Books Liturgical Year

Advent Antiphons in a Sci-Fi Key: Lawgiver (December 18)

Isaac Asimov gave the world the Three Laws of Robotics. In Christ, God again gives us divine instruction for our lives.

O Lord and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who appearedst unto Moses in a flame of fire in the bush, and gavest unto him the Law in Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

When I think about lawgivers in a sci-fi context, I don’t think first of a fictional character, but of a real science fiction author. One of Isaac Asimov’s enduring legacies is his formulation of the Three Laws of Robotics.

Since Asimov introduced them over seven decades ago, his Three Laws have become firmly ensconced in science fiction. Their apparent self-evidence, self-consistency, and elegant simplicity have compelled numerous other authors and filmmakers to acknowledge them.

But Asimov didn’t write stories in which robots follow the Three Laws flawlessly. Where would the fun be in that? His classic short story collection I, Robot (1950) rings change after unexpected change on the Three Laws.

In the stories, new situations cause robots to run up against the Laws’ hidden but inherent ambiguities and contradictions, often leading to erratic behavior and unforeseen consequences.

Transformed by God’s Law, Not “Programmed”

If science fictional robots struggle to follow the rules programmed into their positronic brains, how much more do real human beings struggle to follow God’s Law?

In my experience, most Christians don’t think about Jesus as a lawgiver.

I know I focus on Jesus’ mercy and grace—the “rebel” willing to break Sabbath law in order to restore people’s health and wholeness; the teacher who challenges the religious authorities’ overzealous application of the law by inviting those who are without sin to cast the first stone.

But Jesus also said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5.17). In my work writing study guides for Abingdon Press for the books of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, I have learned Jesus was actually quite conservative when it came to matters of Torah, “building a fence” around it so the people of God would be more likely, not less, to observe it.

While we are no longer condemned by God’s law, we are also not excused from its demands. How are we to be holy and perfect, as our Father in heaven is holy and perfect (Matthew 5.48; 1 Peter 1.15-16), if we ignore the instruction (which is what the Hebrew word “torah” means) God has given? Keeping the law does not make us righteous, but forgetting or flaunting it is surely unrighteous behavior.

Jesus was obedient, in our place and for our sake, to God’s Law. But he also came to write God’s Law within our hearts and minds (Hebrews 10.16)—not to program us like robots, but to transform us into God’s grateful, joyful, and obedient children.

How does the image of Jesus as lawgiver challenge you most—and how will you respond today?

Scripture quotations are NRSVUE. Antiphon texts are from The Advent Antiphons by A.C.A. Hall, 1914 ( A version of this post first appeared on The Sci-Fi Christian, December 18, 2014.

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