‘Ceremonial law’ folklore is no substitute for an actual hermeneutic

“Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed,” Tim Keller writes — a sentence that would have baffled Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Luke, and Jesus of Nazareth.

This idea of a distinction between “ceremonial law” and “moral law” isn’t something any of those biblical figures or biblical authors would have recognized. It’s not a distinction that can be found in the Bible, only one that can be imposed on it.

It’s folklore, not theology. And it’s dangerous folklore, at that — one that correlates with and contributes to all kinds of supercessionist business that, in turn, correlates with and contributes to our rather nasty history of Christian anti-Semitism.

And that, as we discussed here recently, is tangled up with what Willie James Jennings calls “Gentile forgetfulness” — a major reason why, as he says, “race has a Christian architecture, and Christianity in the West has a racial architecture.”

(A data point in support of Jennings’ argument: Keller’s post is on the “Gospel Coalition” site — a group that provides an eager platform for white supremacist “theologian” Douglas Wilson. OK, then.)

Keller’s post invokes two-out-of-three of the folkloric responses to the “God hates shrimp” objection that we discussed here last fall. Here’s what I wrote then about this “ceremonial law” business:

The problem is that this distinction between ceremonial and moral law in Leviticus isn’t actually a thing. It doesn’t come from Leviticus, but can only be retroactively imposed back onto it. And the text itself doesn’t welcome such an imposition.

This is not an accusation of hypocrisy. It is a request to clarify one's hermeneutic.
This is not an accusation of hypocrisy. It is a request to clarify one’s hermeneutic.

The people who first wrote and compiled and read the Hebrew scriptures didn’t make such a distinction. Nor did first-century Jews, such as Jesus and Paul. The categories of “clean” and “unclean” in the Hebrew scriptures don’t really allow for this distinction either. It won’t let us treat those categories as merely “ceremonial” and somehow divorced from the matter of morality.

This problem becomes more acute when we actually try to apply this anachronistic distinction. The first step is, of course, to classify all the dietary stuff as “ceremonial” law and all the sex stuff as “moral” law. (Thus, shrimp is OK, but butt-secks is still bad.) But then it turns out we don’t want to keep all of the sex stuff, just some of it. So we have to sift through the sex bits, reclassifying the laws involving menstruation as “ceremonial” while still keeping many of the adjoining sex laws as moral.

It gets complicated. One has to read the Hebrew scriptures with a bunch of different-colored highlighters in hand — pink for non-binding “ceremonial” laws that can be ignored, yellow for “moral” laws that we can still condemn others for violating, etc. But how can we know which passages to highlight with which colors? The text itself wasn’t written in a way that would suggest — or allow — for such separate categories.

Keller takes another stab at how to make this distinction: “Christ changed how we worship,” he writes, “but not how we live.”

So, OK, biblical rules for “how we live” are unchanging and binding for all of time. Biblical rules for “how we worship” are simply “ceremonial” and, thus, were “repealed” by Christ.

That seems promising — until you start to look at the laws he consigns to the realm of worship rather than “how we live.” Eating shrimp? That’s worship. Menstruation? Worship. Promoting the welfare and prosperity of ethnic outsiders? Worship.

This distinction, as applied, does not seem obviously intuitive. It’s also just as anachronistic and absent from the text as the folklore about “ceremonial” law. Here’s Keller again: ” The coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character — his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force.”

All that stuff — including all the sex stuff, and especially the sex stuff, that’s the prompt driving Keller’s post — is “moral law” involving “how we live,” not “ceremonial law” involving “how we worship.”

Contrast that with this passage from Isaiah 1 (the same passage we read Frederick Douglass quoting the other day):

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

That passage — like the parallel rant in Isaiah 58 — isn’t asking us to distinguish between worship and morality. It’s telling us — both begging and warning us — not to distinguish between them. It’s telling us that how we live is how we worship:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

… If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

This, Isaiah says the Lord God says, is what keeping the Sabbath means. This is worship.

Inconveniently for Keller, this is right there in the “Old Testament” — preceding the coming of Christ. That monkey-wrenches the other favorite piece of folklore he repeats in his post: “If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.”

That was item No. 3 in our discussion of non-responses to the “God hates shrimp” objection. Here’s a bit more of that discussion:

This principle seems to account for the particular matter of the shrimp/gay disparity, but I’m afraid it doesn’t fit quite so neatly when it comes to many of the other commandments from the Hebrew scriptures that we would need for it to explain away.

Consider, for example, the prohibition against lending at interest and the commandment that all debts be forgiven every seven years. These are explicit, unambiguous commandments in the Hebrew scriptures, both repeated many times over. They are also, inconveniently, both reaffirmed in the New Testament. Jesus himself upped the stakes on these commandments — not only must we not lend at interest, he said, but we must lend without the expectation of repayment. …

The initial promise of this whole approach begins to falter once we recognize that the Sermon on the Mount is part of the New Testament. That’s three solid chapters of commandments and teachings that most Christians disregard as thoroughly as the dietary laws of Leviticus. None of what Jesus teaches there about money and possessions shapes our behavior as Christians today. (Even the early church’s teaching that “superfluity is theft” greatly liberalizes Jesus’ teaching there.) That New Testament passage also gives clear commandments about violence, retaliation, and public prayer that most Christians do not treat as binding. The only part of the Sermon on the Mount that most white evangelicals treat as mandatory is the bit about divorce — so once again, rules for your sex life are binding, rules for my possessions are not.

This whole business about New Testament reaffirmation might be more plausible if it were coming from some Dorothy Day-type who clearly lived and worshiped as though the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount were “still in force for us today.” But, interestingly, those types of Christians don’t usually cite this bit of folklore-in-lieu-of-hermeneutic as an explanation for why or how they pick and choose among what parts of the Bible they regard as binding. They’re much more likely to say — along with Jesus and Paul — that “love is the fulfillment of the law.”

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