Published by Worldview Publications
Prolepsis 1995.7 

The Role of Law

The dictionary includes a number of definitions for the word law. Ultimately, however, law represents:

1. A relationship initiated by an individual or group.

2. A relationship imposed upon the entities of a defined order, such as natural, civic, social or moral.

3. The nature and limits of relationship.

4. The consequences of compliance or noncompliance with relationship.

In his work of Creation, God imposed relationships — laws — to constitute the universe and ensure its stability and continuing existence. In this work God has been the Master, and imposed relationships — laws — have been his mediatorial servant.

Law Below and Before Consciousness

At the inanimate level God created matter and energy to relate to each other according to “natural laws.” Of course, matter and energy do not consciously relate to each other. The moon cannot say to the earth, “I will not be attracted to you by gravity any longer.” Likewise, at the biological level God created plants and animals to relate according to biological laws, but plants and animals do not do this consciously. Roses do not bloom on their own volition. Monarch butterflies do not consciously decide to fly across the Gulf of Mexico in the autumn in order to winter in Mexico. Rather, they are guided by innate instinct. In the same way, hominids (prehuman mankind) first lived by instinct rather than by conscious choice.

God-Conscious Law

The evidence indicates that prehistoric man (male and female) lived by the dictates of an indwelling, hallucinatory “god-consciousness.” The purpose of this innate god-consciousness was to direct man’s relationships without the need for self-awareness, choice or a sense of time.1 Beginning about 4,000 years ago, however, man began to lose his overt god-consciousness, which became increasingly restricted to those regarded as kings, priests and prophets.

Law at the Dawn of Consciousness

In place of his lost god-consciousness, man began to develop self-consciousness.2 Self-consciousness means having an awareness “of oneself or one’s own being, actions, or thoughts.”3 Such self-awareness, in turn, involves the mediation of language. Thus, Julian Jaynes defines consciousness as

an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary . . . whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality . . . allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions.4

Words are the symbols or metaphors that represent the reality — the “other,” the “world” — around us. Words stand between us and the real world to mediate that world to us. Words give us a glimpse, awareness and understanding of the world. They also make possible our volitional response to the world. As Jaynes says, “. . . [Consciousness] is intimately bound up with volition and decision.”5

The evidence indicates that as man lost his innate god-consciousness — indistinguishable from man himself — and gained self-consciousness, he began to sense the existence of God as an “Other.” Confronted with his “innate” loss, man attempted to regain communication with God, who now was an “Other,” through the use of language. Since man was now becoming conscious, these attempts involved will, decision and sense of purpose. Armed with his new self-consciousness, man responded to the bewildering loss of guidance from an innate god-consciousness by attempting to return to God’s presence at the “beginning” — the “arche.” There man believed he could find direction by recovering the ways in which God had originally related to the world. Thus, in everything man did, he attempted to identify with God’s presence at the beginning and to live by repeating God’s primordial acts. Man hunted the way he believed that God had hunted; he made shelter the way he believed that God had made shelter; he clothed himself as he believed that God had clothed himself. In short, man adopted the assumed relationships of God at the beginning or “arche,” and these “archetypes” thus became the laws by which man thought he must relate.6

Despite shortcomings, early man’s awareness of, communication with, and volitional return to the presence of God as the “Other,” in order to repeat the divine acts, was an enormous step toward a relational existence. Yet at this stage mankind had not yet truly entered existence in history. Indeed, man evaded history by returning to the presence of God at the primordial moment of Creation in order to retrieve God’s own original acts and to reenact those acts — to appropriate God’s laws and to obey them.

Covenantal Law at the Entrance of History

With the passage of time, man concluded that he did not have to return to God at the primordial moment, since God was present and active in history. Many, if not all, events in the ancient world were then attributed to the presence and intervention of God or the gods. Calamities were regarded as signs of God’s displeasure. Peace, prosperity and victorious events were regarded as signs of God’s approval. Eventually, man concluded that God was present to negotiate and that man could encounter God and enter into agreement with him. In this covenantal context God was perceived to have spoken directly or through his representative to his intended covenantal party in order to negotiate the nature and terms of relationship. Thus, God had spoken to Adam, Noah and Abraham. Also, God had spoken to Moses as his representative. In each instance God spoke to man because of his prior intervention on behalf of man. For example, when Moses received God’s commandments, obedience to them was meant to be Israel’s response to God’s delivering them from bondage in Egypt. These commandments signified the covenantal agreement between God and his people. God intended that these imposed relationships would assure Israel’s welfare in a predatory world. Israel was thus given the opportunity to hear God’s relational laws and, in the covenantal tradition, to acknowledge and conform to those relationships with God, with others, and with the world.

Law in the Age of Political Sovereignty

Before, during and after the covenantal era, it was customary for those who regarded themselves as professionals — kings, priests, prophets — to assume the prerogatives of deity and to themselves begin to impose relationships upon mankind. Such professionals argued that they were commissioned to do this in the absence of God or the gods. These actions inaugurated the era of political sovereignty in which those in power had the “freedom” to formulate and impose laws upon those subordinate to them. Political sovereignty quickly led to a revival of predation, in the form of war and violence, in which subject peoples had little right of decision or choice. Mankind either submitted to sovereign rule or to enslavement and death.7 In the Judaic tradition, Kings David and Solomon typified the reign of sovereign law. Also, the first great world empires — Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome — came into being through this same strategy.

Law in the Religious Community

It was while Ezra the Jewish scribe was living in captivity that his meditations by the river of Babylon led him to conclude that a theocracy involving the direct presence of God was impossible and that a theocracy led alone by the prophetic spirit was unstable. Ezra therefore began to creatively assemble a suitable history for his people and to develop a religious community with rigid laws that would assure the stability of a restored and revived Israel. Under Ezra and his colleague, Nehemiah, the Persian emperors allowed the Jewish exiles to return and to rebuild Jerusalem. The empire, of course, retained political sovereignty, but it allowed the Jewish people to reoccupy their land and reinstitute religious relationships in their own community. In this situation the Davidic line was dethroned, while Moses and the Torah were enshrined. Persian law defined political relationships, while Mosaic law defined religious relationships.8

Over the next 400 years the regime of imposed relationships founded by Ezra probably contributed some cohesiveness and stability to the Israelite community. However, Ezra’s attempt to make imposed relationships the ultimate transcendent authority revealed the inadequacies of law as master. Thus:

1. Law predetermines relationships and therefore excludes man’s own conscious, willed, responsible personhood. Law places man in the paradoxical situation of making him responsible (to imposed relationships) without granting him freedom (of personhood). As Hendrik Hart so eloquently states, “Children of God set free in Christ cannot hide their responsibility behind some law.”9

2. Law restricts man’s covenantal interaction with God and others in history. If covenant involves man’s response to God’s intervention on mankind’s behalf, mandating that response can hardly be recognized as an expression of gratitude. Simply because I graciously gave my neighbor an old lawn mower does not grant me the right to make him mow my lawn in perpetuity.

3. While law was intended to limit the manifestation of predatory instincts, in the hands of conscious, predatory man it actually proves useful in authorizing predation. Law tends to justify and promote predation, because law authorizes power and control over others.

4. Law encourages deception. The regime of law as master has been justified by deceptive claims that God is absent, that man has been banished from God’s presence, that God himself is predatory, and that man has the autonomous authority and self-evident power to act apart from God’s presence. Furthermore, outward compliance with law often masks noncompliance of the heart.

5. Law cannot extend to the realm of compassion.

Compassion does what law or order cannot accomplish. Its ethos allows us to act redemptively where established ethical order would destructively enforce its authority. In Romans 8 God groans with creation to save it, doing in Christ what no fixed creation order [law] could accomplish. Compassion is a solidarity in suffering so powerful that love shields order [law] from pursuing sin with more condemnation. It frees creation from bondage and gives us the liberty of God’s children to cry Abba.10

6. Finally, law abjectly fails to preserve man from death or give man any true assurance of life.

By the dawn of the common era (CE), law, which had introduced man to relationship, was largely suffocating man’s exercise of relationship. Ultimately intended as a servant to man, law had turned upon man and become his master. Introduced to support man in the insecurities and uncertainties of history, law was leading man to abandon history. Intended to enlighten man’s consciousness with reality, law now darkened man’s consciousness through deception.

Law was intended as a highly useful bridge between the instinctual and the personal existence of mankind in history. As Paul indicated, law has had a tutorial or pedagogical function (Romans 3:23-4:7). Furthermore, written law makes relationships applicable to all and approachable by all. But law is incapable of granting mankind personhood in an existential (relational) world. Law does not extend to compassion, which alone goes beyond law. Law is incapable of destroying death or perpetuating life.

In the fullness of time, therefore, God himself intervened to fulfill law and to inaugurate a new and higher order of human existence (Galatians 4:4, 5). In this new and transformed existence, imposed covenantal relationships give way to the relationships of a “new covenant” sought and nurtured by mutual compassion and trust. In covenantal love man’s destiny is to become — with God — the master of law rather than its servant.


  1. See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990). (go back)
  2. See ibid. (go back)
  3. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “self-conscious.” (go back)
  4. Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, p. 55. (go back)
  5. Ibid. (go back)
  6. For a discussion of primordial archetypes, see Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954). (go back)
  7. See George E. Mendenhall, “The Suzerainty Treaty Structure: Thirty Years Later,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), pp. 85-100. (go back)
  8. See David Noel Freedman, “The Formation of the Canon of the Old Testament,” in Firmage, Weiss and Welch, eds., Religion and Law, pp. 315-331. (go back)
  9. Hendrik Hart, “An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation” (Paper delivered at the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Conference of the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, June 3-6, 1992), p. 6. (go back)
  10. Ibid., p. 1. Our grateful thanks to Ron Roper, at the Institute for Christian Studies and at Guelph University, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, for this and other invaluable reference material. (go back)

This article was originally published July 1995 under the Destiny imprint.

Copyright © 1995 Worldview Publications