Monday, 9 February 2009

Affinity Conference, 'The End of the Law.'

For three days last week, I attended the Affinity theological conference which considered the function of the law. It was good to meet with individuals whom I had not seen since the previous conference, and also to have the opportunity of listening to theologians from Britain and America.

As far as I could work out, there were two different groups attending the first day (those who accepted the traditional threefold division of biblical laws into moral, ceremonial and civil, and those who prefer to regard all of them as law); on day three, there were several more groups in attendance (such as (a) some confused as to what the role of the law is, (b) some curious to find out which theologians are on particular sides of the debate, (c) some concerned about how their congregations are going to react).

I don't want to say very much about the conference papers, each of which was good in its own way, because they will probably be published at some stage. Also some of those attending the conference have already blogged about the various sessions, and can be found by a Google search. Here are two other personal reactions.

First, there is an increasing distaste for the Sabbath among evangelicals, especially younger ones. It was evident that many attendees had no interest in obeying the fourth commandment in a Christian way, and had no intention of accepting the arguments of any who wished to defend the permanence of the Sabbath. Of course, some may just agree to differ. Yet the problem is that both views cannot be right. Either the Sabbath is an important Christian requirement, given at creation for the worship of God and the benefit of the human race, or it is not. If Sunday is not the Sabbath, then there is no necessity for Christians to keep the day as belonging to God or for them to meet together on that day. In fact, if it is not the Sabbath, then churches which arrange such services are imposing a human tradition on God's people and should be shunned by all concerned to uphold New Testament practices.

Second, there is a reluctance to accept the value of historical evangelical interpretations if they happen to go against a person's own idea of the meaning of a Bible verse. The oft-mentioned question 'What does the Bible say?' actually was used in a manner which stated, 'Do you want to know what I think the Bible says?', with the emphasis that such an individual's view was correct and everyone else wrong. No doubt, some will respond by saying that sometimes an individual has been right and all others wrong, which of course means that they regard that individual to be on a par with heroes of the faith who did stand alone.

I suspect that those who support the new emphases (called 'new covenant theology', which is just another example of a biblical description, which belongs to all Christians, being hijacked by a group) will merely repeat the many examples of spiritual movements in the past who imagined they were going by the Bible alone and somehow always deduced that the Sabbath was not for them. Most of these groups disturbed the church for a while before disappearing.

Another factor is the similarity between the new emphases and dispensationalism. This was mentioned at the Conference, and disputed. But the similarity is there in that both deny the relevance of God's law to God's people in the New Testament period. I don't want to say anything about this point except to say that I personally heard the same arguments of the 'new covenant' followers being used in Brethren groups in the 1970s. I was not convinced of them then, and I am not convinced of them now.


Peter said...

Hi Malcolm,

Thank you for your thoughts on the Conference. As one who attended I'd just like to make some comments on what you say. Let me say, firstly, that I am broadly sympathetic with the NCT position, but not uncriticial.

My impression was that though NCT adherents do not accept the Saturday to Sunday switch of the Sabbath day, most nevertheless accept the important of Sunday as a day for Christians to meet as the day on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead as shown in Acts. It is not therefore just an imposed human tradition.

At the conference all of the NCT adherents (as far as I recall) did not like the 'New Covenant Theology' tag. I agree it's a poor one and does diservice to those Gospel-centred evangelical brothers who do not accept the NCT line.

Lastly, the NCT adherents do not deny the relevance of God's law -binding spiritual and moral standard - to God's people. Rather it is how that standard is represented - the 'substance' and 'form' distinction that was made at the conference. I think a key point was that the code for believers is the 'law of Christ' and the New testament injunctions in the epistles. All the NCT speakers said in the panel session that they'd very happily and rightly preach on the ten commandments.

There are of course many big questions that need to continue to be explored, and no doubt more clarification etc to come - and you have certainly highlighted some of the issues well.

Malcolm Maclean said...

Thank you for your helpful comments; I am interested in what people thought of the conference. Further, your reply tells me that someone beyond my usual circles has read my post. The following may help indicate why I wrote it.

I have no doubt that Christians wish to obey the Bible's commandments.

I also understand why some want to follow the example of the church in Acts regarding meeting on the first day of the week as against seeing that the first day of the week is now the Christian Sabbath (I was converted in a Christian Brethren assembly where this interpretation was common).

I'm sure you are aware of books which defend the view that the Sabbath is now the Lord's Day, and the various arguements that are detailed in them. I will only mention what I suspect is the core issue.

As far as I can see (and it may not be very far), there are two possible reasons for meeting on the first day of the week: one is that there was a commandment from Jesus to do so and the other is that the early church began a practice which may or may not be imitated by subsequent generations of Christians. It would be surprising if the apostles introduced a new day of worship/observance without Christ's authority to do so.

Yet such a likelihood raises another implication. If the Lord's Day is not the Sabbath, it means that Christians now have two days each week which are different from the rest. They still would have to keep a weekly sabbath (which I would say is still required because it is a creation ordinance) and another day on which they arrange worship services.

There is also a further aspect to the difference of opinion. It looks as if another way of dividing Christ's church is happening, and at the very time when the church in our country is at the weakest it has been for a long time.