19 January 2012

Book review — 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, by Thomas R. Schreiner

by Dan Phillips

40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, by Thomas R. Schreiner
(Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010; 256 pages)

The meaning and role of Biblical law is a topic of great and regular interest in Christian thought, life, and preaching. Though I'd only read snatches and articles from Prof. Schreiner heretofore, I knew that Jim Hamilton (whose work I admire immensely) counts Schreiner as a mentor. Hence, I welcomed Kregel's provision of a review copy.

In 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, Professor Schreiner very concisely offers a wealth of useful information. The book is laid out in five sections:
Part 1: The Law in the Old Testament
Part 2: The Law in Paul
Part 3: The Law in the Gospel and Acts
Part 4: The Law in the General Epistles
Part 5: The Law and Contemporary Issues
The first and fourth parts are shortest (three questions each), and the second the longest (twenty-two questions, divided into three parts). Schreiner tackles the big ones, such as:
  • What Does the Word Law Mean in the Scriptures?
  • Was the Mosaic Covenant Legalistic?
  • Does the Old Testament Teach That Salvation Is by Works?
  • What Does the Expression “Works of Law” Mean in Paul?
  • Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Mandatory for Salvation?
  • How Should We Understand the Use of Leviticus 18:5 in the Scriptures?
  • Does Paul Teach That the Old Testament Law Is Now Abolished?
  • According to Paul, What Was the Purpose of the Law?
  • Does Paul Distinguish Between the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Law?
  • What Is the “Law of Christ”?
  • How Should We Understand the Antitheses in Matthew 5:21–48?
  • Why Did Paul Circumcise Timothy When He Refused to Circumcise Titus?
  • What Does John Mean by Keeping God’s Commands in 1 and 2 John?
  • Is the Sabbath Still Required for Christians?
  • Should Christians Tithe?
  • What Is Theonomy, or Christian Reconstructionism, and How Should It Be Evaluated?
  • What Role Does the Law Have in Preaching?
My intent is to whet your appetite, and urge you to get and read the book, so I'll not be presenting Schreiner's answers to all of those questions. (It's a Golden Rule thing, speaking as an author who's been asked "Please reproduce X from your book so I don't have to get it.")

Readability. Schreiner is, in the overused phrase, a "world-class scholar," yet I find his tone engaging, candid and conversational. He admits to having changed his view from time to time (e.g 67, footnote 7).  Schreiner works hard to keep the reader on the page, not assuming an understanding that may not exist. For instance, before discussing "legalism,"  Schreiner defines it (25), which can be dicey. The prose of the text is also broken up with a number of contentful, helpful tables and charts.

I think many will find the "summary" at the end of each chapter particularly useful. The discussion can be complex, but Schreiner always returns and nicely boils it down for us. A series of "Reflection Questions" also enhances usefulness in study group contexts.

A number of critical truths are excellently-put. For instance, "Faith looks to God's promises and his supernatural work, but law finds blessing through what human beings accomplish" (49). Also, in the context of Christian living, Schreiner emphasizes the dynamic of love — and adds "love also is defined by the content of the commandments so that love does not devolve into sentimentality" (197). Earlier, Schreiner had well said,
Love is like a river that replenishes the human spirit, but moral norms provide boundaries so that the river is not dispersed abroad but retains its strength and power. Because human beings are sinners, they are prone to deceit and may identify as righteous a course of action that is contrary to love. Moral norms stipulate the nature of love, clarifying what is righteous and what is unrighteous. (106)
Good writing and good teaching at the same time. Not as common as one could wish.

Substance. Schreiner isn't at all averse to running athwart common scholarly opinion. For instance, it has been common for decades to say that the Hebrew word tôrâ (commonly "law") means instruction, rather than commands. Schreiner demurs, noting that the term "usually refers to what human beings are commanded to do," though not denying that it can mean more than "commands and prescriptions" (19). I think that hits it right, as I see it as well. In an appendix to the Proverbs book, I say that tôrâ refers to "authoritative instruction that was meant to bring God’s own perspective to bear on daily living" (349). Schreiner's entire chapter on this question (19-23) provides an excellent survey of the meaning of common terms used, packed with plenty of useful citations and specifics.

Unlike the recent reissue of the ZPEB, Schreiner tackles the "New Perspective" at some length (35-64), concluding that its foundation "is not nearly as secure as some claim," and faulting it for being "overly simplistic" in some of its readings of the original documents (39), and noting that "The problem is with what the New Perspective brackets out of Paul's theology" (42).

An annotated bibliography adds to the value, as do indices and (of course, because after all this is a serious book) footnotes.

Sidenote: I notice that Schreiner addresses a number of issues by appealing to "a redemptive-historical standpoint" (175) — that  is, to the location of a text within the flow of redemptive history. In other words, without meaning to put words in Prof. Schreiner's mouth, it is essential to relate a text to its administrative context, to where it falls in the unfolding of God's plan for the ages. Is it in the context of the Mosaic Law, for instance, or of the Law of Christ?

Of course I think that Schreiner is right, and to ignore this is to flatten the text of Scripture and, however unintentionally, to do it violence. Far lesser lights have also argued and developed the hermeneutical importance of this point at some length, though they use another term than "redemptive-historical standpoint." One wonders whether it may not be time to give that (here unnamed) school of thought a little deserved credit for enduring many slings and arrows for arguing for what every bacon-loving Christian has tacitly admitted for millennia.

This is a terrific book and and terrific help. I heartily recommend   40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law to all, and expect to return to it repeatedly in years to come.

Dan Phillips's signature


John Dunn said...

It will be interesting to see whether Schreiner views the NT commands and imperatives (Law of Christ) as just a modified "third-use" category of 'law code' obedience, or whether he views them as that spiritual fruit which flows from Gospel grace and our union to Christ by the Spirit. Do we render 'grace obedience' or 'law obedience'? There is a difference.

neikenberry said...

Excellent review, thanks for your helpful comments.

I think that the "unnamed school of thought" may be named (and it might not be the one you're alluding to cough**dispensationalism**cough) in the upcoming work, Kingdom through Convenant by Schreiner's colleagues Wellum and Gentry.

jmb said...

I agree that this is a superb book. His chapter on the Sabbath is somewhat courageous; and correct, imho. Schreiner's Commentary on Galatians is also an excellent book.

John Dunn - Though he doesn't use the term "grace obedience," his pov seems to be similar to what that implies.

David Regier said...

Your book reviews are really thoughtful, Dan. As a bear of little brain, I'm unlikely to pick this one up, but I appreciate how you've outlined it.

Tom Chantry said...

@ JMB,

Courageous? I'd like to see that fleshed out. Agree or disagree, it seems hard to make the case that there is anything courageous about his stance.

Is it courageous to stand up for global warming at a Hollywood party? Or to call the President a Marxist at a tea party rally?

Didn't Schreiner just provide a defense of what is obviously the view of 99 and a half percent of Evangelicals?

Anonymous said...

@Tom Chantry

Are covenantists really only .5% of Evangelicals? That gives me hope.

Tom Chantry said...

@ James Kime,

Thanks for the kind vote of confidence.

That said, are Covenentalists that small a percentage of Evangelicals who have thought about the issues? No, the distribution is somewhat more even. But non-covenentalists, new covenant folk, general evangelicals who don't ever think through issues of law, and all sorts of other people would find Schreiner's position on the Sabbath agreeable. Are practicing Sabbatarians 0.5% of evangelicals? Probably not so many.

jmb said...
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jmb said...
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jmb said...

@ Tom Chantry

You must run in different circles than I do. It's difficult for me to remember a single believer, many of whom are dispensationalists, who agreed with me that the Sabbath is no longer necessary for believers.

For a more representative sample, take a look at the 256 comments at Justin Taylor's blog when he posted Schreiner's chapter.


Tom Chantry said...

@ JMB,

One thing we can see here at this site is that commenters show up based on the subject at hand and their level of opposition to it. I don't rate these things based on comments in a thread, but on what I see in the actual practice of the church.

Perhaps we really do travel in very different circles. I would be honestly shocked to find that 1 in 200 professed evangelicals both believed that the fourth commandment is applicable today and made an effort to keep it. The wave of the last few generations has been in the opposite direction. And given that the wave has been what it has been, I find it hard to call presentations like Schreiner's "courageous."

Mind, I'm making a very focused point here - not trying to debate the hermeneutics of law or even really to evaluate Schreiner's arguments. It just seems evident to me that in a day when a tiny minority of evangelical Christians actually practice Sabbath keeping, a great majority would be pleased to discover that Schreiner wrote an argument - any argument - which urged them to carry on. His position was bound to be popular with the widest scope of Christians. Making it isn't exactly courageous, which in and of itself is not an argument for or against what he said.

jmb said...

I have found that believers who don't know/care about details of justification, atonement, etc., have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to the Sabbath, even when they don't keep it correctly according to the Mosaic Law, which, I think, few, if any, do.

IOW, I agree with you that there is probably a small minority that genuinely tries to keep the Sabbath correctly. But I think the majority BELIEVES that it takes it seriously, and that it does not take kindly to the notion that it is no longer required.

However, I can't prove it. Maybe there are some reliable statistics on this issue.

The Nomad said...

Allistair Begg is one prominent Evangelical who believes the fourth commandment is still in force, along with the rest of the Decalogue. But he also sees himself in the minority on that point. I do seem to remember Ryrie in his Basic Theology saying something about Calvin holding to the idea of the moral law component still being in force as binding law, but being a bit muddled about what to do with the Sabbath. So maybe Schreiner is going a bit against the grain of his fellow reformed writers and thinkers. If thsre is an area where he seems to be iconoclastic it would probably be tithing. In any case I ordered the book and am eager to read it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention as I am right now in the midst of teaching Romans 6-8 so those questions are foremost in my mind right now.

Rich Barcellos said...

I blogged some thoughts about Justin Taylor's post a while ago. I also subsequently read Dr. Schreiner's section on the Sabbath (and other sections of the book). I posted twice on Schreiner on the Sabbath and then lost desire to continue the discussion. I may pick it up again some time. Here are the links.