Is Christianity guilty of spurning God’s commandments in the Old Testament? Let’s turn to the Patristic writers for an answer.
The psalm of this Sunday extolls the virtues of the Law. The proclamation of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai in reading one also reminds us that the heart of the Old Testament Law is the Ten Commandments. But when people speak of “the Law”, they also refer to the ceremonial, purity, and dietary laws of the Mosaic Code, namely, circumcision, sacrifices and offerings, Sabbaths and festivals, purifications and unclean foods, and much else. As Christians, we no longer observe these laws. Given our Christian non-observance, how do we explain the psalmist’s tribute to the Law in Psalm 19? Is our non-observance a rejection of the Old Testament teachings that generally equate righteousness and piety with strict observance of the Law? More importantly, Jesus himself teaches that “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law” (Mt. 5:18). Has Christianity deviated from Jesus’ teaching? Is it guilty of spurning God’s commandments?
To compound this perplexing issue further, Jesus himself appears to be dismissive of the Old Testament laws when he disagrees with Moses on divorce and remarriage (cf. Mt. 19:8), downplays the significance of unclean foods (cf. Mk 7:15), and heals on the Sabbath (cf. Mk 3:1-6). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? Here we have a scriptural equation that doesn’t seem to add up: the Old Testament requirement of unreserved submission to the Law vs. the New Testament teaching of Christian non-observance.
Some people believe the solution lies in accepting either the Old Testament teaching of following the Law or the New Testament position of Christian non-observance, but not both. The problem with this view is that it sees the Bible not in its harmonious whole but as a collection of conflicting books that are seriously polarized. The Judaizers took this view and disagreed with St. Paul and the early Church. In their zeal to protect the Law of Moses, they joined hands with Rome to persecute the Christians. The heresy of the 2nd-century Marcionism, on the other hand, advocated for the abandonment of the Old Testament God whose “unreasonable” moral precepts were deemed as incompatible with the teaching of the “good God” of the New Testament.
When caught in a bind like this, we Catholics always have the luxury of turning to the Church Fathers and 2000 years of Church tradition for an answer. Saints and believers before us had already encountered most of our problems. Instead of re-inventing the wheels, why not turn to them for help? The Patristic writers’ answer is complex and deeply rooted in the Scriptures. To put it all in a nutshell, they had identified different categories of law in the Old Testament books: those with universal and abiding application (usually identified with the Decalogue) and precepts necessitated by the historical circumstances of God’s people. They called the latter “the secondary legislation”. For example, the sacrificial and purity laws were imposed as a response to the sin of the golden calf (cf. Ex 32). Such laws are prophetic in nature in that they point us to Christ, in whom the Law finds perfect fulfillment. Jesus’ emergence means that the purpose of the secondary legislation has been served and thus observance is no longer necessary. (For a better understanding of the Church Fathers’ teachings on this issue, see M. Barber’s article, “The Yoke of Servitude – Christian Non-Observance of the Law’s Cultic Precepts in Patristic Sources”, in Letter & Spirit, vol 7, St. Paul’s Center for Biblical Theology.)
This Sunday’s gospel is a good illustration of the Patristic teaching above. Jesus’ aggressive actions in the cleansing of the Temple are a prophetic sign of the Temple’s imminent destruction which also signifies the passing away of the Old Testament sacrificial laws (see Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on John 2:15). He chooses to do it when the Passover is near because the sacrificial laws of the Passover will be fulfilled by the Pascal Mystery of the Lamb of God, and the Temple replaced by the Body of Christ - the Heavenly Temple, “the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up” (Hebrews 8:2). Once we have the real Temple and the eternal, heavenly liturgy, what’s the point of continuing to follow the sacrificial laws of the Old Testament, which are but “a copy and shadow” of the heavenly realities (Hebrews 8:5)?