The title of this article is “Rabbinical Legalism and Bible Study”, and I’m going to get to that first point momentarily. But let’s take the second part of the title first. I have been studying through Ray’s second book, In Search of Christian Freedom. It is superb, logical, and thought inducing over and over again. But to really understand the content and reasoning I have been looking up many of the references, and with a length of some 700+ pages, it’s taking me some time. That’s a lot to study! But whatever we choose to study though, you’ll agree that balance is needed. If we drench ourselves in an obscure passage of Hebrew Scripture and every footnote and cross-reference available for days, and even weeks, is that balanced if we don’t read or study anything else during that time? Or if we delve into speculative Biblical theory on some far out branch of thinking, is that balanced? Some criticize God himself in their writings, or espouse evolution, higher criticism, etc. These questions are asked in a spirit of humility- not to dogmatically say or imply that the answer is always “No.” to all of these questions. It could even be balanced for one person but not another, depending on their maturity and knowledge of the scriptures.
A very sweet lady in her 60s that is trying to reconnect with Christianity said something to me the other day. She said, “I have a study Bible, a nice one, but I don’t know what to study. Or how to study! I stop and read every reference, every footnote as I go along and don’t feel like I am getting anywhere.” Now this woman went to college, has a degree, and is very intelligent. She just hasn’t been to church since she was a girl. So in some ways, spiritually speaking, she is still a “babe, needing milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:13) So “deep study” for her is a lot different than deep study for someone else that is farther along in their Christian walk would be.
But on the subject of balance in our Bible study, consider this: Do we make time to simply read a chapter of the Bible each day and reflect on it? When is the last time we read the Sermon on the Mount? How about a chapter or two from the book of John or one of Paul’s letters? Do we know the 66 bible books in order, and can we name the 12 apostles? How many cherished verses have you committed to memory so that you can use them to encourage yourself and also to perhaps share with someone else when they are in need of some positive spiritual upbuilding? If we neglect these important things, then deep study on speculations or philosophies of others could be worthless or even harmful to us. It could be to any Christian man or woman. Or at the very least could it divert us from the real subject and goal of the Scriptures, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ and his saving grace to us through his ransom? He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) This point is not meant to make or exercise rules over anyone, just to stimulate thinking, and help us to look into the mirror of God’s word.
It has bothered me that the Society continues to do the weekly Bible Reading in such a way that we give equal time to 1 Chronicles and Leviticus that we do to the book of Romans or Matthew. Does that make sense to you? It NEVER did to me, and for years I’ve wondered about that one. Do you see where the point lies then? Bible study should uplift and motivate us, spur us on to deeper faith in Christ and in his Father. It should also generate in us a desire to share what we are learning and do charitable works, as Brother Andrew has pointed out in his excellent article on that subject.
So we come to legalism and the near-Rabbinical exercise of it that some practice, especially the Watchtower Organization. Here’s a definition of “legalism” in this context:
Legalism, in Christian theology, is a sometimes-pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.
While reading In Search of Christian Freedom, there is a chapter discussing blood transfusions and the Biblical implications of the WTS forcing its members to behave in a certain way regardless of their Bible-trained conscience. The reasoning is below and it is illuminating:
In early times, “teachers of the law” endeavored to make the injunction at Exodus 16:29 (“Let nobody go out from his locality on the seventh day”) more explicit. They ruled that on the sabbath a man could walk only a certain distance (somewhat less than 3,000 feet) from the outer boundary of his city or town. This was called a “sabbath day’s journey” (an expression in use in Jesus’ time; see Acts 1:12). Yet there was a way for a man to make a longer trip than this and, from the rabbinical standpoint, still be “legal.” How? He could, in effect, “create” a at some home or place away from his locality (but still within the 3,000-foot-limit) simply by depositing at that place on the day before the sabbath provisions sufficient for at least two meals. Then on the sabbath he could journey to that second “domicile” and then leave it and extend his trip an additional 3,000 feet.
The statement at Jeremiah 17:22, which forbids bringing any “load out of your homes on the sabbath day,” was similarly amplified. The teachers of the law reasoned that there was no prohibition against carrying things from one part of a house to another part, even if the house were occupied by more than one family. So, they ruled that people living in houses within a certain sector (such as those living in houses built around a common courtyard), could construct a “legal” doorway for the whole section by erecting door jambs at the street entrance to the section, with perhaps a beam overhead as a lintel. Now, the whole section was viewed as if it were one domicile and things might be carried around from home to home within the area without violating the law.
Compare now that method of reasoning and use of technicalities with the method the Watch Tower Society employs in applying its rules regarding certain aspects of medical practice. The March 1, 1989, Watchtower, in the “Questions from Readers” section, discusses the method of withdrawing blood from a patient some time before an operation and storing this for re-use during or following the operation. It then states categorically that Jehovah’s Witnesses “DO NOT accept this procedure.” The reason? The blood “is no longer part of the person.” The text at Deuteronomy 12:24, is cited, which says that the blood of a slaughtered animal must be poured out upon the ground. By some reasoning this law regarding animal slaughter is viewed as presenting a parallel situation to the case of storing a living person’s blood as just described. But then the article goes on to discuss another method, where, during the operation, the patient’s blood is diverted into a heart-lung pump or a hemodialysis machine (artificial kidney device) for oxygenating or filtering before returning into the patient’s body. The article informs its readers that, unlike the other method, this method can be viewed as acceptable by a Christian. Why? Because the Christian can view it “as elongating their circulatory system so that blood might pass through an artificial organ,” and thus feel that “the blood in this closed circuit was still part of them and did not need to be ‘poured out.’”
How different is this technical “elongating” of the circulatory system from the rabbinical legalism that permitted the “elongating” of a sabbath day’s journey’s allowable distance through the technicality of an artificial second domicile? Or how is this classifying of the blood as being technically in a “closed circuit” different from the ancient legalism of making a “closed circuit” out of a number of houses by means of an artificial doorway? The same type of cause-based reasoning and legalistic use of technicalities is employed in both cases, ancient and modern.
In their own hearts, many Witnesses might feel that the first method, that of storing one’s own blood, is really no more unscriptural than the second method, running the blood through a heart-lung pump and machine. Yet they are not free to follow their own conscience. An individual’s life might lie in the balance, but the Watch Tower’s interpretative reasoning and technicalities must be observed, for they are part of the “great body of Theocratic law.” (WT63 5/15 p. 300 par. 25) To fail to obey would be to risk disfellowshipment. (In Search of Christian Freedom, pages 305-306)
So in his eloquent and brilliant way, Brother Franz helps us to see the legalism of the Watchtower yet again. And it ties in with what we study and what we feed our minds on also. Are we looking for loopholes in the word of God so we can bind others up with our conscience? Do we study it with the intent of putting across our personal theories or agenda? The motives behind our Bible study are good to consider. Are we like those Paul encountered at the Areopagus, always looking for “something new” to listen to? (Acts 17:19-21) They did this not necessarily for a search for truth but just as a casual diversion. But either way, to listen to theories and speculations all day can result in spiritual burn out. Maybe you have experienced this- I know I have a few times, and others I’m friends with in the struggle have expressed the same sentiment!
2 Timothy 3:7 is a great example of what Paul said in this regard.I like the New Jerusalem rendering: “Always seeking learning, but unable ever to come to knowledge of the truth.” Barnes Commentary on the scriptures says this about the verse:
And never able to come to the knowledge of the truth – They may learn many things, but the true nature of religion they do not learn. There are many such persons in the world, who, whatever attention they may pay to religion, never understand its nature. Many obtain much speculative acquaintance with the “doctrines” of Christianity, but never become savingly acquainted with the system; many study the constitution and government of the church, but remain strangers to practical piety; many become familiar with the various philosophical theories of religion, but never become truly acquainted with what religion is; and many embrace visionary theories, who never show that they are influenced by the spirit of the gospel. Nothing is more common than for persons to be very busy and active in religion, and even to “learn” many things about it, who still remain strangers to the saving power of the gospel. (Emphasis added)
So in summary, the balance we show in what we study and what our subject choices are is the key. And does it reflect the legalistic thinking of the Watchtower Organization and the Rabbis of Jesus’ day that so many of us are trying to escape from? The answer to that question is that it’s between us and our Lord Jesus and our Heavenly Father. And no one else. That’s the beauty of it…