Is it possible for us to worship the triune God without performing the Law?


I ask this in response to much commentary by learned colleagues on this blog regarding worship, liturgy, and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus. In this post, I’d like to focus on a narrow aspect of this discussion. My non-original proposal is this: for the Christian, all responsive worship of the God of Abraham, whom Jesus knew as Father, is the experience of grace as command (Barth). To signal where I’m headed, I’ll add this: the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus that lacks the experience of grace as command makes no sense to me.

To sketch this claim that all Christian worship is rightly the experience of grace as command, I’d like to give something of a book report on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Actually, I’ll focus exclusively on his fascinating account of Pharisaic Judaism. That in itself ought to be of interest to many of this blog’s readers. In addition, however, I’ll explain what I’ve learned from Tom Wright that I find so compelling: we err when we press too hard the distinction between law and grace.


Here’s the synopsis: when we dig into how the Pharisees understood Temple and Torah as both symbol and practice, we discover that Paul’s contrast of law and grace cannot properly be interpreted as a contrast of opposites. Rather, they are a contrast of aeons. To summarize this point, let me put it eisegetically and anachronistically: in the previous aeon, we encountered the real presence of God in the midst of our performance of Torah and Temple; in the current aeon — the Day of the Lord inaugurated with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — we encounter the real presence of God through fellowship with Jesus (I take Paul to say much the same thing in Phil. 3:2-21).

So that’s what’s ahead. In what follows, I will trace Wright’s account of Pharisaic Judaism, summarizing my reflections on his account specifically of Torah and Temple. All citations are from PFG.

Temple as symbol and practice

The first grand symbol of Judaism that shaped the Pharisaic worldview is the Temple. I’ll discuss two themes wrapped up in this symbol: (1) the Temple as intersection between heaven and earth, and (2) the Temple as the royal house of the Messiah.

Temple as the conjunction of heaven and earth

Cradle Episcopalians will remember how Episcopal altars were historically oriented towards “liturgical east,” towards Jerusalem. This is an echo of ancient practice. Synagogues throughout the Diaspora were historically oriented towards the Temple. The significance of the Temple is that there, like Jacob’s Ladder, was the gateway to heaven itself. At the Temple, both of the created worlds — heaven and earth — intersected. Here’s the key thing: the transcendent and the immanent were joined. “Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple … within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap” (283). The Temple was not the only place where heaven and earth met, but no other place exceeded its excellence as the place where YHWH’s glory is present.


To understand the significance of this centuries-long belief in the Temple as the non-exclusive place par excellence where heaven and earth become one, we need to recall our story about the creation of the tabernacle as it is told in Exodus. And here is perhaps the most important point of this post: YHWH taught Israel how to worship rightly through his gift of divine instruction, Torah, at Mount Sinai. And YHWH taught that right worship consists of right relations with God and each other as summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Shortly thereafter, YHWH gave further instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle. YHWH ordained the construction of the tabernacle “so that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). The whole point of the tabernacle was that the people delivered from bondage and formed by the divine Word “might be the people in whose midst the living God would … ‘dwell’” (284). The tabernacle was the place where YHWH was in the womb of Israel, while remaining wholly other than Israel. After their golden calf idolatry, the Israelites built the tabernacle according to YHWH’s instructions. Moses interceded in prayer for his people (Ex. 33), and, after great suspense, “the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling” (Ex. 40:35). And, of course, the glorious real presence of God, the Shekinah, guided the Israelites throughout their wilderness wanderings to the Promised Land:

Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey (Ex. 40:36-38, CEB).

Given this sacred history, it is no wonder that the psalms are filled with references to the Temple as the place where God is personally present, the place where God hears the prayers of God’s people, the place where Wisdom reigns, and the place to which Israel rightly turns when seeking blessing or deliverance.

But we need to step back a bit and notice something quite important about Jewish belief that we often overlook. To say that God is personally present and to say that God is exclusively in a location bounded by time and space such as the Temple are not the same thing. Hebrew cosmology understood God as free, sovereign, and eternal, and therefore wholly other than creatures. Heaven is not a bounded space containing God; heaven was the place where God came to meet God’s people. And somehow, as they gazed upon the holy tent containing the holy chest containing the holy covenantal tablets, God made visible in that moment a cloud by day and fire by night, a sign of their communion with YHWH through which the people’s word ascended and God’s sustaining Word descended. Gazing covenantally upon the holy chest, like the Noahic people gazing upon the rainbow, brought the Hebrews into the real and sustaining presence of their Lord.

We see this classically in the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:10-22). In the place where Jacob met God, the angels ascended and descended, establishing communion between God and Jacob. We see this too in the story of the tabernacle (Ex. 24-38). YHWH was not contained in the Tabernacle. Rather, when the Hebrews gazed upon the Tabernacle, which contained the holy tablets summarizing the worship desired by YHWH, they were reminded of the divine covenant through which YHWH gave them the gift of identity, and they encountered YHWH’s real presence, guiding them through the wilderness. God dwelt, but was not contained, in the Tabernacle.

Architecturally, the Second Temple was designed to represent the entire created order, with the stars and planets, and the great diversity and plenitude of the earth. For example, palm trees, flowers, figs, grapes, pomegranates, oxen, cherubim, seraphim, and lions — bronzed — filled the Temple:

In the Holy Place, next in sanctity to the (empty) Holy of Holies itself, were three wonderful works of art: the lampstand whose seven branches represented the seven planets, the table on which the twelve loaves represented the circle of the Zodiac and the year, and the altar of incense on which were thirteen spices, from every part of land and sea. All this, according to [the Roman historian] Josephus, signified that ‘all things are of God and for God’. (292)

The Temple, as symbol, first signified Jewish belief that the transcendent God was in fact, God-with-us; the Creator was ever-present to creation, and thus God’s people would always be secure in their covenantal relation to YHWH.

Temple as the royal house of the Messiah

From the time of its construction under King Solomon, the Temple at Jerusalem was evocative of the house of David (Solomon’s father). 1 Chronicles tells us that David prayerfully discerned the need for and designed the Temple, leaving it to his son to carry out his plans. From the beginning, the Temple and kingship were inextricable. The Temple, therefore, cannot be separated from Messiahship, since Temple and Messiah/King go together.

But this leads to a related theme: the hope for the restoration of the Temple. What happened when the Babylonians destroy the Temple and kill the royal family? The Temple/Messiah theme disintegrated, and re-emerged as the hope for the restoration of both the Temple and the messianic house of David. The world will be set right, say the prophets, for God will bring about a new Temple, a new king, and a new, recreated world.

And here’s the thing: Zerubbabel did rebuild the Temple, but, as the prophets Zechariah and Malachi noted, because of the lack of zeal in the priests, YHWH did not return to his Temple. Nowhere in the Bible, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, do we read of the divine presence, the Shekinah, filling the rebuilt Temple once more, and, nowhere in the Old Testament do we read that the restoration of the messianic house of David was achieved. As Wright observes:

[A]ll this would be common coin, second nature, to Jews of the [first century] who were soaked in scripture and who were living as it were within the implicit narrative of the Temple and the divine presence (or absence). To those who pored over Torah night and day, looking for the consolation of Israel, this combination of motifs — Temple, presence, glory, kingship, wisdom, creation, exile, rebuilding, and unfulfilled promise — would be part of their mental and emotional furniture (303).

Torah as symbol and praxis

My dictionary defines praxis as a noun denoting the “exercise or practicing of an art, science, or skill.” The secondary definition is “usual or conventional conduct.” These definitions are a helpful introduction to Torah as instruction. Notice the active sense of praxis. It is a doing of something that is understood to be normative for a community. When we say that Torah is a symbol and practice, we mean that it is not a written thing that one can reduce to a bumper sticker, but that Torah is something you do. Torah is action, and the acting out of Torah signifies one’s membership in the particular community we call “the Jews.” Torah is the practicing of right worship of God and, therefore, the usual or conventional conduct of Jews.

But, importantly, before Torah is right worship, it is gift. Torah is the gift by God to Israel of instruction regarding what constitutes right worship. And right worship turns out to be distinct from some forms of worship practiced by communities inhabiting lands near those of the Jews. For example, other ancient communities understood that right worship included fertility rites involving sexual intercourse between temple “priestesses” or “priests” and honored community members. Also, some ancient communities understood that right worship included the sacrifice — usually by fire — of adult or infant humans. Fertility and human sacrificial rites were intended to placate gods whom the community knew to be capricious. The profundity of Torah as divine instruction concerning the worship God desires is best seen in contrast with these other ancient practices. Through Torah, God reveals that right worship consists of living in harmony with your neighbor, and in exhibiting an attitude of thanksgiving to God in all things.

3636708835_c3de56f2bb_zIn addition, Torah instructed the Jews that their praxis necessarily included certain behaviors that set them apart from the rest of the world in order to be visible as a distinct community. Such distinctiveness was necessary in order for the world to notice the Jewish common life, which was to be sacramental in the sense of signifying the presence of God in the community and, therefore, in the world. By remaining distinctive and therefore visible to the world, the Jews fulfilled their mission of living in such a way that the world could be drawn into the friendship with God and friendship with each other, which is what God intends for all creation. For this reason, “Torah is the greatest of all the divine gifts for a Jew” (272).

The Torah includes moral precepts that did not distinguish the Jews from the rest of the world. For example, adultery — however defined — was generally forbidden in ancient cultures. So, too, were murder and theft (however these things were defined by their respective communities). So what made Torah more than just praxis — what made Torah also symbolic — were the emphases that set the Jews apart from other communities. Circumcision and the sabbath life were symbolic practices that distinguished the Jews from other communities, especially in the Diaspora where Paul pursued his missionary activities.

Perhaps the most important symbolic practices of Torah are the food laws and the restrictions on table fellowship. These, too, were a means of preserving the distinctiveness to which the Jews were called as part of their covenant obligations with YHWH. The culinary restrictions were not salvific in the sense of being actions that save Jews from a destiny of Hell (as some contemporary Protestants mistakenly characterize them). Rather, they were missional in the sense that maintaining their visibility as a community was one of the ways that the Jews served God in fulfillment of the Covenant. From the Pharisaic perspective that shaped Paul’s thinking, faithful Jews therefore practiced a more restrictive form of table fellowship than the rest of the world, as well as a kosher menu.

Kosher food is about treating one’s food such that one eats in a state of ritual purity in concert with and in analogy to the way one eats during worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The dietary and table fellowship restrictions were a way of making every day as holy as Temple worship, which rendered those identity-shaping practices especially important to Jews living in far off lands. The practices analogically brought a faithful Jew into the real presence of YHWH just as though he had entered the Holy of Holies himself.

Torah’s symbolic praxis generated kinship. Those who actively performed Torah shared a family bond. The bond was not merely a blood bond, because in the case of proselytes there was no blood relation. Rather, the bond was a family bond: those who performed Torah were recognizable as members of the family of Abraham. Hence Pharisees tended to speak using familial grammar, with references to “‘the ancestral traditions,’ ‘the traditions of the fathers,’ and so forth.” (279) The symbol and praxis of Torah — for those in the Diaspora — “could be thought of in terms of gaining, at a distance, the blessings you would gain if you were actually there — the blessing, in other words, of the sacred presence itself, the Shekinah, the glory which in some sense dwelt in the Temple but would also dwell ‘where two or three study Torah’” (279-280).

From this brief summary, we ought to be able to recognize the shadows of themes which carried on into Christianity, though translated by Paul (and other apostles and the Church Fathers) into a form informed by the life, resurrection, and death of the Messiah. As a Shammaite Pharisee, Paul would have held the practice of Torah to be inseparable from one’s identity as a Jew. As Wright emphasizes, “this was true for Jews in general, how much more was it true for Pharisees; if for Pharisees, how much more for the zealous, strict sort, the out-and-out, the Shammaites; if for the zealous, how much more for one who was ‘excessively zealous for the traditions of my fathers’, outstripping all others of his own age and race” (278).

It’s essential to notice the distinction between Torah and the subset of Torah by which the Jews remained visible, as they must be in order to fulfill their mission as Israel of drawing all the world into God’s love. The performance of Torah did not cause God to be present in the midst of the people. Rather, God freely and sovereignly promised to dwell in the midst of the people shaped and made visible by their performance of Torah. The objective element of their worship was not on the human side of Torah — their performance of it — but on God’s covenantal promise to be present in their womb as they were shaped by it. As their communal life was shaped by God’s instruction, God would be in the midst of them. The objective element is the covenant of grace.

Wright’s clarifying point is that Torah and Temple as symbol and practice would, therefore, have been part of the mindset of Saul of Tarsus. Paul writes of the Law, therefore, not with the mindset that Torah and grace are opposites. Rather, Torah was the means by which Diaspora Jews entered the Holy of Holies — that is, experienced the real presence of God. Yet, in the new aeon, Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah (Rom. 10.4). We perform Torah by participating in his cross (Phil 3:10), which is our spiritual worship (Rom. 12.1):

The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead. (Phil 3:10–11 CEB)

There is properly no opposition between law and grace. Grace just is the (re)cognition of the real presence of God. The performance of Torah always was and always is and always will be a means of grace, a means through which we (re)cognize God’s faithful presence in our midst in accord with God’s objective and life-shaping promise always to be present to God’s creation (Gen. 9:12-17). Performance of Torah is nothing if not the experience of God’s real presence as command. In the new aeon, however, fellowship with Christ is the fulfillment of Torah. We are fellows with Christ not merely (and not even primarily) by performing the things that make the Church visible (e.g., the liturgy), but by participating in his suffering for the world by working out the implications of his call for us to live as a people who know we are forgiven for our breach of the covenant. In the new aeon, fellowship with Christ is the experience of grace as command. In the new aeon, we analogically enter the Holy of Holies by performing a life that is fellowship with our Lord, and in that living, we (re)cognize that God always has been, always is, and always will be faithful — we remember the surprising, unmerited gift of Christ’s decision eternally to be always in the midst of us.

The idea of a personal relationship with Jesus that is not at the same time heteronomous and therefore theonomous is just plain silly. Like sex without committed fellowship under God, it ain’t the real thing.

The images above are “IL099 0802 Royal Colonnade & Jewish Temple at Israel Museum, Jerusalem” (2009) by Flickr user Benjamin and “The Torah” (2006) by Flickr user Alison Richards. Both are licensed under Creative Commons.

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8 years ago

I wish you had said more about the tension Wright highlights in Torah – a great gift, but somehow its giving “adds” to the problem.

Human flesh’s weakness + Torah -> Sin/Death

Law and grace, from the “before” angle do appear in opposition. One could say that it is by our incorporation into Jesus that Torah again is “completely” a good gift again – law and grace “kiss” (Tom would like the use of the word kiss – see his comments on Ps 85:10).

Todd Welty
8 years ago

“Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.” St. Mark the Ascetic, On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works, text #18 (5th century).

David Shepherd
8 years ago

In John 4:21 – 24, with the Woman at the Well, Jesus re-focuses her attention away from the ongoing debate between Jews and Samaritans about Mount Gerazim vs. Jerusalem. He establishes that the New Testament priority is not on where we worship, but on how God is worshipped. In Acts 7, part of St. Stephen’s response to the accusation that he ‘never stops speaking against this holy place and the law’ is quite telling. It’s when he echoes the Solomon’s understanding of God’s purpose for the Temple to constrain Himself to its limits. The Temple served as a reassurance that,… Read more »