Book Review: Sinai and the Saints, by James M. Todd III
James M. Todd III, Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community. IVP Academic, 2017. 225 pps, $24.00.
James Todd wrote Sinai and the Saints so that Christians would understand what claim the so-called “weird” laws in Leviticus have on Christians today.
When it comes to relating the Old Testament to the Christian life, we have a few options. Some Christians view themselves as still under the moral law (33–37), others under nine of the 10 Commandments (excepting the Sabbath, 37–39), and still others as under no Old Testament laws at all since Jesus fulfilled them, thus seeing the old covenant as largely irrelevant to the Christian and the church (39–42). But James M. Todd affirms that, while it’s true that Jesus fulfilled the old covenant laws and thus Christians are now only under the law of Christ, which is love, the old covenant still remains relevant to the Christian as “Christian Scripture and that its message stands in continuity with the message of the New Testament” (42–44).
If we interpret the old covenant and its moral code in the literary and narrative context of Scripture, we soon discover that the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is part of a covenant to which we are not a party (14–15, 62). Even back then, it did not govern all nations; it governed Israel as God’s priestly mediator to the nations which, incidentally, Todd uses to argue against Christians lobbying for the display of the Ten Words in government buildings.
But as witnessed by both the golden calf incident (63–67) and Nadab and Abihu (68–69), neither the people nor the priests were able to obey the laws God had given. So with each rebellion, additional laws are appended, which is why Paul says in Galatians 3:19 “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions” (70). The Pentateuch’s rebellion narratives, then, teach us to expect human inability and rebellion when faced with divine law.
And that’s exactly what we get. Israel’s post-Sinai sins appear to multiply, illustrating via narrative what Paul teaches via precept: “the law came to increase the trespass” (77, Rom. 5:20). But whereas God responded to Israel’s pre-Sinai sins with mercy, he responded to Israel’s post-Sinai sins with wrath (72–88; esp. 79), making sense of Paul’s enigmatic note in Romans 4:15 “the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (80). What’s more, the Pentateuch is self-conscious about Israel’s impending failure in the Song of Moses (Dt. 31) and the need for God to be the one to circumcise their hearts (Dt. 30:6). Even Moses didn’t hope in the Mosaic Covenant.
Since the Pentateuch itself equates the Old Covenant with the Ten Commandments (Dt. 4:13; Ex. 34:28), it’s doubtful at best that Christians can excise the Decalogue, subtract the Sabbath, and apply the remainder directly to life in Christ under the New Covenant (93). Because the New Testament treats the Sabbath as a matter of conscience in Romans 14, Galatians 4, and Colossians 2, we’re hard pressed to make the other nine commandments directly and universally binding, whether for Christians or not (95–103).
Todd’s main reason for this is apologetic: “Upholding [the Ten Commandments] as the rule of life for modern Christians presents several issues that could ultimately end up hurting the witness of the church in the eyes of a watching world” (105). Those issues are modeling bad hermeneutics that ultimately walk us into being charged with hypocrisy for pressing moral laws on unbelievers while neglecting ceremonial laws for believers. “Hah!” they say. “You prohibit homosexuality based on Leviticus 18:22 for everyone else, but you wear cotton-polyester blends in flagrant disregard of Leviticus 19:19. How arbitrary and hypocritical!”
Instead of treating the Ten Commandments as our moral summary, Todd directs us to the law of Christ—love God with all your heart and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, citing Mark 12:29–31, John 13:34–35, 1 Corinthians 9:21, and Galatians 6:2 (108–112). As for moral interaction with an unbelieving culture, Todd says Christians are far better off using natural law arguments rather than those rooted in the Ten Commandments. He also cites important differences in the motive and means of obedience to God under old and new covenants. Under the old covenant, Israel obeyed in order to become a holy nation (120, citing Ex. 19:5–6), whereas in the new covenant we obey because we are already a holy nation (122, citing 1 Pet. 2:5–11). Under the old covenant, the means of obedience was the old nature, whereas under the new covenant the means of obedience is the Spirit-empowered new nature, God having written his law on our hearts (122).
So, why then should we bother reading Old Testament laws at all? Todd answers: “Our ability to understand the biblical story and to interpret later biblical books relates directly to our knowledge and interpretation of old covenant laws.” He then traces out three themes—tabernacle, sacrifice, and holiness—and uses a biblical-theological approach to show how knowledge of Old Testament law enriches our understanding of New Testament revelation and fulfillment in Jesus (127–142).
He also shows how knowledge of the law for kings in Deuteronomy 17 illuminates the royal histories of Solomon and his successors in Kings (148–151). Todd goes on to successfully demonstrate a distinctively Christian reading of the Pentateuch by unearthing the organic themes of “heart change, a coming king, and Israel’s return to the land” (153; 153–176). But he does more by tracing those same themes through the prophets and into the New Testament to show the continuity of the whole.
Todd’s cultural apologetic for addressing the relationship between the law and the Christian is compelling. I hope his argument leads more Christians to ground their public reasoning about homosexuality in the texts Todd recommends that deal with natural law and the new covenant (Gen. 1–2; Gen. 19; Judges 19; Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10; Jude 7).
It’s not that Leviticus 18 is any less true, or any less representative of God’s eternal character and will than Romans 1. Nor is it that it’s any less clear. But there’s a wisdom issue here: which texts will our culture most readily hear? Peter says even of Paul’s writings that some people will twist what he says to their own destruction—their own fault, not Paul’s, no doubt. Similarly, people will twist Leviticus 18 and its context in our age of sexual autonomy. Again, this is their own fault, but perhaps it’s a mark of love and wisdom to argue from texts that aren’t so commonly twisted.
Additionally, Todd’s whole approach seems like an informed but gentle corrective to the “Christian America” argument that appeals to divine right for displaying the Ten Commandments on the steps of the Capitol. His conclusions are firm, which may feel bracing to some of Todd’s readers. But his tone is irenic, and his logic is fair—so don’t throw the book in the blender before you consider what he’s saying. Besides, even if you end up disagreeing with him strenuously on the best use of the Bible in cultural apologetics, there’s a lot we can all learn here.
For example, some of his best stuff was the narrative “before and after” treatment of Israel with and without the law. It perfectly illustrates some of Paul’s most enigmatic statements on the relationship of law, transgression, and punishment in Romans 4:15 and 5:20. It also makes sense of the Old Testament’s macro-narrative. He’s spot on in his analysis of the rebellion texts that follow so quickly on the heels of legal, cultic, and moral instruction (e.g., the Golden Calf, Nadab and Abihu). His thematic surveys of tabernacle, sacrifice, and holiness will be illuminating, even incandescent, for beginners in biblical theology, and warmly encouraging for even the most seasoned pastor-theologian.
Perhaps, though, one could have hoped for a little more ringing endorsement of not just reading and knowing the Old Testament, but preaching it expositionally. While I don’t doubt Todd affirms Old Testament exposition and rejoices in its resurgence, I wish he exhorted pastors more directly to expound the Pentateuch in a Christ-centered way.
Secondly, while I agreed with his admonition to use natural law and related Scriptures more frequently in cultural apologetics, the reader might have profited from more positive instruction, training, and modeling (or at least a few more recommended resources) for how to use natural law in cultural apologetics. He footnotes J. Budziszewski a handful of times, but one also thinks of David VanDrunen’s careful work in natural law, both at the popular and academic levels, neither of which is listed in the bibliography.
While Todd sees the law pointing us forward to the gospel, it’s less clear that he sees the gospel pointing us back to the law. So yes, God’s moral law, as encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, points us forward to the law of love in the New Testament. But if we ask the New Testament, “What does it look like to love my neighbor?” won’t it point us back to examples of obeying the law from the heart in the Old Testament? Todd mentions this in passing (107), but it seems to merit more attention.
The moral laws of the Old Testament and the law of love in the New are mutually illuminating. Todd sees the law of love illuminating the moral law, without the latter informing the former other than as literary context (29, 144–151), redemptive-historical background (46, 127), biblical-theological framework, or a category set to be fulfilled by Jesus’ person and work (128–141; 152–176). These are all welcome correctives to an atomistic reading of particular verses and subplots, but it seems the apostles would equally emphasize a sense of both Old Testament laws and narratives as moral exemplars of love and enduring revelations of God’s character and will, whether by prescription or prohibition, analogy or contrast. For example, consider Paul’s use of Pentateuchal narrative as moral exemplar in 1 Corinthians 10, or his use of “Don’t muzzle an ox when it treads,” which he says “was written for our sake” in 1 Corinthians 9:9–10). For Todd, it appears we need the Law(s) as a hermeneutical help, but little more (127).
In other words, it’d be helpful to follow a reading of Todd’s introduction with Brian Rosner’s Paul and the Law. The question of “which laws are Christians obligated to obey?” (as Todd asks on pages 13, 32, 33), is better phrased by Rosner: “The question is not which bits of the law . . . but the law as what” (29).
If we consider the law as commandments, then Paul repudiates the law as a covenant to which we’re not a party and replaces the law’s instruction with the law of Christ, which is love. But Paul can still re-appropriate the law as prophecy in the sense that it all points to Christ. He can even re-deploy law as wisdom, since it still illustrates and confirms what it means to live by the law of Christ even though we’re not under the Mosaic Law as a legal covenant. Again, as Rosner affirms, the question is not which laws to obey, but the law as what?
All in all, Sinai and the Saints achieves its aim as a very helpful introduction that will serve as a useful discipling tool with less experienced believers to answer a lot of their nagging questions. However, because of its dicey subject matter, it inevitably raises other questions that will need to be answered with further reading. Follow this up with a careful reading of Brian Rosner’s Paul and the Law in the NSBT series, and perhaps a trip through David VanDrunen’s Natural Law primer Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and your Christian armor will be even more complete.