In our last installment, the argument was made that in an attempt to shore up appreciation and respect for the Old Testament—replete with its necessary connections to the history of Israel–by asserting that its importance was found in the fact that it contained the “moral law,” actually ended up helping to marginalize its truly radical claims. By the 13th Century, when Thomas Aquinas had come and reached full flowering as the towering mental giant of the Middle Ages, the 10 commandments had become the model for “natural reason,” and virtually synonymous with “natural law,” in a way that further solidified their claims as the vehicle for moral instruction.
Now, it should be noted this is not all-together an unhappy development, particularly for the establishment of Western Civilization, because even as the self-described “religiously tone-deaf” Jürgen Habermas has observed in his dialogue with Pope Benedict, the modern world with its rejection of God (and corresponding Natural Law) has left itself vulnerable to the tyranny of the masses. In The Dialectics of Secularization, Pope Benedict rightly points out that where there is no appeal to a “natural law,” as revealed by a creator God, then the only real arbiter in any situation is to find out where the intersection between majority rules and personal preference lies; bring in the lawyers.
But as good and desirable as a moral and justly ordered society is, what does that have to do with Jesus and his Cross? This was the question that came up at the time of the Reformation, because the distinction between the Old and New Testaments was read as one where the importance of the Old was that it contained the moral precepts that were, by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit, able to be fulfilled. So, when the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:6b that, ” the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” this became the interpretative grid for how to read the Old vs. the New. Those who “worked” for their salvation were slaves to the letter, whereas those who were inspired by the spirit were alive. The cross, in this scheme, became the way by which one entered the “New Covenant,” but had little to do with actual saving faith, because the precepts to which it pointed, i.e., the now-fulfillable-by-the-spirit “natural law,” were clearly evident by nature and reason.
So, one did away with all of the “ceremonial” laws contained therein and essentially boiled down the importance of the Old Testament to a series of morality tales, vignettes on how the universal virtues of the Law were in operation through the increasingly mythical-sounding accounts of the people of Ancient Israel. Under this type of tropological moralizing, the Old Testament became an endless supply of fables which were divinely inspired to instruct people–by virtue of being initiated by the cross (and subsequently baptism)–in how to be good, how to be “spiritual.”
Enter Luther (among others:) who, as a professor of the Old Testament (his first academic posting), began to read the Old Testament not as that which primarily contained the “moral law,” which could be distilled down once one got rid of all of the “ceremonial” trappings, but, rather, the actual account of God’s dealings with human beings who, like you and me, were subject to the same vagaries and vicissitudes of life, i.e., guilt, fear and shame. And, just as is the case today, while some would follow the law out of servile fear, some saw in its very revelation the mercies of God; however, and this is the crucial point, this distinction between servile fear and grateful worship was not on of degree between letter and spirit of the law, but between being condemned by it or dead to it. The letter of the law is simply its literal claim on human existence, namely, that there is a God outside of you who has, by nature of his divinity, the authority to dictate to you whatever he wants. In this respect, the minutiae of the “ceremonial” law became even more offensive. The letter that kills is nothing less than the claim of God on a Godless world, whereas the “spirit that gives life,” is that spirit by which one (like the Apostle Peter in John 6) is given to profess that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.
As we read in Hebrews 11, this profession of Jesus as the Messiah was implicit in the faithful witness of all of those in the Old Testament who looked forward to his coming just as all of us who live after his ascension look back. In this respect, the distinction between the “Old” and “New” covenants, the law and the gospel, can be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments, because wherever the demands of the letter of the law, i.e., “love god and love neighbor,” were met by the profession of faith in the messiah–the Christ—-you find life. This is why when, in the very moments after the Fall, when Adam looks over at his wife and calls her “Eve”–life–he begins to preach the Gospel, the only hope that the world will ever know, namely, that even in the midst of death and destruction, there was and is and is to come one who will deliver his people.
Next Week: Vanity, Morality, and the Shipwreck of the Soul.