The Incarnation and the Two Laws

The Incarnation and the Two Laws

34Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they approached him together, 35and one of them tested him by asking him, 36“Teacher, Which commandment is the greatest one in the Torah?” 37Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole being’ {Deuteronomy 6:5} and with your whole mind. 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ {Leviticus 19:18} 40On these two commands all the law and the prophets hang. — Matthew 22:34-40 (TFBV)

I hope I’m getting across the idea in this series (starting with Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center) that rather than a list of doctrines and of standards I prefer a hierarchy. Both logically and in terms of importance various teachings fall into a hierarchy. At the center of all of this I see the notion of incarnation. I’m going to discuss my understanding of many other doctrines later, including ones I regard as non-essentials, and I believe in each case we’ll find the incarnation shedding light on how that doctrine should be understood.

Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and numerous articles and books, uses the concept of the castle. In the center we have the keep, the most protected area, which is where we keep our essentials. These are things that define us as Christians. In the courtyard we have things on which we disagree as Christians and yet we would not regard as issues of fellowship. Many denominational distinctives fall into the courtyard. I disagree with my neighbors from the Presbyterian Church in America, for example, on issues such as predestination and women’s ministry, yet even though I can get quite emotional about those topics, I do not claim that they are not Christians because of those disagreements. Finally, there are all those issues that do not define one as a Christian nor as a member of a Christian group. We will have opinions on them, perhaps even heated opinions, but they are not essential elements of our Christian faith. These are outside the wall of the fortress.

I like Alden Thompson’s fortress concept for simplicity, but I must confess that my personal hierarchy is less clear. Mine is more like a smooth slope of descending importance than it is to a clean hierarchy. Some of my concepts would probably straddle the walls. The two laws and their application is one of those. For the simple reason that Jesus said that “all the law and the prophets”–all scripture as he had it, hang from these two laws, I regard them as essential. How can the core of the law as taught by Jesus be other than essential? At the same time, the implementation of the two laws to love quickly descends into arguments about detail. The implementation of the law is, in my view sometimes in the courtyard and sometimes outside the wall. Good, honest, sincere people can differ quite a bit.

But again as I thought about this topic to write about it, I became much more firm in my belief that the two laws are simply the expression of the doctrine of the incarnation in ethical form. What does it mean to worship the God who expressed himself through incarnation, who was “the word made flesh” (John 1:14)? It’s meaning would have to come out in a worship response, and then be further expressed by imitating the divine action in expressing love for one another. The implementation remains a matter for discussion, but doctrinally, I believe this is anchored firmly in the doctrine of the incarnation. It is, in fact, another expression of incarnational theology.

The expression of these laws is widespread, primarily in the second law. First we have the gospel accounts in which Jesus uses it. Besides the text already cited, we have Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44, presumably repetitions of the same or very similar incidents. Paul, in Romans 13:9 restates the principle when he notes that all the law is summed up by the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In Galatians 5:14 he states that the entire law is fulfilled in the same command. Note that Paul is not at all concerned that this might sound like some sort of legalism. James calls it the “royal law” (James 2:8).

Now why can both Paul and James use just the second law as though it expressed the whole? For this I turn to the first epistle John:

7Loved ones, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9The love of God is made clear in this way among us, because God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as a means of forgiveness for our sins. 11Love ones, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. 12Nobody has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. — 1 John 4:7-12 (TFBV)

John here expresses the law of love without dividing it into two separate commands, and further he ties it directly to the incarnation (verse 10). Then he ties the two laws again incarnationally–“if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” He makes this even more clear in verse 20: “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For how can one who doesn’t love his brother, whom he has seen, love God, whom he has not seen?” This is a warning to those of us who, as Christians, like to think that we can keep our relationship to God in acceptable condition while ignoring community and truly disliking our neighbors.

It may not be entirely easy to love God, though idolatry shows that we can easily love our own image of God. It is certainly easy to claim to love God. But our claims get shipwrecked on a very rocky reality when we try to insincerely claim to love our brother or sister. That brings forth fruit, one way or the other.

The intention of this incarnational love is that it should be contagious. God loves us, we love one another, our love spreads to others who in turn love one another. Paul said, “Be my imitators as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out into the world just as the Father had sent him into the world (John 20:21). The incarnation is contagious and that is expressed by the two laws.

One more comment, and this is stepping off of the essential ground just a bit, but I think a true understanding of the incarnation helps one better understand the relationship between faith and works. You see in the incarnation itself something that you could not possibly do, something you could not possibly earn, and yet God does it. The gap that could not be crossed is bridged. Through the incarnation you can comprehend (in part) something that is incomprehensible (Ephesians 3:14-19). Is it possible, however, to actually believe in the incarnation without some result? You can believe that many things are so, but to believe in, to put one’s trust in the incarnation has to mean more than that. Truly believing in Jesus in the flesh will result in an expression in the two laws.

Note: Since I’ve started this series I’ve been amazed at how many relevant posts I’ve found in the blogosphere. Peter Kirk, Jesus is Our Fully Human Example, reminded me of 1 Corinthians 11:1 which I’d skipped over in preparing this, and also discusses what I would call incarnational mission–Christians sent into the world as Christ was, though he doesn’t use that precise terminology.

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