Book Reviews

Book Review: “Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community” by James M. Todd III

sats-toddJames M. Todd III’s Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community argues that Christians are no longer subject to any of the laws of the Old Covenant/Old Testament. It’s an extraordinary claim, particularly if one has not been exposed to such a position before, but one that Christians must engage with in order to have a full view of the proper relation between the Law and their lives.

Todd’s exposition of three primary views related to OT Laws is particularly interesting. There are, he argues, three primary ways of interacting with OT legislation: “Moral Law” Christians, who view the laws as binding but break them into moral, ceremonial, and civil, asserting only moral laws ought to be followed; “Ten Commandment” Christians who use the Ten Commandments for the baseline of morality, and “No-Old-Law”Christians who believe that Christians are not under authority of OT laws in any way. He highlights strengths and weaknesses of each position. Moral Law Christians run into the problem that the threefold division of OT Law is nowhere explicitly taught in Scripture, and that, moreover, in the ANE (ancient Near East) there would have been very little understanding of or motivation to make such religious/civil distinctions as is required by this division. Ten Commandment Christians struggle to explain how to deal with the Sabbath, among other issues. No-Old-Law Christians must explain how it avoids antinomianism as well as the problem of dealing with the Hebrew Scriptures as Christian Scripture. Though brief, this discussion alone was worth reading the book for.

The “No-Old-Law” position is defended by Todd largely through exegetical arguments, showing that the Law was viewed holistically, that it was intended to govern the entire covenant community of Israel, and ultimately that the new community in Christ–the church–is not bound by the same legislation. His argument is more detailed, of course, but those are the basics. He backs it up by looking deeply at the covenant community in the Hebrew Scriptures, noting some difficulties with other perspectives, and finally arguing his own position doesn’t just dismiss the Old Testament.

I was somewhat surprised to see Lutherans grouped in the “No-Old-Law” category, but saw that Todd put Lutherans there due to the notion of the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. However, when he continued to discuss the Law/Gospel distinctiveness and those who hold to that position, I believe he somewhat misrepresented the Lutheran position, particularly when he wrote that such a position “results in a negative view toward law in general; law exists simply for convicting sinners of their sin” (42). I’m not sure why Todd would conclude this is a negative view of the law. Lutherans teach that the Law always condemns; the Gospel always saves. This doesn’t mean the Law is negative, but rather that it has the extremely powerful and important place of bringing sinners to repentance and rightness with God! Though this was an extremely minor point in the book–and, to his credit, Todd noted the Third Use of the Law in Lutheranism would potentially get around this problem in a footnote–I would have liked to see a more balanced perspective on the Lutheran view here.

Another difficulty with Todd’s perspective is that, despite his objections that some “No-Old-Law” perspectives take a negative view of the law, his own perspective effectively dismisses it entirely. Indeed, he dedicates a whole chapter to piecing back together the importance of the Law for Christian readers, not by offering a holistic approach to the Law (as with the threefold distinction view), nor by a separation of spheres (as with the Lutheran perspective). Rather, his own approach is to note that the Law in the Hebrew Scriptures provides important historical and cultural context for much of the narrative related to the Old Covenant community. Thus, the Law is important for Christians in order to understand the Bible fully. Such a view has initial appeal, but ultimately I’m not convinced it stands up to scrutiny. It is the case that understanding the laws concerning Sabbath and the like will provide readers with a better comprehension of the narratives, but Todd would be hard pressed to make such a case for every law in the Hebrew Scriptures. How, in fact, does knowing the prohibitions about eating shellfish really impact one’s reading of any narrative in the Hebrew Bible? I know of nothing other than the possibility of a very oblique approach to just knowing the general cultural background. But if that’s the case, then Todd’s view of Law and Gospel cannot actually account for the importance of at least some portions of Scripture. This objection, to me, is enough reason to reject Todd’s development of his perspective in favor of something like the Lutheran perspective (though the latter does need fuller development regarding exactly what is meant by “Law” and obedience to it/condemnation from it).

One final point I’d like to raise is that the book isn’t quite as focused as one might expect. A few of the chapters could have been appendices (particularly the last chapter), and at least two appendices could have been part of the main text (especially the one in which Todd answers some arguments against his position). There are many objections that could be raised to Todd’s view (not including those I’ve already raised), and it would have been nice to see an even larger positive case with more objections answered.

Sinai and the Saints is an incredibly interesting book. Though I found myself thinking his perspective has a few fundamental flaws, I think that there are many challenges he raises to competing perspectives that must be met. Moreover, with some more development, his own perspective could potentially get around some of the flaws I’ve highlighted here. Regardless of what one thinks, Sinai and the Saints is an essential read for Christians wanting to learn exactly what it is they are to do regarding the Law in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s fascinating, engaging, and challenging, even if flawed.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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