Enigmatic or Paradigmatic?

Not to add any fuel to the volatile situation that has drawn some attention around here, but the next chapter in Preaching the Old Testament is “Preaching from the Law.” In this chapter, Douglas K. Stuart tackles the unenviable task of showing the role and merit of new covenant preaching from the old covenant law. He (unfortunately) does not give a how-to article replete with multiple examples but rather addresses the more general issue. Stuart’s solution to this enigma is framed around three sections:

Why We Avoid Preaching the Law

This short section makes a great point: Many times preachers avoid preaching the law because their parishioners demand immediate application. Therefore, with the pressing need to be relevant, difficult passages of Scripture are avoided because the preacher doesn’t want attendance to dwindle or (even worse) to lose his job. Anybody been there?

Why We Shouldn’t Avoid Preaching the Law

Despite the fact that the church is under the new covenant, we still must desire to please God. However, pleasing God is not done by adherence to the Mosaic Law but rather “by following Christ through the help of God’s Spirit” (89). Reading and preaching the OT law shows us what God likes and dislikes, the standards that He has for those who are His. Stuart summarizes:

Those who follow Christ must recognize that the Pentateuchal law is not our covenant law…. But this does not mean that the law somehow ceases to be the Word of God for us. (89)

How to Preach the Law in Principle

In the heart of his thesis, Stuart’s answer to preaching the law is to correctly understand the law as paradigmatic. That is, in principle, ancient law codes were never intended to give comprehensive sets of laws that covered every aspect of life. Unlike our modern law codes that have any number of loopholes, ancient law codes provided principles by which judges were to come to reasonable conclusions. For example (from Stuart’s article), when the OT law states that a child who attacks his father or mother should be put to death (Ex 21:15), one who attacked his grandmother would not be excused on the technicality that his offense was not mirrored in the law precisely. Rather, this specific law was meant to be understood paradigmatically as a reflection of the more general expectations of the Ten Commandments as well as the two overriding principles of loving God and your neighbor.

The impetus for his conclusions he takes from Jesus’ words in Mt 5:17–20. He reasons as follows:

Jesus both required and empowered us to preach the law—not as our covenant, because he made a new one in his blood that supercedes the old…, but as principles derived from paradigms to guide us into holy living under his new covenant: an obligation for every disciple, and therefore a preaching responsibility for every expositor of the Word. (99)

Stuart has given a very practical way (although not unique to him) of preaching the OT law. In my opinion, the only downside of his view, which focuses on making the law applicable to the new covenant reader, is how the law is meant to be understood within the context of the Pentateuch. John Sailhamer, from whom we will hear about preaching the prophets in this series, gives some thoughts on this in his Pentateuch as Narrative, among other places. If you don’t have this book, I would highly encourage your to make it your next purchase, especially if you plan to preach anything from the Torah. Taking this into account may have some impact on the way the law is preached, as well.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Randy,

    What do you think of Allen P. Ross’ treatment of this in his “Holiness to the Lord” (pp.58-64) and his “regulatory/revelation” distinction (p.62)? He seems to balance out the caution you mentioned here about getting the context within the Torah right before moving to “application.”

  2. I haven’t read Ross, Paul. What exactly does he distinguish between regulatory and revelation?

  3. Quote (f/Ross, pg.62)
    “The law was thus both regulatory and revelatory. The regulatory aspects of the law–kinds of animals, composition of incense, handling of blood, and all the other ritual acts–were bound up in the culture and experience of ancient Israel. The revelatory aspects of the laws–holiness of God, nature of sin, access to God, forgiveness of sin, removal of impurity, and all the many theological meanings of the acts–taught the abiding truths of the person and work of the LORD as they were unfolding in Scripture. When Christ came and inaugurated the new covenant, the regulatory aspects of the law came to an end: there was no longer a temple, sacrifices, or functioning priesthood based on the Sinai covenant. But what all these laws revealed about the nature and will of God did not come to an end, for they are binding revelation.”

  4. Posted by Caleb on February 8, 2007 at 7:31 pm


    Thanks for making some complicated issues much easier to comprehend! Good work here…


  5. Paul,

    Ross’ view seems to be quite different from Stuart’s in the terminology (revelatory for the former; paradigmatic for the latter). Both end at the same place, denying that the specifics of the law have any bearing on the new covenant believer, while the theological focus or paradigm remains. So, I would say that they have the same destination, although the roads by which they came are distinct.

    The question I had in mind for context was not so much the “abiding truths…as they were unfolding in Scripture” (to use Ross’ terminology) but rather the Pentateuch’s own evaluation of the law. I have more in mind the final composition of the whole in light of the words of Moses in Dt 29-31, with his new covenant language, etc. However, that’s a larger issue.

    What do you think about Ross’ and Stuart’s views?


  6. Dr. Randy,

    I need help with this one. I think I know what you mean by “the Pentateuch’s own evaluation of the law” but how does this look different in the end from what Ross and others typically say?

    Thanks for your hard work on this series…it has been very helpful.


  7. I have to run to class here in a minute, but here are some cursory thoughts.

    I believe that it’s important to keep before you when you are preaching from the law that the conclusion of the Pentateuch seems to be pretty (for lack of a better term) un-hopeful about the law. That is, even at the culmination of the book, Moses already places hope within the community of the new covenant. Thus, on the one hand it would be hard for me to preach for extended periods of time on the actual laws within the Pentateuch, but on the other hand, if the preacher chooses to do so, he must always keep before his audience to ultimate conclusion of the Pentateuch: you need a new covenant. Gotta run, but does that make any kind of sense?

  8. that should say…

    “he must always keep before his audience the ultimate conclusion”

  9. Thank you, Your thoughts are helpful as always. Your point is crystal clear…always looking forward, always looking New Covenant, always looking Messianic.

    Now is it possible to keep that view and maintain the distinctions that Ross and others hold up?

  10. I think it is possible and maintain the distinctions, because on many levels the laws were intended to provide purity for the individuals of the nation so that they might come before the Lord in worship. In that sense,then, they would be a reflection of what God finds acceptable.

    One thing I want to make sure I make clear about what I said earlier. I would argue that the Pentateuch itself, as it was written, carries the new covenant, messianic, etc. view. Thus, it is not something read into the OT text based upon teaching from the NT. Just a clarification, not for you, Paul, but for any others who may be tagging along with our conversation.

    I pray your worship will be blessed tomorrow. Preach the Word!

  11. Amen and amen Randy. The dominant view today is the “NT interprets the OT” and few seem to have grappled with the problems inherent in such a view. I hope we can address this more in the days to come.

  12. Posted by Bob Jones on July 29, 2007 at 1:16 am

    “The law has a shadow of the [Kingdom of God].”

    The Nazarite law required that you not cut your hair, you not drink the fruit of the vine, and if you unintentionally touched a dead body, it was as though you never took the vow.

    Jesus fulfilled this law. He took the vow at the last supper saying he would not drink the wine ’til the other side’.

    Then we learn that long hair on a man is a disgrace, and Jesus bore our disgrace on the cross.

    Then his own dead body released him from the vow permitting him to drink again.

    In the law of the leper, when leprosy covers you completely, you are to be pronounced clean. He who became sin incarnate, conquered sin and death and became the high priest (obviously clean).

    The law has so many shadows of Christ, that preaching the OT becomes real easy when you see them.

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