Before anything else, a word about “Torah” may be in order. I have been persuaded that “law” is a bad translation of “Torah,” even though it is evident that what is called “Torah” does have commandments, statutes, and ordinances in abundance. Why not “law?” “Law” as a translation for “Torah” is overly narrow in its implications. It suggests that we come to Moses’ books expecting to find something like a “law code.” But Moses’ Torah is much more than a law code, even though in some respects it can be seen to function as a “constitution” for Israel, a law above the law.
Torah includes history, paradoxical wisdom-like instruction, encouragement, rebuke, poetry, and even prophecy. As such it is clearly not a “law-code” nor is it just a “constitution.” The best translation is probably “instruction,” but that comes across as rather bland. To retain something of the aura of mystery and majesty surrounding the books of Moses, I chose to refer to them as “Torah.” The transliterated Hebrew word provokes the English reader to think more deeply about the nature of these profound writings.
For too many Christians, the real issue is not whether we call it “law” or “Torah,” but why we even bother with an outdated “law” that is beyond comprehension and no longer relevant for Christian living. We may ask: who cares to learn about clean and unclean animals, ceremonies for cleansing, or laws about sex and warfare? But in fact, the answer to the question, “Who cares?” is clear: Jesus cares.
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Jesus emphatically affirmed that He did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). When He explained what that means, He asserted that even the “jots” and “tittles” of the Torah will outlast heaven and earth (5:18). Not only the words of the Torah, but its very letters will be fulfilled. However difficult it may be for us to comprehend its details, the Torah is comprehensively relevant.
Paul says the same thing when he teaches Timothy that “all Scripture” is “breathed out by God” (ESV) and is therefore profitable to equip the man of God for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). No doubt Paul did not mean to say that every verse of Scripture is equally profitable for every good work, but he is still unmistakably affirming the exhaustive applicability of Scripture, which includes the Torah of Moses. Indeed the whole of Scripture grows out of the Torah of Moses.
If we find the Torah difficult, therefore, the question of how a Christian should approach Moses’ Torah is profoundly important. I believe the answer to this question is also found in the teaching of Jesus and Paul — not to mention the rest of the New Testament. And the answer they give us — surprising perhaps to some — corresponds well with the Medieval approach to exegesis called the “quadriga.” Peter Leithart in his book, Deep Exegesis, offers a succinct explanation of the method.
“Over the course of several centuries, medieval theologians and biblical students had developed what is known as the fourfold method or quadriga. According to this mode of reading, Scripture as a whole and its particular passages are not single in sense, but have multiples senses, specifically the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. Interpreted literally, a passage tells us what happened; the allegorical sense teaches us what we are to believe, particularly about Christ and his church; the tropological tells us what we are to do; and the anagogical tells us what we are to hope for. From the time of John Cassian, Jerusalem served as a key example of the method. Literally, Jerusalem is the city of David; allegorically, it is the church; tropologically, each of us is a city in which God dwells, so what applies to the whole city applies to each of us; anagogically, it is the future Jerusalem.”[i]
To restate the terms of the quadriga in slightly different language, our approach to the Torah of Moses must be (at least) fourfold.
The quadriga was not a system imposed on Scripture by deluded dons following dead scholastic traditions. The fourfold approach finds its roots in the teaching of Paul and Jesus, who not only gave us something like the quadriga through their teaching about Torah, but also through their example of Biblical interpretation.
One final thing must be said, though this does not constitute a fifth approach but an aspect of each method: a Christian approach to the Torah must be apologetic, that is, those who twist and distort the teaching of the Torah in order to blaspheme God must be answered. Moses, and Joshua after him, exhibited a sincere concern for God’s name, His reputation. In a time of outspoken anti-Christian atheism — exemplified, for example, in writings by Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — and Bible-denying “Christian” theologians and teachers — of whom there are too many to name — it is important for Christian teachers to show that the God of Moses is none other than the Father, Son, and Spirit, the God of everlasting love.
Ralph A. Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.
[i] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), p. 13.
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