The place of the Law of God in Christian theology has been a hot point amongst many believers. In the early Church the Law of God was constantly brought up to ward off the ceremonial practices of the Jews, especially regarding the Sabbath day. Many Christians insisted that the Sabbath was still to be regarded as holy. Of course, there are no Christians that believe that today, except for the Seventh Day Adventists, who by their many heretical statements about the Gospel and the Church can hardly be considered Christian.
In the Middle Ages, especially in the West, the place of the Law was so often debated because of the relationship (or lack thereof) of the Church and the State. Many Christians wanted the Church to rule the State, so they often quoted the Law of God to support the theology to do so. And while the Church was gaining momentum in this “ministry” the civil Law of God within the Old Testament was often quoted so as to support penal actions such as the death penalty for heresy and “mortal” sins such as adultery and murder.
The early fathers really do not speak much of the penal aspect of the Law because they really never expected the Church to fully conquer the state in this area of ministry. Even when Constantine freed the Church and elected them into the office of the emperor, the Church continued its call to worship, preach, and to care for the oppressed. There were controversies within the East and the West regarding penal sanctioning but it was not until the West split from the East and engaged in secular philosophy (scholasticism) that the Western church began this “governmental” ministry to aggressively apply the Old Testament Law to the state. The Church, has, of course, given us the Canons, which is derived from Levitical Law, but not Levitical Law exclusively. The Church reserves the power and right to apply this equity of the Levitical Law to her practice (and canonize it) as she sees fit. These are not arbitrary decisions that are made, rather they are prophetic, and that which protect the Church from heretics and modern culture infiltrating her and bringing her to what we see as abnormal within the western world.
In my opinion the Church will never conquer the state but will indeed continue to make progress in working with them and being a spiritual influence to them. We can look at the Byzantine Empire to see how this was accomplished, albeit not perfectly but nonetheless with Gospel initiative and motive.
One great quote regarding the Old Testament “ceremonial law” (as the West has labeled as such) is found in St. Augustine’s writings. This is useful for us today because the new argument from the modern Christian on the Law is that since Christ “abolished” the Law, we no longer need any ceremonial Law to support the Christian faith; only singing and preaching is necessary…oh, that’s right, the New Testament does mention Baptism, the Eucharist, as well as incense. Hmmm! Well, I guess we are going to have to look to the Old Testament after all!
Here is what Augustine says:
“Those first sacraments, which were observed and celebrated in obedience to the law, were by way of prior announcement of Christ who was to come. And when Christ, by his coming, had fulfilled them, they were taken away, and they were taken away because they were fulfilled; for He came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. And no that justice of faith has been revealed and the yoke of slavery, which had suitably been given to a hard and carnal people, has been taken away from the sons of God called to liberty, other sacraments have been instituted, greater in strength, more beneficial in their use, easier of performance, and fewer in number.” St. Augustine – Against Faustus the Manichean
Believe it or not, there is still ceremonial law! That’s right. Now, in order to understand this, we must take off our ecclesiastical blinders and realize that we as the Church are called to carry the truth of the Scriptures into our day and age. This means not that we carry “verses” and cut-n-paste theologies of verses, but we are to carry the actual equity of the Scriptures into our teachings. Where is the equity of the Old Testament Law, you ask? It is all throughout the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments – which, by the way were never abrogated by the early fathers – as well as the way the Old Testament people of God lived and worshiped, included equity for the Church today.
There is much spiritual equity in the Old Testament to draw from, and the Orthodox Church draws from this equity in many ways. But these are ways that cannot be systematized into a graph of some sort to be passed around to everyone and their brother to judge the Church by. In other words, there might be one area in the Old Testament that is given much attention to apply to our day, yet another area in the Old Testament that is not given as much attention. The Church has known what is needed to emphasize and what is not needed to emphasize. For instance, the East has not emphasized, as far as I can tell, things such as penal law, because it will rile Christians up to take up a ministry that strays away from the Gospel, as the Western religious wars and mass murders of fellow Christians in the West such as the Inquisitions and the Salem Witch Trials have shown.
The theology of the Church is not subjected to private authority and autonomy. The Scripture was never intended to be a sort of fix-all manual for the Church. The canon was decided based on preservation of what could be lost, not on what had to be gained. The New Testament Church had the authority of the Holy Spirit from the beginning when He blessed Mary! It moved through Pentecost and then through many centuries based on an oral and NOT a written tradition.
Christ said in the Gospel that He would leave His Spirit for us (John 16:7). He did not say that He would leave documents. The Church has always been led by the gift of the Holy Spirit that was given to created man. The Holy Spirit resided within us, not within documents themselves. The documentation of Israel, for instance, is in many ways worthless if not accompanied by the Church. For proof of this, just look at the modern Jewish religion.
Christ gave the authority of the Holy Spirit – regarding His transmission of revelation – to the apostles (Matthew 16:18-19). The apostles then began to transmit this authority via the “laying on of hands” (Acts 6, 6; 13, 3, 1 Timothy 4:14) for men to succeed them. This is how truth was to move within the Church. And it has not changed today!
Does this all mean that the Church can implement that of which is not directly found in Holy Scripture? It most certainly does! But it most certainly will not contradict the Scripture. We worship in buildings, for instance, because we have now been given the freedom to do so, unlike the early Church that was persecuted and bound to worship in houses. The Church has deemed that worshiping in buildings is just, despite the fact that such information is not found in the New Testament.
There is much equity within the Old and New Testament that the Church uses to grow the kingdom into a worldwide movement as Christ commands us to in Matthew 24:14. St. Augustine’s quote above is witness to this fact.
I think the problem with many Christians today is that they are just far too fearful and in some cases just plain arrogant to submit to an authority that is higher than themselves. This is frightening, considering that the Gospel message itself involves giving up one’s autonomy!
From the very beginning of the Church she has revealed truth in order to grow both physically and spiritually. She has never been the same, yet she has retained that which is proper to retain. She is always growing in one way or the other for the progress of the kingdom. I am of course speaking of the Orthodox Church. This is not to say the West has nothing to contribute, but it is to say that the West does not know how to preserve. It has failed miserably and has injected much fear into people regarding the authority of the Church, due to its modern progression into many heretical schemes.
The cults: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc; Where did they birth from? They birthed from the West (Protestantism, which came from Catholicism, which came from secular Scholasticism). Before Scholasticism, the Church was one. Thank God for the Orthodox Church; that it has lasted these two thousand years for you and I! Trust in her revelation and you will be blessed.
Here is a great quote from St. Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople) regarding what the Church calls “the Law of Christ,” which is the Old Testament Law through the lens of the New Testament Church (obedience to the law through the Holy Spirit):
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25) – let us be governed by His laws, that is, let us be content with the power of the Spirit, but seek no help from the Law. – St. John Chrysostom, Ch, V. Homilies on Galatians