As shown in my previous article, morality must come from God in order to maintain a Christian worldview; and divine command theory states that God’s commands establish morality. It is a Christian’s moral duty to obey God’s commands. Whenever a human breaks one of God’s commands, it is called sin.
We must recognize that the concept of sin in Judaism was any violation of the Mosaic Law, since it was believed to have been established by God himself. Sin was not an abstract moral concept, but a matter of disregarding religious imperatives.
When Christianity emerged in the first century, there was often confusion regarding what constituted sin. Some believed that the Mosaic Law was still in effect, while others said it was null and void. This was an especially important issue as Christianity largely became a Gentile (non-Jewish) movement. Many had questions about whether Gentiles should observe the Law, or whether they should observe parts of it , or even whether Jews should observe it at all. In the Bible we can observe evidence of these disputes (Gal. 2; Acts 15:1-29; Gal. 5:1-12; Rom. 2:12-29; 1 Co. 7:17-20).
The question of how much of the Law was to be observed was an important one. After all, if Christianity’s moral system is based upon the commands of God, it is of paramount importance to determine what commands are to be observed. Despite the insistence that God’s commands are found in the Bible, not all of them are considered binding for Christians. This is due to a view called supersessionism; which teaches that since the Mosaic Law (contained in the Old Testament) was established under the old covenant (for pre-Christian Jews only), it is now no longer binding for those under the new covenant (Christians). The writings of Paul and the book of Hebrews teach this to some degree.
However, this cut-and-dry approach is not without serious flaws. For example, if the entire Mosaic Law is now void, what constitutes sin?
The early church grappled with this, and Paul even addressed those who would claim that Paul was teaching lawlessness:
“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16 NRSV)
Paul upheld the view that sin was still to be avoided. Yet the question obviously still remains: what constitutes sin? How much of the Law is void, and how much of it is still valid? Many would be surprised to learn that in one passage Jesus taught that all of the Mosaic Law would always be binding:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17-20 NRSV)
What is often missed when examining this passage is the fact that Jesus was affirming the continuity of the Mosaic Law. He claimed that he did not come to abolish the Law, which conflicts with Paul’s assertion that he “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances” (Eph. 2:15). Also, in the context, the “commands” Jesus mentioned could not have been any other moral commands than those contained within the Law. The significance of this is that Paul actually did teach others to break commands of the law (circumcision and the Sabbath in particular); precisely what Jesus warned not to do.
The Mosiac Law could be divided into two basic categories: 1) purification requirements and 2) behavioral prohibitions. After the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE, it became impossible to fulfill all of the purification requirements of Judaism. Many sacrifices and ceremonies could no longer be practiced in the way prescribed in the Mosaic Law. Christianity was no doubt affected by this, as questions regarding observance of the Law could no longer include most of the purification rites.
In contrast, some of the behavioral prohibitions were adopted by Christianity (such as those against sexual immorality and idol worship). But now, with a supersessionist view of the Mosaic Law, how can one establish these moral commands as binding? The church obviously needed to have it’s own set of authoritative rules to establish morality.
I believe this eventually led to the formation of the New Testament. Churches began to accept the writings of certain Christian authors as authoritative, and inspired by God. With this view, the Christian church could now have it’s own binding moral commands apart from the Jewish scriptures.
The church eventually accepted both the Jewish and Christian scriptures as authoritative, although the Jewish writings held considerably less weight. The Christian writers of the first century, such as Paul had become the voices of Christian morality, as Jewish heritage faded into the background. Sin became what Paul and Jesus, Peter, John and James said was sin. They and the early church determined what Christians would retain of the Mosaic Law and what they would disregard.
Although the ten commandments are often used as the foundation for Christian morality, they were a part of the now-defunct Mosaic Law. And the fourth command regarding the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-10) was specifically made void by Paul (Col. 2:16-17). To this day Christians do not observe the Sabbath in the way prescribed in the Mosaic Law; thus violating the command. Obviously even the ten commandments are no longer binding for Christians. So why does the church still act as if they are? And how did Paul, a mere human, nullify a previous divine command?
As mentioned before, the writings of the early church eventually superseded the Jewish scriptures and the morality prescribed by the apostles and Jesus became the new law per se. Whatever Paul, Peter and Jesus deemed no longer applicable, became void. An amalgamation of Mosaic commands and Hellenistic ideals became the new morality of Christianity.
However, until the rise of protestantism in the early 16th century, the church was governed primarily by the teachings of their leaders, as opposed to a fully authoritative book; although the writings of the Bible were seen as the foundation for beliefs. This transition to biblical infallibility as opposed to church infallibility heightened the emphasis on early apostolic authority.
As I have argued in a previous article, the belief in biblical infallibility and divine inspiration is incredibly circular. There is no compelling reason to believe that Paul and the apostles were infallible when they wrote the New Testament. They were human, not divine. But I believe that for most Christians, the need for an authoritative collection of writings prevails. And that is how religious morality is developed. You choose a book or collection of writings, believe it to be infallible, and hold people accountable to what is written. Even if there is no evidence that the writings of Paul for example, were direct commands from God, the desire for black-and-white morality is stronger. This circularity is no longer desirable or necessary for the shaping of morals in a post-enlightenment world.