Wednesday, 16 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 1: A response to J.Piper.

I had been planning for some time to write an article about the place of Old Testament food laws in the life of the Christian, but because I have just started some holidays I was putting it off for a little bit. That was until I saw an episode of ‘Ask Pastor John’ on the Desiring God website (here) that was a response to a question on the topic, and felt that it needed a response. Not so much as a direct response to him (the odds of him actually reading it are a million to one), but rather that his take is a summary of the common argument against the need for Christians to follow biblical food laws. And ones that I argued in unison for some time too. In fact, it is only since the beginning of this year that I had come to the position I have, which is just over a year since I began to recognise the relevance of Torah in the life of the Christian. And there is a good reason I put off looking into it: I was worried about what I might find. I was scared that I would have to abandon my arguments as to why I can disregard the food laws. And changing a diet can become difficult. I was worried about the social awkwardness of having to say ‘I don’t eat bacon.’ And my concerns were warranted. I found that the common arguments don’t hold much water once you dig a little deeper into their proof texts and telling people you’re not eating pig products can have people accuse you of being fussy, Jewish and even eating Halal. And saying goodbye to hotdogs, pepperoni, and 90% of a pizza menu can make mealtimes difficult. But, like celiacs, vegetarians, and diabetics, you learn to adapt. But in the end, it is more important to obey what you see scripture as teaching rather than what is popular, convenient, and delicious. And I don’t judge or condemn those who disagree with me. I make jokes with my wife about ‘eating the demon meat’, but it’s only in good fun.

Before I begin I want to say two things. The first is that I recognise and know from personal experience that if this is new to you, your inclination is going to resist much of what I am going to write, just as I did. But I ask, as I always have since I started writing these posts, that you lay aside your theological traditions and love of bacon, and consider what I have to say with prayer and humility, an open mind, and an even more open Bible. And I invite you to provide feedback in the comments section below. The second, is that my critique of John Piper’s answer should not be taken as disrespect or a rejection of him. I have much respect for his theological wisdom and experience and many of his teachings have been edifying and encouraging. And so it is with humility that I outline why I disagree with him on this issue.

I’m going to split this response over a few articles. In the first two, I am going to be responding to John Piper’s main points, which is primarily centred around his interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18, and Mark 7. In the following posts, I will be addressing Peter’s vision of the sheet in Acts 10, and Paul’s words in Romans 14 that ‘nothing is unclean’ and his words to Timothy ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.’ So if you get to the end of this and say ‘but what about…?’, they’re coming.  If you can think of any others, please comment below.

The episode of Ask Pastor John that I am responding to begins with a listener asking the question: 
"I would really like to know whether it is sinful for me to eat pork and bacon." 
In his response, Piper begins by saying:
The good impulse is the desire to obey God. There’s nothing wrong with that. That belongs to what it means to be a Christian. The bad impulse is the failure to obey Christ who teaches us how to obey God in regard to the Old Testament.
So for Piper, we need to listen to Christ and what he said about obeying the Old Testament. And to that I say "amen"! We need to keep the teachings of Christ supreme in our walk, so I know that John Piper is coming from a good heart and right motives. He then moves on to quote Matthew 5:17-18 to see what Jesus did say:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Piper explains that in this passage, Jesus is explaining that through Him, the Old Testament Law was modified, which includes doing away with the food laws. As he explains:
in Jesus [is the fulfillment and accomplishment] of the Law and the Prophets that God always intended in the Old Testament as the consummation and the end of the ceremonial laws. So, the effort to hold on to the prohibition of eating pork is, in effect, a refusal to submit to God’s plan for the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.

As I said earlier, I can see and agree with the heart of where John Piper’s interpretation of this passage is coming from. Like Stephen, Piper is telling people not to resist the Holy Spirit in its working out of God’s plan for humanity (Acts 7:51-53). I also agree that we should live in the freedom and liberty that the Gospel provides. Unfortunately, Piper’s exegesis and interpretation of Matthew 5 falls short in a few ways. I have discussed this at length here, however what follows is an abbreviated form of that.
Firstly, his interpretation of fulfil neglects the linguistic and historical/cultural context of the word. When interpreting Scripture, it is important that we allow the meaning of the word as used by the author to influence our exegesis, not what we think it means. Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’ use of the word queer in the Narnia series. Surely we wouldn’t say the series is about a homosexual lion. So, what was meant by fulfil when Matthew wrote his Gospel? Well, the word used for fulfil in Matthew is the Greek word plerosai, which means to make complete and to fully teach. It’s like adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. In fulfilling the chocolate-chip cookie-dough, you’re not throwing away the dough; you’re making it complete by adding the chocolate chips. When it comes to fulfilling the Law, what Jesus was doing, was revealing the depth and significance of the commandments of God. Moreover, the use of ‘fulfil’ in the active voice rather than the passive voice (plerothe) means that it is different to the prophetic function of fulfillment (Matt 8:17, 13:35 etc…). This is further brought out when we consider the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, ‘fulfilling the law’. In Jesus’ day, to ‘fulfil the law’ was a Rabbinic term that meant to uphold and correctly teach. And to say a commandment was done away with and no longer relevant, is to ‘abolish’ that law (Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14; Horayot 1:3); something Jesus said he didn’t come to do.

Secondly, note that Piper neglects to quote the very next verse:
Therefore [because I have come to correctly teach and uphold the Torah] whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments [including food laws] and teaches others to do the same [‘put some pork on your fork’] will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
By Jesus’ own words, if He has relaxed the prohibition on unclean meat, He has just made Himself least in the Kingdom (the next post will deal with Jesus' authority to change the Law).

The third is Piper’s claim that:
In the Old Testament, God always intended for the consummation and end of the ceremonial laws.
This point is difficult to uphold for two reasons.
Firstly, I don’t see that in scripture. I see nowhere that Leviticus 11 was only temporary. I see nothing in the prophets about them going to be removed (Amos 3:7). I do, however, see the opposite in the very words of Jesus John Piper quoted earlier, that not the smallest detail will pass from the Law, “until heaven and earth pass away.” Taken literally, that hasn’t happened yet. Taken metaphorically, it means it never will.
Here’s three further examples:
1. Through Malachi, the Lord declares that He does not change and that the people should return to His statutes (Mal 3:6-7). If eating pig was an abomination in His eyes in the days of Moses, that would not change. (Read more here)
2. In Isaiah, God says that after the Judgement:
Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig's flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord (Isa 66:15-17).
Why, if pig is okay to eat, will God put an end to eating it?
3. In Ezekiel, it is prophesied that after the reconstruction of the Temple, the return of God’s glory, and the restoration of Israel (with whatever millennial framework you want to interpret that):
[The Priests] “shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (Ez 44:23)
If clean and unclean is done away with, why are they teaching it?
But, if there is a verse that says that the food laws are temporary, I would love to read it. Piper seems to invoke how God’s people are now made up of more than the nation of Israel as justification for this position, since “the prohibition of certain foods as unclean was a temporary part of God’s way of making Israel distant or distinct from the nations of the world.” But I have dealt with the irrelevance of that claim in my previous posts of how we as Gentile-born followers of Christ are now a part of Israel. Also, we are encouraged in the New Testament to ‘be holy as God is holy’ (1Pet 1:16), and set apart from the world (Jn 17:14-15)) which is the same justification given for the food laws (Lev 11:44-45).
The second problem with this claim is that this division between ceremonial law and moral law is a false categorisation. As E.P Sanders (p.194) explains, “Modern scholars often try to divide the law into ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ categories, but this is an anachronistic and misleading division.” In reality, the scriptures only provide two related categories of Law: how we relate to God, and how we relate to others (e,g, Matt 22:36-40, Lev 19:18, 1Jn 4:20). But even if a case could be made for moral and ceremonial law categories, consider how the most repeated commandment in the New Testament, to abstain from idolatry, is ceremonial rather than moral in nature. Consider too that three of the four ‘minimum requirements’ from Acts 15, are ‘ceremonial’ and food related.

Piper also invokes Galatians 5:6, and substitutes pork eating for circumcision saying, “Neither pork eating nor non-pork eating counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” And in terms of justification, absolutely, which is what Galatians is about: people accepting formal conversion to Judaism as a means for salvation, as symbolised in the term ‘circumcision.’ The letter to the Galatians was never written to nullify ceremonial law, but rather challenging a salvation based on works and national identity, as in Acts 15. So, to substitute circumcision with eating-pork doesn’t work as circumcision was seen as the way of getting in and abstaining from pig was because they are in. And Piper is correct in saying that Paul in his letters does not send people back to “the Old Testament ceremonial laws of circumcision and food laws.” But this is most likely because Paul, in writing to Gentile-born converts, had to spend more time teaching them to obey the ‘second great commandment’, and commandments prohibiting sexual immorality and idolatry as religion and morality was a foreign concept to Roman Pagans. Honouring one's god through ceremony and ritual, however, was second nature. Nonetheless, Paul agreed with the Jerusalem council (and the Holy Spirit) that the Gentile-born believers would learn the Torah in the synagogue (Acts 15:19-21).

So as we have seen, Matthew 5 and Galatians are not good places to defend the ‘legalisation of pig meat’ as the typical interpretation, as espoused by Piper, seems to ignore their historical, idiomatic, and textual contexts. Because of the amount of words needed, I am leaving until the next part of this series to examine Piper’s use of Mark 7 and ask, did Jesus really declare all foods clean?

Sanders, E. P. Judaism : Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
Babylonian Talmud:

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