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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

God, Justice, and Society by Burnside

God, Justice, and Society
Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible

Jonathan Burnside
ISBN: 978-0-19-975921-7
Oxford: Oxford University Press, December 2010
£60.00,  Hardback, xl +542pp.

Burnside, professor of Law at Bristol University, takes a legal approach to biblical law in this magisterial work. He adopts a canonical, 'final form' view of the scriptural texts.

English law draws extensively upon biblical law and Burnisde is able to draw out the resonances and parallels. He sees Torah as 'an expanding horizon' - it has a wide range of meanings (p. xxxii)

He characterises biblical law:
as an integration of different instructional genres of the Bible which together express a vision of society ultimately answerable to God. (p. xxxii)

Biblical law is 'a journey into wisdom' (p xxxix), this theme is picked up in Chapter 1, where he looks at 'ten top laws' and uses them to draw out the similarities and differences between biblical law, ancient near eastern law and contemporary law. Biblical law is bound up with God's involvement with Israel, it is integral to Israel's vocation it is didactic, relies upon rhetoric and literary art, it is dynamic, relational and an expression of wisdom.

He begins his analysis of biblical law with the concept of covenant, which he describes as the DNA of biblical law. Chapter 2, 'A deal with God', then looks at how covenants were used in the Bible, it takes a synoptic overview. The Sinai event comes under close scrutiny - rightly so. I found the distinction between the old and new covenants illuminating. God does not change , it is the same Torah, the content is the same but what is different is its acceptance and realisation. God's presence is now also extended to all nations and not restricted to Israel.

Chapter 3 looks 'Beyond Sinai'. Here the concept of natural law is examined. He makes a case for natural law in the bible. I have some minor quibbles with this, my concerns may be more than a neo-Calvinst reaction to the term 'natural law'. The term 'natural' raises several questions:

  • What is meant by it?
  • Is everything 'natural'? Isn't all created by God?
  • How has the fall affected what is perceived of as 'natural'? Could the fall has distorted what we mean by 'natural'? Does sin has no noetic effect?
  • Is something that is all-embracing 'natural'?
  • What is the relation of 'natural' to revelation? Isn't all (biblical) law revelation?
  • Isn't the use of the term 'natural' setting up a dualism of 'natural' and revealed? And yet Burnside claims that he is not (cf p. 79).

He agrees that natural law means many things to different lawyers/ theologians - a useful table on p. 93 provides examples of its diverse meanings.  This prompts the question why use the term? Isn't common grace or creational law better categories and terms to work with?

The book is low on application - how do we apply the laws to today? But perhaps that's another book. It is high on comparison of OT with contemporary law - each time it seems that the OT law is better! Time and again the idea that biblical law emphasises the relational order comes across.  For example, in the chapter on Sexual offences, he writes:

'Biblical law makes a helpful contribution because it illustrates an alternative developed, integrated model that is based on relational order. This holds the modern, consent-based approach up to the light and poses questions and challenges' p. 376.
As such there is an apologetic strand to the book.

There is a 16-page index; 21-page biblical index and a 25-page bibliography - though surprisingly Christopher J H Wright's work is absent.

One oddity is the use of capitals to denote book and journal titles in the footnotes - journal article title are italicised; this took some adjusting to.

This is a book to savour, to return to again and again. There is much rich insight and wisdom. Law has often been neglected, but hopefully this tome will help rectify that situation.Anyone studying OT law will neglect this book at their peril!

A website provides excellent resources to support the book - including a study guide and podcasts.

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