Applying God’s Law


At what point is the OT obsolete?

I just got done reading Lev 19….my son (against my wishes, as my wife is an unbeliever) is in public school.  There are several classes that are making totem poles.  Now, you may think I am crazy, but it clearly says in Ex 20:4:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”

You may think I am tripping, but I will not allow this….he is my firstborn, first born unto God….this will not be tolerated! …..anyway, so I was just browsing around Leviticus this morning and thought to myself…what the heck?

Where do you take it (OT)? (to what point)

Well, you have a legit dilemma on your hands.  The first thing I would answer is that the traditional, historic position of the Church-universal is that the OT never becomes obsolete. In fact, a famous 14th century philosopher (and monk) named William of Ockham (you may have heard of Ockham’s Razor – entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem – which basically means the simplest answer is likely to be the accurate one) suggested that stealing was evil simply because God said that it was, which sounds good so far, right? But what Ockham meant is that God could have decided the opposite; He could have decided stealing was ethical, and it would have been. The Church rejected this as heresy and said that no, the law of God was an expression of God’s very nature and could no more change than could God. Therefore, since God is immutable, His law is immutable (not subject to change).  Since no one questions whether God is immutable, I guess that much is decided.

The big question is, since some things in Scripture obviously change (for example, Adam and Eve could only eat fruits, vegetables, and seeds; but after Noah everyone was allowed to eat meat) what is part of God’s eternal law and what is not?

A majority of the Church throughout history has answered that God’s moral law is eternal. The Anglican Church expressed it this way in the 39 Articles of Religion (written over a 30 year period and finalized in 1571):

“The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: . . . Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

So now we have yet another question: which commandments are the moral ones? I have never run across, nor do I have, a bullet-proof answer to that question, which is why at King Messiah Fellowship we have the following guideline:

“We believe the Bible is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and a description of the lifestyle of the redeemed community throughout history. While God’s commandments are to be considered prescriptive, we acknowledge that they require adaptation from generation to generation.”

We see a precedent for this in the Gospels, where Jesus declares to the disciples that in the context of a council of elders they can count on His guidance (via the Holy Spirit) and actually have the authority to determine what will be a permitted way of walking out God’s Law (compare Matthew 18:18-20 and John 20:21-23).

This is why the church has often said that the three pillars of decision making should be Scripture, Reason, & Tradition. They understood that as godly elders made community rulings throughout history, they formed what we know as Tradition, and it should be one factor we take into consideration as we try to figure out how to live out God’s laws in this place and time.

Soo…so much for introduction to the problem itself. Now let’s consider the specific scenario at hand. Clearly God said in the 10 commandments (which everyone considers part of the moral law – except for those who exempt the Sabbath from that category) that we are not to make for ourselves a carved image. HOWEVER, what does that mean–does this prohibit all statues or sculpture? Does this prohibit all art and photography? I don’t think so; why not? From analyzing the language of the passage and keeping verse 4 in the context that includes verse 5, it becomes apparent that God is prohibiting the making of a carved image for purposes of worshiping it. Clearly this is not a blanket prohibition on sculpture.

However, the Indians made totems for idols. Or did they; the evidence seems to indicate that they did not, although culturally ignorant missionaries tended to view the totem poles as idols, that wasn’t what they were to the Indians.

Furthermore, are the school kids carving the totems for idolatry? I doubt it. Since it seems that there is not a black and white, hard and fast, no-questions- asked commandment against making totems, I begin to ask myself further questions. Questions like, “How will my wife perceive this if I deny my son from participating?” “Will it seem to represent a God of grace and mercy to her, or seem more like a tyrannical, dictatorial God that I am using/abusing to bolster my quest for male power and dominance?”  Of course, I don’t suggest that is true, only that it could be misperceived in that fashion.

Clearly, there are lines that cannot be crossed; if the school is teaching that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle alternative than I will have no choice but to exempt my son from that class, and it would be preferred to remove him from that school. But the situation with totem poles is not one of those black and white issues.

Soo…I cannot tell you what the right decision is in this scenario, but I can tell you that from an outside the situation analysis it seems to me that I would probably allow my son to participate, depending of course, on what is being said about the totem poles.

5 thoughts on “Applying God’s Law

  1. Thanks for this post, Nate.

    It’s an interesting question. I’ve been studying the 613 commandments on my blog via the Commandments Hierarchy Project, and we just studied some commandments that deal with idolatry. You might be interested to know how the 27th-31st commandments are summarized by Maimonides:

    27. Not to worship idols in the manner they are worshiped Ex. 20:5
    28. Not to worship idols in the four ways we worship God Ex. 20:5
    29. Not to make an idol for yourself Ex. 20:4
    30. Not to make an idol for others Lev. 19:4
    31. Not to make human forms even for decorative purposes Ex. 20:20

    (Verse numbers are Hebrew bible verse numbers, may vary slightly in Christian bibles.)

    Is is arguable that carving a totem would fall under 29, 30, or 31, indicating that it would be a violation of the God’s law.

    All that said, I sympathize with your friend’s situation.

  2. Judah,

    Maimonides is one example of a tradition of application/extrapolation.

    Since totem poles were never worshiped as idols, and were almost never human forms, I have a hard time seeing how any of these could possibly apply.

    The commandments hierarchy project is a really neat idea. I love the graphic analysis.

  3. Yeah, certainly not definitive, only arguable. I wanted to bring that up as an alternative, traditional point of view.

    >> The commandments hierarchy project is a really neat idea. I love the graphic analysis.

    Thanks! We’re trying to map 5 commandments every week or two. This means we’ll be done in 2012 or so. 🙂

  4. We don’t have enough information. Is this a religion class? A woodworking class? A history class?

    How old is your son?

    Not all totem poles have a spiritual context. Many were just a telling of a history or event.

    Some are just decorative.

    If it is a woodworking class, I’d say go for it. If it is in the context of religion, I’d have a chit-chat with the teacher and explain that totem poles are not all religious and in fact, rarely were.

  5. Barbara, not my son…a friend of mine sent me the email that begins this post, and I just shared my response because I thought it was a thought-provoking scenario.

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