Let me first take this opportunity to record my thanks to Peter Leithart and my five respondents, each of whose stimulating responses moved the discussion forward in different ways. I’m only sorry that my closing response is highly selective in response; I certainly plan to give their essays fuller treatment at a later date.

The conversation took place over Passover and Easter; always a good time to recognise the political implications of God’s saving acts for Israel and the world! God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt had unavoidable political consequences (even killing the lamb and smearing its blood on the house was dangerous; Exodus 8:26). Autocracy is shown to be unsustainable and Israel’s own political vision, post-Passover, is of a society in which power is dispersed as widely as possible. As Dru notes, right from the start, biblical law challenges us with a singular social vision – one that has had powerful, beneficial and long-lasting effects on the West. The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) prophetically applies these lessons to lands beyond: the LORD is King, so no-one can exercise earthly power in the same way again. This message is intensified to the ultimate degree in Jesus’ death on the Cross – the fulfilled Passover – and in His resurrection. Jesus is LORD, so Caesar isn’t. Both the original Passover and Jesus’ fulfillment of it blow the lid off the split-level Enlightenment view of politics, according to which the church is supposed to be concerned with ‘spiritual’ matters, whilst everyone else runs the world. This gets everybody off the hook: the church doesn’t have to do much calling to account and the powerful can do what they like. Passover and Easter overturn this cosy arrangement by testifying to the fact that Israel’s God, and the Creator of all, acts in history to judge the nations and will one day bring them all under his rule. Politics and scholarship are forever trying to get away from this larger narrative, not least because Passover and Easter are themselves in head-on collision with the other meta-narratives by which we try to live our lives, including Marxism and Western modernism.

It’s true that, as James indicates, Paul has more practical examples of how not to use the Torah than of how to use it. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that for Paul and his first-century Jewish contemporaries, Torah was not simply a list of commands but a narrative – one that was now fulfilled in the work of Israel’s Messiah and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus brings the life that Torah promised. In working out what this fulfillment means we would expect Paul to have plenty of fresh things to say about Torah. As James suggests, Paul’s examples of the positive use of Torah should be seen as non-exhaustive. Certainly, Paul’s letters speak to only a relatively small number of questions; even then, Paul doesn’t provide all the answers because he wants his congregations to carry on the thinking for themselves. As N. T. Wright notes in his major four-volume work on the apostle, Paul’s goal is to “teach his hearers to think theologically: to think forward from the great narrative of Israel’s scriptures into the world in which the Messiah had established God’s sovereign rule among the nations.”[1] Does this include the application of Torah beyond the church? We could hardly expect Paul to get local congregations into trouble by the public reading of letters that overtly criticized Roman civic and imperial structures. Yet despite these major constraints there is still good evidence of a critique of imperialism.[2] Identifying a critique of Rome and Caesar in both Paul’s theology and that of the New Testament as a whole is in keeping with the overall Jewish story which insists that, on the one hand, God intends and establishes human authorities to exercise earthly power and, at the same time, holds them accountable for their use of it. We are back to Passover, and Easter, once again.

This being so, and to follow up on Ralph and Roy’s important questions, there is no reason to see political pluralism as an insuperable barrier to political engagement. The biblical hope that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14) is future. No-one expects to see, in the here and now, the total saturation of public life with a single ethic of biblical law. In the meantime, Christians are necessarily committed to working within a pluralist society where – even at their most united – they will be only one group of players among many. Nevertheless that is no reason not to get stuck in. We have a role to play in constructively equipping rulers to bring a measure of order to the world. Christians should seek to manifest their future hope in the public square as an ‘inaugurated eschatology.’ Of course it is all “not yet.” But as I said in my opening essay, the fact that something is future means that it can, and must, be anticipated in the present. The choice is not between “imposing” our ideas and doing nothing. Even if we are not successful in changing anything, we must still bear witness to an alternative. For those living under hostile governments, now or in the future, bearing witness without ostensible impact may be our primary purpose and calling. And, though it raises a host of further issues, this may even extend to civil disobedience, in cases where Christians understand that they are being compelled to disobey God.

But whether we are equipping rulers constructively or engaging in civil disobedience, we still need to know what the biblical alternative is. Many Protestant theological circles, in the middle of the last century, ignored the Hebrew Bible. Going back a little further, we should remind ourselves that the early wave of historical critics focused their fire on the Pentateuch. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels eagerly promoted German biblical critical scholarship (and Engels sat in on their lectures). Marx and Engels understood all too well the importance of undermining public confidence in the Pentateuch, and biblical law. They knew it was a vital precondition for establishing their own utopian visions. Trashing biblical law (and embracing Marxist presuppositions, to boot) continues unabated; and, sadly, this includes many parts of the church. There is a massive work of retrieval required, as Dru and Andrew fully recognise.

When it comes to the subject of biblical law and its contemporary application it is hardly going too far to suggest a link between our scholarly neglect of the one and our practical neglect of the other. The study of biblical law is notan end in itself. The reason for studying it carefully is so thatwe can engage in better and more sensitive cultural application, for the glory of God. We are not merely concerned with the texts, qua texts, but with what these texts are about. This includes the pursuit of justice and the creation of a just social order. We are grateful to the political philosophers, activists and social reformers who came before us and who secured profound political change based on the Bible and biblical law. My contention is not simply that biblical law should be ‘applied’ but that it should be taught, understood and known in our churches (and beyond) so that it informs the worldview out of whichwe seek – once again – to be salt and light in our communities and public life, as part of a full Christian witness. The task is one of retrieval, not invention. I can see that the notion of a Christian witness in political life is controversial for some but I don’t see the role of biblical law as a source of moral knowledge in informing that witness as controversial. It’s integral.

Ralph is right to say that we can only do the application once we have acquired “a relatively sophisticated appreciation for Torah and its vision of a godly society in the Old Testament eras.” This isn’t as easy as it sounds! We have to reckon with the considerable tasks involved, central to which is developing a methodology that is up to the job. Andrew’s essay makes several striking observations which, taken together, grapple with the question of method, though he does not mention it directly.  

Andrew is correct to say that I don’t work within the standard Calvinistic, Reformed or Presbyterian approach to biblical law. For those who are less familiar with my work, the chosen paradigm within which I operate is one that seeks to reconstruct, as best we are able, how biblical law actually functioned in the social world of biblical Israel. Although I am an academic lawyer by profession, and so might be expected to privilege modern ideas about law, I have always been skeptical of the tendency (shared by scholars and laypersons) to project modern, positivist assumptions about how law ‘worked’ onto biblical Israel. As Dru is aware, Western conceptions of law are culturally-contingent and do not reflect biblical legal praxis. It’s another major stumbling-block on the road to our appreciation, and application, of biblical law. It raises the important question: How can we apply biblical law when we are not reading it properly in the first place?

Scholarship and practice go hand-in-hand. Reconstructing how biblical law worked and was applied in biblical Israel is vital if we are concerned about practical application, especially when ‘values’ in a given society often reside at an implicit, and not an explicit, level. It is more important still given that biblical law is characterised not only by brevity but an allusive style which presupposes knowledge of context and background (literary as well as social) not possessed by the typical twenty-first century Westerner. We have to look beyond the words of the page to understand the world of values and implicit social knowledge that made the texts meaningful to their original audience. My first book on biblical law, The Signs of Sin,[3] was dedicated to applying a rigorous methodology for making sense of biblical law in one particular area (‘seriousness of offence’); an approach I have used in all my work since.[4] In that book, I rejected a rationalist approach to determining legal values (which locates popular values at an abstract level) in favour of a semiotic one (which, being concerned with how meaning is conveyed, locates values at the level of language and symbol). I mention this here because it explains several matters that Andrew puts his finger on.

First, it explains why, as Andrew notes, my views seem to comport better with a Jewish framework than a Calvinistic one. A thorough-going reconstruction of how law operated in biblical Israel, and the narrative and imagistic cognitive structures that accompany it, is always bound to produce a reading that seems closer to Jewish piety rather than Calvinistic piety. This is because, generally speaking, traditional Jewish readings of the Scriptures foreground imagistic and narratival approaches to a greater degree than Calvinistic readings, which tend to be more abstract and systematic. But although some Calvinists find my work too Jewish, it’s equally the case that some Jews find my writings too Reformed. (Does that mean I am doing something right?) But it’s the method that produces this result – not a prior commitment to, or rejection of, either Calvinistic or Jewish readings of Scripture.

Second, it explains my insistence that we can’t “skate past the details,” as Andrew puts it. Again, that’s integral to the method. It’s unlikely that people in biblical Israel would have ignored the details and instead abstracted general concepts such as ‘value of life,’ ‘value of property’ and ‘incommensurability.’ That’s not to say it’s always inappropriate to use second-order concepts to talk about biblical law. It’s simply to acknowledge that it’s more likely, in cognitive terms, that the kind of sense that biblical persons would have made of these concrete rules would have been to attach tacit social evaluations to them and to compare them with one another in their literary structure. And that’s important because it means that the detail preserved in the texts, and their literary presentation, is crucially significant (added to the fact that God doesn’t waste His breath!). It’s why approaches to biblical law that simply hoover up the texts and present them formally as if they were a modern, codified legal statue, or which discuss them in wholly abstract terms, are so misguided. The problem with some attempts to apply biblical law in the public square is not that they are wrong to take biblical law seriously but that they don’t take it seriously enough. We need to pay greater attention to the form in which biblical law has been given to us, interleaved as it is with all the other literary styles we find in the Bible. Among other things, this ought to prompt a re-evaluation of the relationship between Law and Wisdom, subjects that have been played off against each other for far too long. (I suspect a close interdependence between the two – another major problem for positivist readings of biblical law.)[5] I mention this because, if there is a close relationship between Law and Wisdom, then it follows that the modern application of biblical law can be a surprisingly creative enterprise.[6] Again, scholarship and practice go together. The point is that there are no short cuts.

In all of this, getting to grips with biblical law, and understanding what its concerns are, can never be simply an intellectual conviction. The radicalism of biblical law is cheap unless it is applied. Unless I have misread anybody, I think all five respondents agree that we would like our churches to have greater confidence in the political salience of the Bible based on a whole teaching of the Scriptures; that we want to encourage Christians to think in a more critical and biblical way about their intellectual commitments and, out of all these varied engagements, that we desire to see individuals called and anointed under God to spearhead new initiatives which will be powerful and effective precisely because they are fully rooted in biblical values or, as Andrew calls it, in his genius turn of phrase, Torahic Christianity. It’s our time to shine God’s wisdom in a darkening world. 

[1] N. T. Wright. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God. London: SPCK, 1260.   

[2] E.g. Wright, op. cit., 1284 – 1299.

[3] The Signs of Sin: Seriousness of Offence in Biblical Law (2003). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement series; 364. London: Continuum.

[4] For a recent summary of that research see Jonathan Burnside (2020) “Write That They May Judge? Applying written law in biblical Israel.” In Daniel I. Block, David C. Deuel, C. John Collins, Paul J. N. Lawrence (eds.) Write That They May Read: Studies in Literacy and Textualization in the Ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Scriptures: Essays in Honor of Professor Alan R. Millard. Pickwick, 127-147.

[5] Jonathan P. Burnside. (2021). “Law and Wisdom Literature.” In Will Kynes (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 423-439.

[6] For the implications of a wisdom-based reading of biblical law for its contemporary application see Jonathan (2017). “Words of Wisdom, Words of Prophecy: Why and How Biblical Law Speaks in the Public Square.” Political Theology, 2017(1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/1462317X.2016.1268832

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