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Jesus Creed

Covenant path marking.

In his recent, technical, and not always well-written monograph, Jesus and Jewish Covenant Thinking (break the bank!), Finnish scholar Tom Holmen offers a new category through which we can process our “theories of Christian behavior.” In essence, Holmen contends that Jews sought for genuine covenant faithfulness and, attached to that seeking, each new group and movement developed a set of covenant path markers. Covenant path markers are specific behaviors — Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, tithing, fasting, divorce, oath-taking, companionship, the Temple.

Instead of using “legalism,” which has become a bogey word for bogey opponents for each of us, why not shift this term to “covenant path markers” so we can get a fresh start on a genuinely serious problem we all face?

Here’s what covenant path markers do (and now I begin to extrapolate from Holmen’s study): first, they quantify covenant faithfulness into behavior that can be measured and seen; second, they enable us to “judge ourselves” on whether or not we are faithful; and third, they enable us to judge others on whether or not the others are faithful.

Legalism, aka covenant path marking, is a vicious form of life: instead of living faithfully, we are judging faithfulness. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for covenant faithfulness.)

Two final comments: first, we need to admit that we are all involved in covenant parth marking. Sometimes more severely than other times; some more than others; but each of us uses various behaviors to judge ourselves and others.

Second, there are only two “theories” of the Christian life that simply cannot be “marked.” You won’t be surprised by this, but they are (1) Jesus’ use of the Jesus Creed: loving God and loving others. And, (2) Paul’s use of the category of “life in the Spirit.”

Here’s why each is “unmarkable.” Because Love is a response and a life that transcends the observable and life in the Spirit is as well. Who can say “I’ve got love down, give me a challenge” or “I’m always in the Spirit, anything else you want me to do?” These two are unmarkable in part because they are ongoing, responsive, and qualitative features of Christian existence. And they are both almost “unjudgeable”: how can we really know if someone is loving? how can we know if someone is really “living in the Spirit”? Only by converting love and Spirit into “objectified” covenant path markers, and when we do that we slip out of the embrace of love and the Spirit.

Tomorrow, a post on the six theories of the Christian life and their various covenant path markers.

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