Why do Christians eat shrimp? Why do they wear clothing made from different fabrics? Why do Christians pick and choose arbitrarily which Old Testament laws to follow and which not to follow. I have come across the question specifically with regards to the biblical view on homosexual acts – that Christians claim homosexual acts are immoral on the basis of Old Testament laws and yet blatantly ignore and fail to practice an overwhelming vast majority of other Old Testament laws such as not mixing of fabrics; or laws prohibiting Israelites from eating fish without fins and scales such as shrimps: “Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean” (Leviticus 11:9-12). Clearly then Christians are being inconsistent and hypocritical because they have no valid way for determining which of their own biblical laws they ought to follow and which not to follow. They therefore end up using their own prejudices and personal subjective preferences as a framework for picking and choosing which laws to follow. I strongly disagree with the claim and think there is a valid way in which Christians can relate to Old Testament Laws which the New Testament itself affirms. Firstly it involves understanding the purpose and context of the Mosaic Law; and that it is not applicable to Christians. Secondly it is recognizing the traditional tripartite division of the law which divides the Mosaic Law into moral, ceremonial and civil laws. Then lastly I offer a rough sketch of the biblical view of human nature and sexuality and it’s implications for homosexual acts.
What was the purpose of the Old Testament Mosaic Law?
- The Mosaic Law was a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. The Mosaic Law was not given in isolation but was deeply embedded in Israel’s historical narrative. A covenant is a legal agreement between two parties and it contains the terms that both parties involved agree to. God established a covenant between Himself and Israel which was a politically, culturally and geographically well defined nation. The reason the bible is divided into the Old Testament and New Testament is precisely because it is a narrative of two covenants. The word testament means covenant: The Old Testament (covenant) is the Mosaic Law given to the Israel nation specifically; whereas the New Testament (covenant) brought through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is given to all people regardless of nationality.
- The laws were often so specific to Israel’s geography and culture they would remain unintelligible outside that context. For example laws on the Palestinian fat-tailed sheep found in certain areas only; commands regulating usage of specific fruits and nuts unique to the Mediterranean.
- The laws of Israel were theologically tied to God’s promise to dwell in Israel’s midst and their possession of the promised land. They were meant to regulate, flourish and prosper their lives in the promised land.
In a nutshell the Mosaic law was part of a covenant between God and the nations of Israel and is simply not applicable to Christians. Christians enter into a new covenant through Jesus Christ. The Mosaic Law and the 613 laws it contains are simply not applicable to Christians. As Hays sums it up, “The New Testament affirms the fact that the Mosaic Covenant has ceased to function as a valid covenant. Hebrews 8-9 makes it clear that Jesus came as the Mediator of a covenant that replaced the old one. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Heb. 8: 13)”
How should Christians treat and relate to the Mosaic Law?
The traditional approach to relate Christians to the Mosaic law divides the law into moral, ceremonial and civil laws. This traditional approach has been prominent throughout church history but was best articulated by Thomas Aquinas.
The moral laws refer to universal, categorical laws binding on all humans at all times: laws loving God and loving your neighbour for example. These are universal, general and binding on all humans at all times and therefore Christians live in accordance with these laws.
Then there are ceremonial laws primarily concerned with how people should relate and worship God. It contains commandments on how, when and where to prepare offerings and sacrifices; laws on what kept Israelites clean and unclean ceremonially; such as laws on foods, clothing, treatment of one’s body. Ceremonial laws served the purpose as well of being a figure for the mystery of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of humanity from our sinful nature. With Christ having come – their purpose was completed and fulfilled by Him and therefore are no longer applicable. As Paul says, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ’s.” (Colossians 2:16-17 ASV). A point Thomas Aquinas makes regarding ceremonial laws and precepts, “In this way the ceremonial precepts are figurative; since they were instituted for the very purpose that they might foreshadow something relating to the worship of God and the mystery of Christ.”
Lastly there are civil or judicial laws which are concerned with how people should relate to one another. Judicial laws would contain punishment of crimes, laws regulating civil society on their houses, their foreign policy on how to treat foreigners, marriage and its regulation. Civil laws are specific to a political sovereign state, similar to how as South African citizens we obey South African civil laws. Therefore Christians have no obligation to obey Israel’s civil laws, because we are simply not citizens of Israel but as Christians scattered in different political nations we are subject to judicial laws of our respective nations.
It is important to note that Aquinas also recognizes that the whole Mosaic Law is moral and makes a distinction between the general and the particular application of the moral law. For example “Worship the Lord your God” would be a general moral law or precept while a law that states we should worship God in such and such a way through particular rituals such as bringing sacrifices of lambs would be a particular application of a general moral precept and in this case would be categorized as a ceremonial law. Ceremonial and judicial laws would then still fall under the category of moral precepts and principles. To be exact; a ceremonial or civil law is a moral law brought to a determinate end.
Does that mean that Christians can live in a way that is contrary to the Mosaic Law?
Little Yes and Big No. Little Yes because according to the traditional approach there are moral, ceremonial and judicial laws contained in the Mosaic Laws. It is the ceremonial and judicial laws which Christians can act contrary to precisely as explained above. Big No because the Mosaic Law was always meant to be temporal and to prepare the Israelites for the arrival of Jesus Christ and the new covenant. This is in fact what the prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites (Jeremiah 31:31-33):
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
The old covenant was always intended to be fulfilled and succeeded by the new covenant, therefore obeying the new covenant is to ultimately obey what the old covenant was pointing towards and laying the foundation for. Another “Big No” because the Mosaic Law contains moral laws and principles applicable to all human beings which Christians are to obey because they are moral laws and principles. Christians however do not obey moral principles because they are in the Mosaic Law and we are somehow still under the Mosaic Law but in virtue of the fact that:
- God’s nature and character is the foundation for goodness, love, justice and holiness and what He commands and ordains cannot fail to fulfill a good, just and loving end. I cannot do better than Adam Clarke in describing God’s nature as he writes:The biblical worldview provides a rational transcendent foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
- Human nature has particular and unique ends it is disposed and directed towards and it is the realization of these ends which determines what is good for humans beings. The biblical view is that humans are made in the image of God. This entails we are essentially rational and therefore have the unique capacity to understand and know our own nature, the cosmos and God; and to choose whether our actions will be ordered and directed towards the fulfillment of our nature. The capacity to choose our actions and direct them towards some end or purpose we have knowledge of is what makes us moral beings. Moral laws are meant to bring harmony into our lives and properly order our desires, ends and actions.
- Jesus Christ defined what the “spirit” and highest moral principle of the Mosaic Law is; the highest good we were created for: and that is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.
- An analogy to help clarify the idea a bit. Imagine being in School X with its particular rules and conduct, if you changed and went to School Y you would no longer be subject to the rules of your old school, but those of your new one. You would find particular different rules; you would find you could do things that the old school didn’t allow like dying your hair colour. However you would undoubtedly find general rules that both schools expect you to adhere to. Your obedience to the common general rules would still be because your part of school Y even though your old school has the same general rules. Similarly the Mosaic Law contains general moral principles.
What then about homosexual acts?
If the laws contained in Leviticus are not applicable to Christian then surely it should mean laws on homosexual acts being an abomination are also not valid? The biblical view of sexuality must be understood within the context of its view of human nature. Genesis gives us the creation narrative of the universe including humans, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;male and female he created them” there are metaphysical implications that follow from this.
- Human beings are the end result of a rational, ordered, intelligible process emanating from God who is a rational, moral and intelligent Being rather than being the products of a mindless, accidental process. There is an objective natural intelligible and good order to creation precisely because it is created by God who is supremely intelligent and good. Humanity consists of male and female persons which entails we are social and communal, we were made for fellowship and community with each other and God.
- Human beings have a nature. We often refer to things, actions and desires being natural and unnatural and its important to understand the roots of those judgments. The philosopher Aristotle was probably the first to articulate best what is universally understood by nature:
“Things ‘have a nature’which have a principle of this kind…a principle of motion and of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration)…action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature…it is both by nature and for an end that the swallow makes its nest and the spider its web, and plants grow leaves for the sake of the fruit and send their roots down (not up) for the sake of nourishment, it is plain that this kind of cause is operative in things which come to be and are by nature.”
To say that some substance has a nature means it has a form or essence which determines the objective qualities, properties, behaviours it possesses intrinsically. From the essence, or nature of a substance flows activities and processes directed towards certain ends. In living things for example, they will have activities directed towards the realization of certain ends that are essential for its flourishing. A tree would be an instance of an object “having a nature” as it possesses its essential characteristics such as growing roots, leaves and fruits that come from the tree itself rather than some external source. Contrast natural with an artificial object such as a bed that has its properties extrinsically because a human made and shaped the bed for their own purposes. A tree has certain properties and activities such as roots which it uses to provide water for itself to flourish. Natural inclinations refers to the natural teleology of our capacities towards their inherent ends. Humans have eyes which function essentially to give sight; stomachs have their unique form for their function of digesting food; our intellect and reason are formed to grasp and know what is true.
- Natural in the Aristotelian sense does not simply mean it occurs own its without interference from people, or it is in accordance with the laws of physics (a blind eye would still obey the laws of physics; rather it is as Edward Feser puts it “final causes inherent in a thing by virtue of its essence, and which it possesses whether or not it ever realizes them or consciously wants to realize them”. Blindness would be unnatural, “against nature” in the teleological sense in that eyes possess their unique form for giving sight as their proper “natural” end.
- Human nature consists of a male-female sexual complementarity. Sexuality is a capacity found in other animals as well and refers to the fact that a certain species reproduces by union of two distinct members of its species. Certain species can procreate asexually such as in the case of bacteria which simply duplicate themselves and therefore there is no male and female. Then there are species such as humans which procreate sexually. Which means a human being is essentially by nature either a male or female, precisely because reproduction of our species requires the union of male and female.
- Human sexuality has procreation as its essential natural end. Sex is the means through which our species reproduce and has as its end and purpose procreation. All of the male and female organs involved in the act of sex are formed to fulfill this purpose. Undoubtedly because humans are more than just animals; we are rational, social and psychological creatures therefore there is more to sex than just the biological component of procreation; just like sharing a meal with persons entails more than just eating to provide food and nutrients for the body.The biblical worldview presents the purpose of sex as being unitive and procreation and in fact roots marriage in this basic capacity.
- On the biblical view marriage is “the conjugal union of spouses, rooted in the sexual-reproductive complementarity of male and female, which brings together a man and a woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union. As a social institution, it aims to secure for children the inestimable blessing of being brought up in the committed love—the marital bond—of the man and woman whose union brought them into being, and the related benefit of both maternal and paternal influences and care”. The biblical view grounds marriage in our created and intelligible human nature and is therefore radically opposed to the idea that marriage is merely a social construct and therefore arbitrary. The most basic social unit is family – and family can only originate through the sexual activity of a man and woman. Family to flourish requires a permanence and stability to it and hence a permanent commitment between the man and woman is essential for the family. If one rejects the biblical framework of marriage and its grounds then marriage becomes a social construct no longer rooted in our human nature. Nothing logically and in principle, rather than pure sentiment, prevents marriage from being defined as a union between a human and their pet for example, if male-female sexual complementarity is no longer the essential and necessary grounds for a marriage.
- Moral goodness consists in choosing to act in ways that fulfills, perfects and is consistent with our human nature. As Thomas Aquinas eloquently captures the idea: “[A]ll those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law”
- Homosexual acts frustrates the natural end of sexuality, which is contrary to the good of sexuality and therefore our nature. The fact that I have no desire for food, does not change the fact that food is essential for my body by providing nutrients. My lack of a desire for food would not suddenly show that eating is not part of my human nature rather it would show my desires are not properly ordered and consistent with my human nature. Similarly the fact that certain individuals have homosexual desires does not change the fact that sex has as its natural end procreation, it shows rather that the homosexual desire is disordered and not orientated towards its natural and fundamental end. Even if individuals with homosexual desires were born that way, it would not demonstrate that sex is no longer directed towards procreation essentially anymore than a person born blind would not negate the fact that eyes have sight as their natural and proper end.
- Hence intellectual and religious thinkers throughout history have held that homosexual acts are “unnatural” and against “nature” in this sense. Plato in his book Laws has a dialogue where the Athenian speaker says, “I think that the pleasure is to be deemed natural which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature”; Paul in his letter to the Romans, “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women…”
- For this reason the biblical view which takes the existence of human nature seriously reveals and affirms that homosexual acts are indeed immoral, unnatural or against our nature. The biblical view is that all of humanity is fallen, broken and sinful meaning our will, desires and actions are disordered and against reason and our God given nature. The biblical worldview would agree with Aristotle who rightly observed what sin is:
“But there does seem to be another natural element in the soul, lacking reason, but nevertheless, as it were, partaking in it. For we praise the reason of the self-controlled and of the incontinent, that is, the part of their soul with reason, because it urges them in the right direction, towards what is best; but clearly there is within them another natural element besides reason, which conflicts with and resists it. For just as paralysed limbs, when one rationally chooses to move them to the right, are carried off in the opposite direction to the left, so also in the soul: the impulses of incontinent people carry them off in the opposite direction. In the body we do indeed see the lack of control, while in the soul we do not see it; but I think that we should nevertheless hold that there is some element in the soul besides reason, opposing and running counter to it.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book I:13).”Because of the presence of sin, we are all in need of redemption, grace and love to properly restore and re-orientate our will and desires to be in harmony with our nature as God intended. It is for this very reason that Jesus came as he says, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly”. Talib Kweli in one of my favourite songs of his, Hostile Gospel Pt1, captures with great poignancy the human condition in the outro:
“In these trying days and times
All I need is to be free
I can’t do it on my own
Lord can you deliver me?
There are trials still to come
Its salvation that I need
So I’m reaching to the sky
Lord can you deliver me?”
In conclusion the Mosaic laws were part of the covenant between God and the nation of Israel. They were temporal and meant to prefigure Christ as the redeemer of humanity. Christians have no obligation to obey any of the laws contained in the mosaic laws precisely because we are not (1) ancient Israelites and (2) We are under the new covenant established through Christ which supersedes and fulfills the old covenant. Therefore as Christians we can eat shrimp and other foods that the Mosaic Law prohibited to the Israelites. Furthermore, the Mosaic Law contains moral, ceremonial and civil laws. It is the moral laws and principles contained in the Mosaic law which are applicable to Christians, however not because they are contained in the Mosaic Law per se but because moral laws and principles are applicable to all humans at all times. Leviticus states that homosexuality is an abomination and is immoral such a claim must then be viewed in the context of the biblical view of human nature. Human nature being the product of a rational and just God consists of various capacities and dispositions directed towards the realization of certain ends for our flourishing. Our eyes are formed for sight, stomachs for digesting food, intellect and reason for knowing and grasping truth. Human nature consists of male-female sexual complementarity which provides the potentiality for sexual activity which is naturally ordered towards unity and procreation. Therefore using our sexual faculties in a way contrary and frustrating to its natural and proper end is against reason, against nature and thus homosexual acts are wrong and Leviticus rightly reveals and affirms this principle. We must constantly remind ourselves that there are competing visions about what personhood and humanity entails; what the blessed, happy and good life consists in. The modern view, says nothing is given, our freedom and will is absolute. Reality, truth, essences, goodness and beauty are constructs of our wills and must therefore conform and submit to our will in order for us to be happy. The biblical view reveals to us that we as humans find ourselves in a world where order, essence, reality, truth, goodness are given; therefore our freedom and will must conform and submit to those givens in order for us to find happiness and flourish as the kinds of beings we were created to be.
Further good reads on the topic
- The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective.
- The Law of Moses and the Christian: A compromise
- J. Daniel Hays. Applying the Old Testament Law Today. BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (January-March 2001): 21-35
Lawrence S. Mayer, M.B., M.S., Ph.D. and Paul R. McHugh, M.D. Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences.
- Robert P George. Marriage and Equal Protection
- Robin Phillips. Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution
- Doug Mainwaring. Same-Sex Marriage vs. the Real Thing: A Gay Man’s View of the Big Picture
- Robin Phillips. Gay Marriage and Creational Realism