Nice Works If You Can Get It
Read the Print Review
The Law of Love: The Other Law of God
By Timothy A. Baylor
Bloomington, Ind.: Westbow Press, 2015 113 pages (paperback); $11.95
Reviewed by David Paul Deavel
The mid-1990s was a time of theologians, public figures, and pastors all coming into the Catholic Church; if they did not do that, they usually became Eastern Orthodox. As a new Catholic I thought the trend and momentum was all toward Catholicism. For my part, Chesterton’s observations in The Catholic Church and Conversion about “[t]he worthy merchant of the middle class, the worthy farmer of the Middle West” sending his son off to college rang true:
Now he has no fear lest he should fall among Calvinists. He has no fear that his children will become seventeenth-century Supralapsarians, however much he may dislike that doctrine. He is not even particularly troubled by the possibility of their adopting the extreme solifidian conceptions once common among some of the more extravagant Methodists.
Yet though Evangelicals-Methodist and Calvinist-have their problems, it’s actually quite possible many farmers and merchants today could find their children coming home from college in – terested in Calvinism. A 2010 article in the Christian Science Monitor was titled, “Christian Faith: Calvinism is Back;’ with the subhead reading “In America’s Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock-ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of modern evangelism:’
I’m not surprised. As a one-time Calvinist myself, I felt my own conversion more as an act of completion than as a rejection of the bad old Calvinist past. In my experience, Calvinism was a serious theological tradition that rooted itself in the Church’s historic orthodoxy; it had a high view of the Church and a taste for orderly, if too stripped down, worship more like Catholicism than much of Evangelicalism. And for a Calvinist, Jesus was never your “buddy:’
Unlike many Evangelical Christians, Calvinists may repeat the doctrine of “faith alone;’ but they always add that that faith is never really alone. Standard Calvinist sources like the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism say that “genuine repentance or conversion” involves not only a dying of the old self but a rising to life of the new, characterized by “Wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work:’ So it was not surprising to me to see that Tim Baylor, an old friend from my Calvinist days, had founded an organization called Law of Love Ministries and was publishing a book titled The Law of Love.
Unlike many Evangelicals, Calvinists do not fear saying that all Christians are called to follow a law. And they aren’t afraid to talk about the details, usually reading the Decalogue every Sunday. Protestant sensibilities being what they are, The Law of Love sets out as a major part of its argument the Pauline theme that Christians are not obligated to follow the law of Moses because the priesthood of Moses has been superseded by the priesthood of Melchizedek, established fully and finally by Jesus Christ. I suppose part of the reason for this focus is the increasing interest in “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Christianity;’ movements that have both adapted much Jewish practice and ritual but also have, in certain circles, made the argument that Jesus’ fulfillment of the law of Moses leaves some of its requirements in place but transforms them. But it also has to do with the Protestant problem that Baylor doesn’t quite evade, of saying that obedience to God is necessary but shouldn’t be done “to gain God’s favor,” only as a sign of thankfulness for salvation already rendered. Even Calvinists, with their high view of obedience to the law, shrink at the notion that that obedience really is necessary for salvation, lest it be interpreted as salvation earned apart from Christ. As Catholics, Orthodox, and indeed some Protestants understand, our final salvation is dependent on our works of love-but works of love only count as obedience when they’re done through faith.
He also recognizes, in a way, the point that Catholics and Orthodox have all made, which is that the Bible really can’t say it all. Baylor even goes so far as to write, “The New Testament was not written so it could become a new ‘written code’ that Christians should live by. No! The writers of the New Testament do not tell us to do what they say to do; they tell us to do what the Spirit says to do!” But the problem is that many New Testament writers do tell us direct commands and many of them are either repetitions or variations on parts of the law of Moses. And when there are moral questions not easily solved by looking at the direct commands of Scripture, the appeal to the Spirit’s testimony to the individual is important but does not solve things, as many people hear different things from the Spirit. Many would-be religious reformers rely on the “Spirit” to overturn Christian morality (usually to do with sex and violence) that gets in their way. The question of how the Spirit speaks authoritatively in the Church still hasn’t been answered well by Calvinists.
Despite these difficulties, Baylor’s study of New Testament moral guidance, which goes beyond the easier to codify and possibly easier to follow negative commands into the more difficult positive commands, is an excellent resource for those wishing to study the New Testament as a guide to life. Would that we all would study them more.