Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Grace and the Written Code

I finished Erwin Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  In this post, I'll use as my starting-point what Goodenough says about Philo's thought on page 398:

"True, obedience to the unwritten law in even this sense is a higher act than that to the written, for the former carries with it no statutory penalty, and hence is much more an act of free will on the part of one who obeys it.  Yet that perfect law, the Law of Nature or of God, by which the Patriarchs lived before the giving of the Torah, is also called the Unwritten Law.  So those who live according to the Law are free, while those under the power of the impulses are slaves.  But the Law which really will set us free, he says, is...not a law whose source and sanction is force, or something written on papyrus or slabs of stone...In contrast, we assume, the true law is unwritten, sanctioned by voluntary choice of the man who follows it, for it is an imperishable stamp put upon our immortal minds by immortal nature.  This is the Law which is really release from lower types of law, and the source of spiritual liberty.  By simply omitting the reference to Jesus Christ in Paul's Romans viii, we have all been familiar from childhood with a description of the higher spiritual Law which can set one free from the law of flesh and of sin, a description with which Philo would heartily have agreed."

My last post on Goodenough was about the view that certain passages in the Apostolic Constitutions were originally Hellenistic Jewish and have Christian interpolations.  Goodenough characterized one such passage to be saying that the Mosaic Law was a supplement to the natural law.  Perhaps the passage I quoted from page 398 clarifies what that means: that the natural law is what is morally right, but the Mosaic Law supplements the natural law by imposing penalties for violating it.  

There are many Christians who characterize Paul to be saying that Christians are justified by grace through faith, and nothing they do or don't do can nullify that.  But, in this view, Christians are not slaves to a written code, for a written code does not make people obedient but simply stipulates what is right and wrong and condemns those who do wrong (which is all of us).  But, through Jesus Christ, Christians have a new nature, which is conformed to God's will.  That overlaps with Philo's view, as Goodenough appears to characterize it, only Philo did not believe in Jesus.

Speaking for myself personally, there is an appeal to a New Covenant perspective that focuses on grace, for I believe that I can get further morally and spiritually if I have the confidence that God loves and accepts me.  Moreover, I agree that an external source telling me to do or not to do something does not make me good.  But do I think that this is Paul's perspective?  Yes and no.  My impression is that Paul maintains that the written law, with its stipulations and penalties, is inadequate in making people righteous, and that's why people need grace and the Holy Spirit.  But I wouldn't say that Paul thinks that the penalties for wrongdoing have been removed under the New Covenant, for Paul threatens his audience that those who practice certain sins will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

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