Beliefs

Looking at God’s Law in terms of Relationship and Morality: Interacting with a Popular Belief held by Some Christian Philosophers

NOTE TO READER

  • For this post I am going to do something different. Due to the nature of the article, I am going to give you my conclusion before you read the rest. This writing is a bit more…I don’t know…technical than normal. I am tempted to use the word scholarly, but I’m not fond of thinking of myself in that light so I want to refrain from using that label. In short, the work is heavily cited as its focus is on three works dealing with to some degree morality, the use of law, and the relationship those share with the Christian faith. If you find the conclusion interesting, read on. If you don’t, then I won’t force you (can’t anyway, lol!), but I am hoping that some may benefit from the read. Enjoy…or don’t…up to you….

Closing Remarks…

God is a covenantal God. And, as such He is a Law-giving God. He not only orders the workings of the universe, but the living of His creatures. Some find this distasteful and either reject it or water down the implications, but we find this truth perpetrated from Genesis to Revelation.

First God established His covenant with Adam and when Adam rebelled; his progeny fell with him. That was the inheritance he purchased for his children. God via grace reveals Himself to His people and rejoins them in a new covenantal status. This was done in the past in Israel and in the future (past to us) in Christ Jesus. One cannot pit the laws of God against His goodness, for they are a reflection of His holy heart. The only way to know the good and the evil and to be equipped to do them is to sit at His feet and draw from His Word (cf. Deut 8.3; Matt 4.4). Nor can one pit the laws of God over or under in significance to the relationship we might share with Him as His creatures. The Law of God defines the parameters of the covenantal relationship we share with Him. If we show little regard for the boundary markers He has given us for our good, then we have demonstrated our lack of love for Him. The point being that it is impossible to be in relationship with God without rules and it is an ignorant move to try and elevate one over the other—i.e. rules vs. relationship. This false distinction (relationship over rules) is believed by many professed Christians today, but it has no basis whatsoever in orthodox Christianity.

INTRODUCTION

Relationship, Law or Both: Interacting Some Written Works that Touch on the Subject

Years back I wrote a paper entitled “Reflecting the Image of God: Relationship, Law or Both?” for a class in biblical apologetics. In the paper I critiqued the views written in a couple of books assigned at the time of the course: “Is God a Moral Monster?” by Paul Copan and “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Overall, I would have to say that the books provided some helpful insight, but the authors viewpoints on God’s Law was suspect as they continually attempted to push the concept of relationship over rules.

For example, Richards and O’Brien write, “The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. When we begin to think of the world in terms of relationships instead of rules, however, we must acknowledge that things are never so neat and orderly and that rules are not as dependable as we once imagined. When relationships are the norming factor in the cosmos, we should expect exceptions.”1

They continue, “In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time…The covenant [with Israel]…was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1.9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.”2 In the end these two authors draw the conclusion that “…we have to learn to identify when the Bible is prioritizing relationship instead of rules or laws…[for] it often seems as if God is sovereign over everything except his rules.”3

Clearly, the emphasis that Richards and O’Brien stress is that of relationship over law. Laws are fine, but they are not universally binding to all people. That was never God’s concern and it shouldn’t be ours. That is their ultimate thrust, for to argue contrary to this position is to misread Scripture with Western eyes as their title suggests. Paul Copan as we shall see does not differ from this approach.

Copan asserts the following: “Keep in mind this statement that is worthy of full acceptance: the law of Moses is not eternal and unchanging.”4 My question at the time I was reading this was “worthy of full acceptance” on whose authority? God’s? Is that really how God desires us to look at His Law-Word as somehow limited in time and function? Jesus surely doesn’t seem to agree. For He stated, that “not one jot or tittle” (Matt 5.18) was to be done away with, and any who taught otherwise would be considered “least” (Matt 5.19) in the Kingdom. In fact, the scribes and Pharisees were notorious for doing that very things (supplanting God’s Law with their own), and he said that our righteousness needed to be greater than theirs (Matt 5.20).

This rationality is repeated again by Copan when he writes, “the Mosaic law is not permanent, universal, and the standard for all nations.”5 He goes so far as to say God’s laws given during the Exodus period were not perfect and therefore are not to be seen as universal ones for all people. They were an improvement from the rest of the nations, but apparently only slightly.6 Let me get this straight, God’s Law-Word is only a slight improvement over the rules, statutes and commands of unbelievers? Hmmm, interesting!

Like the previous authors (Richards and O’Brien), Copan seems convinced that relationship holds some sway over rules: “For one thing, God desired that Israel love him and cling to him (Deut 6:5; 10:20), which isn’t exactly reducible to keeping laws!”7 “For what law ever roused one to love another?”8 quips the skeptic of the underlying purpose and scope of God’s revealed law. My critical review of these presuppositions by the authors was met by resistance. The professor at the time labeled the work as straw-manning the authors, but would not provide me with where I had erred.

Similar Drum Beats From Some Other Philosophers

Later on I read another work by a couple different authors who were dancing to the beat of the same drum, bending over backwards to get as far away from God’s precepts as possible.

In their book “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality,” David Saggett and Jerry L. Walls believe when it comes to what is morally right and wrong, “atheists make a good point when they stress that the fact that some moral truths may have been learned from Christian teachings doesn’t go to show that religion must necessarily be the ultimate cause or ground for those truths.”9 Besides the immediate problem with equating Christianity on par with all other religions, you may be wondering why the authors believe that truth does not necessarily start with the Triune God of Scripture? The solution they offer to their readers is this:

  • “The source from which we gain knowledge is one matter; what made the subject matter true and knowable is quite another. The former is an epistemological issue; the latter is a metaphysical or ontological issue.”10

Epistemological what? Metaphysical what? Ontological what? I know those words are a mouth full and if you are not familiar with such terminology don’t sweat it, most people aren’t. This is philosophical talk; the egghead’s casual manner of speaking to another person. Now to be fair I am to some extent one of those eggheads, what my wife calls the “Technically speaking” crowd. You have to say that phrase within the quotes with an English accent (a.k.a. to us country bumpkins as ‘British’). Let’s face it when “Brits” talk they do have an advantage of sounding much more polished than their “American” counterparts.

Anyway, those words above point to the study of knowledge (epistemology), the study/nature of reality (metaphysics), and the study of being (ontology). What Saggett and Walls are saying in the quote above is merely this, “These are all separate categories, and they do not necessarily have their sources in the same thing.” In fact, they argue that the knowledge of right and wrong (moral values acquired from ethical standards) in this world “springs [from] different sources entirely.”11 Essentially, what they seem convinced that morality can come from a variety of streams (specifically natural law) and does not have to come from our Creator.

Earlier in their work they propose the following Q & A: “How do we know what is right? If God is the Good and his commands constitute moral obligations, at some point we must ask how it is that we come to know his will.”12 One suggestion they offer is conscience13, the other that I have hinted to is nature (i.e. Natural Law Theory). An immediate problem arises, however, when one considers the noetic effects of the Fall and the unreliability of the conscience. Our minds have been darkened by sin (cf. Rom 1.21; Eph 4.18), and our consciences as a result are either seared or perverted (compare 1Tim 4.2 and Rom 12.2). Even Christians are said to have struggles in this area for they sometimes go to teachers that itch their ears rather than confront their hearts with the truth (2Tim 4.1-3). To be fair the authors allude to these truths disclosed in Scripture,13 but still believe in spite of this natural limitation placed on mankind, the individual in question will still be able to deduce what is morally right through a variety of sources not limited to God’s divine commands.14

One of the reasons Saggett and Walls suggest is that they “think there are compelling theological reasons to make room in our ethical theory for divine prerogatives when it comes to [God’s] commands…there’s excellent reason to think that some of his commands are optional or could have been different.”15 On this particular strain of thought it is suggested that the Scripture text that reads, “who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin” (James 4.17), is better understood in this way, “A more sensible reading, both exegetically and philosophically, is that he who is genuinely led to do a particular good deed sins if he refrains from doing it.”16 This is offered in an effort to keep the personal and relational aspect of divine truth expressed in love and not merely command more palatable. But this sort of thinking ought to raise questions in the believer’s mind.

Looking at the Rationale of the Position Being Argued by the Authors

On what ground can I argue as a creature that the Creator could have commanded something differently, making the statute at the very least optional at times? Moreover, by what authority does the creature have in twisting the Word of God to better fit their sensibilities and feelings on an issue? Just because it doesn’t sit well with the creature that his/her Creator would dare determine something that is necessary and obligatory to all of His creation? If I see my enemy in need (his ox has fell in the ditch; Exod 23.4-5), then is my reaction towards this individual’s predicament dependent upon how I feel genuinely led? Is this command and general precept of living only applicable to the believer but has no bearing whatsoever on the behavior of the unbeliever?

Only when we reason that our conception “of goodness [comes] from the bottom up”17 do we find such faulty thinking good. Only when we believe that “nature’s laws” tells us something about moral reality can we come to such conclusions. Only when we believe that our conscience is, along with our personal state of being, essentially good can we be convinced that we need not be limited to God’s special revelation to know what type of person we should be.

What is the fear that drives such thinking? What is the objection that drives such reasoning to attack the concept of God willing and commanding what He knows to be right; what ought to be done? What makes a person, a professed believer, desiring to distance them away from the fact that when God speaks human beings must listen. Not should listen, not may wish to listen, not may want to consider listening, but ought to do exactly as the Creator has ordered us to do without giving us an answer to satisfy our ever drifting sense of right and wrong?

Although Saggett and Walls have many good things to say in their work the crux of the matter is here: “In general, what God can’t do is anything in diametric opposition, irremediable tension, or patent conflict with our most nonnegotiable moral commitments.”18 Notice the concern is weighted by creaturely insight. Logically this leads to the following scenario: “When a particular interpretation stands too much at odds with nonnegotiable moral intuitions, the interpretation has to go, or a high view of biblical authority has to go, or we must deny God’s goodness.”19 Refusing to deny God’s goodness that dismissal is laid at the feet of the interpretation or a high view of biblical authority. Not surprising, as much of liberal theology tends to go in this direction, when the human reasoner cannot accept the plain teachings of Scripture.

Let’s be honest sometimes the Bible hits us in the teeth. But, what should our response be? To dismiss it, look for an escape hatch, or submit to its tenets when our limitations are clearly seen? Obviously, it should be the latter. The problem we constantly run into is that we want to be god (cf. Gen 3.4-5). Rather than admit this Saggett and Walls, along with Copan are often found commenting that the laws of God (i.e. His action through or in response to others) in the OT is viewed as harsh20 and awful.21 Why? Because, to look at some of those commands of God in any other way infringes upon their view of Him as unconditionally loving all creatures the same, with the chief good being unwilling to violate His creature’s free will:

  • “A loving God would plausibly do more to offer his grace and salvation to the Canaanites, even if posthumously… A loving God would do no less than all in his power to bring about their eternal salvation, short of violating their free will…God, we contend, would give even those Canaanites a full and free opportunity to repent of their sins and be saved through Christ.”22

It is interesting how we will bend the Scriptures until it fits the mold that we find acceptable. We are already told in the Bible why the Canaanites had to die, they were justly punished for their sin (Gen 15.16). They were not peaceful, loving or kind people—they murdered their own children as an act of worship to their false gods (Lev 18.1-25, 27-28; 20.1-23)! Moreover, they had no desire whatsoever to know their Creator, for they rejected Him turning to created things (1Kgs 21.26)!

NOTE:
You may want to reread my closing now. More will follow in the future regarding some of the things discussed in areas of theology and politics. Thanks for reading.

___________________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 166. Italics in original.

2 Ibid, 166. A similar line of thought is expressed on page 169 when the authors again state, “Likewise, in the ancient world of the Bible (and in many non-Western cultures), rules did not necessarily apply to 100 percent of the people.” In order to justify their position they point to Rahab and her family as sharing in the inheritance of Israel, something the Canaanites were not supposed to do, when the land was conquered. What they seem to miss is the fact that Rahab and her family were grafted into Israel via their faith in God. She is identified in two NT books as having faith as a member of God’s people (cf. Heb 11.31; Jas 2.25).

3 Ibid, 174.

4 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 71. Italics added.

5 Ibid, 89.

6 Ibid, 136.

7 Ibid, 72.

8 Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, 173. The authors compare the desire of “many evangelicals [who] describe our standing before God in terms of forensic justification” as not inherently wrong, but severely missing the mark by pointing to analogy of a husband who promises to abide by a set of rules, as if that satisfies the relationship with his wife. They write, “Such a vow does not arouse love. Rules never do. While a loving husband may perform all those actions, they are the results of the relationship, not the rules that establish it.”

What the authors fail to see is that a husband that breaks his vows destroys the relationship. The marital covenant is established upon the binding arrangement of the vow-markers. Without the boundaries defining the terms of the covenant, not relationship is able to exist. Love is not defined by emotion, but is demonstrated through commitment. An uncommitted spouse will show little regard for the covenantal boundaries established on the day of their matrimony, and will be found destroying the relationship from the foundation up. The two (law/relationship) work together cohesively in a healthy union. Favoring one side over the other is disproportionate and will in time lead to disastrous results.

9 David Saggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: the Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160, Kindle Edition.

10 Ibid, 160.

11 Ibid, 160.

12 Ibid, 159.

13 Ibid, 159.

13 Ibid, 165.

14 Ibid, 1

15 Ibid, 120. As their example they suggest God could have required an 11% tithe, rather than a 10% tithe. Such hypothetical conjecture is actually unwarranted and cannot be justified from a creaturely standpoint. How can one claim to know that God could have commanded something different, without providing a warrant for the claim? This amounts to mere opinion and is an utter waste of ink.

16 Ibid, 129.

17 Ibid, 129.

18 Ibid, 135. Italics added.

19 Ibid, 137.

20 Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, 90. He calls it “harsh” when he looks at the sons of Aaron offering strange fire (Lev 10), the men of Israel fornicating with Midianite women (Numb 25), and Uzzah attempting to steady the oxcart when it teetered (2Sam 6.17). It is possible that Copan would say that he is merely being tongue-in-cheek, and in some cases I would agree that this is the case. However, there is no mistake that he has some disdain for these laws, and the actions that followed when they were ignored/broken. If one attempted to reinstate their usefulness he would no doubt cry against it, claiming cultural irregularities—i.e. that was a different culture and time; a subtle form of relativism. Of course, to institute such laws today would require a reworked political system and a heart that truly reflected a love for God.

21 Saggett and Walls, Good God, 138. This comment was offered regarding the Israelite conquest narratives of Canaan.

22 Ibid, 139, 140.

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