The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law

As I have indicated elsewhere, I think there is great value in considering the Older Testament or Biblical Law as a model for the home, the civil magistrate, and ethics in general.  As Paul wrote to Timothy, “[a]ll Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17 (NASB)).”

While it is fair to apply this verse to all of the Bible, Paul would have certainly had primarily the Old Testament Scriptures in mind when writing this verse.  The Older Testament contains an enormous amount of law.  It would be strange indeed if Paul actually meant by “all Scripture” only “all Scripture that does not contain the Law!”  Especially since he had written to Timothy in an earlier letter stating that “we know the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8 (NASB)).”

Even though it is clear that the Law, as a part of all Scripture, is valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, it is not always equally clear how we should understand and apply the Older Testament Law in our times.  In fact, there are a number of mistakes that are commonly made in understanding, using, and applying Biblical Law.

One such mistake is that to assume that Biblical Law is identical in nature to contemporary law.  We fail to see Biblical Law as ancient law, which was most often paradigmatic in nature.  The following is a long quote from Volume 2, Exodus in the New American Commentary Series which explains the paradigmatic nature of Biblical Law.  While I would not agree with everything that Dr. Stuart writes in his commentary about the use of the Law in our times, I have found the following quote to be very beneficial in understanding this aspect of the Older Testament Law.

Excursus: The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law

Modern societies generally have opted for exhaustive law codes.  That is, every action modern society wishes to regulate or prohibit must be specifically mentioned in a separate law.  Under the expectations of this exhaustive law system, state and/or federal law codes run to thousands of pages and address thousands of individual actions by way of requirement or restriction or control or outright banning of those actions.  By this approach, all actions are permitted that are not expressly forbidden or regulated.  Thus it is not uncommon that criminals in modern Western societies evade prosecution because of a “technicality” or a “loophole” in the law—their undesirable actions are not exactly prohibited or regulated by a written law, so they cannot be convicted even though an objective observer may be convinced that what they did surely deserved punishment.

Ancient laws did not work this way. They were paradigmatic, giving models of behaviors and models of prohibitions/punishments relative to those behaviors, but they made no attempt to be exhaustive.  Ancient laws gave guiding principles, or samples, rather than complete descriptions of all things regulated.  Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior the laws in their totality pointed toward.  Ancient judges were expected to extrapolate from the wording provided in the laws that did exist to all other circumstances and not to be foiled in their jurisprudence by any such concepts as “technicalities” or “loopholes.”  When common sense told judges that a crime had been committed, they reasoned their way from whatever the most nearly applicable law specified to a decision as to how to administer proper justice in the case before them.  Citizens of ancient Israel, and especially its judges, had to learn to extrapolate from whatever laws they had received from Yahweh to whatever justice-challenging situation they were dealing with.  The number of laws dealing with any given application of justice might be few, but that would not prevent justice from being applied.  It would simply have been the case that all parties were expected to appeal for guidance to those laws that did exist, whether or not expressed specifically in terms that dealt with the case under consideration.  In other words, the Israelites had to learn to see the underlying principles in any law and not let the specifics of the individual casuistic citation mislead them into applying the law too narrowly.

God’s revealed covenant law to Israel was paradigmatic.  No Israelite could say: “The law says I must make restitution for stolen oxen or sheep (Exod. 22:1), but I stole your goat. I don’t have to pay you back,” or “The law says that anyone who attacks his father or mother must be put to death (Exod. 21:15), but I attacked my grandmother, so I shouldn’t be punished,” or “The law says that certain penalties apply for hitting someone with a fist or a stone (Exod. 21:18), but I kicked my neighbor with my foot and hit him with a piece of wood, so I shouldn’t be punished.”  Such arguments would have insulted the intelligence of all concerned and made no impact on those rendering judgments.  It is in connection with the paradigmatic nature of Israel’s covenant law that Jesus, following the established tradition in Judaism, could make so sweeping an assertion as that two laws sum up all the rest [Matt. 22:34-40].  Properly understood, two laws do indeed sum up everything in the entire legal corpus of the Old Testament.  So do ten laws (the Ten Words/Commandments); so do all six hundred and thirteen.  The numbers go no higher, nor would they need to.  If a reasonable number of comprehensive and comprehensible laws (as few as two, as many as six hundred and thirteen) are provided to a people as paradigms for proper living, there is no excuse for that people to claim ignorance of how to behave or to claim innocence when their sins are found out.

. . .

A final implication of paradigmatic law: not all laws will be equally comprehensive in scope.  That is, some will be very broad in their applicability (love Yahweh your God) and some much more narrow (do not bear false witness).  One might ask, “Why not say ‘don’t be dishonest in any way,’ which would be broader and more comprehensive than ‘don’t bear false witness’?”  But that would be missing the way paradigmatic law works: through a somewhat randomly presented admixture of rather specific examples of more general behaviors and very general regulations of broad categories of behavior, the reader/listener comes to understand that all sorts of situations not exactly specified (either because a law is so broad or so narrow) are also implicitly covered.  In other words, when all the laws are considered together, one’s impression is that both the very narrow, precise issues and the very broad, general issues fall under the purview of God’s covenant.  The wide variability of comprehensiveness is intended to help the person desiring to keep the covenant to say, “I now see that in the tiniest detail as well as in the widest, most general way, I am expected to try to keep this law—in all its implications, not just in terms of its exact wording.”  Some commandments are thus less broad in scope in the way they are expressed than is necessary to cover all the intended actions; others are so broad in scope in the way they are expressed that one could never think up all the ways they might be applied.  This is just as it should be.  The narrow and the broad taken together suggest the overall comprehensiveness of God’s covenant will for his people.  (p. 442-45)

The point is not necessarily that our law should be paradigmatic, although the common law certainly was more Scripturally-based and paradigmatic than the modern regulatory state in which we live.  The point is that, if we hope to understand Biblical Law, we must understand its paradigmatic nature.

If not, the Bible may be very helpful in the regulation of the theft of sheep and oxen, but it will provide no guidance whatsoever with regard to to the theft of computer servers, automobiles, or personal information.  This misunderstanding can quickly lead to a deadly error that has become prominent in our time–namely that the Bible is hopelessly anachronistic and therefore no use at all for modern people living in complicated modern times.

On the other hand, if we understand the Law to be paradigmatic, then we can reason from the theft of sheep and oxen to the theft of other property, just exactly like the judges in ancient Israel would have done.  Understood in this way, we can easily assert with Paul that “[a]ll Scripture is . . . profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” for all people for all time, including the Law.

(For more on Biblical Law and its relevance for today, I would highly recommend that one first read By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today by Greg Bahnsen.  I would also then highly recommend the much longer and more scholarly Theonomy in Christian Ethics, also by Bahnsen.  For a great and detailed treatment of the Older Testament Law organized around the Ten Commandments, R.J. Rushdoony’s magnum opus The Institutes of Biblical Law is unsurpassed. Finally, for an idea of the controversy that surrounds taking Biblical Law seriously, see Bahnsen’s No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics.  By this Standard and No Other Standard are available as free downloads here and here.)