Note: The following is part 2 of an encore presentation of a series of posts that ran on my erstwhile blog, Sibboleth.
The Structure of the Universe (Part 2: Ethics)
This post is a bit lengthy, so let me summarize: “Should the death and resurrection of Jesus transform how we see ourselves acting as faithful followers of God?” The answer I see in the NT is yes, but the legal framework of the conservative Reformed Tradition requires it to say no.
The idea that law is the structure of the universe has some profound implications for ethics, as you might imagine. In fact, it would appear that an argument for law being the structure of the universe might be surest way forward in the pursuit of being a morally upstanding people who would be pleasing to God. No doubt, this is what the British Reformers were going for:
“God gave to Adam a law as a covenant of works…”
“This law, after the Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mt. Sinai in ten commandments…”
“Besides this law, commonly called moral…”
“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified person as others, to the obedience thereof…”
By positing a moral law, the Westminster Confession has provided a grid by which all humanity can stand before God and be judged: the court room is the thing. It provides a framework for an ethic that extends to all people in all times and places–a seemingly sure foundation for a robust ethic.
And, it’s important to note, that this is not simply the doings of an anal retentive deity intent on laying out a bunch of rules–the purpose of establishing this transhistorical law was to put in place a mechanism for enabling people to enjoy God as blessedness and reward: we were to earn something better by doing what God said.
Of the numerous problems that present themselves to this view of God, law, and the cosmos, I want to draw attention to only one: this biblical theology only works by stripping the biblical narratives of the historical particularity which gives them substance–and in so doing leaves Reformed theology without any mechanism for having its ethics influenced by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
On the decontextualization of the texts, the WCF & Co. interpret the prologue to the Decalogue as follows. The prologue is: “I am YHWH your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, it is the particular act of redemption from slavery in Egypt that constitutes his people as a people governed by this particular “covenant” or Law.
But the Catechisms interpret this: “Because God is the Lord and our God and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments.” They miss how the identity of God is tied to events in history. I think that this is the correct exposition if you are Jewish, but not if you’re Christian. (Except for that little bit about neglecting the fact that YHWH doesn’t refer to abstract Lordship but is the name of Israel’s God as revealed to the patriarchs and Moses.) The historical contingency of this set of commandments is underscored by the fact that even the Confession has to change the fourth commandment (rest on SATURDAY) in order to apply it to the present. In fact, that Exod 20 and Deut 5 give different reasons for keeping Sabbath is itself an indication that God’s commandments are tied to the historical contingencies of the redemptive work of God.
This bad reading of the import of the Decalogue’s introduction–a reading it is bound to give on its theology that God’s relationship with Adam = Moral Law = Decalogue–leaves no room for reassessing the actions that typify God’s people when that people is identified no longer with the exodus as the quintessential picture of redemption but with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as filling that role.
In other words, I want to argue that God’s name which stands over God’s commandments to the church is now: “I am the God and father of Jesus Christ who delivered him up for you all and raised him from the dead and seated him as Lord over all.” With a new act of deliverance comes a new set of lenses for assessing the faithfulness of the church.
Yes: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But now we know that God as Father, Son, and Spirit, which is why loving this God looks different (and why the first four commandments are never repeated in the NT?).
Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. But…
We now have a fuller picture of love: Jesus gives us the old command, “love one another,” and yet it is simultaneously a new command: “As I have loved you; greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”
Christian ethics are cruciform, because the commands of love are tied to a narrative in which God’s great act of love is shown to us in Jesus’ going to death on the cross.
And so, a narrative tied to history on the one hand is dangerous and deeply contingent. But on the other hand, the actual course of God’s actions in history can be trusted and we discover at the inauguration of the end that the way of love, and the God of love, calls for a world-subverting self-giving that was barely hinted at in prior moments of the story.
Why are Anabaptist ethics, and Methodist ethics, better ethics than Reformed ethics? Because these other views of God’s relationship with the cosmos is not based on the idea that God’s transhistorical moral law provides the ultimate order. They are therefore free to explore, for example, how cross, community, and new creation impact the ethics of the NT writers themselves, and therefore of the church that holds these as our canon.
The Reformed Tradition has this general idea in place: the indicative of God and God’s work forms the basis for the imperative of our response. But its ability to get beyond its contentious and litigious culture will depend on its willingness to have that “indicative” transformed by the cross: the ultimate “is” of the cosmos is not the moral law, but the love of God put on display in the cross of Christ. Thus the ultimate “do” is not “keep the moral law” but rather “embody the cruciform love by which God embraced you to himself.”
Based on the “law story” that the Reformed tradition tells, our salvation is accomplished when Jesus keeps the law for us, bears the law’s condemnation for us, and God justifies us on this basis. The courtroom is certainly an important facet of the NT’s soteriology. But when that is everything, and the word has already been spoken, then narrating how our lives fail to meet God’s standards simply evokes a response of: well, there’s one more thing to make Jesus’ work great.
We need, instead, a narrative of salvation, and of the cosmos, that writes us into itself by making us truly “Christians”–little Christs, not as District Attorneys and defense attorneys and judges running about declaring the system to which all must conform, but as self-giving lovers of the creation and creatures that God created for our own and God’s own glory.