The Gospel of Israel, part 9 (the place of the Torah in the Church)
At long last I am finally in a position to make some provisional comments on Nathan Fellingham's excellent questions about the place of the Torah in the community of the Jesus' followers. Now this is going to be controversial because any view of the place of the Law in the ekklesia is controversial - even between Protestants of Lutheran and those of Calvinist inclination (and I always inclined towards Calvin).
Please note that my comments here are no more than simple indications of the directions in which I incline and not worked through arguments.
First, we must note that the Jesus-community was composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Traditionally Christians have not really considered the implications of this for the question at hand. I suggest that we need to be open to the possibility that the commands of the Mosaic Law applied to Jewish and to Gentile Jesus-believers differently.
Catholic theologian Bruce Marshall argues that if we believe that Israel's election is indeed permanent (and I suspect that most contemporary theologians do believe this) then the identification of the Jewish people as a distinct people must also be permanent and this requires a maintainance of the distinction bertween Jews and Gentiles. This distinction is most obviously maintained by Jews following Jewish law.
If Christians expect Jews who come to believe in Jesus to abandon Jewish halachah (and effectively become like Gentiles) - and historically this was the hope - then this hope is equivalent to the hope that Jews would cease to exist as a distinctive group. If all the Jews had actually converted to Christianity in the 4th C, say, then there would be no Jews left today. I think that such a situation would be theologically problematic in the extreme. I guess that God knew what he was doing when, in Paul's words, he temporarily hardened the the majority of Israel so that they would not believe the gospel.
The Torah was originally given to Israel and it was not expected that Gentiles were required to obey all of its precepts. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 ruled that Gentile Jesus-believers had the status of full community members without the need to be circumcised (i.e., to convert to Judaism and thus to place themselves under obligation to obey all the Mosaic commendments). The assumption behind the ruling was that the Jewish believers were under such an obligation.
It cannot be stated strongly enough that if the Jewish Jesus-followers knew that they did not have to obey the Torah then there would have been no question of Gentile Jesus-followers being required to. The very fact that there was a debate on the issue shows clearly that the Jewish Jesus-followers did obey Torah and saw it as an obligation.
It is also interesting to note how the situation changed between the first century Jewish-dominated church and the later Gentile-dominated church. In the 1st C the question was, 'Can a Gentile be a Christ-follower without converting to Judaism?' (The answer was 'yes'). Later the question became, 'Can a Jew be a Christ-follower without abandoning their Judaish way of life and becoming, effectively, Gentile?' (The answer, eventually, was 'no'). The latter question would have been utterly incomprehensible and verging on insane to the early believers.
Second, we must note that our evidence clearly indicates that Jewish Jesus-believers in the earliest Church did observe distinctive Jewish practices. The observed Sabbath (Acts 1:12), kept Jewish festivals (Acts 2:1; 20:16), prayed at the Jewish times of prayer (Acts 3:1), attended the Temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1), followed food laws (Acts 10:14), and met in its courts (Acts 5:12; 5:42). Some Priests and Pharisees joined them (Acts 6:7; 15:5) - something that would never have happened if their 'good news' was, "Follow Jesus and abandon the Law of Moses!"
- Jesus himself was Torah-obedient (even if his interpretation of how Torah was to be applied was not identical with some of the other Jewish interpreters of his day). See an earlier post.
- According to the book of Acts the early Jewish believers were Torah-obedient (see above). Perhaps most importantly for us this includes Paul - Acts is at pains to emphasize that, contrary to rumour, Paul was Torah-observant (Acts 21:20-26).
- Early Church texts such as James, Matthew and Luke-Acts reflect a high view of Torah and its place in the Jesus-community.
- The only major controversy surrounds Paul's letters and Hebrews. Paul very clearly believed that Gentiles should not be expected to obey all the commands of the Torah (but in this he was in agreement with the main body of early 'Christian' thought as exemplified by James in Acts 15) but what about Jewish believers? There is some evidence that he saw Jewish believers as obligated to obey the Torah. Mark Kinzer puts the argument together as follows (Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, 73):
1. Paul taught that all those who were circumcized at the time of their calling should remain circumcized (i.e., should affirm and accept their circumcision and its consequences). 1 Cor 7:18
2. Paul taught that all who are circumcised are obligated to observe the whole Torah (i.e., to live according to distinctively Jewish practice) Gal 5:3
We can possibly deduce from this that Paul thought that all those who are born as Jews are obligated to live as Jews. That would put him in the same camp as the Paul of Acts and of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus.
However, sometimes it looks like he considered Torah-obedience merely optional for Jewish believers (Rom 14; Gal 2:11-14; 1 Cor 9:19-23). This is a very tricky issue but, following several NT scholars, I am inclined to think that traditional interpretations of these texts are mistaken (perhaps we could discuss that).Third, our metanarrative suggests that it should not surprise us if early Jewish followers of Christ were Torah-observant. The 'new' covenant foretold by Jeremiah was all about the internalization of the Torah by the Spirit (see earlier post). The suggestion that the new covenant would lead to the abolition of the Torah would have struck them as out of synch with the Scriptures. (Of course, the way in which the Torah is internalized need not be identical for Jewish and Gentile believers.)
Fourth, the Torah can still have relevance for Gentile Jesus-believers even if they are not expected to obey all of the commandments literally. Here Richard Bauckham's comparison between the way that James applied the Torah to Jewish Jesus-believers and the way that Paul applied the Torah to Gentile Jesus-believers is suggestive. He argues that obedience to the Law as (i) motivated by a transformed heart, (ii) as summed up in the love commands, and (iii) as intensified by attention to motive - i.e., the Torah as mediated via Jesus' teaching - shaped the way that the Torah was applied by Paul to Gentiles and by James to Jews (Bauckham, James, 142-51). This would give a way in to the discussion.
We may add that many of the traditional Christian ways of reappropriating the Torah may actually find a place in precisely this context. Some commands, for instance, may be allegorized and spiritualized when applied to Gentiles.
So, at long last, I can suggest a reply to Nathan's question about a secular Jew converting to the Christ - should they be expected to follow Torah? I think that the answer is that if being united to Christ puts one in the place of either renewed Israel and the pilgrim nations then part of what it is for a Jew to embrace Jesus is to become part of the advanced guard of eschatological Israel. And this will involve practicing Torah.
Now it is possible for a secular Jew to become a Christian and in practice to enact the role of a member of the pilgrim nations. They are still united to Christ, by the Spirit, and still participate in the blessings of Israel's covenant-renewal. They will be saved on the last day just as much as a Gentile Christian will. However, it seems to me that such a way of walking with Christ is not to live up to the fulness of who that person is or is called to be.
(And in case you think that I am really a Gentile with circumcision-envy please let me assure you that I am very content as a Gentile and believe that the Gentiles have contributed many profound riches to the body of Christ. I love the Gentile spiritualities that have developed in the Cchristian traditions. These posts are simply intended as a corrective to what I see as historic Gentile Christian arrogance towards Israel flying in the face of Paul's warnings in Rom 11:13-24.)
But all my good Protestant friends are now asking about the place of works, faith, grace and so on in salvation. Here is my view: salvation is by grace alone, through trust in Christ and not by obedience to the Torah. However, as Jesus, James and Paul taught us, works of faith do play an important role in salvation - without them we are not saved. Faith without works is not saving faith.