Let me first begin by thanking Paul Zahl for his very provocative paper on the relationship of law, sin, and grace in Christian theology and the implications of that relationship for our Christian living. My response to this paper begins with what for me is a fundamental theological assumption which shapes the way we do theology, and hence how we attempt to discern the meaning of God's revelation. This assumption has to do with the contextuality of God's very revelation.
God's revelation is contextual. This means at least two things: first, if God's revelation is revelatory-that is, disclosing something to human beings about who God is-then God must come to us in a way in which we can perceive that revelation; otherwise, it is not revelation at all. And so it is, that which may be universal reveals itself particularly. God enters into particular contexts of human history in order to make God's self known to those whom God has created. This leads to the second aspect of the contextuality of God's revelation which I would like to highlight this afternoon: the context into which God enters is itself revelatory. The context of divine revelation is a part of the revelation itself. Just as God's revelation reveals something about the historical context into which God enters, so too does the context of God's disclosure reveal something about God. Thus, to appreciate the meaning and significance of God's revelation to us, we must take seriously the context of that revelation, for it is a part of the revelation itself. In this regard, we can affirm several things about the revelation of God: first, it is not synonymous with our understandings of or theologizing about God; second, it is not synonymous with the context into which God enters; and third, God transcends God's very revelation, yet and finally, the God we know, the God we experience is the one we know through divine revelation, which is not to be understood apart from its very context. So it is for me that the first step toward understanding God's universal significance is an appreciation for the particularity of God's revelation. With this said, what then are the implications for this discussion about law as it comes down to us in Matthew's version of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount? What are the implications for who we are in relation to this law/laws handed down in this sermon?
If there is enduring meaning to what Jesus pronounced during this sermon, then we are compelled to take into consideration the historical context in which this sermon took place, as well as the context of the Matthean gospellers as they reported this mountaintop revelation. To do anything less would be to fall prey to either casuistry, a strict legalism, or to perceiving the law as having some ultimate normative meaning, and in the process missing the radicality of the Sermon on the Mount itself. Thus, in taking the context seriously, what might be the significance of God's revelation to us as it is disclosed in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount? Let me only suggest a couple of things in broad strokes, for a more thorough discussion would take me far beyond the bounds of my time limit, as it would indeed require the kind of exegesis that perhaps I as a theologian am not equipped to do. Nevertheless, what are the theological broad strokes found in this Sermon on the Mount?
To be sure, Matthew is addressing his gospel not to outsiders who might accuse Christians of rejecting the law, but to insiders who are struggling in some respects to understand the relationship of Christian discipleship and Torah observance. What Matthew suggests is not that Jesus abolishes the law or affirms the status quo, but that Jesus fulfills the law through his very life and ministry, that is he fulfills it by calling Christians to a higher law, the law of God. …