old Testament and the various penalties prescribed to Israel that dealt with the breakage of those laws. No historian, Biblical or secular, denies the fact that Old Testament Israel was a theocratic state unlike the U.S and other similar nations. As such, all law violations – moral or otherwise – resulted in civil penalties, some of which were indeed severe and demonstrated how seriously God takes sin.

Today, punishment for moral Law infringements still obviously occur (e.g. murder, stealing, etc.) in all nations, but the consequence depends on the particular government in question and many other factors. As far as the Church is concerned, penalties for various sins (e.g. adultery) differ in local congregations with the most extreme punishment being excommunication from membership.

What About Jesus and the New Covenant?

Some Christians make sweeping statements that the Old Testament does not apply to anyone today. It’s important to understand that, while Jesus said He came to fulfill the Old Testament Law (Matt. 5:17-18), He never said we should dismiss it.

Without question, the Old Testament authors telegraphed that that the ceremonial sacrifices and rituals pointed towards something much bigger. Christ accomplished that vision when He died on the cross, with the veil in the temple tearing in two indicating that the need for the Old Testament ceremonial laws and such were obsolete.

But the moral Law? Nowhere does Jesus disregard that, but in fact He and the other New Testament writers firmly state that the moral Law is still ingrained in all of us (Rom. 2) and is binding (e.g. Rom 13:8-10). Jesus first coming did nothing to alter the Old Testament’s pronouncements on how we are to morally conduct our lives.

Conclusion

So do Old Testament laws still apply to us today? Where the ceremonial and civil laws are concerned, no. Jesus work on the cross has removed the need for the ceremonial laws, and the civil laws only applied to the then theocratic state of Israel.

But the moral Law is still very much in place today and is not subject to cultural mores or the changing opinions of people. As stated previously, this should surprise no one as objective moral duties and values exist if God exists.

As is often the case, those who use the Dr. Laura letter and TV show clone to counter Christian arguments on morality are not critiquing Christianity (which is fine), but instead misrepresenting it. Their arguments, much like their champion on The West Wing, may seem initially compelling, but instead are found to be as equally fictitious.



[1] For a good treatment of Old Testament Law and homosexuality, see Dr. Michael Brown’s book “Can You be Gay and Christian?”, especially chapter 5. http://goo.gl/0P2Gau .

[2] As an aside, we in the Church may not wear garments of a single fabric today, but this spiritual principle applies to us. We are commanded by God not to incorporate the beliefs and practices of other religions (a philosophy called Pluralism) into Christianity. Thus, while the physical reminder given to Israel may not carry forward to us today, the spiritual principle behind it certainly does.

[3] Also note specific statements made in Scripture that clearly have Israel only in mind. For example Lev. 11:8 speaks about dietary restrictions and says to Israel, “they are unclean to you.” See the same in Lev. 11:26-27.

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