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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

How God's People Should Live

There is no doubt as to the OT answer to the question, How should God's people live? The OT is the answer. Or, to be more precise, the canonical heart of the OT, the Torah, the Law of Moses, is the answer, with the Prophets and the Writings indicating, inter alia, what obedience to the law should mean in practice. The law is, as it were, the other side of God's covenant love in choosing Israel to be his people and in providing means for Israel's salvation. The law indicates the human response appropriate to the divine initiative: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me’ (Exod. 20: 2–3). There is no doubt that the law was given to be obeyed, and in Deuteronomy, ‘the book of the law’, it is made clear that Israel's prosperity and length of days in the land was dependent on that obedience (Deut. 28–30). The law served also to ensure Israel's holiness/set-apartness to God by marking out its difference and separation from others—circumcision, sabbath, and food laws in particular (Gen. 17: 9–14; Exod. 31: 12–17; Lev. 20: 24–6).

Here too an adequate appreciation of NT ethics can be achieved only when this background is borne in mind. Much of Jesus' teaching is remembered as dealing with issues of how the law should be interpreted and lived, and there are fascinating tensions between Matthew's and Mark's portrayals of Jesus at this point (cf. e.g. Matt. 5: 17–20 with Mark 7: 19—the laws of clean and unclean set aside!). If Jesus' call to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ can be described as the sum of Christian ethics, as it obviously can be (Mark 12: 31; John 15: 12–17; Gal. 5: 14; Jas. 2: 8; 1 John 4: 7–12), then we need to recall that it draws directly on a specific commandment of the law (Lev. 19: 18) and is presented as the sum of the law (Rom. 13: 9). James seems to assume that the teaching of Jesus and the law cohere in ‘the perfect law’, the royal ‘law of liberty’ (Jas. 1: 25; 2: 8, 12). And for Paul too, despite all the negative things he says about the law, the Law remains ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom. 7: 12). It still provides a rule for life: ‘Obeying the commandments of God is everything’ (1 Cor. 7: 19, NRSV).

The distinctives (and problems) of NT theology at this point are caused by two factors. One is the initial Christian claim that they were experiencing the fulfilment of ancient hopes, a fulfilment which could previously be envisaged only for those who were wholly faithful to the covenant God and his law. The claim is remembered in the Gospels as being put forward by Jesus' message of the kingdom of God already present in a real sense through his ministry (Matt. 11: 2–6; Luke 11: 19–20) and in his table fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners (Matt. 11: 19; Mark 2: 17). The contradiction which the execution of Jesus seemed to constitute to this claim was wholly countermanded by the conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead, or, more precisely, that the end-time resurrection had already begun in Jesus—a fulfilment, in other words, of the climactic hope which people and martyrs had previously cherished as the final act of God's saving purpose. And it was further strengthened by the early Christian experience of the Spirit of God poured out as long ago promised for the age to come (classically Acts 2: 16–21). The problem (if that is the right word) is that an indwelling Spirit had been seen as the key to successful law obedience (particularly Ezek. 36: 26–7), and still in Rom. 8: 3–4, but that now it seemed to make much of the law unnecessary (Rom. 2: 28–9; 14: 17; Phil. 3: 3); obedience was to be determined by the Spirit (Gal. 5: 16–18), not as ‘works of the law’ which could be said to quench the Spirit (Gal. 3: 2–5).

Here we need to give full weight to the much abused term ‘eschatological’. For it was this sense of fulfilled hopes, that what had hitherto been expected only for the age to come (or the end of historical time) was already happening, which explains so much of the tension between NT and OT attitudes to the law, as indeed the tension within NT attitudes to the law. Much of this can, of course, be put down to the first flush of charismatic enthusiasm of a new sect. But the point for us is that this eschatological spirit suffuses the theology of the NT, and NT theology cannot be adequately appreciated, or drawn into wider theologizing, without taking it into account. What Christian theology does with an eschatology which has been ‘realized’ for nearly two millennia, and which still awaits the eschaton or end is a problem which can hardly be resolved apart from the eschaton! And what Christianity does with a law whose goal has already been reached in Jesus and his resurrection and in the outpouring of the Spirit remains a theological conundrum.

The other factor which both distinguishes NT from OT theology and problematizes the former in its relation with the latter is the fact that the gospel of or about Jesus spread so quickly among Gentiles. Here too Gentiles who received the Spirit and evident grace of God, without crossing any of the boundaries which the law had set to keep Israel separate from its pagan neighbours, quickly posed (and resolved) the question of whether such boundary markers needed to be preserved (Gal. 2: 7–9). Acts provides the classic precedent in chapter 10, with Peter applying the lesson learned in his vision (Acts 10: 11–16) directly to the Gentile Cornelius (10: 28), despite Lev. 20: 24–6, and readily accepting the outpouring of the Spirit on his uncircumcised hearers (10: 44–8); the precedent ensured the acceptance of Gentile converts without circumcision in the first Christian Council (15: 7–9). And it was evidently in this context, of Gentiles receiving the Spirit without works of the law, that Paul initially formulated his most famous theological formula, that ‘a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2: 16).

The problems caused to NT theology in consequence have been unending. Does Paul's formulation of justification by faith and not law effectively dispense with the law as having any part in the salvation process, the law which is so fundamental to OT theology? Does the Spirit render the law superfluous in Christian ethics? Or is the problem resolved by making some distinctions within the law, as traditionally between moral law and ritual law, or more recently between the law as rule for life and the law as separating Israel from the nations? Some sort of balance has to be achieved, equivalent in OT theology to the balance between God's covenant initiative and Israel's response of obedience. For the NT not only speaks of gospel and grace, of Spirit and faith, but also demands a response. Obedience is also required of believers (Rom. 1: 5; 15: 18; 1 Pet. 1: 2). Final judgement will be ‘according to works’ (Rom. 2: 6–11; 2 Cor. 5: 10)—how to distinguish justification ‘not by works’ from final justification ‘according to works’? Paul as well as Matthew look for ‘fulfilment’ of the law (Matt. 5: 17–20; Rom. 8: 4). Imagery of reward for achievement or good deeds (works) is not lacking (e.g. Matt. 6: 1–6; 10: 41–2; 25: 34–40; 1 Cor. 3: 14; 9: 24–5; Phil. 3: 14). Salvation (eternal life) is in some degree conditional on faithfulness (e.g. Mark 13: 13; Rom. 8: 13; 1 Cor. 15: 2; Heb. 6: 4–6). There is a tension in NT soteriology and ethics almost as severe as in OT soteriology. Or should we rather say, given the former's realized eschatology, a tension still more severe than in the OT?

New Testament theology, then, is a challenging enterprise, as it seeks to bring into fruitful dialogue the NT's own interaction with its OT heritage and assumptions, the texts in the historical contexts which determined their lasting shape, and the ongoing questions, old as well as new, which continue to call for theological response in the present. The existential sharpness of many of the questions involved is unlikely to permit the task to be merely and dispassionately descriptive. But how NT theology speaks to such questions requires an openness to be addressed by the NT text which is, sad to say, increasingly rare.

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