A Brief Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Mark Baker
Richard Averbeck is an accomplished Old Testament scholar and has published numerous scholarly volumes and articles for the academy. In The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, he takes his depth of scholarship and brings it to an intended audience of pastors, seminary students, and educated laypeople. The book seeks to explain the relevance of the Old Testament law for a new covenant believer. Averbeck begins by looking at the biblical covenants themselves. In recent years, there have been many books that cover this topic, and they all rightly focus on the level of continuity between the old covenant and the new. Dispensationalists (of all flavors) generally lean towards discontinuity while covenant theologians lean towards continuity. A more recent middle ground can be found in the “progressive covenantalism” camp made popular by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum. He does not claim it for himself, but I would put Averbeck generally in this camp, although he disagrees with Gentry and Wellum on the existence of a “creation covenant.” For Averbeck, “The Noahic covenant is the ‘creation covenant’ in the Bible—the only one” (34). Nevertheless, Averbeck sees the covenants in the Bible as connected and building on each other, a key component of progressive covenantalism.
Averbeck ably pokes a hole in the common distinction of “conditional” and “unconditional” covenants, rightly showing how each redemptive covenant has promises and obligations (57). He also denies the existence of the division of the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil laws (a theory often proposed by covenant theologians). Scholars usually appeal to this threefold division to say that the “ceremonial” laws are done away with in the New Testament. But Averbeck rightly demonstrates that no such divisions exist in the Old Testament. Therefore, we must look elsewhere for a solution for how the Old Testament laws apply to the New Testament.
Here Averbeck lays the foundation for his own answer to this question, claiming that covenant stipulations can shift over time. He points out that Leviticus 17 forbade sacrifice outside of the tabernacle, but Deuteronomy 12 allows for sacrifices anywhere in the Promised Land. As the geography and circumstances of Israel shift, so does the law. For Averbeck, these shifts are built into the nature of covenants (100). The new covenant does not make the old covenant laws invalid; it rather indicates substantial built-in shifts to the covenant based on the mass inclusion of believing Gentiles into the people of God.
For Averbeck, when Jeremiah states that the law of God will be written on Israel’s hearts (Jer 31:33), this law is none other than the old covenant law. The Old Testament law cannot be done away with because it is the very law written on the hearts of New Testament believers. Therefore, Averbeck asserts, “We need to shift our thinking about this subject to the level or kind of application, not the limit or extent of application” (314). This interpretation is in line with Matthew 5:18 that the law will not pass away before “heaven and earth pass away.” However, it is not without its interpretive difficulties. Averbeck addresses these in turn, starting first with the antitheses of Jesus in the sermon on the mount. Though Jesus appears to overturn the idea of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev 24:20; see Mt 5:38), this Old Testament law is strictly for law courts, and Jesus’s teaching refers to personal relationships outside of court (240). The Sabbath presents another difficulty, but Jesus does not actually break the Old Testament Sabbath regulations but only the “overtly restrictive application of Sabbath law” by the religious leaders (248).
Averbeck’s thesis also raises some questions about the decisions regarding Gentile inclusion in the book of Acts. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 could be seen as evidence for doing away with at least some of the law. Averbeck appeals again to the built-in shifting nature of the covenants. Just as Deuteronomy 12 refers to a shift in the law because of new circumstances with Israel entering the Promised Land, so this change in dietary requirements should be seen as another shift in the law based on Gentile inclusion to the covenant (270). The same can be said for the decision made by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The council kept the most basic law requirement (not eating blood) but shifted based on the need for table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. In Acts 21, Paul himself demonstrates the continued value of the law by making a Nazarite vow. Even though Paul was not in Jerusalem, nor did he have a temple to make a sacrifice, he still saw this vow as “meaningful and helpful to him in his walk with Jesus as a Jew” (275).
Averbeck supports his overall thesis with three tenets: the law is good, the law is weak, and the law is unified. He looks to Romans 7-8 to support the first two tenets. When Paul uses the pronoun “I,” he refers to any human being, believer or non-believer, and their struggle to live rightly (298). The law has a role in this struggle, as it (though good) exacerbates the disobedient state in humankind. The law is good in that it reveals God’s will, but it is weak because it is unable to change a sinful human heart. In contrast, it is the life of faith empowered by the Holy Spirit that enables a believer to walk in God’s ways. For the third point, the unity of the law, Averbeck looks elsewhere in Paul. Paul states that new covenant believers are free from the Mosaic covenant law (Gal 5:13) because the law can no longer be used to condemn God’s people (Rom 7:24-8:1). But when the law is written on the hearts of believers, the Old Testament law is mediated to believers through the “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21).
There are so many good things to commend about this book. First, it is approachable that educated lay people would be able to follow his argument, yet readers can rest assured that decades of scholarship stand behind the readable prose. Second, he offers strong challenges to those in dispensational and covenant-theology camps and opens the door for further conversation. Finally, even within his own camp of progressive covenantalism, he differs from other key voices. His view that all the law still applies to the new covenant believer as it is mediated through Christ stands out as especially compelling.
Reading through the book, the one lingering question I had was potential for a slippery slope. Averbeck’s idea of built-in changes within the covenant stands out as a key component of his argument. I agree that the covenant stipulations can change from Exodus to Deuteronomy when circumstances change. This principle very well could explain the shift from old to new covenant, although there are moments when Averbeck’s reasoning seems like a stretch (e.g. with the Sabbath, 248). What would stop someone from saying that the law has shifted again in the 21st century? Could someone take Averbeck’s principle and apply it to new circumstances today, producing new interpretations that stray far from the original intent of the Scriptures? While I don’t think Averbeck suggests this kind of interpretation, he does not provide the needed guardrails to prevent this kind of application.
This question aside, Averbeck has provided an excellent, readable work on one of the toughest interpretive questions for Bible readers today. This work will certainly provide more inroads for this important conversation, no matter where you are on the spectrum of interpretation. But for many, this work will provide greater clarity for how to interpret the Bible, especially in finding deep, rich meaning in the Old Testament law.
Mark Baker (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as director of the Risen Institute, located in Houston, TX.
Buy the books
THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW FOR THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH, by Richard E. Averbeck