A Riposte to Derek Rishmawy’s Post: Handling Legal Matters

I wanted to offer a quick reply-post to Derek Rishmawy’s post on the purported value of reading the Bible through a Latin forensic reading of Holy Scripture and the subsequent doing of theology therefrom. Derek writes:

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.[1]

One of the patron saints of Evangelical Calvinism, Thomas Torrance, refers to Augustine’s influence on the development of Christian ideas/theology as the Latin Heresy; for one reason among others (i.e. what he sees as a dualistic/Platonic problem), because he believes Augustine unduly elevated the forensic/juridical to an improper level when thinking things salvific.

But I think, really, Rishmawy’s post sort of misses the critique; at least from the Torrance angle—and from other angles of the same critique (not just from Torrance). It isn’t that the ‘legal’ aspects found in Scripture are unimportant or absent, it is that, at least for my money, these shouldn’t be understood as the frames of how we think of a God-world relation. Derek writes further as he brings up John Calvin and the role that Derek sees the forensic playing in Calvin’s theology (under Augustinian pressure no doubt):

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.[2]

Again, the issue isn’t whether or not the ‘legal’ aspects are present or not in Scripture—they clearly are—the question is: Whether or not this aspect should be allowed to frame the way the theologian and biblical exegete not only approaches the scriptural witness itself, but beyond that, whether or not they should approach the res (reality) of Scripture this way? In other words, does God want us to approach him through the idea that his relationship to us is contingent upon legal matters being settled first, or does he want us to approach him as a bride approaches her Bride-groom; as if God first loved us that we might love him? This is the point of the critique; it’s the point of the critique targeted at Federal theology and Westminster Calvinism that I am wont to make here at the blog and in our books etc.

It’s not that the ontological must be in competition with the legal framing of Scripture, it’s just that the ontological is the ground for any legal happenings to take place to begin with. I mean could you imagine a world made up of a legal framing vis-à-vis God without the ontological being in place first (by way of logical and even chrono-logical ordering)? No? Me either; I mean we wouldn’t even be here if there was no ontology. As a rule I follow the axiom that ‘being’ precedes ‘knowing,’ and knowing, whether that be of the legal or romantic sort (or other sorts), is premised first upon there being ‘being’ in the first place. This is one reason why here at The Evangelical Calvinist we place such an emphasis upon ontology; why we follow what Torrance has called the ontological theory of the atonement etc; it’s because there is a depth dimension to reality, to a God-world relation, that the legal frame alone cannot handle nor account for. And in highlighting this, simply following the contour of Holy Scripture we would be remiss to not mention that God’s primary “metaphor” for framing his relationship to humanity is not legal (not even in Genesis), it is that of a bride-groom (cf. Gen 2; Eph 5 for the Pauline recapitulation of Gen 2. etc) with his bride who walks in the cool of the garden with her. The legal is present, but not prior to the romantic/affective (which I take to be the ontological grounding of all else).

Addendum: I’ve heard back from Derek, and he thinks my post distorts the real intention of his post. He didn’t apparently have Torrance’s program in mind when writing his post, and thus believes that me bringing TFT into this discussion skips off the atmosphere of the real referents of his post (whoever and whatever those might be). Be that as it may, I do think TFT fits squarely within the sights of the type of critique Derek is responding to (just survey the landscapes of such critiques in the literature), and let me know if you can find better candidates than Thomas F Torrance (with his strong language of Latin Heresy etc.).

[1] Derek Rishmawy, On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A Thought on Culture and Atonement), accessed 02-16-2018.

[2] Ibid.


4 thoughts on “A Riposte to Derek Rishmawy’s Post: Handling Legal Matters

  1. Bobby, please elaborate on your Gen 2, 3 reference – how is that a reference to God’s bridegroom walking in the cool of the garden? When the garden reference comes up (Gen 3) guilt is the ongoing issue. Also, Paul’s reference in Eph 5 is to the church, i.e., the way humanity should be, not is. I think it is a bit of an overstatement to say that God’s “primary” reference metaphor for framing his relationship to humanity is that of a bridegroom. There are just too many other metaphors out there (parent/child, protector/wounded, etc.) and almost all of those are references to His people, not humanity in general . As usual, interesting post.


  2. Steve, I will elaborate; but I don’t agree w/ you in re to overstatement etc. Your distinction between church and people and humanity is artificial. But I’ll come back and explain why I think that.


  3. Steve,

    The reference to ‘walking in the cool of the garden’ was more of a literary/poetic license and appropriation—I wouldn’t take that too ‘theologically.’ But even contextually, I don’t think him walking in the cool of the garden is necessarily only in the context of post-lapse; there seems to be a familiarity to that in the narrative itself that seems to indicate this was indicative of a type of fellowshipping relationship that God had originally had w/ Adam and Eve (and I’d hope that that was the case or what is reconciliation about to being with i.e. since to be re-conciled presupposes that there was conciliation to begin with). Actually the reference by Paul, I would argue, exegetically and literarliy, is to the Genesis 2 context and the pre-fall creational mandate and reality of marriage as being a very good by design reality from God for human flourishing. Theologically I see the Apostle Paul intentionally echoing that passage, but this time recapitulating what marriage’s ultimate telos was as an analogue and corollary of genuine humanity’s relationship and reality to God in Jesus Christ. So I’m engaging in some theological exegesis which I don’t think is unwarranted since I see Paul engaging in this as well; i.e. as we trace out his references and allusions to OT motifs and themes throughout his epistolary corpus. So no, I don’t think my connections are unwarranted at all. And to suggest that the church is not a proleptic reality that somehow does not reflect what genuine humanity is supposed to look like coram Deo in Christ, I think is unwarranted and an abstraction that I cannot get behind (i.e. your distinction between church and humanity in general—I see that as artificial and not one warranted by a genuinely Christian or even biblical engagement with the text of Scripture—at least not if we follow the Apostle Paul’s thought out say in passages like II Cor 5.17 etc and the eikon language Col 1.15). Because I don’t see a distinction between humanity and His people in general, because of the implications of the incarnation (and the doctrine of election therein), I don’t read things the way you’re attempting to; again in reference to an ostensible distinction between classes of humanity. I think the Apostle Paul thinks of humanity from Christ’s humanity as archetypal (i.e. firstborn from the dead in a new creation), and as such this makes it impossible to conceive of other ontologies of humanity in abstraction from that (which would undercut your distinction). Using that as the measure, if someone rejects what it means to be genuinely human ‘in Christ’, then they would remain distinct in regard to what it means to live in the realization of reconciliation, existentially and subjectively, but that wouldn’t change the objective reality of what it genuinely means to be human from a Pauline or Christological perspective; at least the way I approach the implications of what it means to be human before God.


  4. I Tim 4.10 says: Jesus is the Savior of all humanity, but especially of believers (my paraphrase). The especially aspect would be the space the ‘church’ inhabits within him being savior of all humanity. People who don’t come into the church (i.e. true humanity) can only live in the shadow of what it means to be genuinely human before God. But this is what the evangel and evangelization is all about: proclaiming to the world that it has been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus.


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