Dr IAN ELMER…
One of the great beauties — and the tensions — in Catholic thought is the relationship between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. So often we find in the parables and examples of Jesus' life itself examples where the Teacher himself sought to draw out the relationship. His disciple, Paul, perhaps more than any other was the one who made this insight most clear. Dr Ian Elmer's commentary today seeks to explore more deeply this relationship between letter and spirit in Law in the thinking of St Paul.
Was Paul a Radical Libertarian?
At this point in our study of the Corinthian correspondence, it may be worth noting that the "Law-free Christianity" to which Paul adhered, should not be understood as completely antinomianism or libertinism. I have consistently used this term in past commentaries to describe that faction of early Christianity that eschewed observance of the Mosaic Law as a determinative factor for membership in the Christian movement (Elmer, 2007).
This is not to say that Paul and the Hellenists before him, the two most obvious exponents of Law-free Christianity, were absolutely antinomian as such. Nor is it the case that they privileged the "spirit" of the Law over its "letter".
The Letter and the Spirit of the Law
Distinguishing the "letter" from the "spirit" of the Law is a false dichotomy. One must be aware of one's motivation for following the "letter" of the law as much as one should not allow an individual understanding of the "spirit" of the law to cloud the objectivity inherent in the law code. Still, for all that, laws must remain relevant.
Once a law becomes separated from the spirit in which it was framed it has become bankrupt.
Every society has laws on the books that have outlived their usefulness. Newspaper articles are often written about prohibitions against men bearing their chests on local beaches. The same is true of the Church, I suspect.
In the cloisters of the Catholic Church, there are some prohibitions and prescriptions that have simply outlived their usefulness. A classic example is the penitential practices of the past where Catholics abstained from meat of Fridays – which has now been widened to encourage people to adopt more relevant and positive forms of penitential discipline.
Similar examples might be earlier thinking about the wearing of religious habits, scapulars and medals. Don't get me wrong! I am not suggesting that there is no positive "sign" value in habits or religious paraphernalia. But when the overt "in-your-face" use of such things is intended as a mark of superiority, distinguishing "us" Catholics from "them" Protestants or "us" orthodox from "them" heretics, than I think we have missed the point. Once we understand this, then we can understand where Paul also is coming from.
Paul preached a Law-free Gospel, not because he was an antinomian or libertarian or even an anarchist, he preached a Gospel that eschewed all manmade Laws that set up boundaries separating "us" from "them" (Elmer, 2009: 184). And Paul suffered as a result of such factional disputes at Corinth.
Over a year lapsed between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, during which time Paul seems to have made a "painful visit" in difficult circumstances (2 Cor 2:1). In response to this "painful" situation, he wrote a letter "with many tears" in which he called for the punishment of an offender who was probably a member of the Corinthian community and who had caused him personal grief (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8).
On another front, as we noted last week, 2 Corinthians bears testimony to an escalation in anti-Pauline opposition at Corinth during the intervening period between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Unlike his response to the troublemakers in 1 Corinthians, in 2 Corinthians Paul is particularly scathing in his comments about his opponents. He calls them "false apostles", "deceitful workers", who disguise themselves as "apostles of Christ" (11:13), who preached Law-observance as the only means of salvation — a claim that went against Paul's entire experience during formative years in Christianity.
The origin of this radical break with these "Judaisers" laid in his conversion experience and his initial association with the Hellenists (Kim, 1997). In both Galatians (1:12-16) and 2 Corinthians (5:16-20), Paul alludes to his conversion experience as the basis of his departure from Jewish faith practice focused on Law-observance, especially circumcision and the dietary proscriptions.
What Paul and the Hellenists before him opposed was adherence to such Laws that served to set up boundaries between Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and freemen, barbarians and the civilized (Gal 3:11; Col 3:28).
In 2 Corinthians Paul claims that while he once knew Christ in the flesh (5:16), he does so no longer. As a result of his conversion, he has been made into a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) by virtue of the intervention of God. Moreover, he has been entrusted with a divinely inspired message of reconciliation for Gentiles (2 Cor 5:18-20; cf. Gal 1:15-16).
Paul saw how clearly insistence on observance of the Law as the means of entry into the people of God was contrary to the Christian message and, in practical terms, even made it impossible for Gentile converts to share fully with Jewish converts the life of the Christian community. As we saw in our earlier commentary on Galatians (Elmer, 2008), Paul equates the legalism and rule following that the Judaisers espoused as boundary markers separating Jew from Gentile with "a yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1b; cf. Rom 7:25).
Paul returns to this theme in 2 Corinthians (11:20), where he admonishes his audience for tolerating the false apostles who would "enslave" them. This statement echoes not only Galatians 2:4, but also Galatians 4:24-25 where Paul speaks of Jerusalem and its children as presently serving as a slave to the Mosaic covenant.
Did Paul Reject the Law?
Given the discussion above, it seems that Paul did not reject the Law per se. He probably felt that Jews who did not convert to Christianity should remain faithful to the Law, just as he had before his conversion. Rather, Paul rejected the idea that Christians should continue to adhere to the Law.
For Christians, the death and resurrection of Christ rendered observance of the Law redundant – Jews who converted ceased to be Jews (defined by observance of the Law). For Paul the Law served only to demarcate "them" from "us" and, thus, with the universal application of the Christ event such boundary markers were no longer relevant. He was not critical of Judaism, merely of those Christians who wanted to remain Jewish by adhering to the Laws that marked them out as Jews.
Paul's comments, especially in Galatians and 2 Corinthians, indicate that not only was Law-observance a key component of his opponents' gospel, but that these opponents were also "Judaisers" whose message directly challenged the basic tenets of Paul's own gospel of justification by faith (Barnett, 1984).
By contrast, Paul presents his ministry as that of one who preaches the reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20) and righteousness (2 Cor 5:21; cf. 6:7) that is wrought by Christ's death, which bought atonement for sin and justification in the eyes of God (5:14-15, 21).
In 2 Corinthians, Paul argues that while his opponents called themselves "apostles of Christ" and "servants of righteousness" (11:13-15), they were in reality deceiving the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:15). For, as servants of the "old covenant" (2 Cor 3:14) his opponents proclaimed another Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor 11:4), which saw "righteousness" or "reconciliation" as imputed by God via the agency of the "written code" of the Mosaic Law (2 Cor 3:6-11; 5:16, 19), rather than through the cross of Christ (2 Cor 5:14-19).
Implied in these statements is the notion that Paul's opponents proclaimed a gospel that denigrated the salvific character of Christ's death. Paul explicitly states that his opponents viewed Christ in merely "fleshly" terms (2 Cor 5:16) and, later, that they used "fleshly" or "worldly" (2 Cor 10:4) weapons and arguments in order to destroy what he, through divine authority, knowledge, and power, had sought to construct (2 Cor 10:3-8; cf. 13:10).
Paul responds that while we once knew Christ in the flesh, we do so no longer (2 Cor 5:16) – "therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17).
So, what does all these ancient conflicts between Paul and is opponents mean for us today?
Returning to our earlier examples of old, outmoded laws, we no longer find bare male chests on public beaches offensive, so the old laws prohibiting such have been ignored. Similarly, Catholics no longer subscribe to the notion that one penitential discipline suits all people, so we have widened the original intent.
One might wonder to what extent those who insist on adherence to the older prohibitions are doing so to perpetuate the old factional boundary markers distinguishing "us" Catholics from "them" Protestants?
To pursue this issue further, one might argue that when we use the Creed or the magisterium of the church to attack and malign fellow Catholics as "heretics" or "dissenters" we are missing the "spirit" in which Christians are meant to exercise Christ's teaching authority — as a means of uniting all in fellowship.
In one particular dark moment in our Catholic past we used the authority of the Inquisition to burn people at the stake or apply torture to exact compliance from dissenters. This was clearly a case of the "letter" of the Law being separated from its "spirit".
We may no longer support such measures, but many would still want to hound dissenters and brand them as such. I am not suggesting that the Church should not ask theologians to explain their writings when such seem to contradict the faith. Indeed, I subscribe to the importance of this official action — such action should be (although it is not always) done in the spirit of fellowship. But I would decry the mob mentality that seeks to summarily denounce dissenters and heretics (with or without any official sanction) in such a way that it places the opponents "beyond the pale".
The issue for us, as it was for Paul at Galatia and Corinth, is not that one is free from all rule-keeping or law-observing. Human society could not function without rules governing dangerously aberrant or violent behaviour. The result would be anarchy. Rules can, however, be the source of conflict, confusion, and injustice. All-too-often it is not the rules per se that are the cause of such problems, but one person's or one group's attempt to impose their interpretation of the rules on others.
Reading Paul's correspondence we hear the echoes of battles that seem to be perpetuated even in our own time. Paul is emphatic that this sort of nit-picking, legalistic Law-observance can only mean a diminution of the "liberty" wrought by Christ (Gal 5:1, 13; 2 Cor 5:14-15, 21; 11:20). Paul proclaims that the death of Christ has broken down all ethnic, social and gender boundaries between "Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Woman and Man" (Gal 3:11; cf. Col 3:28). For Paul, Christians should be sans frontiers — people without boundaries founded upon ethnicity, gender, minor differences in liturgical practice, and outmoded legalism (Elmer, 2007).
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2009 Ian Elmer