This morning I was scrolling twitter and saw a Youtube Christian Apologist SJ Thomason had posted one of her blogs from http://www.christian-apologist.com. I have read many of her tweets and watched some of her videos and I appreciate her decision to have respectful discourse with non-believers because many Christians will not without it getting very heated. I noticed she was preparing for a Dogma Debate podcast with David Smalley and the topic of Matthew 5:17 was mentioned. David Smalley has brought up in his conversations with Christian believers the contradiction that is posed in modern day Christendom with the “under grace” or “under the law” doctrinal debate. Here is a link to her full blog post on Matthew 5:17 if you would like to read it here.
Even before I deconverted from Fundamentalist Christianity a couple of years ago I also struggled with Matthew 5:17 while I was a believer so lets take a look at what Jesus is reported to have said:
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one [b]jot or one [c]tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
The gospel message I grew up in was very fundamentalist and the anchor of the faith was based on the infallibility of scripture. So this was something I sought out apologetic responses to reconcile my own belief system at the time. I read several bible commentaries and ultimately could not find a satisfactory resolution to this conflict in Christianity vs what Jesus was quoted to have said. The common thread of apologetic response was always tied in to “Covenant Theology” or even “Dispensational Theology”. Ultimately these two doctrines are used as a mechanism to challenge any reported conflicts or contradictions in scripture. For those who may not be familiar with these doctrinal beliefs or scriptural interpretation methods here is a simplification of their premises.
Covenant Theology supposes that God makes covenants and either alters these covenants or changes the covenants with man according to his will and plan.
Dispensationalism supposes that God dispenses with new information to mankind as mankind can handle it and as new information is dispensed we learn more of the plan and expectations God has for man.
Matt Dillahunty has a great video on both of these mechanisms apologists use in his Atheist Debates video “But that’s the old testament” . Many believers will admit there is big challenges to address in the “Old Testament/Old covenant” vs. the “New Testament/New Covenant”. There are very distinct differences from the character of God represented in both testaments of the Bible and it is not shocking these differences clash again in the reading of Matthew 5:17 hence the argument David Smalley presents on his podcast to believers that Christians are still under the 613 Levitical laws.
To address the blog by SJ I will address some key points and make a brief counter-argument. But before I do so it is important to distinguish that I am an Agnostic Atheist, therefore my counter argument comes from a viewpoint outside of Christianity. Therefore, I would like to introduce you to a segment of Christianity that agrees with David Smalley’s argument Christians are still under the law. Theonomy or some might say “Reconstructionalism” represents doctrinal positions of Christians that believes that Old Testament Civil laws are applicable to and obligatory for contemporary governments. Some contemporary Theonomists or Reconstructionalists you may have heard of or seen debates with are James Durbin and James White and these believers are also closely aligned with Presuppositionalists. I will not spend time elaborating on these positions but you can research more to see there are doctrinal positions in Christianity supporting what David Smalley contention we are still under the law.
After SJ’s introduction she starts out by pointing out the merits of reading the scriptures in their context (of which I completely agree with) but she also quickly adds we should use scripture to translate scripture.
The best way to understand passages in the Bible is to examine the context and other Scriptures in the Bible.
This brings in the presuppositional tactic of declaring all scripture works together and was inspired and given by God to be used to interpret future “dispensation” given via scripture. Part of the challenge here for Christians is that Judaism does not agree with the “New Covenant” dispensation that is given in the New Testament. When Paul converted after his Damascus road experience and started writing his epistles there was even disagreement with Peter and the apostles over following the Old Testament laws and customs. We have no clear evidence that Paul ever met Jesus before his death and Peter who walked with Jesus and was closest to his ministry did not perceive of the new covenant change while he walked with Jesus. Would Jesus not have shared this with his disciples? Apparently not he chose this revelation for Paul at a later date according to Pauline Christianity.
In Acts 10:28 Peter recites the law in his refusal to visit with a Gentile because they were unclean. This clearly shows Peter’s insistence to follow the Levitical Laws of God and the prophets. While Peter’s positions do change this is after the death of Jesus and come as a result of a vision and after meetings with Paul. It is my hypothesis that Paul and Peter knew they would not be able to grow Christianity with such restrictions and they needed to add gentiles to the fold to be able to expand their belief systems because the Jewish people as a whole did not believe Jesus was risen or the messiah.
Next SJ inserts her presupposition in to the rest of Matthew 5 by claiming Jesus is introducing a new covenant to the people.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-5; 11-12). The Beatitudes beautifully set the stage for Jesus in his revelation of the New Covenant in the rest of the chapter.
She then skips over the next verses:
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
This is important because Jesus is talking about salt and about good works and for the Jewish audience being “salty” was to follow all of the Laws of God and of the prophets. It is my contention he was encouraging them to stay strong and disciplined according to the words of the prophets and law because he reinforces the call to be salty by stating:
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one[b]jot or one[c]tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus then goes on to go beyond the written law and what can be observed by others to introducing expansions of these laws to even encompass “thought crimes” or “sins of the mind” if you will.
27 “You have heard that it was said[i]to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.29 If your right eye causes you to[j]sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to[k]sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
He raises the bar to new heights that go beyond an observable law. I contend if Jesus’s purpose was the bring freedom from the old laws as contemporary Christians claim then Jesus had the forum to declare a new covenant coming right then. But Jesus does not even allude to a new covenant as SJ presupposes but he closes with a call for perfection.
8 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Using scripture to interpret scripture is the mechanism that SJ offers to interpret and insert her doctrinal preferences but that fails to consider the timeline of when the books were written. She references Old and New Testament scriptures to back her position of a new covenant but what she references were mostly epistles written by Paul (who has the objective of positing his position of a new covenant to expand the faith via gentile converts) and Old Testament scriptures from Ezekiel that are received by Jews as a promise of restoration to their lands and bountiful grains, and place among the nations. As a matter of fact Ez: 36 v27 declares:
27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws
Judaism declares this same scripture Christian apologists use like this to fit a New Testament dispensation or doctrine to be faulty and that it reaffirms the covenant is still in place.
What I just did was to use the Bible to interpret the Bible without considering the audience it was written to or the timeline in which it was written or how the scriptures were interpreted at the time. This type of apologetic strategy reinforces contradictory doctrines and beliefs inside of Judaism and Christianity for a plethora of issues.
In closing I will respond to SJ’s conclusion:
Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament; he came to fulfill it. The 613 laws in the Old Testament are still recognized by Jews today, yet Christians are bound by the laws of the New Covenant: to love our Lord above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The New Covenant is the permanent Covenant that God has given his children. By faith, we follow the New Covenant and Jesus Christ – and by God’s grace we are extended his mercy, forgiveness, love, and salvation. 1 Corinthians 13 well explains the beauty of the New Covenant, which is all about love.
Judaism rejects the Christian position that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. The 613 laws in the Old Testament are still recognized by Jews today and they have been consistent in their understanding of the Old Testament scriptures while Christians doctrines have evolved. Christians are still bound by the Old Laws according to Matthew 5:17 and this is confirmed by even certain sects of “reformed theology”. Ultimately, when Jesus had a chance to offer a declaration of a new covenant he only reinforced the Old Testament laws. The changes to this belief system came from Pauline Christianity and not from Jesus himself.
With that said, I think it is great that SJ is having a conversation with David Smalley and I look forward to listening to a respectful and informative discussion between both world views. Coming from Christianity I know there are many well meaning and good people who just want to do what they think is right and defend their theological position. I was a Christian who desperately sought apologetics to strengthen my faith and ability to defend the beliefs I had been raised to believe were true. For this reason I can be empathetic to christians but that doesn’t mean that the conversation should end there, I am still open to evidence for Christian belief and doctrinal positions but to this point I have found them lacking.