Book Review: God, Justice, and Society by Jonathan Burnside
David M. VanDrunen
Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2011). 584 pages. $95.
The giving and interpreting of the law of God occupies an enormous part of the Bible. Students of Scripture cannot help but wrestle with the law’s meaning and purpose, but the task is often daunting and provokes more than its share of theological controversies. This work by Jonathan Burnside, a law professor at the University of Bristol in England, is the best book on God’s law that I have read for a while; in fact, it is the best book of any sort that I have read for a while.
Readers of this brief review on the WSC blog should note that Burnside does not write from a Reformed theological perspective (he does not tell us his own theological proclivities). Nor does Burnside hold as conservative a view of Scripture as do confessional Reformed believers. Nevertheless, he believes that biblical law, in its canonical form, has an inner coherence and he treats biblical texts with great care and insight. Furthermore, he takes strikingly conservative positions on certain controversial social issues of the day—most notably, he reads Scripture as unambiguously setting forth monogamous heterosexual marriage as the norm from which no deviation is permitted. Those able to read profound (though well-written) biblical scholarship have much to learn from this volume.
Much of the book consists of detailed studies of various aspects of the Mosaic law, including issues pertaining to the environment, economics, vengeance, theft, and sex and marriage. As helpful as these studies are, perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is how it interprets the law in light of the larger Old Testament narrative. Burnside sees Scripture’s teaching about law grow out of its accounts of creation, God’s covenants, and of his dealings with his people and the world throughout Genesis and beyond. He also grapples with a number of related issues that are not easy but necessary for a thorough understanding of biblical law. Among these issues are the similarities and differences between Old Testament biblical law and other ancient Near Eastern legal codes, the reality of a universal or natural law rooted in creation that informs the presentation of law in Scripture, the fact that the Mosaic law is incomplete (in that it does not address many areas of ordinary human conduct), and the crucial interconnections between law and wisdom.
Burnside also includes numerous reflections on how insights into biblical law might be incorporated into contemporary legal systems. These exercises constitute an interesting “general equity” approach to the Mosaic law (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4) which Reformed readers may find quite profitable even when they do not agree with his specific conclusions.
Though Burnside includes two chapters on the New Testament (dealing with marriage and divorce and the trial of Jesus), he does not interpret the Old Testament law in light of Christ’s redemptive fulfillment of it, as explained so thoroughly in New Testament books such as Galatians and Hebrews. This obviously means that the book cannot be taken as a thorough Christian biblical theology of law—but this is not what the book claims about itself. Though Reformed readers must regard this as a serious theological shortcoming, Burnside’s work offers many rich resources for their ongoing quest to understand better the law of God.