The Law in a world of Laws

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes some clarifying distinctions about “law” and “laws”. She speaks of laws that are based on consensus, contrasted with laws rooted in nature of things . The second are generally learned by observation and subject to the test of an if/then clause. If an apple is released from a tree, it will fall down. An observable, repeatable law with built in consequences.

The first sort, based on consensus, are bound up in our actions and will. Though the law may have consequences, they are not intrinsic to the law but to our enforcement of the law. A law may say “If you steal, you will go to jail”. But the thief, when he lays his hand on your apple is not immediately bodily translated to the next open cell in the nearest detention facility. It is a law because we adopted it, agree upon it, and enforce it. Without chasing the questions of “how agreed upon must a law be to be a law” I think we can agree on the basic premise.

The problem this question raises however is worth chasing, if only for a minute. If a law of consensus was agreed upon but is no longer agreed upon, at what point is it no longer a law? There is a law on the books in Boston that states “Cattle and livestock must not be housed above the first story of a building.” The law that is bound in reality would indicate that a small herd of oxen in tenth story apartment, might easily land on the ninth or eighth story because of the insufficient strength of the floor. As far as the law goes, however, I have never heard of it being enforced. That could be the result of a lack of consensus. We might insist we have the right to rope and ride in our apartment if we want to. I have lived under people who sounded as though they exercised that right. It might also be that the law is so widely agreed upon that it needs no enforcement. A few trips with your prized cow up the winding staircase may have convinced you that bringing your cows upstairs was a bad idea. Had you been successful, the amount of the fine would not have been automatically deducted from your bank account. There would need to be enough of an interest in enforcing this law for the city of Boston to establish a cow patrol, cow arrest squad and an upstairs cattle court. A jury of your peers would need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that your cow had not gone up on her own, found the key under your mat and let herself in. The more widely we agree upon the necessity of a law, the greater the emphasis on enforcement. Laws we deem unnecessary often leave our minds before they leave the books.

So, what sort of law is the Law? Is Torah a set of norms for conducting the business of the society, based in a consensus and requiring enforcement? Or is it rooted eternal principles that are woven into the very fabric of Creation? The distinction is crucial because, even if the Commandments have left our minds, they are still on the books, or rather, “in the Book.” Misunderstanding the nature of the Law will have consequences for us both in life and death.

Further, this keeps us from confusing divine with civil law. Dominion Theology or Sharia Law are both cases in which modern understandings of civil law have been superimposed on codes that claim to be reflections of the very nature of reality. Notice how the Torah gives the consequences for disobedience without any instruction for meeting out judgment. Rather than saying “you shall be put to death” the text says, “you shall surely die.” This should be a clue that we are reading something that is claiming to be at the nature of things. Further, the Torah prescribes consequences that humans cannot or should not enforce. “All these diseases will come upon you if…” is not a normal part of the penal code and we should not add it. Similarly, “you shall be carried off into exile by a conquering nation” should not be under the prevue of the department of justice. And perhaps a further clue is that we are given consequences for national sins. Unless the Torah claims very much to be woven into the nature of things it cannot prescribe consequences when the people commit wrongs they insist are “rights.” What court is left to pass judgement? Only the heavenly one.

If the Torah is what it claims to be, then it does not matter whether we have forgotten it, chosen to ignore it, or insist it is wrong.  My protests over the unfairness of the Law of Gravity is no help to me when I lose my balance on my bicycle.  Whether or not I can recite the Law of Inertia does not matter when my brakes go out.   But we should not set up the Torah for enforcement, any more than we ought enforce the law of gravity.

If the Torah is decree from heaven, then the LORD is its primary enforcer.  If it is woven in to the fabric of creation, creation itself has a part in enforcing it.  And to a certain degree, Torah does not depend on whether I believe or accept it, because we will all be liable to its consequences.  The LORD warns Israel, “if you do the things the former inhabitants did, I will chase you out of the Land as well.”  But this is where the analogy begins to break down.   

More than all other law codes, Torah is both the fullest expression we have of those principles of righteousness woven into creation while at the same time being a law code, taken on by the consensus of a people and at times enforced by human courts.  Because it is formed in the mind of the Creator, its core must hold those things that can only be known when revealed from Heaven.  Because it is a covenant between the Creator and a particular people it had to be received with an oath, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.”   

So, we find Paul saying to different things.  He tells the Gentile Galatians they don’t need to do the Law because they are not under the Sinai Covenant.  Rather they are heirs of the promises of the LORD to Abraham.  At the same time, Paul tells the Romans that non-Jews can see those principles of Heaven’s reign in both the Creation and their Consciences in such a way that they can be held accountable to the LORD for their ungodliness and unrighteousness even without receiving the Law.   

Though creation and conscience might never give us enough of an understanding of the LORD’s reign to save us, they do give ample testimony to condemn us. All those principles woven into the fabric of God’s saving grace, are found in the Torah. Unless we dig, we will never find them. Until we do them we will never embody them. So, while we may no longer offer sacrifices (do) we can glean essential truths out of the LORD’s commands to offer them. We learn, for example, that the one who sins will die. But further we learn, the LORD will accept substitutes for the offender under specific conditions and set standards. When we see this truth woven into reality we begin to have eyes that recognize Jesus. As a result, the Torah must be mined as well as minded. We must do the things in it. We must also dig the eternal truths out of it. So Torah is something like the Law woven into the nature of things and something like the laws shared by a particular community- it partially both, completely neither, and something else entirely, it is the revelation of God about Himself, each other, the creation, and our purpose. To get at the Torah, the word “law” is going to always be insufficient. As Israel was to follow Torah, we are further called to follow the Torah “made flesh” and dwelling among us.” That He intends us to do the Torah is evident by the fact that the promise of the New Covenant involves writing the Torah on the hearts of believers. And yet, like following Jesus, it is taking on these things that we become who we will be. If obedience to the law of things, makes you a citizen of the world, and obedience of the laws of a country form you as citizens of that country, what will you become as you follow the Law of Heaven?

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