Embodied Principles in the Old Testament

I was listening to John Goldingay in an iTunes U. lecture on the law in the Pentateuch, a subject which continues to hold my interest. He spoke about a method of interpretation that is common in dealing with the OT Law. You can consider each law as it was given to Israel and normally ask why this law was given in that context. When you consider the reason behind the law, you can usually determine a principle that has abiding importance.

This approach is not new. This appears to be what Jesus does, at least in part, when he states that the greatest commandments of the Law were to love God and love neighbor because all the Law and the prophets hang on this (Matt. 22:37-40). The Law deals with specific matters that promote greater principles and ideals of God, particularly love.

Goldingay pointed out that this is only part of the process. It is necessary to again embody these principles with concrete applications and actions. After all, God could have simply given principles in the OT to begin with, but he didn’t do that. He gave concrete laws. To gain the full benefit of the practical aspects of the OT Law, it is important to derive the principle and determine how it can be put into action today.

This process helps avoid the tendency among some Christians to entirely dismiss the OT, and especially the OT Law. While Christian may not be bound to the OT Law, it is still the word of God, and it has something to say to his people today. The OT Law still represents the heart of God, and it should inform and guide our lives. If understood in this light, the OT is authoritative, albeit not binding in the sense of concrete expressions.

It also illustrates the principle from Scripture that God expects us to do something with his word. Our faith in God and trust in his divine guidance should translate into action. Principles are helpful, but only so much as they are put into practice.

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5 Responses to Embodied Principles in the Old Testament

  1. Luke Douthitt says:

    I like this idea of principle vs law. One thing I’ve noticed is Jesus seemed to teach in principle whereas in the OT mainly laws were given. Instead of tithing, washing this many times, offering this kind of incense, etc., we have treat your neighbor as yourself, blessed are the poor in spirit, and if anyone wishes to follow me he must deny himself. In those statements, there’s still a lot to figure out about actually practicing those principles. I have to stop and think, “how do I deny myself?” I think that’s because God desires His followers to constantly have to choose to serve Him. Everyday I have to keep thinking of ways to deny myself and be poorer in spirit. It doesn’t take much thought to celebrate a feast at the right time or offer up the correct sacrifice if it’s all laid out for you. Granted I still have to choose to do it, but I can’t just choose to deny myself once a year or once a week because there are millions of ways for me to do it. I have to constantly think about it. When we think about all the controversy that arises about the details in the New Testament, I think it’s easy to wonder why God didn’t just be more specific and just come out and tell us whether He (for example) actually wanted us to meet in houses or buy fancy buildings, but I think the overall effect is it causes us to be more purposeful when it comes to following Him if we have to figure out the best way to do that. In fact when asked to explain more fully how to treat our neighbors Jesus just told the parable of the Good Samaritan and said, “You figure it out.”

  2. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for the comments, Luke. I plan to do a follow-up post on Embodied Principles in the New Testament that will attempt to relate this concept to the NT so that may address some of the things you mention.

    I definitely agree with the concept of continual self-examination and continually going back to the text to ask if we are attaining the lofty principles and values of the Bible. Anything short of this will land us in the same place as the Pharisees mentioned in Matthew 23.

    I’m still pondering the designation of OT as Law vs NT as Principle. I think both of these concepts were at play in both Testaments. The trick is to figure out exactly how that is occurring. But, like I said, I need to do some more thinking on this.

    Another question to ask is whether we view the NT as “principle” based as opposed to “law” based and if this is an appropriate view. What would most people in our fellowship say of this question if posed to them? Do we view the NT as spelling everything out or not? Or is there appropriate middle ground in all of this?

  3. Matt H says:

    Great stuff, Jeremy. These are some of the same law/principle questions that have been on my mind (and the minds of some others I’ve been talking to) recently. Look forward to reading more from you.

  4. Pingback: The Use of Analogy in the OT Law | Theological Sweets

  5. Pingback: Moral and Positive Law | Theological Sweets

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