Abolished or Fulfilled?

The Mosaic Law in Relation to the New Covenant of Christ According to the Fathers of the Church

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Division of the Law

The Fathers of the Church were continually grappling with this major issue: why did Christians, who claimed to believe in the God of the Old Testament, not follow the laws and prescriptions set forth therein? This question was posed to orthodox Christians from three different fronts: (1) from the Jews; (2) from heretical Christians; and (3) from the pagans and each era of the patristic age saw pressure from at least one of them.

First, the Jews used to their advantage the fact that the Christians claimed that their God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in questioning the validity of the Christian religion. For example, Justin Martyr records Trypho, the Jew, asking of him:

But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments. Have you not read, that that soul shall be cut off from his people who shall not have been circumcised on the eighth day?(13)

To justify the continuity claimed by Christians between the Old and New Covenants, a response to the Jews was necessary.

The second attack encountered by the fathers was one that had its source within the Church. As has been previously discussed (see p. * above), a strong movement, led by Marcion, completely rejected the Old Testament and all its commands. As this was a common feature of the larger Gnostic movement so strong in the second century, orthodox Christians of that time felt the demand to respond. Prospective Christians may have been unsure of the authority of the Old Testament, especially the Mosaic Law, when they witnessed the battles that took place within the Church over the proper interpretation of it.

Finally, relations between the early church and the pagans called for a defense of the Christian relationship with the Mosaic Law. One of the first charges the pagans leveled against the Christians was that their religion was a "new" and dangerous one. The answer to this charge came from explaining the continuity between Judaism before Christ and Christianity. Of course, it would then be necessary to clarify how the differences between the two do not negate their intrinsic continuity. The pagan attack thereby formed the final prong on the three levels of inquiry into the practice or non-practice of the Law by the Christians.

This three-pronged charge created the setting in which the orthodox Christians had to defend the continuity between the Mosaic Law and the Christian covenant. The first step in responding to the three groups was the practice of dividing the Law into separate sets of commandments. This consisted of claiming that there were differences between the various commands listed in the Mosaic Law; these differences included (1) the author of a particular regulation, (2) the permanence of a certain command, as well as (3) the original reason for a specific law. The practice of dividing the Law was not unique to Christians, however. Philo of Alexandria, a Jew of the first century A.D., divided the Law between commands of God and those of Moses, claiming, however, that all of them were good and should be obeyed.(14) The division made by the Christians, however, would take a more definitive shape.

The first such division comes from Justin Martyr (d. 165). In his Dialogue with Trypho, he presents a tripartite division of the Mosaic Law.(15) This can be seen clearly in Chapter 44:

...some injunctions were laid on you [the Jews] in reference to the worship of God and practice of righteousness; but some injunctions and acts were likewise mentioned in reference to the mystery of Christ, or on account of the hardness of your people’s hearts (sklhrokardion tou laou umwn).(16)

Justin distinguishes three different types of commands to be found in the Mosaic Law. The first are ethical commands that Justin believes must be followed and obeyed by all men. The second are commands that are symbolic or prophetic of Christ, such as the Passover lamb as a type (tupoV) of Christ and the roasted lamb on crossed spits as a symbol (sumbolon) of Christ on the Cross (Dialogue 40)(17). The final section of the Law is the most crucial in the debate with Trypho. It consists of those commands that were instituted for the Jews’ hardness of heart (sklhrokardion). According to Justin, these laws were temporary and are no longer to be followed due to the coming of Christ. This third section will be discussed in more detail later in this paper.

Another typical division, probably the most popular with the patristics, is the separation of the Law into two parts: (1) the moral requirements that have been retained and amplified by Christ; and (2) the ceremonial commands which have come to an end with Christ.(18) This division has a strong pedigree, being used by the likes of Irenaeus(19), Tertullian(20), Origen(21), and the author of Apostolic Constitutions(22). The first part usually consists of the Decalogue at the very least, but sometimes also includes other moral commands. The second section of the Law, the ritual ceremonies, is interpreted in a variety of ways by the Fathers. Sometimes it is seen to represent a law that was promulgated after the incident of the golden calf, called the "second law" (deuterwsiV), and it is sometimes seen as more of a symbolic or prophetic type of law that foreshadowed Christ and his sacrifice. Regardless of the interpretation, the notion that parts of the Law were permanent and others temporary is a common belief among the fathers.

To say that the idea of dividing the Law was unvaried among the patristics, however, would be incorrect. Many of the proponents of dividing the Law were members of the allegorical school of Alexandria, but the more literal-based interpretive school of Antioch consisted of a number of Fathers who did not feel that a division was appropriate for any section of the Scriptures. Antioch’s different hermanutical approach to Scripture led them to see the Mosaic Law more in terms of "historical developments and redemptive fulfilment".(23) As the greatest of the Antiocheans, John Chrysostom, states:

If a candle which gave light by night kept us, when it became day, from the sun, it would not only not benefit, it would injure us. And so does the Law, if it stands between us and greater benefits.(24)

Instead of viewing the Law in unequal parts of ceremonial and ethical commands, the Antiocheans instead interpret the entire Law as being fulfilled in Christ. Of course, it must be remembered that during the flourishing of the Antiochean school (especially with Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Chrysostom) the issues facing the Christian Church no longer consisted of defending the practices of Christians compared to the Jews; instead, they concerned the Trinitarian and Christological debates that consumed the 4th and 5th centuries. So instead of seeing the Law in various parts, the Law is perceived as one of man’s developmental steps toward the central figure in history: Christ. Because of this, some of the Antiochean fathers do not even see any of the Mosaic Law as applicable to Christians of their time, instead believing the Christian need only follow the Gospel. According to Richard Longenecker, "Chrysostom was not prepared to see the Mosaic law as an ethical guide for Christians."(25) Instead, with the coming of Christ, the totality of the Law has been fulfilled in him, and there is no need to divide it into two parts.

The next section will deal with the major interpretations of the Mosaic Law in relation to Christ by the patristics. The divisions just discussed will be important as the basis for most of the interpretations of the Fathers. It was necessary for the early Christians first to acknowledge which of the laws were still to be kept and which were now to be disregarded due to the advent of Christ. In general, most of the fathers regarded the Decalogue as still applicable to Christians but the ritual commands no longer binding. The invalidity of the ritual commandments was intrinsically related to the original purpose of the Law. This is the area to which we shall turn next.

Previous Page: Foundations of Patristic ThoughtNext Page: The Purpose of the Law




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