Whenever people express concern to me about honor and shame, they inevitably reemphasize the importance of law. They are nervous that honor-shame threatens to displace “law” as a key biblical theme.
After countless conversations, I’ve realized what the real issue is. (After all, I repeatedly tell them that law is an important idea.) People are afraid that by not stressing law-language, we would relativize right and wrong.
This is a bad assumption that is based on their confusing law, commands, and absolutes. Even if there is some overlap, they are three distinct concepts.
Typically, this topic comes up when taking about the meaning of sin. I simply want to make a basic point: Describing sin in legal term is completely valid, yet “sin” is bigger than the law-metaphor. It is more than the breaking of a law (even God’s Law).
I know that can be hard for people to grasp. Here are two tips that may help.
1. Don’t Confuse Laws with Commands
Sooner or later, someone will appeal to Gen. 3, saying that Adam and Eve broke God’s law when they ate the fruit. They suggest that humanity broke God’s law in the Garden.
The problem is this: God gave a command, not necessarily a law. A command is only a “law” when one’s metaphorical context is legal. What if we switched metaphors? As Creator, God is also Father. A father’s commands are not inherently reckoned “laws.” We do not typically peak of a child’s disobedience (to parents) as “crimes.” That would mix metaphors.
In short, a law can be a command but a command is not necessarily a law.
No doubt, sin can rightly be described as breaking a king’s laws, but we can talk about sin using other metaphors. For instance, it is just as valid to explain sin as dishonoring God.
2. Don’t Confuse Laws with Absolutes
A number of people uphold legal metaphors as a way of protecting an absolute standard of right and wrong. They assume that an honor-shame perspective relativizes moral norms. After all, they suppose, honor and shame depends on context.
What one might fail to see is that laws are just as “relative.” A law only has authority within a certain sphere. As much of the world knows all too well, laws are often created and enforced according to the will of those in power. Thus, the inconsistency common to many legal systems does not people to associate legal metaphors with “absolutes.” If anything, laws may represent arbitrary abuses of power.
In other words, there is no inherent connection between the metaphor of “law” and absolute norms.
I know how some readers will respond. They will say, “But God is king of all nations, so His commands are absolute laws.” Yes, I agree. That is why legal metaphors are essential for understanding the full breadth of biblical truth.
However, we can emphasize morality and goodness in other ways (besides the law) without devolving into utter relativism. For instance, when our view of what is worthy of honor and shame is oriented upon Christ, we discern what is absolutely glorious and praiseworthy.
Paul’s own words beautifully illustrate the standard by which we should live and thus what we fail to do when we sin.
In 1 Cor 10:31, he says
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.