In my previous post, I quoted James 2:10: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” A complementary text is Galatians 5:3: “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
The Bible records a series of Covenants established between God and humans. Some are unilateral: they are unconditional promises by God to do something. Others contain obligations to be performed by humans: they are conditional.
Saint Paul, writing to the Gentiles in Galatia (central Anatolia), advised them that the Mosaic Covenant (one of the nuances of Torah / Nomos for Saint Paul) was not automatically binding upon them. However, if they chose to enter it, they would be contractually bound by it.
His argument is the same advanced by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (and seems also to have been shared by Saint James – though his emphasis and trajectory are different). The Mosaic Covenant had the power to bring death; but, in and of itself, it could not bring life. For this, a different, greater Covenant was needed. For this, the Messiah was needed.
Saint Paul and Saint James both echo Christ in calling people to live by the spirit of the law – its aim to promote good in our lives – rather than by the letter.
This sentiment is echoed today in a cynical attitude towards the legal profession, which is often viewed as helping bad people “get away with it”, whether by exploiting loopholes, or by taking advantage of people who cannot navigated the system. This view, of course, suffers from a certain myopia, but it draws on a fundamentally sound proposition that life transcends “the rules” (at least a certain category of them).
Benevolence goes beyond a contractual mindset. The contractual mindset is built upon a theory of exchange – and it is this exchange mechanism that Saint Paul has in mind in much of his grace versus works paradigm. (But reader beware – it is fallacious to assume that Saint Paul and Saint James are in contradiction just because they appear to be talking about the same thing but taking different positions. The use of the same word does not, in and of itself, entail the same referent.)
This distinction between contractual mindset and non-contractual is paralleled in the history of law and equity in England and Wales (but that perhaps is a story for another time). Most nations have found some expression of this distinction in their secular parts of life – albeit expressed using varying language.
But benevolence in the present age lives in a world of fault, a world that must involve a contractual side. Wisdom lies in discerning when each side must prevail.