In the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: Think not that I am come to make void the law or the prophets; I am not come to make void, but to fulfil (Matthew 5:17). In the same sense, Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
The people of Jesus’ day could rightly wonder what was missing from the Law, that Jesus had to come to fulfill it. So, in the passages that follow that statement in the Sermon, Jesus gives several examples of what God’s interpretation of the Law really is, contrasting it with the way their Rabbis and Scribes had taught them. In every case, Jesus’ interpretation appears more severe. Yet, at the same time it is easier because he takes away all loopholes.
How can this be? If God gave us the Law, isn’t it right? Isn’t it perfect?
It’s hard to find a better explanation than Kierkegaard’s in Works of Love. (All quotes are from Hong and Hong’s translation in Kierkegaard’s Writings, Volume 16; Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition).
“Despite all its many provisions, the Law is still somewhat indefinite, but love is the fulfilling. The Law is like a laborious speaker who despite all his efforts still cannot say everything, but love is the fulfilling.
It might seem strange to say that the Law is the indefinite, since it has its very strength in the provisions…”
(The word provision here would have been better translated as proviso, so as not to be confused with the meaning of supplies. A proviso is a conditional provision, as in a conditional contract agreement that requires performance only if the delineated conditions are met. Thus the law establishes the conditions that must be met; as when we say ‘this is legal, provided you do this and this…’)
“…indeed, the Law owns and controls all the provisions. Yet this is the case, and therein lies the weakness of the Law.
Just as the shadow is weak in comparison with the strong actuality, so is the Law; but just as there is always something indefinite in the shadow, so also there is something indefinite in the silhouette of the Law, no matter how accurately this is carried out. Therefore also in Holy Scripture the Law is called “a shadow of things to come,” since the Law is not a shadow that accompanies the actuality of love—but the Law is taken up into love, it is the shadow of what is to come.”
The point SK will be making is that the indefiniteness of the Law is inherent in its character as Law. And therefore, if we insist on digging into it, in living by it, we will experience this indefiniteness; and we won’t like it. As a result, we will want to fix it. We will want to make it more and more definite.
Admittedly, the concept that a set of written rules is, in actuality, indefinite – as opposed to precise – is at first counterintuitive. But SK will presently explain how that is. Before getting there, he needs to tell us why it is indefinite. The comparison to a shadow is the first example. Then he gives us another:
“When an artist sketches a plan, the design of a work, however accurate the sketch is, there is always something indefinite. Not until the work is finished, not until then can one say: Now there is not the slightest indefiniteness, not of a single line, not of a single point. Thus there is only one sketch that is completely definite, and that is the work itself, but this of course means that no sketch is or can be completely and unconditionally definite.
Thus the Law is a sketch and love the fulfilling and the entirely definite; in love the Law is the entirely definite. There is only one power that can carry out the work for which the Law is the sketch—namely, love.”
This analogy between the sketch and the final painting allows SK to point out why the Law and Love (and therefore, Love and Grace), both authored by God, are never opposed to each other.
“Yet, just as the sketch and the work are by one and the same artist, so also the Law and love are from one and the same source; they are no more incompatible with each other than the work of art corresponding perfectly to the sketch is incompatible with the sketch because it is still more definite than all the provisions of the sketch.”
Using infinite series to understand the relationship between Love and Law
I like the next analogy SK uses because it comes from mathematics. At first it can be understood in terms of arithmetic but if you know about infinite series, it becomes all the clearer. An infinite series is a sum of an infinite number of terms that nevertheless results in a finite answer.
For instance, the sum: 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 and so forth… simply adds up to 1. Even though it would take you forever to add all the terms up. Kierkegaard’s point will be: if you are tired of adding up all those terms, why not accept that they add up to 1?
“This is why Paul says in another place (I Timothy 1:5): “Love is the sum of the commandment.” But in what sense is this said? Yes, it is said in the same sense as it is said that love is the fulfilling of the Law. In another sense it is the sum of all the particular commandments, you shall not steal etc.
Just make the attempt, whether you find the sum that way no matter how long you go on counting, and you will see that it is useless labor, because the concept of the Law is to be inexhaustible, limitless, endless in its provisions; every provision begets of itself an even more precise provision, and in turn a still more precise provision by reference and in relation to the new provision, and so on infinitely.”
It is really an infinite sum problem. This is what we alluded to earlier. If we really try to keep the Law, we will realize that it has possible loopholes, that not every possible case or situation has been exhaustively covered… that, if it is to cover and regulate every possible human action, in every century past and to come, it is incomplete. So, naturally, our initial reaction is to attempt to close the loopholes we see; to add more sub-paragraphs. But what happens after that, when we stare at that new and improved version of the Law, some more?
Won’t we realize that those fixes we just introduced are themselves incomplete? Given enough time, we will figure out new loopholes to those, new situations that have not been covered yet.
It is no surprise, then, that by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees counted 613 laws to keep based on Scripture and then added to that the traditions of the elders. When you are obsessed with keeping the Law, every eventuality has to be covered, every loophole has to be protected against.
For instance, Kyle G. Jones points this out when he discusses the meaning of a phrase used in Mark 7:3 (“For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly”) “Properly” typically entailed washing with closed fists to prevent one palm from polluting the other. Vigorous diligence demanded washing up to the wrists; others, in the name of total and complete thoroughness, would go as far as the elbows. If one washed up to their elbows, there could be no doubt about the cleanliness of their hands.
Thus, SK concludes:
“The relation of love to the Law is here like the relation of faith to understanding. The understanding counts and counts, calculates and calculates, but it never arrives at the certainty that faith possesses; in the same way the Law defines and defines but never arrives at the sum, which is love.”
Are we, today, in danger of being obsessed with the Law?
The answer depends whether you are a believer or not. If I live in the world, according to the ways of the world, the paradoxical answer is, probably, Yes: I am obsessed in the sense that I am always looking for a loophole. In other words, I want to study the Law (or laws) so well that I can get away with doing what I want without paying a penalty. There is no argument on this. We see it all the time in “creative accounting” or in the perennial (legal) quest for a way to shield our income from having to pay taxes. Every human being knows that the law is indeed indefinite.
What about as a Christian? Can I be obsessed with the Law? A trivial answer would be to cast this as a question of the tug of war between legalism and Grace or between the danger of judgmentalism and the danger of “cheap Grace”. Paul knew that dichotomy well. Several chapters of his letter to the Romans address the accusation that was leveled against him of rejecting the Law. But as Kierkegaard has told us, Law and Grace cannot be in a struggle against each other because both were authored by God.
Yet, there is another way that we can obsess over the Law without seeing ourselves as being legalistic. It comes in by the way we choose to interpret Scripture.
I am always careful not to demand an absolutely literal reading of a verse in the Bible, when our common usage (that is, the way people speak) can just as easily have a different meaning.
This is not a literal versus allegorical interpretation kind of argument – although there are some that would cast it that way. It is a matter of understanding that simile, metaphor, hyperbole, poetry, alliteration, etc. are all stylistic devices humans use effectively in their communication because we all understand their purpose. We use such devices because they convey more meaning, more emotion, than pure mathematical data. Humans are not robots and do not communicate in exact 1’s and 0’s. That is a fact of the way God made us.
I would now argue, having read Kierkegaard’s exposition, that it is that way on purpose because exact mathematical rules (laws) are inflexible and cannot bring life. Love and Grace are flexible because their purpose is to usher us into eternal life.
This is a discussion that can go in many directions. But I think one example is useful, to conclude. I know Christian brothers, strong, faithful, pious, who tend to want to read the Bible as literally as possible. To me, this not only brings in difficulties in Genesis against the measured age of our universe but in other areas as well.
For instance, someone once told me that lying is always categorically wrong (a sin) even in situations where an ordinary person might lie to save a loved one from being hurt. (Like lying to the Nazis about Jews hidden in your attic). My reaction to that is that adopting such a position puts us in “testing God” territory. Because, usually, the person who believes any lie is a sin, also believes that if we do not lie, even in that life-or-death case, then God will honor that by intervening to prevent the evil from happening. In other words, by my choice not to lie, I am forcing God to do “the right thing”. To me that runs against the commandment, “thou shall not put your God to the test.”
To me this is truly a matter of conscience; personal, individual conscience. I can say that, because I already believe that as Christians we are allowed and expected to think through the requirements of our faith. Taking the whole counsel of God into account, I believe we can reach the right decision that agrees with God’s will. (That is, after all, the job of the Holy Spirit.) So, I have no problem telling you that I may be right but my brother – who will never choose to lie – also could be right. God’s Truth and Will are always absolutely right. But you and I will not get to know them perfectly until we see Him face to face.
The reason I end with this point is that it also an example of the tension between Law and Love. Sometimes, over-literal reading of the Bible is the easy way out. Sometimes it is easier to say, “well the Bible says that is a sin”, and end the discussion there, rather than risk letting our conscience choose the right thing to do… Rather than to struggle with the reality of the complexities of the choices real people make in their real lives in this real imperfect world. Remember, according to the Law, that woman caught in adultery should have been stoned to death (John 8). The Law could not be any clearer (any more definite). But Jesus made a different choice; the choice of Love.