Abolished or Fulfilled?
The Mosaic Law in Relation to the New Covenant of Christ According to the Fathers of the Church
The entire scope of salvation history consists of Gods 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 Judaisms 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.