I find almost nothing as useless when thinking about God or the human condition as legal imagery. Indeed, it is worse than useless – it leads only to wrong conclusions and even produces the wrong questions. That some language within the Scriptures lends itself to legal imagery is undeniable – although modern legal thought bears almost no resemblance to the thoughts surrounding the Law (Torah) in the Old Testament. Legal language is a modern fiction that generally describes only the social contract that governs our societies. It is arbitrary, filled with qualifications, sometimes rendered moot by its own entanglements and bycenturies of relentless legislation by lawyers. There is little content remaining in modern law other than the violence guaranteed by the courts and prison system. That America houses the largest prison population in the world is not a comment on a lawless society – it is an illustration of a society where law has gone insane. To apply the modern sense of “legal” to God, His commandments or our salvation is, again, useless.
The modern concept of law is entirely external. It is an arbitrary rule, established by a legitimate authority (which is considered “legitimate” only according to another set of arbitrary rules), and enforced with various measures, up to and including a lifetime of confinement or even execution. The rules have no independent existence. Guilt and innocence before “the law” imply only the outcomes of a legal proceeding. Americans proudly declare, “He is innocent until proven guilty,” in affirmation of a purely rules-based understanding of the law.
Now this establishment of the law has various things to recommend it. If it is not too encumbered with exceptions and complications and is impartially enforced, it creates a certain order and predictability within a culture. I am utterly opposed to anarchy. But the Law of God has never been an arbitrary set of rules, created by God in a manner similar to an earthly legislature. Nothing in the Old Testament even remotely thinks of the Law in such a manner:
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psa 19:7-10)
This is a love poem about something far more profound than a set of rules.
There is a deep distinction which I make at almost every opportunity between things that can be described as ontological, and things that are merely forensic. Ontological means having to do with being. It refers to things that really, truly have existence. A bird is an ontological creature. The office of the President is a legal fiction, a forensic construction.
In modern legal imagery, if a rule is said to be “broken,” nothing is actually “broken.” The rule is the same before and after the break. What has changed is that the person “breaking” the rule is now in danger of being prosecuted, fined, imprisoned or executed. In the Old Testament, to sin against the Law of God was viewed as quite different. Something happened. An individual became unclean, was stained, had become an abomination, etc. In some cases an entire community was somehow stained. Atonement in such a world involved removing an ontological problem, not satisfying a legal concept. Forgiveness was thus the same thing as healing and cleansing.
Imagine standing in a modern court while the Judge says, “You have been charged with driving 60 mph in a 20 mph zone. How do you plead?”
“Your honor! Have mercy on me. I cannot bear the stain of this sin! I am unclean! Have mercy on me and cleanse me from this abomination!”
The result of such an exchange would doubtless be unpleasant. Of course, it is ridiculous, as is the use of modern legal imagery with regard to God.
Theories of atonement that use modern legal imagery remove any ontological content from our situation. We are guilty because God says we are guilty and we deserve punishment much like we deserve punishment within our human legal system. But the Law of God is not a legal instrument; it is more of a diagnostic tool. The Commandments describe the character and details of those things that plunge us into ontological chaos. The most justified executioner in a modern legal system is nevertheless plunged into the morass of human trauma by his act of execution. It does not matter how deserving a prisoner was of death, nor how kind and painless the form of execution. To take the life of another human being severs the communion for which we were all created. We experience that severance (which is ontological in the extreme) in various forms of trauma.
As a child the man who lived next door to my family was a WWII vet (like all of the men of my childhood). He was in the infantry during the Italian campaign. In a village one day, he turned a corner and came face to face with a young German soldier. Both men froze. But my neighbor acted first and killed his adversary. It was a war. Had he not killed he would have been killed. Over a decade later he still awoke in the night tormented with the memory, reliving it every night in his dreams.
Today we would say he was suffering from PTSD. But trauma is more than just an extreme experience, it is the