Seeing Beyond the Law

Seeing Beyond the Law

By David Parker, 222nd General Assembly Moderator Candidate

So … a lawyer and a preacher walk into a church.

And the preacher says “Woe to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” (Luke 11:46)

And the lawyer says back “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

Ouch! Not a very good joke.

But then, I’m Presbyterian so you can’t expect much in way of humor, right?

E. A. Robinson, who wrote the familiar short poems Reuben Bright and Richard Cory, wrote about the Apostle Paul stopping at The Three Taverns to sit and talk with his friends before entering Rome for his trial (see Acts 28:15). Robinson’s Paul says:

When I told you I should come
I did not see myself the criminal
You contemplate, for seeing beyond the Law
That which the Law saw not.

“For seeing beyond the law / That which the Law saw not.” Wow.

There are lots of Reformed/Presbyterian lawyers (including John Calvin whose Institutes reads like a very long legal brief), perhaps because lawyers think that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), a concept which Presbyterians embrace with startling tenacity.

As a Presbyterian lawyer (and the son of a Presbyterian lawyer … and the father of a Presbyterian lawyer — we just can’t seem to find anything else to do), I too want “order”, but it is clear from Jesus’ words and from Paul’s letters that merely following the law is not good enough: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Hence the rightful accusation of lawyers’ burdening folks and not helping them.

Calvin addressed the role of the Law in his Commentaries (written by Calvin as a rather witty Teacher’s insightful explanation), including his lesson on 2 Corinthians 3:6:

[T]he nature of the law is to teach [people] literally, in such a way that it does not reach farther than the ear; and that, on the other hand, the nature of the gospel is to teach spiritually, because it is the instrument of Christ’s grace … because Christ, through our instrumentality, illuminates the minds of [people], renews their hearts, and, in short, regenerates them wholly.

… [I]f the word of God is simply uttered with the mouth, it is an occasion of death, and that it is life giving only when it is received with the heart. The terms letter and spirit, therefore, do not refer to the exposition of the word, but to its influence and fruit.

To ‘see beyond the Law to what the Law sees not’ is to follow the Spirit of the Law and not merely the letter. Jesus fulfills the law and is as much beyond it as Augustine tells us that the Trinity is beyond space and time.

A lawyer, then, is called to ‘see beyond the law’ to the spirit that gave rise to the law and, ultimately, to the Word through the clarifying lens of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Justice may be found in the law, but mercy oft lies beyond it!

So, how do we “test the spirit” of the law or of prophetic voices? Calvin, in his Commentary on 1 John 4:1, tells us to (a) look through the “spectacles” of Scripture to test our conscience and then (b) test our Spirit-aided perception through honest public dialogue. Small wonder that Presbyterians take forever to get anything decided – and why they need Moderators!

Where does this lead us in this world? We are called to receive the Law and the Gospel with our whole hearts, and not just with our ears:

It is not enough to merely follow environmental laws and regulations if the seas rise and the air is not breathable.

It is not enough to merely follow the civil and voting rights laws if citizens are denied their right to vote by the imposition of artificial barriers.

It is not enough to merely follow the workplace laws if women are underpaid and workers are fired for whom they love or where they go to the bathroom.

It is not enough to follow immigration laws if the system is enforced arbitrarily and injustice results for the innocent and the unwitting.

It is not enough to merely see through the lens of the law that we should be color blind if our lens of circumstance dims our view and keeps us from being “color sighted” enough recognizing diversity as a gift to be embraced. In Christ there is truly neither Jew nor Greek, but in this world, assimilation into cultural blandness robs us of the diversity of vision needed to fully test and discern God’s Word and will.

“Seeing beyond the law that which the Law saw not” is not a crime: it is the foundation of the Christian Revolution and a moral imperative. Even Paul’s accusers saw that and he continued his journey thereafter.

So … the lawyer asks the Preacher: “Can our Presbyterian Church (USA) see beyond the Law?” And the Preacher says: “Yes, if we will hear and see with our hearts.”

Ouch! Still not funny!

About: Ruling Elder David Parker (First Presbyterian in Statesville, North Carolina) served as Salem’s Moderator in 2012.   He has been very active on and has Moderated the Salem Presbytery Executive Council.  In 2010 he was a Commissioner to the General Assembly in Minneapolis.  David has previously served as Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Chair of the Mitchell Community College Board for two terms, and as an Iredell County School Board Member. David is a lawyer, having graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from the UNC School of Law.  David is a “cradle” Presbyterian from White Memorial in Raleigh, NC and is married with three children and one grandchild.  He has been elected by Salem Presbytery as a Commissioner to the Portland, OR General Assembly. David’s candidacy for Moderator of the General Assembly was endorsed unanimously by Salem Presbytery on November 7, 2015

The Center for Lifelong Learning has invited all of the 222nd General Assembly moderator candidates to submit original or previously published work to Columbia Connections.

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