How do we reconcile apparent tensions in the law?

Discussion in 'The Law of God' started by a mere housewife, Apr 23, 2009.

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  1. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    This is a much clearer, and I hope more clearly answerable, restatement of questions from a thread here (that thread contains specific examples of what I mean by 'tension').

  2. Prufrock

    Prufrock Arbitrary Moderation

    I'm not sure, for example, that a work of necessity on the Sabbath should be thought of as an allowable breaking of the Sabbath, but rather as an understood element of the commandment itself (at least in so far as it pertains to an imperfect world after the fall). I am very open to correction, however.

    -----Added 4/23/2009 at 10:50:58 EST-----

    To specify by example: I would hold that fleeing on the Sabbath is not a case of the sixth commandment taking priority over the fourth; instead, I would argue that both commandments are being maintained, since this would be considered a work of necessity which is perfectly allowable on the Sabbath.
  3. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Thank you Paul: I think it's starting to come clear. You think we cannot possibly keep the fourth commandment by breaking the sixth (or any of the others)?

    Ruben pointed out to me last night that the first part of the command is to 'Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy' -- and that we cannot keep anything 'holy' while breaking other commandments.

    Does this go for all the commandments, so that what appear to be 'tensions' where one command takes precedence over another is actually the opposite: the keeping of each command by, not in opposition to, keeping the others?

    Then the commands are a sort of commentary on each other, that teaches us more fully the true keeping of each?

    It seems a person must be very liable to error in trying to implement this in extraordinary situations: it also seems like an action in a fallen world can't perfectly express the 'wholeness' of the desire, if that makes sense: I am wondering if that is another aspect of the seeming 'tension'. The actions come out lopsided, even when the desire is straining after something whole: to the outsider it looks like one thing is being sacrificed to another. Does God honor the intent of the heart in such situations? Is it possible that this is what we see going on in Scripture in some cases (as with deception being used) -- an action is being 'imperfectly expressed', but is still in keeping with a desire to fulfill each command by not breaking the others?
  4. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    See rule 5 of Larger Catechism 99 -- not every particular duty is to be done at all times.
  5. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Here are the verses given in support:

    -----Added 4/24/2009 at 08:26:12 EST-----

    Thank you Rev. Winzer. I will keep that in mind as I read and think more. Do you think then that all cases of tension in Scripture are capable of the explanation that a duty was being undone, rather than a forbidden thing being done?
  6. JBaldwin

    JBaldwin Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    God does look at the intent of the heart. "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." (I Samuel 16:7b)

    I don't believe we can fully understand the commandments without looking at the sermon on the mount which clearly teaches that obedience is about what is going on in our hearts. Even if our actions appear to be right on the outside, we can be completely wicked on the inside. If we even get angry with our brother, we're murdering him. If a man lusts after a woman, he's committed adultery. Jesus taught that the law went further than outward obedience. So if we are so busy focusing on our actions, I think we miss the point. Jesus also said that the law could be summed up in two things, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. As I see it, there is more to those two statements about the law, then just a summing up of them.

    If we get so caught up in the details of keeping the law, we miss the point. God wants us to love Him supremely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we focus on those our obedience, the little things of the law seem to iron themselves out, and we find we are obeying without even thinking about it.
  7. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Joy thank you; I agree with you on the whole. I am not sure in my own experience, that I can agree completely about how if our focus is right, details will iron themselves out. I come to realise my glaring need of not just the summary but the detailed explanations of the commands more, the more I try to focus on love of God and of my neighbor.

    -----Added 4/24/2009 at 09:21:24 EST-----

    Just wanted to add that I realize thinking about this that I must take into account the rule that the opposites of the duties commanded, are indeed forbidden.
  8. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Certainly some are thereby explained. Other tensions are resolved by observing the priority of morals over rituals. Still others require us to accept God's prerogative during the history of revelation to give positive commandments which temporarily transcend his moral demands.
  9. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Thank you very much -- I understand what you are saying, and it helps clarify things.
  10. KMK

    KMK Administrator Staff Member

    I think we have to make room for sanctification. We are continually being conformed more and more to the image of Christ and, therefore, His Law. But the process does take time. Suppose there is a man who is supporting his family by way of a job that requires him to work on Sunday. The Lord convicts him that he is breaking the 4th. If he immediately quits his job without other prospects he is in danger of being an infidel. It might take a period of time for that man to arrange his life in a manner where he can properly honor the Lord's Day. In practice, during that time one commandment (providing for your family) may be taking priority over another (the 4th) but in theory it is not. The desire to love the Lord by keeping His commandments is the most important thing. God has always desired mercy and not sacrifice.
  11. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    I think I understand this distinction; and that helps too, esp with what you said of our law keeping as a process of sanctification. Thank you for this (I'm currently out of thank you's).
  12. JBaldwin

    JBaldwin Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    This "rounds out" what I was saying above. It is a matter of sanctification, and over time, things become clearer.

    Also, I think some of the struggle has to do with personality differences. If we tend to be a person who focuses on details, then that is most likely where we will struggle in our sanctificaiton. On the other hand, if we tend to see the big picture first and then look at details, our struggles in sanctification will tend toward carelessness about details. Again, I believe we constantly have to go back to where we are focusing our attention, and that is on the Lord.
  13. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Thank you Joy; that's a good point.
  14. KMK

    KMK Administrator Staff Member

    Good point. I was meditating on this thread this morning and came to this thought. When we look back at our sanctification over the last ten years or so we say, "Look what the Lord has done in me." But when we are in the moment we say, "Look what I need to do in me."
  15. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    We normally look at the Ten Commandments from a normative perspective.

    Some scholars - like John Frame - have also pointed out that they can be looked at situationally and existentially as well.

    The normative perspective is that the Decalogue are rules or norms which always apply.

    The situational perspective is that the rules only apply in the situations for which they were created. The same action, word or thought in one situation is sinful and a breach of the Ten Commandments; in another situation it is not.

    E.g. re the Tenth Commandment : to desire your own wife would not be a breach of the Commandment, but to desire someone else's would.

    E.g. re the Ninth Commandment : to lie to terrorists that were coming to kill your husband/wife/child would not be a breach of the Ninth Commandment, but normally it would be a breach of the Ninth Commandment to tell an untruth.

    These rather poorly explained examples are not directly from John Frame.

    See his "Doctrine of the Christian Life" portions of which are here:-

    His lectures on ethics are here, including lectures on existential, situational and normative perspectives and the Decalogue:-

    Monergism :: Search Results

    He used to/ maybe still does(?) accept emailed Qs at his site at Reformed Theological Seminary. You could ask him what the Ten Commandments look/sound like from existential and situational perspectives:-

    Reformed Theological Seminary

    His own site with Vern Poythress:-

    The Works of John Frame and Vern Poythress
  16. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    This is unbiblical and unconfessional. The ten commandments are not "case" laws teaching what must be done if and when a certain situation occurs, but "moral" law which by definition is universally and absolutely applicable.
  17. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    Mr. Tallach, thank you for taking the time to put in the links: my husband isn't a fan of John Frame's so I am hesitant to be overly influenced myself. I don't honestly understand all that goes into an 'existential' view of the law; but I have enough of an idea to think that I probably need more clarity and discernment on this issue before heavily exposing myself to that POV.
  18. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

  19. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    To ask for more specific thoughts: in the book review Rev. Keister says:

    If I understand, the moral law itself is not being advocated as 'existential' or 'situational'; it is rather 'normative'. But its application in redemptive history, and the way in which we must apply it to the heart, moves ethics into the 'situational' and 'existential'.

    My question is about how this differs with recognizing that there are times when it is not wrong to leave some duties undone (as it seems circumstances must enter into this); and taking into account, when dealing with ethical tensions in Scripture, the aspect of redemptive history.

    I have a dim idea that it has to do more with the 'existential': if what Mr. Frame is advocating is in any way adapting or using the law in different ways depending on our motives, rather than adapting our motives to the behaviour required of us in the specific circumstance: but I am not sure if my understanding of 'existential' in this context is correct, or how better to phrase this.
  20. JBaldwin

    JBaldwin Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    While I haven't read Frame's views, so I can't comment on what he says, I would like to add to my earlier comments. While I believe that God looks on the heart when we do things, and that is the way in which we are judged under the new covenant, I do not think that changes a law that says, thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt not steal. I tend to look at it more in a way that God "overlooks" or grant's mercy to a person whose heart is where it should be. Just as when a child unknowingly disobeys a parent because they did not fully understand how to obey or what the parent wanted.

    We cannot fully obey the law, because we aren't perfect, and sometimes we want to do the right thing, but it is difficult to decide what is right or wrong in a situation. If we make a wrong choice out of ignorance, it didn't make the action right, but I think God looks beyond the action to the heart in those cases.

    What comes to mind in all of this is Rahab lying to protect the spies.
  21. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    Dear Mark,

    I believe the Ten Commandments to be moral laws also. I do not believe them to be ethical wax noses that may be adapted in a situational way to our own whims. They must be applied to different situations in the light of the rest of Scripture.

    E.g. if you are walking to church on the Lord's Day this maybe an application of the fourth commandment, even more so, existentially-speaking, if your heart is filled with love to God.

    If you meet a man by the roadside who has been hit by a car and is badly injured then you are in a new situation. You would not be observing God's law by ignoring him, and the best way you could observe the Sabbath now would be to make sure he gets to hospital, rather than continuing your walk to church.

    The application of the ten commandments changes depending on the situation you are in.


    Dear JBaldwin,

    I think that John Frame would say that there is always a morally right choice available, otherwise God is obliging us to sin by His providence.

    The right goal is God's glory; the right motive is love to God and Man; the right word, thought and action is obeying God's Word correctly.

  22. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    This is a much better way of stating the matter. In this statement the ten commandments are seen as unchanging norms, but requiring application which differs according to the situation. The previous statement -- "the rules only apply in the situations for which they were created" -- rendered the normative value of the commandments dependent on the situation.
  23. CharlieJ

    CharlieJ Puritan Board Junior

    We must uphold that there is always a perfectly moral choice. There is no situation in which we are choosing the "lesser of two evils." This is important for 2 reasons. First, God says that when we are tempted, we are never without a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). So, no sin can be excused because it was the "least" sin. Second, we must take note of Jesus' sinlessness. If Jesus lived a truly human life, and if human life places us in "lesser of two evils" situations, then Jesus must have sinned. However, Jesus didn't sin even though "in every respect [he] has been tempted as we are" (Hebrews 4:15). Thus, there are no "lesser of two evil" situations.

    As Richard said, there is always a morally right choice.
  24. Turtle

    Turtle Puritan Board Freshman

    1 Tim 1:5 and following

    Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm. But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.

    And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
  25. twogunfighter

    twogunfighter Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks to all of you for your wise treatment of the application of the Law of God to morally ambiguous (to us) situations. I have learned alot from these short posts.
  26. sotzo

    sotzo Puritan Board Sophomore

    Rev. Winzer:

    What is the practical difference between an unchanging norm and a norm that is applied in different ways depending on the situation?

    What would be an example of a norm that is applied differently yet still remains unchanged between each case?

  27. Scott1

    Scott1 Puritan Board Doctor

    Wow, you have initiated a very helpful thread. (I'm rating it a 5 of 5)
  28. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    There is no difference. The unchanging norm is always applicable even though it is applied in different ways depending on the situation. The problem with a previous assertion is that it suggested moral commandments only serve as norms in certain situations.

    "Thou shalt not kill" or the value of human life is a norm, and always normative. In one situation it will require a man to save another's life, e.g., if he is drowning; but in another situation it will require a man to take another's life, e.g., in battle, or as an act of judicial punishment.
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