Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wesley Hill, Modern Marcionism and Torah Ethics

In a recent column in First Things, Wesley Hill calls out Andy Stanley for stating that the gospel “is completely detached … from everything that came before,” that Christians “are not accountable to the Ten Commandments,” and that “The Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.”

From Hill’s perspective, Stanley’s comments amount to a new Christian Marcionism not by denying the inspiration of the Old Testament, but by declaring that it has been superseded by the New Testament, and by implying that the Old Testament is irrelevant for Christian ethics.

To Stanley’s claim that the “apostolic decree” in Acts 15 “was a general call to avoid immoral behavior[,] but not immoral behavior as defined by the Old Testament,” Hill responds:
“New Testament scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl have demonstrated that the rules for Gentile converts outlined in Acts 15 themselves go back to the Old Testament’s guidelines for Gentile sojourners in Israel.” 
To be fair, some of the quotations from Andy Stanley’s sermon remind me of things I tell my students: It is true that Paul seldom refers directly to the Old Testament when he gives ethical instruction. You won't find the apostle trying to persuade his audience to agree with him by appealing to the authority of the Law of Moses as a legal code. And if Christians are "not under law, but under grace," then that law must include the Ten Commandments as well. Stanley is on to something.

I also agree with Stanley that the way the prohibitions in the apostolic decree are authorized is significant. In an essay on “Torah Ethics in Acts,” I wrote:
“Despite the absence of chapter and verse references, Luke’s readers would have connected the prohibitions against things defiled by idols, blood, what is strangled and sexual immorality (15:20) to the Torah. … Nevertheless, the four requirements of the decree are not authorized by Moses. While they are connected to the law of Moses (15:21), James formulates the terms of the decree as his judgement (15:19). In the letter the “apostles and elders” send to the Gentiles, the requirements are authorized by the Holy Spirit and the Jerusalem apostles and elders, not Moses (15:28, cf. 16:4).” (p. 85)
But Paul’s insistence that believers are free from the law, and the fact that the apostles and elders in Acts 15 do not appeal directly to the law when they issue ethical requirements does not mean that the Torah was no longer viewed as a divinely-inspired guide for human behaviour. Surely it was. In Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), Susan Wendel and I asked contributors to consider not if, but how the Law of Moses continued to inform Christian ethical thinking even for those who, like Paul, did not think Torah observance was essential for salvation.

Hill's column demonstrates that the answer to this question can have important practical consequences.

In my essay on Acts, I concluded,
“[A]lthough Luke did not think that Gentile Christ-believers encounter the Torah in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, he presumably took for granted that the law—and controversy stories about the law in Luke’s Gospel—remains authoritative and relevant for Gentile Christ-believers when it is read as prophecy and applied by analogy.” (p. 91) (For what it means to read law as prophecy, you will need to read the essay itself.)

In Luke's writings, the Mosaic law continues to function authoritatively, but it is not the go-to source for Christian ethics--that honour goes to Jesus:
“The law in Luke’s writings plays a supporting role behind Luke’s overwhelming interest in Jesus. While Luke does not think they conflict, it is the example of Jesus, much more than the demands of Torah, that serves as the primary paradigm for the main characters in Acts, and hence for Luke’s Gentile readers.” (p. 91)
In this context, I would want to stress the absence of conflict. As Hill puts it, "One cannot pit Paul's sexual ethics against the Ten Commandments, from which they stemmed."

Wesley Hill,  "Andy Stanley's Modern Marcionism," First Things (5.11.18)
Miller, David M. “Reading Law as Prophecy: Torah Ethics in Acts.” Pages 75–91 in Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity. Edited by Susan J. Wendel and David M. Miller. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Wendel, Susan J., and David M. Miller, eds. Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

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