Is the antique Torah of Moses still valid for the modern Christian? Professor Roberto Badenas, specialist on the law in Paul, challenges traditional clichés.
Roberto D. Badenas was born in 1943 at Liria (Spain). After specialized philological studies in Spain, he devoted his research to theology and obtained a Ph.D. in biblical studies at Andrews University.
His well known dissertation on Romans 10:4 was published by the Journal for the Study of New Testament (Supplement Series, vol. 10, 1985) entitled Christ: The End of the Law. He presently teaches at the Faculté Adventist de Théologie (France) where he functions also as the dean of the Religion Department. He writes extensively and participates in biblical research with a European group of scholars.
Shabbat Shalom1: What is the value and the authority of the law of the Hebrew Bible for you as a Christian in general and a Seventh-day Adventist?
Badenas: It would be impossible for me to answer to the question for the “Christian in general” because of their diversity. All Christians do not recognize the same functions for the law of the Bible. Most Christians refuse to grant any role to the law in regard to salvation; yet they are willing to give some place to the law in ethics. Some especially underline its “negative” aspects as texts which judge and condemn, while others bring out its “positive” aspects as an expression of God’s will towards us. According to a classic formula, the law is considered as “abolished” in its ceremonial content but always valid in its moral content.
Personally, as an Adventist, I think that the law of God still plays a role in the believer’s life. But its reality is too complex, and we should not reduce it to one or the other of its dimensions lest we fall into a simplistic reductionism.
Shabbat Shalom: Is the law of Moses still relevant for a Christian?
Badenas: The temporary character of many laws of the Pentateuch is recognized even in Judaism: all the laws related to the sacrifices have lost their actuality after the destruction of the temple.
We must, however, remember that the notion of Torah does not always cover the same reality in the texts of the Bible. The word Torah does not just designate a code of precepts. It essentially concerns principles of behavior, the direction to take, the way to walk (it is often associated with the verb “to walk”). It expresses the will of God towards His people. The content of the Torah reaches its full meaning within the covenant. Then, beyond the ancient prescriptions which are conditional by the sociocultural milieu of Ancient Israel, there are always ethical principles which have an eternal value and are absolutely relevant for everyone.
Shabbat Shalom: It has been said that it is the attitude towards the law that makes the essential difference between Christianity and Judaism. What do you think?
The essential difference towards the law is due to different messianic perspectives and to different views of salvation. The question is whether the obedience to the law is the condition for salvation or rather the consequence of a salvation which is already ensured.
Having said that, it seems to me unjust and false to identify Judaism with legalism. We have, by the way, much to learn from the Jewish wisdom on that matter. For instance, the importance of the notion of election and of belonging to the chosen people seems to me interesting, because it implies a sense of responsibility which contains very positive values. Put in that perspective, ethics express then faithfulness to God through the obedience to the law.
Shabbat Shalom: How do you understand the tension between law and grace (or faith) from a Christian point of view?
Badenas: My formulation of the problem is somewhat close to that of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. I, indeed, think that grace precedes law and that law is not ontologically opposed to the gospel. The opposition between law and gospel rather seems to be functional. Law per se is not opposed to faith; on the contrary, law implies faith. Law belongs to the order of promise and, therefore, receives its value from it. The gift of the law is enrooted in the gift of grace. Actually, law is already a manifestation of grace in that it aims at the good of men and women since it stems from the goodness of God.
If we take into consideration the fact that the gift of the law is defined as liberating (the expression “I brought you out of the land of Egypt” is a real leitmotiv in the Pentateuch), we cannot see the law as enslaving, for it strengthens the liberation of Israel. The law helps man to remain morally free.
Shabbat Shalom: Is the Apostle Paul really against the law?
Badenas: I do not think that Paul is against the law, but rather against a certain conception of the law. It seems that for a time in Israel there was a change in the conception of the role of law in covenant. From a situation where the obedience to the law was the consequence of covenant, it has shifted to a situation where the obedience to the law was almost the condition of covenant. This reversing of the law of covenant into a covenant of law (according to Gerard Siegwalt’s formula) seems to have been a fact accompli already in the New Testament times for some people in Israel.
It is against legalism, a certain view of law and the formalist mentality that it leads to, that Paul fights. He sees there the danger of a religion of self-righteousness, a religion of works.
Shabbat Shalom: Did Jesus really abolish the law?
Badenas: Jesus started his ministry stating that he did not intend to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20). The eschatological salvation which is taught by the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament does not imply the cancelation of the Torah, but its dynamic presence. The fulfillment of the law is announced and never its cancelation. According to the prophetic views, the law is not abolished but fulfilled, for it is always a part of the future welfare of the believer: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts”2 (Jeremiah 31:31- 34; cf. Ezekiel 34:25-27; 36:25- 27; 37:26-28). The law is not a parenthesis on the way of salvation. It is integrated with the last status of the redeemed mankind: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).
Like the ancient prophets, Jesus does not preach a change of the law but an inner and radical transformation of the children of God so that they may be able to fulfill God’s will (Matthew 5:18, Luke 16:17). What he aims at is not a new law but a new attitude. The prophets and Jesus have the same requirement, the obedience to the law, and the same promise, God will act in such a way that He will make this obedience possible. Salvation consists, among other things, in being able to finally realize fully God’s will.
According to some interpreters of Paul, Jesus would have ended the law. On the basis of some bold statements by the Apostle which they present as his final word on that matter, they think that they can eliminate the law from the Christian life: “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14), “For Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4), “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed” (Romans 3:21), etc. But the reality is much more complex. Indeed such an interpretation obliges the reading of these texts out of their context. I think the key to understanding Paul lies in the distinction he makes between salvation and ethics. As God’s will towards mankind, the law remains “holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). But it is obvious that the law is unable to save men and women from sin. This role belongs entirely to the divine grace. Thus the regime of the law is replaced by the work of God. “For what the law could not do in that is was weak through the flesh, God did” (Romans 8:1-3). Paul displays then two attitudes towards the law: a rejection and an acceptation. A critique against those who view law as a condition for salvation, and a valorization of its role as God’s will for mankind. For Paul, the law remains an unavoidable reference. Thus Paul does not refuse the law nor Israel. He wants, on the contrary, to be faithful to both, thereby reaching the original meaning of the former and the ultimate mission of the latter.
Shabbat Shalom: What are the elements of the law of Moses that are still relevant to you?
Badenas: In the Torah there are pedagogic and cultic elements which are temporary and transitory and elements with a permanent value that we must discover and carefully preserve.
I think that the first element that makes the Torah relevant for the believer is the fact that it is a gift from the divine grace. Its first role is to give God’s people a structure allowing them to live within the covenant and in the freedom of love. Everyone recognizes the ethical values of the Torah. The Christian reservations toward the law stem often from the concern not to fall into legalism or to compromise the graciousness of righteousness by faith. Some say that Christ has replaced the law; others say that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer makes the law irrelevant or at least transcends the order of the law.
But the human being, even when he/she is converted—because he/she remains a sinner— needs to submit him/herself to an absolute ethics. Who better than God can guarantee through His laws the cohesion of the group and the moral standards of everyone? We cannot, however, agree with those who think that the obedience to the law means rewarding works.
As divine ideal for human ethics, in a life guided by the Spirit, the law can function as an objective reference, and even as an instrument of sanctification and of real liberty.
Shabbat Shalom: Now a personal question to conclude. What has the law of the Bible taught you in your personal and daily life?
Badenas: I have learned from the Bible that the purpose of the law is to reveal love. It is only through respect for others that men and women can find the adequate framework—and the space of necessary freedom—for a quality of interpersonal relations which God wants and which we need.
1 This interview was conducted by Richard Elofer, pastor of the Seventh day Adventist community in Strasbourg (France) and associate editor of L’Olivier.
2 All biblical quotations are from the New King James Version.