Monday, January 29, 2018

Church Write-Up: Is the Law a Transcript of God's Character?

For church this morning, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Word of Faith” church.

I will start with the “Word of Faith” church, since my focus in this post will be on the other service and the class.  We had a guest speaker at the “Word of Faith” church, and he was talking about how God loves variety.  God made us all different and unique and wants us to serve him, in our uniqueness, in the body of Christ, the church.  I’ll leave that there, without comment.

Now for the other service and the class.  Allow me to give some background information.  Most nights, when I am trying to fall asleep, I do the “Church of James Pate’s Brain,” in which I preach sermons in my head.  I pretend that people are listening to them on the radio, watching them on television, listening to them on the Internet, or hearing them in a congregation.  Anyway, I got onto the topic of God’s law.  I recalled that, when I was attending Seventh-Day Adventist churches and reading Seventh-Day Adventist literature, I encountered the idea that the law of God is a transcript of God’s character.  I was reflecting on whether that was true.

I was going through the Ten Commandments.  I wondered how many of the Ten Commandments apply to God.  Does the First Commandment against having other gods apply to God?  Maybe.  God does not worship anyone other than God-self.  This, as an Intervarsity sponsor explained to me years ago, is not because God is vain but because God has a healthy self-appreciation of who God is.  Does God obey the Second Commandment against graven images?  I cannot envision God being tempted to worship a graven image, either a lesser deity the graven image supposedly depicts, or even a visual representation of God: God knows who God is, so God would not be tempted to worship what is less.  Would God keep the Third Commandment against taking God’s name in vain?  Well, God does not do anything flippantly, and, when God swears by Godself, God keeps God’s oath (Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13).  Does God observe the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath?  God did rest on the seventh day after creation.  Yet, in John 5:17, Jesus defends his act of healing on the Sabbath by saying that his Father works and he works.

Does God obey the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s parents?  God the Father does not have parents.  God the Son has God the Father, and God the Son honors and obeys God the Father.  Does God observe the Sixth Commandment against murder?  Well, God does kill people in the Hebrew Bible.  Judah’s son Er comes to mind (Genesis 38:7).  But one can then say that God justly killing a person is not the same as murder, the same way that the Torah is not inconsistent when it prohibits homicide while mandating the death penalty for certain crimes: in this view, God’s acts of killing are justice, not murder.  Another approach would be to say that God was simply accommodating a violent culture when God killed people, and that is not truly who God is.  Matthew Fleischer expressed this idea in his book, The Old Testament Case for Non-Violence (see here for my review).  Then there is Exodus 21:14, which refers to an act of unintentional homicide by one human being against another as an act of God.  Does God observe the Seventh Commandment, against adultery?  God is married to Israel, and God is faithful to her, in the sense of being committed to her.  But can God commit adultery?  Does God obey the Eighth Commandment, against stealing?  God owns everything, so God cannot technically steal from anyone; the Eighth Commandment seems to be inapplicable to God.  Does God adhere to the Ninth Commandment, against bearing false witness?  Titus 1:2 affirms that God cannot lie.  Does God obey the Tenth Commandment, against coveting?  Again, God owns everything, so God cannot really covet.  But God does the opposite of coveting by being generous.

Going through these just now, I can see, better than I did Saturday night, that the law of God is, in a sense, a transcript of God’s character.  Some commandments apply to God more than others.  The ones that do not directly apply to God may still reflect a divine attribute, such as concern for others’ well-being.  Then there are the laws in the Torah about compassion and charity for the poor, and those reflect the divine attribute of generosity.

Something that went through my mind Saturday night was that God is preoccupied with more than “Thou shalt not kill.”  “Thou shalt not kill” and some of the other commandments came into being in response to sin, which was falling short of or contradicting God’s character.  God’s character is concern for others and generosity; murder came along and contradicted that.  Is “Thou shalt not kill” a transcript of God’s character?  Well, love is a transcript of God’s character, and murder came along as an act that ran contrary to that; God’s character includes but is greater than “Thou shalt not kill.”

Some other topics went through my mind Saturday night: Could God be compassionate before there was suffering?  Well, God is outside of time, or God could foresee suffering, so perhaps God was compassionate in that way.  Here, I am writing myself into a pit.

Back to the services.  In the children’s service, the children’s pastor was saying that God does not love out of obedience to a law or a desire to avoid sin, for God has that covered.  God does not have to worry about sinning, for God will not sin.  Rather, God acts in reference to what is loving.  And that is how we should be.  The pastor in his sermon made a similar point when he preached about I Corinthians 8, which was about how the professing “spiritual” people who knew that the idols were nothing should avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols out of concern for Christians who had recently come out of an idolatrous lifestyle.

At the patristics class, we were continuing through John 5.  The teacher asked if Jesus deliberately went out of his way to violate the Sabbath.  Someone in the class said that love for neighbor supersedes the Sabbath, and someone else even went so far as to say that love of neighbor has replaced the Sabbath command.  The teacher cautioned people to be careful with this insight—-not to lightly violate God’s rules!

I grew up as a Seventh-Day Sabbatarian, and I learned a different perspective on the Sabbath.  According to this perspective, the Sabbath was God’s gift to humanity, a command for humans to rest from their toil.  Slave and free got a day off, freedom from their labor.  The Pharisees, however, made it about do’s and don’ts and, in the Gospels, wrongfully prioritized the Sabbath over human healing.  Samuele Bacchiocchi actually argued that Jesus deliberately did his miracles of healing on the Sabbath, not to break the Sabbath, but rather to honor the Sabbath: the Sabbath was a day of freedom and liberation, and Jesus was honoring that aspect of the Sabbath by setting people free from their diseases.

This perspective makes some sense to me.  Something that it arguably neglects, however, is that the Sabbath in the Old Testament was a command, not just a gift.  One can refuse a gift or decide not to use it, but the Israelites had to keep the Sabbath, otherwise they were be put to death (Numbers 15:32ff.).  Rest needed to be enforced, otherwise people might not take advantage of it and the point of the Sabbath would be lost.  The Pharisees saw the Sabbath as a command.  The problem was that their application of the command, at least in the Gospels, stood in the way of other values, such as the love that should well up inside of a person when he or she sees that somebody else is healed.

I guess that what I can say is this: the Sabbath was part of a transcript of God’s character, in that it reflected God’s concern for people’s well-being.  Yet, the Sabbath was applied in a manner that was inconsistent with God’s character, by people who understood that the Sabbath was a command, not a suggestion.

I will stop here.

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