Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Law is the Prophets?: The Future Oriented Nature of God's Commands

When Pelagius was in Rome, he heard a public reading from Augustine's newest book of the Confessions. Augustine had penned a prayer, "Give me the grace to do as you command." This enraged Pelagius, who saw an attack upon the goodness of God. Why, Pelagius would argue, would God give us commands that we can't follow? Pelagius criticized Augustine, and began the Pelagian controversy in the Latin church.

This controversy opened questions, some that continue to fester, over the definition and relationship between law and grace. Contrary to polemics, Pelagius believed in grace, he even articulated a variety of sola fide, so it's not enough to merely wave the word grace or faith around as a shibboleth to defend from charges of Pelagianism. The primary errors of Pelagius were anthropology and the relationship between law and grace. Pelagius was not the happy optimist that one sees in bizarro fiction like the B movie King Arthur. Pelagius believed the Fall resulted in a cloud of ignorance and evil mimesis. God's grace is His republication of His Law, a revelation of what man must do, which God taught us freely, and primarily, through the sacrifice of His Son. This is an incredibly pessimistic and fretful perspective, because if people could merely turn through the revelation of the right things to do, and they don't, how determinedly evil were mankind? Pelagius was a rigorist and he believed it was people like Augustine who contributed to laxity in the Church through their lazy and immoral teaching.

Pelagius had collapse law and grace into each other and had argued that man's Fall was not drastic, nor that Mankind had an ontological health tied in with divine communion. There was little sense that Man to be Man required communion with God, lest we slip back into the void from whence we came. But Pelagius is a ghost that hangs around, and not only because people turn to works-righteousness for their salvation. Rather, his initial anger with Augustine and sense of injustice with such a teaching is not adequately addressed. If Augustine's prayer is the right kind of thing to ask (and I think it is), then what does this mean? How do law and grace actually relate to one another?

Luther is right to insist that rightly dividing law and gospel is crucial for the ministry of the Word. However, an emphasis on the law as terror to reveal sin can miss the point that the Scriptures speak highly of God's Law, and the Psalmist revels in the idea of fulfilling it. Yes, Christ fulfilled the Torah, but this did not abolish the Law and take it away from Man. Rather, it reconfigured it.

In Hebrew (both modern and classical), the imperative of a verb is the same as future-tense in the second person. Thus, "Run!" is literally translated as "You will run!" I think this syntax tells us something about the nature of the Law. What if the command is in fact a kind of promise, a typological shadow of the future state of the Christian? This is done all of the time with the so-called Ceremonial and Civil aspects of the Law, where Christ is seen as a fulfillment of the Temple system, the kingship of Israel, etc etc. Are these not Torah as well? What if the Ten Commandments, for example, are promises made real in the life of Christ? We the One who has no gods before Him, who keeps the Sabbath holy; we see what Man looks like without murder, lies, and covetousness.

Now the Law as terror still remains. The Ceremonial and Civil laws reveal our fragile state, always bordering on a state of sin and violence. The Ten Commandments show us, as St. Paul says, our own inadequacy; for we did not know covetousness until the Law told us that we shall not covet. The Law is a promise awaiting fulfillment, and recognition of this emptiness drives us toward God who will fulfill, or will harden our hearts, as we try to justify ourselves or sear our consciences as they are stung, again and again, with the emptiness of the Law.

Yet, as the Law lays out the form of the promise, the Gospel presents its fulfillment. The Law leaves us empty, suspended in hope and expectation. Thus the glorious celebration of the Torah in Psalm 119 represents a prophetic aspect. While the Law is like a dry riverbank or an empty honeycomb, it signals the place where God's abundance will meet us. One day the river will run with milk, and the honeycomb will be rich with honey. Christ, as the fulfillment of the Torah, is the gift that fulfills the whole of the Torah. This is why when Christ teaches, He reveals not a new Law, but explains the spirit of the Torah. Christ Himself gives the true understanding of the Law, and also stands to bring it to its fulfillment. Christ's word, "You will be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" sets out the empty form which Christ, as the Perfect Man, fills and lays before us.

It's only in this context that Augustine's prayer makes sense. The commandment, especially the Commandment of Commandments, to love God with whole mind soul, body, and strength and neighbor as self, cries out for the day when it becomes a reality. The Commandments stands over us as a stark reminder of what life is actually about, and the Person and Work of Christ is that gracious gift that makes true life possible.

In these Last Days, as we are further grafted into Christ, the more real this reality becomes for us, with the Commandments becoming the natural movement of our bodies. Through faith, we cling to the promise and receive the gift, namely Christ Himself, who gives Himself for our salvation. May we eagerly pray alongside Augustine, asking for grace, that is Christ, so we may make obey the commandments, and have our lives bearing the sweet fragrance of those being saved.

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