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Old Testament Redemptive-Ethical Concessions

This pedagogical and this medical principle of redemptive ethics should not be interpreted as being a concession to the notion that man’s ability of living up to God’s commands is God’s standard by which he gives his demands. If we speak of a pedagogical principle alone we are easily led to think falsely. We are then easily led to say that we do not expect as much of a child as we expect of a full-grown man. But the childhood analogy holds only in part. The human race began with Adam as a full-grown man wholly responsible for his deeds. He was given one wife; the monogamous marriage was a creation ordinance of God which was obliterated in the minds of man for no other reason than that of sin. Hence we must add the idea of a medicinal principle to that of a pedagogical principle. And even this is open to misinterpretation. A child that is sick is not sick because of any special sins of its own. Yet the race is sick because of its own sins, and for no other reason. It is therefore only partially true to say that the lower demands of Old Testament ethics are due to the fact that God adjusts his demands to the times. That God makes concessions to low ethical practice is not in the least an admission that he has not the right to demand the fulfillment of the absolute ethical ideal.”1

Old Testament Ethics

Van Til explained that he was relying on William Benton Greene’s treatment of the subject in Greene’s 1929 Princeton Theological Review article, “Ethics of the Old Testament.” Greene wrote,

“The sanctity of marriage ought to be insisted on always and everywhere. Nor is this done less emphatically in the Old Testament than in the New. The form, however, in the two is different. In the New Testament monogamy is invariably required. Men had then been developed up to an appreciation of this as the perfect relation. In the Old Testament, regulated polygamy was at times sanctioned. Men were not able then to bear the higher teaching of the New Testament on this subject. Nor would they ever have been able to bear it, had it been imposed on them without exception from the beginning. The claims of right must be urged gradually as men develop if they are to be developed so as to meet its claims fully. Things being as they are, it would be the destruction of practical morality, were the right to be insisted on from the first in all its spirituality, or even, as we have seen, in all its comprehensiveness.”2

Though this may not solve all of the difficulties in our minds, it certainly offers a plausible explanation for the fact that God–at times–made ethical concessions for pedagogical purposes in the Old Testament. The same principle holds true for why God tolerated divorce, despite the clear ethic of creation and the timeless ethic throughout redemptive-history. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). We must be clear that a concession is not the same as permission–neither is it the ethical ideal to which God holds us.

1. Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980).

2. William Benton Greene, “Ethics of the Old Testament, in Princeton Theological Review, XXVIII (1929), p. 190.

This article on Old Testament Ethics originally appeared here.