Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’: a skewed framework

[This is the third post in a review of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Previous posts may be found here: 1 & 2]

I had intended to discuss chapters in which Fight reviews the beginnings of Israel’s history under the Law. But I’m going to put that off for the next post in order to deal with a theological premise that has a profound impact on how Sprinkle engages violent passages in the OT & NT.

Addressing the tension many Bible readers encounter as they traverse the Old and New Testaments Sprinkle asks:

So what does an enemy-loving, peacemaking, cheek-turning follower of Jesus do with this seemingly bloodthirsty God who condones violence in the Old Testament but not in the New? (45)

His answer:

One way to solve the tension is to recognize that the old and new covenants are different. Please note: I didn’t say that the God of the old and the God of the new are different. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But sometimes His rules change because His relationship to humanity is taken to a new level.[1] (45)

Now this answer is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that Sprinkle approaches the biblical passages with an interpretive/theological framework already constructed. Second, this theological framework will necessarily shape his reading and interpretation of those passages.

Now this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, theological presuppositions concerning Scripture are unavoidable and necessary for any meaningful study. But it’s important to recognize that interpretive factors are already in play when Sprinkle approaches the text. Therefore, it’s possible to examine all the right passages and ask all the right questions and still end up with a skewed conclusion. It’s like trying to solve a math problem with accurate figures and a faulty formula. No matter how precise you are in the parts, your solution is always going to be off.

In Sprinkle’s case, much of what he has to say concerning the change from old covenant to new covenant is good. But his framework shows signs of running just a bit askew. Specifically, we should take issue with his contention that God’s rules change because His relationship to humanity is taken to a new level.

The problem is that Sprinkle’s premise is far too simplistic and lacking in nuance. Take three subsequent statements that clarify his premise:

#1 …the law was not God’s ideal moral code for all people of all time. Rather, God met the Israelites where they were and began to take “incremental steps” toward His moral ideal. (46)

A moment’s reflection exposes the short-sightedness of this claim. “You will not murder” is most definitely a moral code for all people of all time. Aspects of the Law’s moral code are reiterated under the new covenant (Rom 13:9; Jam 2:11). Paul even goes so far as to say that “the Law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1Tim 1:8-11).

#2 . . . the law of Moses was designed to guide a particular nation, living in a particular land, for a specific time and in a specific culture. (47)

The implication here is that the Law no longer serves as a guide for God’s people today. But for all that might be said about the progress from old covenant to the new, the Law remains revelation for God’s people today (1Cor 9:9-10).

#3 What we have in the law of Moses is a moral code that both accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of the surrounding nations. (47)

Viewing the Law as accommodation leading to improvement is an essential feature of Sprinkle’s framework. To illustrate his point he references the laws concerning polygamy, slavery, and divorce. God didn’t forbid these practices (i.e. accommodates) although he did regulate (i.e. improve upon) them prior to forbidding them.[2]

In Sprinkle’s mind, OT laws concerning violence are the same. But what he fails to consider is that while polygamy, slavery, and divorce were permitted they weren’t commanded. Violence—whether in judicial action or warfare—was mandatory. We have good reason then to place violence in a different biblical category.

In short, Sprinkle should be commended for acknowledging the progressive nature of the Bible as we read from the old covenant to the new covenant. But readers of Fight should consider that his framework is overly simplistic and, as we’ll see, ends up flattening the contours of the biblical-theological picture.

[1] What Sprinkle articulates is an aspect of Scripture known as progressive revelation. Traditionally, this concept describes Scripture’s content not the quality. The message becomes progressively clearer & more complete even as it remains perfect at every stage. See, for example, Psa 19:7 and Rom 7:12.

[2] Sprinkle never deals with the fact that divorce (and slavery to a lesser degree) is still permitted in the NT.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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