Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ephesians 2:15 and Torah Abolished?

I was discussing Ephesians 2:15 on the Theology List, and thought I would include a compiled copy here. Essentially, the question being addressed is: What does Paul mean by the term 'the law' and in what sense is it abolished?

A common Reformed approach is to use the threefold division of the law and say that Paul is here really talking about the ceremonial law when he uses the term 'law'. Hence the ceremonial law is abolished, but the moral law remains. But while I think categorizing it to the ceremonial aspects of the Torah and not the moral law is a helpful simplification to explain what is going on, I don't think it does full justice to the text. In Eph 2:15 I think Paul means the Torah generally and as a whole, rather than a more theological distinction between ceremonial and moral law.

If we use the language of threefold distinction into moral law (ML), ceremonial law (CL) and civil law (SL), we would like to say that Torah = ML + CL + SL, as if it could be so neatly divided that way. Eg the decalogue would be ML, holiness code CL, and rules relating to Israel as a nation-state SL. And in fact, probably we can categorize it like that if it is helpful. But now let me make another category called Universal Law (UL), coining my own terminology, and define it as the universal expression of God's eternal character as it applies to humanity. The simplification we would like is to equate 'moral law' with 'universal law', as if we can seamlessly move between this concept of Universal Law, and what we can select out as Moral Law from the Torah, and really they are one and the same. But I don't think it is so simple. I would instead say that the kernel of this 'Universal Law' is contained within the husk of the Torah. In fact, ML, CL and SL (if we take them to be the constituent parts of Torah) are all expressions of UL within that husk, though perhaps ML seems most clearly so. But each are specially packaged expressions of UL adapted specifically to the OT Israel situation. When the Scriptures use the word 'law', I think usually it has Torah specifically in mind, but the emphasis may vary between UL, ML, CL, SL or Torah as a package possibly extending to the whole OT (though I can't think of a case where SL would be emphasized, except perhaps where the emphasis is on some of the penalties). Now this is still a simplification, but to me, a better nuanced one than simply ML, CL, SL.

Coming back to Eph 2:15, as mentioned already, I think Paul means Torah as a whole package in this case, and not even just the CL aspects, although they might be more prominent. I don't think he means you could literally cut up all the words of Torah, and just remove the ceremonial ones, and that is all that was abolished. IMO the Torah is the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14). The ceremonial law was the superficial and tangible expression of that difference, but I think it is much deeper than that. The Jews prided themselves as in possession of the Law as a whole (cf Rom 3:2, Rom 9:4, Deut 4:8) and that possession, as well as the content of the law itself, set them apart from the Gentiles, and excluded the Gentiles. But the abolishment of the husk does not mean that the kernel of 'universal law' is abolished, nor even that the Torah is abolished in some absolute sense, so as to have no direct relevance to the Christian. Rom 3:31 makes clear there is some sense in which Torah is not abolished but rather the opposite. As does Matt 5:17ff. So I think in Eph 2:15, with respect to the Gentiles, the abolishment of Torah has to do with abolishing it as a legal or constitutional document which divides Jew and Gentile, thus also separating the Gentiles from God (according to Torah).

Actually, I would clarify further and say that Paul is actually speaking at two levels at the same time. Not only did the Torah exclude the Gentile, it also condemned the unbelieving Jew, and was a burden of death to them (and I don't think it would be just the ceremonial aspects that condemned them, cf Rom 2-3). Without the Torah being written on their hearts, the Torah only condemned them, and led to hostility between Jews and God also. Hence while the Torah held the prospect of peace with God and access to God (cf Eph 2:12), in practice it still left most Jews condemned before God. And hence also in that sense Christ not only brings peace and reconciliation to the Gentile, but also to the Jew who was already 'near' (Eph 2:16-17).

So in what sense is Torah abolished, and in what sense does it remain? In the tradition of Covenant Theology, with an emphasis on continuity, I don't think things have to be repeated in the NT for something in the OT to be relevant. What the OT teaches regarding God and man (to use Calvin's paradigm) still remains relevant today, and is by no means abolished. It is only the strict legal or constitutional character that has been abolished, which by no means undermines the revelatory character of the OT. I think Paul means to talk of the Torah as a whole being abolished, but that is not to be taken as a stand-alone, absolutised statement. The best analogy I can think of is the distinction between spirit and letter of the law. The letter is abolished, but the spirit remains. Kind of like what commonly happens when one pastor replaces another in a church. In letter the old pastor may have no official relationship with the church, but in spirit he often still remains an influence (whether in person or just as a memory), though it is not usually a good thing for the new pastor ;-) But here, what remains of the Torah is a good thing and we can and should keep going back to the letter of the Torah to find that spirit. And in fact the preservation of every letter of it is important to preserve the spirit of it also.


  1. Hi Craig!

    Just another Christian bloke in Brisbane. Where are you studying?

    I haven't had the mental energy to read your post properly at this hour of the morning, but will endeavour to as I can.

    God bless,

  2. Hi Kutz.

    I'm studying at the Consortium of Reformed Colleges (the Presbyterian college).

    How did you come across my blog? Are you in one of the same Yahoo groups as me..?

    Anyhow, thanks for stopping by. Feel free to interact if you want :-)


  3. Hi Tyler:

    I read your TORAH post and like your analogies and context.

    Stephen Silver