Abolished or Fulfilled?
The Mosaic Law in Relation to the New Covenant of Christ According to the Fathers of the Church
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
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 peoples
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. Antiochs 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,
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 mans 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.