Sprinkle, Joe M. Biblical Law and Its Relevance: A Christian Understanding and Ethical Application for Today of the Mosaic Regulations. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 2006. 235 pp.
Joe Sprinkle brings an interesting perspective to an old question; i.e. Is the Old Testament Biblical Law relevant to modern Christianity?, in his book Biblical Law and Its Relevance: A Christian Understanding and Ethical Application for Today of the Mosaic Regulations. Having studied in an evangelical seminary (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), followed by a time at a Jewish seminary (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion), he comes at the issue with the perspective, of what some would see, as both sides of the biblical coin. His study of the Ancient Near East background in which the biblical regulations were formed, rounds out his frame of reference. Sprinkle credits his interest and inspiration to study of the Old Testament influence on Christianity to Thomas McComiskey and Walter Kaiser at T.E.D.S. and Rabbi H.C. Brochette and Samuel Greengus at Hebrew Union College. Sprinkle is a Professor of the Old Testament at Crossroads College. He has a B.S. from the University of Oklahoma; an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; and a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. From Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is also a member of the Society for Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society.
Using Sprinkle’s own words the thesis of Biblical Law and Its Relevance “is that all biblical laws, not just the Ten Commandments, are relevant for Christian believers today; and we ignore the law to our own impoverishment morally and spiritually.” (Preface – viii) The first chapters of the book attempt to create a foundation for the remainder of it by suggesting a methodology for approaching the question as well as showing that Law and Grace are not dichotomous, but that the latter is in fact ingrained in the former. In the third and fourth chapters, he introduces the reader to some of what he believes are the critical aspects of Ancient Near Eastern law relevant to biblical law as well as to show the human “I-thou” relationship with God. The remainder of the book attempts to draw out these foundations by discussing them in terms of specific and relevant issues, including, but not limited to abortion, theft, the theology of sex, and the concept of “just war.”
While Sprinkle sets out to show the relationship of biblical law and the Christian, Biblical Law and Its Relevance generally comes across as more focused on teaching Old Testament biblical law than on showing its relevance to the Christian. The first two chapters (and the first chapter in particular) are the only chapters that appeared to address the thesis directly and thoroughly. The overview of the various approaches to bridging the Old Testament and New Testament is by far the most helpful chapter in the book. Sprinkle does a good job of explaining the positions and then providing an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses (of most) of them.
A particular point of interest comes under the heading of the “Approach of Reformed Theology to the Law” in Sprinkle’s definition of how “civil law” and “moral law” interact; namely “mere prohibitions of such things represent moral law,” while “civil laws ordinarily go on to include the penalties associate with violation of the law.” (3) He further explains how civil law is casuistic law or case law and how the Westminster Confession distinguishes the church from the nation and therefore that civil laws are not directly applicable to it (3). Many arguments against Old Testament law want to nullify the law because of the penalties imposed (e.g. death for mixing clothes is punishable by death, which seems extreme, so the prohibition itself must not be valid). The prohibition and the punishment, regardless of how integrally related they are, should be treated somewhat separately.
Under the heading of “Classical Dispensationalism’s Approach to the Law”, Sprinkle’s distinction between legalism and letterism is an important one (6-7). His categorization of “law versus grace” as a false dichotomy and his subsequent argument about how God first gave his grace to the people of Israel and gave them the law only afterward (7) under the same heading is another key understanding. Both sets of terms are often misunderstood or wrongly applied, leading to a distorted view of the relationship between biblical law and Christianity. In particular, the idea that the law was only introduced and used as a means of salvation inherently means that it utility is nullified once the “age of grace” was introduced. The law, which shows Israel how to live in relationship with God, was actually given as an act of grace, and is therefore valid in a Christian context also.
In the survey of methodologies that Sprinkle presents, the best one is probably the one he advocates and has labelled “The Principalizing Approach to Biblical Law.” (20ff) This approach not only retains the value and validity of the biblical law, but it provides a very practical way to apply it to the Christian life. Many who argue against the use of the Old Testament often do so by dismissing it as being from another time and culture. Sprinkle argues however that “despite the changed cultural, historical and theological settings, Christians can and should continue to derive moral and religious principles from Mosaic laws. The underlying principles of the law transcend their original cultural and covenantal setting.” He convincingly argues that the methodology of moving from a particular law up the “ladder of abstraction” to a more general principle, which can then be applied to a present situation, is the same hermeneutic principle that Paul commands to the Corinthians and Timothy (21). By comparing the understanding of the law and Paul’s hermeneutics, Sprinkle shows yet another consistency running throughout the Scriptures.
Sprinkle’s interpretation of John 1:17 in Chapter 2 in light of some of John’s other writings was also an important aspect in his argument. He begins by showing the different Hebrew words that are used to describe the truthfulness of the law and then directly addresses the argument by proof-texting the John verse and providing a number of other verses that would contradict a strict dichotomist reading of it. By providing so many verses, Sprinkle shows a continuity between ‘Old Testament law’ and ‘New Testament grace and truth’ questioning the validity of a strict distinction between law and grace.
The third foundational chapter “Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law Compared” was interesting if for no other reason than its length. It was a short chapter that said what it needed to say and then stopped. Chapters such as this are too often unnecessarily stretched out to a length consistent with the other chapters in a book. Sprinkle however, was bold in shunning this tendency and simply writing it as long as it needed to be, an admirable move. He does this again in chapter eight on the Red Heifer. Having said that, the chapter itself seems quite out of place. Sprinkle makes frequent references to ANE law throughout the book and while the information itself can be quite interesting, he does not really tie it in with his thesis. By the end of the book, reader is still left to wonder why ANE law is so important in the relationship between biblical law and Christianity. ANE law may provide an interesting background to how biblical law was founded, but it does not directly speak to its relationship with Christianity.
Sprinkle also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the Old Testament law and not enough time relating it to Christianity. This comes out particularly in his word studies. While they are very useful for understanding the law, the connection to how we are to understand it now, is not clear. Examples are the word studies on ᾱsôn and bipilîm. While both are interesting, they don’t add much, if any value in showing how the Old Testament lex talionis is relevant to the issue of abortion in modern times.
Further, in some chapters, he does not even seem to make a direct connection at all or the relationship is not useful. In the chapter titled “Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talionis) and Abortion,” the author concludes that “Although one might like to find definitive answers to the abortion question from Exod 21:22-25, it is not possible to do so. The detailed exegetical analysis of Exod 21:22-25 (lex talionis) given above shows the passage to be ill suited for establishing a biblical ethic concerning abortion.” (88) An understandable response from the reader might then be: “So why did you include a chapter on this question?” Sprinkle even argues in the Postscript that the rest of the OT and its law “does not address the topic directly at all.” The inclusion of this chapter is presumably in response to a misuse of this passage to answer questions about abortion, but it is not very pertinent to the author’s thesis of the book.
The chapters on “Understanding Laws of Clean and Unclean”, “the Red Heifer” and the “The Law’s Theology of Sex” all provide more understanding on the relevance of Biblical law for Christians. Other chapters such “‘Do Not Steal’: Biblical Laws About Theft,” “Just Ware in Deuteronomy 20 and 2 Kings 3,” and “Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-24” do not provide much direct insight into the relationship. In some of these chapters, the author seems more interested in disproving the use of certain passages for arguments on the respective subject than he does on using them for his own argument. While these chapters all fall short to varying degrees, of dealing directly with the book’s thesis, they do all provide foundational principals on their respective topics, which can then be applied to the Christian worldview. It would have been more helpful, if the author had taken more time to speak to the application of these issues into the lives of Christians.
The chapter on the “Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce” is probably the chapter of the book in which Sprinkle best utilizes his Principalizing Approach and addresses the book’s thesis in a direct and discernible way. He does a thorough job of looking at divorce throughout the Old Testament. His categorization of God’s attitude or involvement in divorce is especially helpful in better understanding his commands on the subject. Sprinkle’s (limited) use of word studies is helpful, but not overpowering, while his use of Old Testament Scripture is varied and wide, and his use of relevant cultural background is enlightening. Most helpful however, is the inclusion of New Testament passages related to the subject and how he ties them all together in the conclusion. This is not to say that every reader will agree with him, but the methodology in this chapter presents the issues and allows for the reader to come to their own conclusions based on the supporting information.
Biblical Law and Its Relevance: A Christian Understanding and Ethical Application for Today of the Mosaic Regulations starts off well and has some high points throughout the book, but generally speaking, it does not succeed in showing “that all biblical laws, not just the Ten Commandments, are relevant for Christian believers today; and we ignore the law to our own impoverishment morally and spiritually.” (Preface – viii).
The failure comes not from methodology because his Principalizing Approach looks to be the best way to reach his goal. The problem is that the book is heavy on the principalizing and very light on the application. It is ironic that the apparently “most serious question raised against the principalizing approach” (25) is the possibility of establishing principles. It is ironic because it seems to be the strongest aspect of this book, while application to Christianity, which were implied in the strengths of the approach (22-5), seem to be the weakest part of this book. The principalizing is essential, but it is not sufficient.
The average reader is probably going to pick up this book expecting to see a balanced approach to both the Old Testament exegesis and the New Testament application. Those who are seeking more answers on the exegesis side are going to be well pleased. There is a definitely value to the book as a useful exegesis of some important passages and concepts in the Old Testament. It would be helpful for an astute reader who is able to interact with the principles, but then to apply them or put them into the Christian context by themselves. While those looking for more answers on the application side are probably going to be disappointed. A reader who is struggling to understand how to apply Old Testament principles will find much of what they are looking for, whereas those who want to understand how to apply into the Christian life are probably not going to find the answers they are seeking.