The Law And the Covenant
Many Reactionary Dissenters claim that the Church at the Second Vatican Council reversed itself not merely on prudential or disciplinary matters but on essential teaching when it comes to the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.
The epicenter of this claim is not hard to find. It is, of course, common knowledge that Christians are not bound by the Mosaic Law. We are under no obligation to be circumcised, keep kosher or observe the various ceremonial prescriptions of Moses. Indeed, Paul makes it very clear that the attempt to bind Christians to observance of the Law in order to achieve salvation is, in fact, a grave sin (Galatians 5:3-4).
However it does not follow either from this that the Mosaic Covenant has therefore been “revoked” as many Reactionary Dissenters claim.
Indeed, Pope John Paul II says the Old Covenant has in fact “never been revoked by God.” (Address to Representatives of the Jewish Community in Mainz, West Germany). In this, he follows Nostra Aetate (The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), which declares that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; he does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls he issues” and cites Romans 11:28-29:
“Regarding the Gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake, but regarding election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
Some Reactionary Dissenters simply reject all this outright, saying:
“To say that the Mosaic Covenant has not been revoked in the normal manner of speech is contrary to the faith, as can be clearly seen from Scripture, Tradition and the teachings of the Church.”
Donning his paper miter, one Reactionary Dissenter informs us that “to ingratiate himself with the Jews [Pope John Paul II] publicly voiced an opinion contrary to the faith, and that therefore all Catholics are bound not to accept this error, and indeed to reject it completely.”
Another Reactionary Dissenter, not quite as radical, concurs that Vatican II is a “death warrant on the modern Church” but acknowledges that Romans 11:28-29 is still inspired Scripture. However, he helpfully clarifies both Paul’s and Pope John Paul’s “real” meaning:
“What is ‘unbreakable’ is the Abrahamic covenant, since God made it by an oath he swore to Abraham (Hebrews 6:13-18).”
That said, this Reactionary Dissenter remains adamant that any suggestion the Old Covenant might refer to the Mosaic Law is heretical. He declares:
“Unfortunately, today there is a lot of confusion occurring because of the vague and ambiguous use of the phrase ‘Old Covenant’ by prelates and theologians. They purposely don’t tell you which definition of ‘Old Covenant’ they are using, and thus a lot of people think when they see ‘Old Covenant has never been revoked’ it means that the Jews still have a covenant with God. They don’t. The only covenant in force today is the New Covenant. Anyone today who says that the Old Covenant has not been revoked, and by that they are referring to the Mosaic law, then they bring a curse upon themselves (Galatians 3:10-12).”
The problem with all this cocksureness is that Matthew, writing well after the establishment of the New Covenant, directly contradicts the claim that the Law and the Prophets have been revoked via Jesus’ words:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
According to Matthew, the Law and the Prophets have not been abolished. Does that make the covenant with Moses salvific for Jews, according to Matthew?
Certainly not! Jesus goes on to demonstrate that apart from the fulfillment found in his saving grace, nobody can do what the Law and the Prophets demand. That is why the Sermon on the Mount elaborates on the deepest meaning of the Law of Moses.
“Do not kill” demands ultimately that we eradicate murder from our hearts. “Do not commit adultery” demands that we eradicate adultery from our hearts. It is not enough to love your friends; we must even love our enemies.
In the end, the Law means that its adherents must “be perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect. And to that impossible demand, Paul gives the summary of the Law’s verdict: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
To revoke a law is to declare it null and void. Revoking prohibition meant that those who bought and sold alcohol were no longer subject to the penalties of the Volstead Act.
If the Law of Moses has been revoked, its penalties cannot apply to those who seek salvation through it. Yet both Jesus and Paul make it very clear to any who seek salvation by the Law that (in the words of John 5:45), “It is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope.”
So far from saying the Law of Moses is revoked (which would necessarily mean it no longer has the power to condemn) Jesus, John and Paul assume unbaptized Jews are still bound by the Law. Indeed, Paul makes it a cornerstone of one of his arguments for the necessity of baptism:
“Do you not know, brethren — for I am speaking to those who know the Law — that the law is binding on a person only during his life? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:1-4).
Paul’s entire point is that unbaptized Jews are “married” to the Law of Moses (and its condemnation of sin) and cannot escape that covenant except by one means: death and resurrection to new life through the body of Christ.
So, contrary to Reactionary Dissent, the notion that the Mosaic Covenant has been revoked is false according to both Our Lord and the Apostle to the Gentiles. Apart from Christ, says Paul, the Law of Moses still has the power to condemn and has therefore not been rendered null and void.
The Covenant of Moses cannot save — but it is well within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy to regard it as still binding upon unbaptized children of the Old Covenant, pointing the way to Christ as it was designed to do (Galatians 3:22-26).
It is well within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy to believe that the Law and the Prophets continue to do their job: pointing to Christ who alone can help the child of the Old Covenant to transcend — not revoke — the Law through Christ and enter into the new and everlasting covenant.
For he came to fulfill, not abolish, the Law.
Mark Shea is senior content editor
- November 11-17, 2007