Legally Human

I have noticed as human beings we love either/or ways of looking at the world. Christians are not exempt from this. Since the Reformation era there have been some very big supposed opposites one of them being the law versus grace, works versus faith. When you grow up in a Protestant setting like I did you do really get that sense of antagonism, that the law is opposed to grace or vice versa. The law gets a bad rap. Of course this way of looking at things is largely based on certain interpretations of Paul but as any careful student of the Bible knows, the discussion is not nearly as simple as many make it out to be. Without wading deep into the debate of what Paul really meant when he said those things in Romans, Galatians and Ephesians we need to at least agree things are a bit more complicated. (In Pauline scholarship the so called new perspective offers some interesting insights on this discussion.)

In the Bible the word “law” is used in many different but related ways nonetheless. Generally speaking it is used narratively, morally, forensically, and covenantally. No matter what in the Bible it is something that ultimately comes from God and is given to people for their own good when they live by it. Law is therefore highly regarded in the scriptures. Paul for instance describes Old Testament Law as spiritual, holy, just and good right in the middle of Romans of all places (Romans 7:12, 16.) Even the laws of human governments are seen as divinely ordained instruments to bring order and structure in society (Romans 13:1-7.) From the way law is portrayed in scripture it is more than a shopping list of do’s and don’ts. It plays a far more essential role in human life. It is actually the way to be human.

In Romans 2 Paul discusses what it means to be Jewish. Interestingly he did not limit Jewishness to birth or circumcision or even obedience to the Levitical law. He describes Jewishness in terms of the Torah which is greater than the legal code it contained. Torah tells us the story of how the family of Abraham became God’s chosen people. In it they are given the marks of their identity, of their Jewishness. The Torah was therefore the way to be Jewish and being Jewish meant being the people of God. Deuteronomy tells us that Jews were not special but God rather specially chose them. They were meant to be the example to the world of what it truly means to be human, that is, people living according to how their creator intended them to be. Paul therefore argued if you had the marks of citizenship given by the Mosaic code but you did not honour your creator in the way you lived, those legal identity markers were rendered empty and meaningless. Living to the glory of God meant a certain attitude towards your maker. Paul therefore redefined Jewishness according to the state of a person’s heart. The apostle was not coming up with a novel reinterpretation of scripture. He talks about the law being written on hearts which is a direct reference to the Jeremiah 31:33. The prophet himself was alluding to the Ten Commandments where he speaks of God’s law being written on hearts of flesh in contrast to the Decalogue which was written on stone tablets. Being Jewish was more than citizenship or being a part of a culture. It was a divine calling to be truly human.

At first such language sounds a bit funny, the idea of “being human.” Are we not human already human so how can we be something that we already are? Being human definitely goes beyond material composition. Biologically speaking we are not very different from the animals. Ecclesiastes makes a similar point. If we define what it means to be human only by our makeup or our natural abilities then there is very little that is uniquely human. Since Genesis is a book of origins it addresses the issue of what it means to be human. In creation God defined human identity primarily by function. Being made in the image of God entailed representing God’s dominion over creation. It meant ruling over a limited sphere of God’s creation in the same way the Lord Almighty is the ruler over the entire cosmos. Man was an angled mirror reflecting his creator’s glory into the creation. Furthermore Prof John Walton, a distinguished Old Testament scholar, points out that Genesis 1 and 2 is primarily about a functional and not material origins. He uses the analogy of a building to help illustrate this. The creation account is not about how the house is built but how the house becomes a home for people to dwell in.

If Genesis 1 and 2 are creation narratives then what it means to be human does not end with the formation of man. It climaxes with the vocation that was given the primordial couple. The work God gave them allowed them to be fully human. Even when we make things a fully realised design is the one that is able fulfil the purpose for which it was made. If the Wright brothers airplane did not fly their machine would never have been called an airplane. Likewise the act of being human is about fulfilling the purpose of our maker.

Since we have established being human is more than a state of being but encompasses a calling, what form does the human vocation take? I earlier mentioned the Torah was the way to be Jewish. Even though it was codified in Exodus, the story of being Jewish began in Genesis. I have explored in another post how in Genesis Abraham is portrayed as the one who takes over from Adam in the human vocation. In fact the best way to understand the Genesis account is intertextually, that is earlier texts shedding light on later texts and vice versa. When we look at the work and instructions Adam was given in Eden it was reminiscent of what later on Israel had been entrusted with. Not only were Adam and Abraham given a chosen land to serve God, they were also given a law. The choice between the two trees in the garden is reminiscent of the choice between blessings and curses, life and death, the Israelites were given in Deuteronomy 30:19-20. The Torah was to give them life through obedience. Likewise Adam would have continued in paradise if he obeyed God and ate of the tree of life. The parallels between the stories of Adam and the nation of Israel were not merely coincidental. As much as Torah was the way to be Jewish so are God’s commands the way to be human. Being Jewish was not for its own sake but they were to be God’s example to the world of what it means to be fully human.

When we turn our attention to Paul’s reappraisal of Jewishness in Romans 2, he says that the Torah was given to the Jews as a way to be truly human i.e. the kind of human God approves. It was a way to fulfil the original human vocation that was given in Eden. Since it was about being the type of person God made you to be, it was not only Jews who should live by God’s law. The Torah was given to them but for the sake of the world. Being truly Jewish meant being a member of God’s people but God wants all people to be a part of his family. In fact this was the promise he gave to Abraham. This theological through line from Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch all the way to the New Testament shows that it was never God’s intent to get rid of the law. The major concern was rather how humans could keep God’s law. Paul thought that people who were not ethnic Jews could fulfil God’s law without the Mosaic code. In the New Testament what happens is that what law is, how we understand it and what it means for humans to keep it is radically reworked around the Messiah Jesus, the truly human one. Instead of being discarded or treated suspiciously, it literally remains vital to the New Testament people of God. Law is life giving. Even though we are not under the Mosaic code the believer still has law and that law is Christ, the fully human one.

Next post ⇒ Living Law

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