I have suggested in some previous posts (Embodied Principles and Analogy in OT) that there are principles embedded within the laws of the OT. At its heart, the Law reflects the character of God who gave it. This fact alone provides ample reason that Christians should be concerned with the OT Law. To know it is to get a glimpse into God’s heart.
The concept of principle has an “up” side and a “down” side, as far as I can tell. Some positive aspects of finding principles include that it requires a greater level of engagement by the adherent, and it provides greater flexibility to span cultures and time periods. As a case in point, a Christian who grapples with the OT Law today can find great benefit despite living in a different century and culture.
The problem it presents is that it may be difficult to know the reason behind every law. It raises questions about whether there is a principle in every law. If a principle is not apparent, conclusions could be forced or stretched, and the law could be applied in areas where it was never intended. Were some laws given simply to be obeyed without the process of finding larger principles? For example, what about the dietary laws and the laws on leprosy? Were these merely civil laws for the health of the community? Should we glean a general concept of cleanness/uncleanness from them? Do they have theological implications?
The truth is that some laws are more easily related to principles than others. One way these concerns have been addressed in the past is to simply divide laws up into different categories called moral law and positive law. I’ll borrow the definition of these terms from Bennie Lee Fudge in his pamphlet, “Can a Christian Kill for His Government?” (p. 16).
Moral law is that which inheres in the nature of things and sets forth what is right between man and man. Positive law is that which depends upon the arbitrary authority of either God or man, which does not inhere in the nature of things.
Using this definition, there is no need to find a principle within laws in general because moral laws function as high level principles and positive laws come out of God’s arbitrary authority. They are to be done because God said so, and no principle undergirds it. Many have used this distinction to say that moral laws have universal application. Moral laws like the prohibitions against murder and theft seem to be common to all cultures. Non-Israelite nations were held accountable to it (as discussed in Rom. 1), and the moral law persists in the new covenant. Positive laws in the OT are considered no longer binding, and they have been replaced by NT positive laws.
I’m still working through these concepts, but here’s my take right now. The moral/positive law distinction seems a little too cut and dry for me. There are many positive laws which have moral principles embedded within them. For the most part, I don’t see God’s laws as springing from his arbitrary authority. Yes, he has all authority to command, but I would not say that his authority is normally arbitrary. While we not have a satisfactory explanation for the reason behind every law, more times than not it is there.
So, any thoughts out there? Does one of these make more sense than the other?