Old Testament Law and The Charge of Inconsistency

The following is an article written by Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, for their newsletter. It’s so helpful that I thought I would quote it in it’s entirety:

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” What I hear most often is “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”

It is not that I expect everyone to have the capability of understanding that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God’s plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological advisor) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

First of all, let’s be clear that it’s not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality. The New Testament has plenty to say about it, as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12 that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that, (v. 12) persons should abstain from marriage and from sex.

However, let’s get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the OT that are no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don’t know what to say when confronted about this. Here’s a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament:

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God. As part of that sacrificial system there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them. (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19) and he ignored the Old Testament clean laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

But the reason is made clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple was ripped through, showing that the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its clean laws had been done away with. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us “clean.”

The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray ‘in Jesus name’, we ‘have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we were to continue to follow the ceremonial laws.

The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship but not how we live. The moral law is an outline of God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so all the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11.) If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.

Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff. and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11.) Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mish-mash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense and is perfectly consistent with its premise. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity’s basic thesis—you don’t believe Jesus was the resurrected Son of God—and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything. But the one thing you can’t really say in fairness is that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to accept the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing other ones.

One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question—“Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?” If you are asked, “Why do you say that?” you could respond, “If I believe Jesus is the the resurrected Son of God, I can’t follow all the ‘clean laws’ of diet and practice, and I can’t offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ’s death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others.”


Posted on June 12, 2012, in Old Testament, Tim Keller, Tim Keller Stuff and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The reason I am replying to this is because much of what is here ignores the manner in which the Jews (including the first believers in Jesus) thought about ritual immersion, the Temple, and other matters. Therefore, my response is temporally related to these aforementioned matters during the Second Temple and Early Rabbinic period (6th BCE-4th CE). Please see below for where I interact with Pastor Keller’s text (IN QUOTATIONS AND ABBREVIATED).

    “The Old … without purification.”

    During the STP-ER ritual purity was not seen as a matter of spiritual impurity. The one group that viewed ritual immersion as a symbol of repentance was the sectarian group who separated themselves to the Judean Desert and perhaps John the Baptist. But the association of spiritual significance with ritual immersion does not make ritual immersion/impurity a method of conveying spiritual impurity/uncleanness. At least this is not how Jesus’ earliest followers viewed it. Paul seems to have no problem with matters of ritual purity post-resurrection (Acts 18:18 [not ritual immersion but it deals with ritual impurity] ; 21)

    “But … (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6).”

    These texts are not envisioning the end of the sacrificial system but a critique at the misunderstanding that the people have depended on the actions of sacrificial system of the Temple instead of trusting God. Furthermore, the people have forgotten the legal portions that require caring for those who are in need, a la Hosea. These passages are intended as a stern rebuke/reminder of those things that are to coexist with the Temple, not those things that envision the end of the Temple.

    “When Christ … dead bodies.”

    1. The Markan explanatory, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (ἐκπορεύεται, καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα), butts up against the fact that the disciples appear to be keeping kosher post-resurrection (think Peter and the vision of the Sheet and Animals).
    2. Further, it appears that this discussion in Mark deals with watching how one talks, what one says, and is not intended to be an end to Kosher law. This is much like the rabbinic statement that shaming someone on public is the same as murdering that individual.
    3. I don’t think Jesus ignored the “clean” laws. In fact, he took a stand on them, especially when we compare his ministry with early Rabbinic literature. Second, it is not forbidden to become unclean. In fact, one of the greatest commandments in ancient Judaism is for someone to bury the dead, which would require touching a dead body. While I think Jesus is very particular with ritual cleanliness, it is not a forbidden act. It is just something that requires ritual immersion. So Jesus would have touched lepers and dead bodies in spite of the OT, because the OT doesn’t forbid such a thing. It simply list things that are unclean, thus requiring ritual immersion before participating certain religious functions.

    “But the reason is made clear.…clean.”

    1. Acts 15 and the early apostles still function in the Temple—this is where the disciples are left off at the end of Luke. In fact, the Jerusalem Council assumes that the Jewish community will remain kosher as well as continue functioning in the Temple (as long as it stands).
    2. While I think the veil being ripped is significant, I don’t think it signals the end of the Temple system. In fact, this is largely a matter of interpretation because the text is quite unclear as to the tearing. I think it is more related to influx of the Gentiles but that is my own interpretation.

    “The entire book of … ceremonial laws.”

    The use of “ceremonial laws” hearkens to this idea that the Jewish people separate the laws between ceremonial and ethical. This is not the case. The book of Hebrews represents what occurs after the destruction of the Temple and the religious shifts that need to occur in light if this tragic event. The same things that occur in Judaism after the destruction also happen in Christianity and we finally have this OT passage being associated with this shift— “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. (Hos 6:6)”

    “The New … is still in force for us today.”

    What Keller outlines here is exactly what the Jerusalem Council decides but no one turns to Acts 15 as evidence. Sexual morality, forbidding murder, and faithfulness to God alone are precisely what the church decides for Gentiles. This is why Gentiles don’t observe the entire law, not because of some theoretical split between the laws that occur in light of Jesus’ death. Again, this theoretical split does not exist in ancient Judaism, especially in ST Judaism.

    “Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments… all cultures and peoples”.

    The primary problem with this view of Jewish Law is that during the time period of Jesus the Jewish Law is not simply Old Testament law. We must keep in mind that there is a need to contemporize and interpret practical laws in light of contemporaneous society. To simply speak of the New Testament in light Old Testament Law and ignore the changes that occurred between the testaments and those things that were codified after the destruction of the Temple do an injustice to the world that the New Testament was birthed into, as well as the ministry of Jesus and his earliest followers.
    Some things are clear however: the cultural makeup of the early church was Jewish and because of that they would have continued to function in the Temple, in the Temple services, and eat kosher. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, that speaks to the contrary. As Jesus so where his first followers who were Jewish, they remained Jewish.

    “Once you grant the main premise of the Bible… not others.”

    As long as the Temple stood, the early Jewish believers would have continued in the Temple and not seen it as an affront to their faith. For Gentiles, Acts 15 makes clear that God has chosen a different path for their religious practice, primarily, one that involves that “righteous Gentile laws” or what later becomes known as the Noahide Laws in Rabbinic Literature. This is the reason, as it appears in the NT, for the split.

    Disclaimer: I like Keller very much 🙂

  2. Jeff, thank you for your thoughtful response. Against my better judgment, I posted the article without any disclaimer regarding my nuanced agreement with Keller. I affirm the general tenor of the piece, but, like you, not every argument. The difference between us is at the more detailed level.

    Points of agreement:
    I agree with you that Keller’s use of 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; and Hosea 6:6 aren’t, in their original context, saying what Keller seems to believe they say (or hint at). But his essential point was correct (that the sacrificial system was ordained by God with pointers and hints of it’s ultimate insufficiency). To support this I would argue in a fashion more in line with the book of Hebrews: If ultimate atonement and purification came by the Levitical system there would be no need for them to be repeated time after time, year after year, and so on.

    I also agree that it’s unhelpful to speak of Jesus “ignoring” the clean laws. Jesus knew the priorities of the Law (people over things…i.e. his Jewish “humanism”). Therefore we notice that while he healed people on all sorts of different ocassions, the cases in which we find Jesus perform an unrequested healing normally occur on the Sabbath. Why? What better day could there possibly be? “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

    Likewise, it’s a mistake to conflate all cultic purity with moral purity. Keller doesn’t explicitly say this, but it’s strongly implied when he says, “This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.”

    Lastly, I agree that “As long as the Temple stood, the early Jewish believers would have continued in the Temple and not seen it as an affront to their faith.” To me, there can be no dogmatic argument that claims otherwise. That would overlook Acts. This certainly makes it harder to argue for certain type of theology, but it’s there in the text. I interpret this as the inherent ambiguity of the semi-eschatological period of the first generation of New Covenant community. This is how I would interpret Heb. 8:13. If I can wax allegorical (with an imperfect analogy) for a moment, I think the relationship between the first Jewish Christians and the Temple is similar in structure to the time between David’s anointing as king and Saul’s death. From the moment of Samuel’s anointing, the great switch occurred, David was king marked out for eventual vindication and exaltation. Saul was out, David was in. Nevertheless, David honored Saul as “the Lord’s anointed” because God did in fact choose Saul and he was still officially in power. His season had not come to an end. David would not remove Saul. Only God could do that. But, again, as with Saul so with the Temple, while they stood they were to be honored, revered, and acknowledged as God’s anointed. But when they were providentially removed it was not to be understood as coincidence or happenstance. The writing was on the wall.

    Similarly, in light of all we do know of the early Christian belief in the accomplishment of Jesus’ death, I believe we can safely rule out the view that the Temple sacrifices accomplished something that Jesus did not. The days of the Temple were numbered, and as you said, “As long as the Temple stood, the early Jewish believers would have continued in the Temple and not seen it as an affront to their faith.”

    Points of ambiguity or disagreement:
    I do not date Hebrews as post 70AD. I find it very difficult to conceive of the author not including the most monumental event in Jewish history after 586 BC, especially when it would, prima facie at the very least, seem to strengthen his argument.

    You comment, The Markan explanatory, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (ἐκπορεύεται, καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα), butts up against the fact that the disciples appear to be keeping kosher post-resurrection (think Peter and the vision of the Sheet and Animals)” strikes me as ambiguous. What exactly do you mean by Mark’s comments “butt up” with, for instance, Peter’s practice? Clearly, we know that Peter kept kosher after the resurrection –no dispute there- but the account in Acts doesn’t to my mind seem to present that in a positive light (though nor doesn’t it present it in an explicitly negative light either). If anything, the vision seems to be one of two things: Either than Peter’s continuance of the kosher laws was missing God’s greater redemptive purposes to include Gentiles into the family of Abraham (i.e. he shouldn’t have continued ot keep kosher), or (and this is likely related) that in his vision God was “now” lifting such a law (since it served as one discernible boundary marker to distinguish “clean” Jews from “unclean” Gentiles). The difficulty may be in an attempted harmonization between Mark and Acts (which I won’t attempt here), but not, it seems to me, in the what’s going on with Peter and Cornelius.

    It’s commonly noted that Jews (whether in the ST period, or today) do not make a distinction between civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. True enough. These laws too often bleed into one another for a rigid and watertight separation to be maintained. Nevertheless, the very verses what we agree Keller reads too much into (1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17) imply distinctions (though not full-blown separation). In each case we find a contrast between laws addressing Gos-ordained cultic duties on the one hand, and covenant fidelity (in the form of obedience and trust) on the other. Again, even these aren’t hard and fast compartments. But the distinctions are consistent enough, I believe, to say that the prophets were aware of something like a like distinction commonly used in theological discourse (something like it is also assumed, to my mind, in the type of argument leveled by the author of Hebrews).

  3. “Jeff, … for the Sabbath.”

    I will note, for the sake of discussion, that this interpretation of the Sabbath is in line with Ancient Judaism and is in line with observance of the Jewish law.

    “Likewise, …their faith.”

    I would read what happened historically a bit differently. The first Christians that were Jewish saw themselves as Jewish. Therefore, it was not “an honor given to those things while they still”; it was a religious practice that formed part of their identity. This is largely seen in the fact that the Parting of the Ways does not occur after the destruction of the Temple but rather you have large amounts of Jewish-Christians remaining within Jewish communities. It is not simply a reverence being paid to the Temple; it is part of who they are as Jews. This becomes increasingly more important when we consider that the sin sacrifice in the Temple is a small part of that practice.

    “Points of ambiguity …his argument.”

    To put it simply, I date it late because the manner in which Hebrew deals with the Temple is not unlike how the Rabbis deal with the Temple after its destruction. I think the parallel ideas in the texts from a post 70 period, especially when one considers that in texts dealing with the Temple before 70 don’t really speak of the Temple in this way. You might have some in the DSS that wait for a human Temple, but you also have more texts there that expect a newly formed Temple.

    “You comment… in the what’s going on with Peter and Cornelius”

    According to the way that Acts deals with the text it has to do with the Gentile influx and the fact that while Peter remains kosher he must not allow that distinction to cause a separation from the new members who do not need to live observing kosher law.
    To understand the Markan addition I think we need to take into account when it was written and that might settle some matters. I can say that because I of course do not think that Mark was written first of the gospels.

    “It’s … Hebrews”

    This is a larger discussion but let me just say that the distinction that biblical literature makes is a reflection of the several hundred years of trauma that the Israelites and Jews experienced. However, I do not think that while the Temple is standing that the Temple is expected to supersede or take primacy over these things. In fact, the Temple is supposed to reflect God’s mercy and grace to the rest of the world.

  4. Jesus’ practice of healing on the sabbath is in line with the Sabbath observance of ancient Judaism. There is no dispute. You are completely correct. Jesus wasn’t making something new up, but was rather holding the Pharisees up to the standard they already acknowledged. It’s a poor case of mirror reading that believes that because Jesus said that healing is permitted on the sabbath therefore the Pharisees must have denied it.

    Yes, the first Christians saw themselves as Jewish…because they were Jewish! Likewise, no dispute there. Yes, the “religious practice” of Temple worship was part of their identity. What I’ve argued for (at least what I’ve tried to argue for) is a more redemptive-historical understanding of the function of the Temple. Both the giving of the Torah and the provision of the tabernacle/temple were part of the complex of YHWH’s exodus redemption of Israel. They were glorious: 1) the very revelation of the character of YHWH, 2) his instructions for YHWH to live as a “peculiar people” amongst the nations, and most preciously, 3) YHWH’s very presence to dwell among his redeemed people. But these blessings shouldn’t be understood in a static fashion, they contribute to YHWH larger plan to redeem not only the family of Abraham, but the nations as well (as I believe I stated earlier, the call of Abraham -and therefore his seed- in Gen. 12 is YHWH’s response to the downward spiral of sin from the Fall of Gen. 3 to the united rebellion exhibited at Babel in Gen. 11). The Torah, as the defining characteristics of the covenant people, is married to the Tabernacle/Temple as the cultic center of the Mosaic covenant. As Paul argues in Gal. 3:25, the Torah was God’s “pedagogos” until the Messiah arrived (the contrast isn’t between Torah and “faith”, as if Torah demanded a legalism…that would be a gross misunderstanding og both the OT in general and Paul’s argument specifically). “Now that faith [in the Messiah] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” So Torah and Temple served a particular function during the administration in which they were divinely designed to, i.e. from Moses to Jesus.

    Regarding the text of Mark, I’m confident that you have a much greater pool of knowledge to draw from than I do regarding why the debated term (he declared all foods clean) was included. I’m not necessarily persuaded by the theory of Markan priority, but from what I’ve studied on the subject it’s certainly not nuts.

    About Peter and Cornelius, you said “According to the way that Acts deals with the text it has to do with the Gentile influx and the fact that while Peter remains kosher he must not allow that distinction to cause a separation from the new members who do not need to live observing kosher law.” I certainly agree with what you’ve written, but I think you haven’t gone far enough. You strike me as saying that the vision of the unclean animals was given strictly in order to warn the apostles against forbidding Gentiles from inclusion within the early church (i.e. continue to keep kosher, but include Gentiles and don’t impose kosher laws on them). But these two cannot be neatly divided. Lev. 20:25-26 says, “‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” The kosher laws were a tangible manifestation of Israel’s seperation from the nations. The former enforced the latter. If Gentiles are no longer “unclean” peoples then there is no longer a reason to separate clean from unclean foods. I believe Paul is reflecting on this is Eph. 2 when of the Messiah he says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace. (Eph. 2:14-15)”

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