The relationship between Christian theology and law is disputed and complex. Jesus railed against the lawyers for not understanding, and Paul contrasted a faith based on grace with one rooted in law. It would take volumes to discuss it, but even the most unbiased observer should see that the law is not an unambiguously good thing in the Christian tradition.
The point of Jesus’ aphorism about “straining out gnats but swallowing camels”, Elaine Storkey said recently, was to show that while the law is not unimportant, there is a strange and harmful human tendency to become obsessed with trivial inconsequential detail – while great issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness are ignored. Such obsessions distort truth and misrepresent God’s reality in the world.
I would want to go further. I think a legalistic mindset has been deeply corrosive to Christian theology, and particularly to how we read the Bible. It has twisted a book of diverse genres, through which a loving God guides, nudges, inspires, and cajoles human beings towards a greater love for each other and a greater appreciation of the divine.
When someone put in those nasty verse numbers, the lawyers started to feel it was their book â€” a set of regulations. Chapter and verse started sounding like paragraph 1, subsection 3 of a legal contract. That was the point at which some Christians began to reject the idea that the Bible could be read in various ways, and, worse still, that it might contain contradictions or poetry. Such things would undermine its status as the ultimate legal document.
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