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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The entire scope of salvation history consists of God’s covenants with man. From the covenant of creation to the covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ, the development of the plan of salvation can be traced since the Fall of Man. The relationship between these covenants is at once both clear and obscure. Each covenant serves the same basic purpose: to bring man into a deeper relationship with God. However, on a human level, these covenants sometimes seem to be in conflict and even contradictory. Probably the greatest example of this tension is between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant instituted by Christ. After the establishment of this truly ‘New Covenant’, many of the prescriptions of the old, Mosaic covenant were simply abolished by the Christians. Yet, the institutor of the New Covenant, Jesus himself, says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, til heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:17-18). The ‘problem’ of the relationship between these covenants was an especially important issue to the first Christians, who were in the process of becoming distinct from Judaism, while still claiming continuity with Judaism’s history, including the Mosaic Law. The early church fathers were obliged to explain the true purpose of the Mosaic Law as well as the relationship between the two covenants. The patristics would prove capable of the task.

This paper will survey the beginnings of Christian thought regarding the Mosaic Law. According to the Fathers of the Church, the Mosaic Law was not to be followed literally in its entirety now that Christ had come. Although certain parts of the Law were still to be applicable to daily Christian living, many parts, especially the ceremonial aspects, were no longer to be regarded as binding. The justification for this division of the Law and the declaration of its invalidity comes from the fathers’ belief as to the original purpose of the Law. According to the Fathers of the Church, the original purpose of the Law was twofold: first, it was a "divine accommodation" by God on account of the Jews’ sinfulness, to lead them out of their sin and idolatry; secondly, it was to prefigure the Christian covenant and the Christian life through typology and allegory. Many of the fathers develop or emphasize one or both of these two purposes, but many times they are simply intermingled without explanation. The twofold purpose, however, combine to form the basis of the patristics’ explanations of the ultimate purpose of the Mosaic Law in relation to the new covenant of Christ.

Next Page: Foundations of Patristic Thought




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