Friday, March 21, 2014

On Right Reading of the Old Testament (part 2)

Continuing on in our series on right reading of the Old Testament, we come today to some very practical questions. Having established the first principles that the Old Testament is truly the Word of God, that there is no one interpretive scheme that fits the whole Old Testament, and that assigning a high value to the Old Testament texts was a characteristic of patristic exegesis, we can go on to consider some further questions in our approach to these sacred books.

To what degree are Old Testament principles applicable in the New Testament age?

Our first query is to what degree Old Testament principles are applicable today, in the New Testament age? There are many disputes on a range of topics that Old Testament passages can be invoked for. Let us look at some examples of how Old Testament principles may be invoked in contemporary debates.

A great example is the question of whether or not parents should employ corporal punishment in the discipline of their children. A great passage to cite is Proverbs 13:24, 

"He who spares the rod hates his son, but he that loves him chastens him earnestly." 

Or suppose the question is on the justice of levying interest on loans. In that case, Psalm 15:1-2 may be invoked: 

"O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,and speak the truth from their heart; who do not lend money at interest,and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Perhaps we are debating whether there is a moral obligation to speak to friends and family we know to be committing grave sins. Then Ezekiel 3:18-21 is very appropriate: 

"If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before them, they shall die; because you have not warned them, they shall die for their sin, and their righteous deeds that they have done shall not be remembered; but their blood I will require at your hand. If, however, you warn the righteous not to sin, and they do not sin, they shall surely live, because they took warning; and you will have saved your life."

It is not our purpose here to answer these particular inquiries, but rather to point out examples of arguments in which Old Testament passages may be relevant.

The question then becomes "How relevant are they?" Some do not treat them as relevant at all. Suppose you are in a debate about whether parents ought to use corporal punishment and you cite Prov. 13:24 in support of the proposition. Now suppose your interlocutor says, "I hardly think we can settle the argument by quoting a passage from Proverbs." The interlocutor clearly has a dismissive attitude towards the contemporary relevance of Old Testament texts.

It is true that, in many parts of the Old Testament, doctrine is not strictly established. This is because of the provisional and incomplete nature of Old Testament revelation itself. We cannot build a complete doctrine of God from the Old Testament alone, since there is no revelation of the Incarnation or the Trinity. 

But the fact that the Old Testament is provisional or that certain doctrines are shadowy or incomplete does not mean that no doctrinal or ethical conclusions can be drawn from it at all. Sure, there is no revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but there are very clear affirmations of God's omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In fact, if I had to argue those attributes of God from the Bible, I would take the text of Psalm 139 as my starting point. The whole truth might not be affirmed, but what is affirmed is certainly true. Thus, the Old Testament is very valuable for serving as a foundation or jumping off point for particular theological discussions.

This brings us to the answer to our question - while the whole truth might not be asserted in the Old Testament because of its provisional nature, what is asserted must be held as the Word of God and therefore most assuredly true. The Church has never suggested that assertions of the Old Testament are somehow not binding because they are found in the Old Testament. Leo XIII famously taught:

"It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred... For all the books which the Church receives as Sacred and Canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost" (Providentissimus Deus, 20).

Now it often happens that an Old Testament teaching must be completed or clarified in the New, like the laws regarding divorce or polygamy. These are cases of behavior tolerated (but never affirmed) in the Old being specifically proscribed in the New. But if something is positively affirmed in the Old, then how can we argue it is not relevant now, since every book of the Scriptures is inspired "with all their parts"?

Thus, if someone says corporal punishment is always wrong, I believe they err, and that they err precisely because Proverbs 13:24 specifically commends it. When Aquinas is formulating the classical Catholic doctrine on usury, he appeals to Exodus 22:25 and Ezekiel 18:17 as his scriptural basis. (STh, II-II, Q. 78). These positions can be established on Old Testament foundations.

What we must realize is that while the Old Testament overall is provisional in nature, not every particular Old Testament maxim is provisional; some are universal - "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul and all they strength" (Deut. 6:5), for example. The Old Testament contains many principles that are reflections of natural law or very basic theological truths (the immorality of adultery, the right of parents to discipline children corporally, the omnipotence of God, etc). Because these principles do not cease to be true just because they are found in the Old Testament, they are always valid, and saints and scholars, such as Aquinas, have never balked at citing them not only in support of their arguments, but as the centerpiece of their arguments.

Aquinas would have never envisioned an argument in which his teaching on usury was thrown out because it cited the Old Testament. He had a much more unified approach to the Scriptures than we.

How to distinguish between the temporary, ceremonial law and the permanent moral law?

Our previous answer presumes that we understand that there are some things in the Old Testament which are temporary in nature and others which have permanent validity. How is the Catholic to distinguish between the two?

We mentioned above the provisional nature of Old Testament revelation. This means it is fundamentally incomplete; it awaits the New Testament and Christ for its fulfillment. But nevertheless, it still is a real and true revelation, and to say it is incomplete is not to say that things fundamentally change in the New Testament. After all, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" and God has "no variation or shadow due to change."(Heb. 13:8, Jas. 1:17). This is why Old Testament principles can retain a permanent validity, especially when they touch upon issues of the natural or moral law (For example, Malachi 2:16, '"I hate divorce', says the Lord").

The major exception to this, however, is if we are looking at passages of the Mosaic Law specifically. Too often the Old Testament is equated with the Law, as if the entire Old Testament were nothing but the Law. The Law, however, refers specifically to the ceremonial statutes enjoined upon Israel by God in the time of Moses, as found in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. If something, say a particular law or regulation is specifically part of the Levitical Law, we may safely assume it has been superseded by the New Testament. Examples of this are prohibitions on pork, the practice of circumcision, regulations about Temple worship, etc. These have all been superseded because they concern the Levitical law exclusively.

Principles that are part of the moral law, natural law, or are teachings on the very nature of God Himself retain a permanent validity, whereas principles that relate exclusively to the Levitical law of ancient Israel are no longer binding. Inability to make this distinction is the source of many errors, for example, the argument that Old Testament condemnations of homosexuality are invalid because the Old Testament also prohibits the eating of shellfish (see here).

It sometimes happens, however, that we see a regulation of the Mosaic law encapsulating or affirming a universal moral principle. These situations can be particularly vexing. For example, the passage "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex. 22:18). If someone asks if this passage is still valid, then the answer would be both yes and no. Yes, insofar as God hated witchcraft then and He still hates it now, and it is just as sinful now to participate in witchcraft today as it was then; but no insofar as we are no longer under the Mosaic law, and as such, the particular injunction to put the witch to death as a civil crime is no longer in force.

So we see that there are occasions where just because the particular law or regulation has passed away does not mean that the principle is invalid. Ex. 22:18 teaches that witchcraft is not pleasing to God; this has not changed, even if the particular discipline of how it is handled has. Thus, a person would be in grave error if they tried to argue that witchcraft was now pleasing to God based on the fact that we no longer are commanded to put witches to death.

We will continue with more on this topic next time.


Anonymous said...

Are there any Mosaic laws which do not enact some principle that is currently valid? Do these laws give us insight into the nuances of that principle which can assist us in applying the current forms which similarly embody the given principle? For example, Deuteronomy 11:18 says, "Lay up these my words in your hearts and minds, and hang them for a sign on your hands, and place them between your eyes." Is this now enacted by the Sign of the Cross?

Boniface said...

In your example, I would say yes, but I would say that this is an application rather than an enactment or a fulfillment; in other words, while you could certainly see the devout making of the sign of the cross as an application of the principle of Deut. 11:18, I don't think you could argue from Deut. 11:18 that we are obligated to do that, or that it is the "fulfillment" of that particular aspect of the Law. In the cases you refer to, it is going to be more a matter of tradition, custom and piety rather than strict exegesis. That's just my opinion.

Eric Brooks said...

Very good distinctions. I might add that, even if the particular civil punishsent for a sin is no longer required to be enforced, it must be accepted that the punishsent required by mosaic law was not unjust. We may no longer put a witch to death, but we must accept that witchcraft is serious enough to merit death, lest we accuse God of injustoce. As a side note I've sometimes heard it said that those sins which were publishable with death in the Law are mortal sins. It seems a handy principle given the liberal meaning of "mortal sin", though I haven't studied it in depth enough to see that it's always valid.

Anonymous said...

Can you help me to understand the Mass readings for today in light of these distinctions?:

When I have heard recent talk of mercy in the Church, I get the impression that it means putting aside "the law". So when Christ says he has come to fulfill it, what does He mean?

Is he referring to the Old Testament moral precepts that you mention which are always binding (like the teaching on homosexuality)?

What does it mean to "fulfill the law"?

Boniface said...

Sure. To "fulfill" means to bring something to its logical conclusion. It means that Christ, in His life and mission, brings to completion all the things foreshadowed in the Law. He does not abolish - that is, He does not wipe the Law away or disregard it, but He fulfills.

An example-

Suppose I take out a loan. There are two ways I can bring an end to the loan - I can (a) refuse to pay the loan back and simply stiff the creditors, or (b) I can pay the loan back to the last penny.

In the first example, I negate the loan by repudiating it. In the second, I make the loan go away by fulfilling all of its terms, right down to the last penny.

Christ fulfills the law in the second sense. Every demand the Law makes, He fulfills in His perfection. Every sacrifice foreshadows His one sacrifice, His moral teaching perfects the imperfect teachings of the Old Covenant - His revelation completes everything hinted at in the Law.

Once the "Law" has been fulfilled, those parts of the Law which were only temporary pass away, just like the loan payments pass away once the obligation has been fulfilled.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. And those parts which were not temporary remain, then?

What do they mean for us? We continue to have to keep the commandments, I assume. But I don't understand how that connects with Christ's fulfillment. Is it that we could never, because of our falleness, perfectly keep the Law, but with grace, we can?

Boniface said...

Yes, the parts that are not temporary are still in force - and those are primary the moral commands. What is temporary and what is still binding is found in the Tradition.

Your last question is too broad to be answered here. Please keep abreast of the blog for the next installment. ;)

Anonymous said...

I look forward to it. If possible, could you try to work in some assistance for interpreting "it is mercy I desire, not sacrifice"? I am also seeing that quite a bit but am having trouble understanding what that means.

Anonymous said...

@Eric Brooks:

We also may be affected by the times in which we live.

The rejection of the Reign of Christ the King is almost universal in these days. This makes it difficult for a layman, or even a cleric, to enforce God's law.

For example, abortion is murder. You will, I'm sure, find many admonitions in the O.T. that says a person who murders the innocent shall be put to death. But, in our day and age, it is frowned upon to eliminate abortionists. This is not an issue because abortion is better nowadays. It is an issue because our whole society has fallen to a degree that the general consensus (ignoring Christ) is that it is worse to kill abortionists than it is to kill babies.

Much the same with witches. We cannot kill them, so we must build pagan altars for them at the Air Force Academy.

It is really a sad state. But God writes straight with crooked lines. Unrepentant witches, abortionists, lawyers, and other scoundrels will face judgement.

So will the rest of us.

We'd best be prepared.