James M. Todd III. Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Are Christians obligated to obey the laws that God gave to Moses at Sinai? In Sinai and the Saints, biblical scholar James M. Todd III tackles this question. Todd’s position is that the Old Covenant has passed away, so people are not obligated to observe the Mosaic law. Rather, for Todd, Christians are under the New Covenant and are required to obey the law of Christ.
To his credit, Todd wrestles with challenges to such a position. Why does the New Testament quote or allude to Old Testament commandments and laws, if they are no longer authoritative? What exactly is the law of Christ? And what about Matthew 5:17-20, in which Jesus denied that he came to destroy the law?
Contrary to the book’s title, Todd does not really attempt to read Old Covenant laws for the New Covenant community. (At least that is my impression, and other readers may conclude differently.) He actually advises against going overboard in focusing on each Old Testament law in an attempt to derive an application from it. Rather, Todd focuses on what he considers the purpose of the Old Covenant: to use Israel as an example of how people cannot become righteous through obedience to the law, since they need a new heart. For Todd, the Hebrew Bible points to a coming king who would bruise the serpent, a la Genesis 3:15.
There were some issues that I wished Todd had engaged. For example, how can Jewish-Christians be the weaker brethren of Romans 14, when Romans 14 says the weaker brethren eat only vegetables? Jews, after all, eat kosher meat. One answer is that Jews stayed on the safe side and ate only vegetables because most of the meat in the Diaspora was offered to idols or was non-kosher, but Todd never makes this point. Another example concerns the sacrifices. Todd notes that the Old Covenant had blood sacrifices for sins, and, of course, he believes that foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice. But his discussion would have been stronger and more nuanced had it acknowledged that sin and guilt offerings were largely for unintentional sins and explored how that theme gets played out in the New Testament.
Still, Todd deserves credit and praise for the issues that he does engage. Since Israel’s return to her land is a significant aspect of the Hebrew Bible’s eschatological prophecies, where is the land promise in the New Testament? Are the stipulations for Gentiles in Acts 15 still authoritative for believers? And are Christians forbidden to represent God visually? Todd’s answer to that last question left lingering questions in my mind, since I wondered why God would change his stance on this from the Old Testament to the New (assuming that God did). Overall, though, Todd’s discussions were judicious and methodical.
Todd’s approach to the biblical text was conservative, and there were cases in which that influenced his answers to questions. A number of New Testament scholars maintain that the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian Gospel, which held that the Torah was still authoritative for Jewish believers. Todd never entertains this possibility, perhaps because he believes that the entire New Testament teaches the same thing about the Mosaic Torah: that it has been nullified and replaced with the law of Christ. Diversity of Scripture has little place in that paradigm. The result is a rather convoluted interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20, as commendable as Todd’s discussion is for wrestling with the passage in light of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole.
Did I find Todd’s arguments convincing? Partly. On the one hand, to me at least, New Testament authors seem to be appealing to Old Testament commandments as divinely-authoritative. In my opinion, that differs from Paul’s reference to a Stoic poet in Acts 17, even though Todd appears to regard the two as analogous. On the other hand, that leaves me with a problem: Which Old Testament commands are authoritative, and which are not? Todd makes a convincing case that attempts to make such distinctions are problematic. It is easier simply to say that the Mosaic Torah was replaced with the law of Christ.
Todd portrays the Old Covenant as a covenant of trying to become righteous through obedience to the law and receiving God’s condemnation for disobedience. The New Covenant, by contrast, holds that God’s people are already a royal priesthood rather than trying to become a royal priesthood through obedience (cp. I Peter 2:9 with Exodus 19:6), and it affirms that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). There may be something to Todd’s argument here, and yet I wonder: If God’s Old Testament wrath is no longer relevant for New Covenant believers, why does Paul appeal to God’s Old Testament wrath as an example for the Corinthian Christians (I Corinthians 10:11)?
Notwithstanding my questions and critiques, I am still giving the book five stars. It was judicious, meaty, and thoughtful. And I want to see movie The Magnificent Seven after reading Todd’s description of it!
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!