“A moral teaching must be presented, not so much as an instance of a timeless essence or as a law, but as a pattern of relationships, between persons, and between persons and God, as shaping and being shaped by the tradition.”1
To many, the term “law” carries a connotation of obligation and of punishment. Surely the Mosaic Decalogue has often been interpreted in this light, as a kind of contract between a fearful people and a Creator poised to mete out justice and wrath at a moment's notice. Pleasing God in such a context meant performing certain rituals, of carrying out a myriad of duties, observance of which was seen as a means of securing salvation, both personal and communal. Yet the burden of that type of relationship was too much to bear, even for those who saw the mighty power of YHWH. A new kind of relationship was needed, one that was patterned after a model of kinship, rather than of slavery.
The story is told of a man who married a woman. In order that she know what his likes and dislikes were, he made out a list for her to follow. At first, she kept to the list closely, being careful to observe it to the letter so as to avoid censure. She also saw it as her duty, and she took great pride in her attention to it. With time, she began to know her husband's mind and so she consulted the list less often. Familiarity began to replace fear. Eventually, she grew to love her husband so that she could creatively anticipate his ways.2 Intuition rather than obligation, became her motivation to act.
The story speaks of external and internal factors as determinants of behaviour. In the beginning, it is primarily external forces which influence the pattern of relationship. Later on, with the birth and evolution of insight of the Other, internalization takes place, and grows in proportion with wisdom, to secure a more intimate bond.
In a similar way, Israel received the Torah from a God they did not know very well, though He made extraordinary efforts to command their attention. And they received those laws much in the way the woman received her list of likes and dislikes, as external measures to standardize the life of the community in conformity with the will of YHWH. It was very much a cult of the letter, rather than of the spirit.
Later on, with the Christ-event, the way was opened for interiorization, and the early Christian community began to seek expression for the difference between the old and new ways of relating to YHWH. In order to distinguish themselves from the Pharisees (and other “non-believers”), the term “law” was interpreted to mean a way of life which hoped to attain righteousness through observance of the list of ritual works prescribed in the Pentateuch and the traditions. In opposition to this, Paul defined faith in Jesus as the proper way to God.
Thus the concept of “freedom from law” was birthed to represent the removal of the yoke which Israel could not bear (Acts 15:10). The new way was to be yoked with Jesus (Matt. 11:30). Salvation could not be attained through “the law”, nor should one seek to find it there, since no one had ever been saved by observing the law – as a task complete observance had never been achieved (Gal. 3:10).
Rather, it was by believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus that a new law was given life- the law of the spirit (Rom. 8:2). This new law represented a divine communion with YHWH which enabled a person to act from within rather than from without. It was a law predicated not on fear of punishment but on grace.
A metaphor used to describe this new relationship was that of sonship, or daughterhood (Gal. 4:1-7). In contrast to the intimacy of the covenant of grace, Paul calls the covenant of law “slavery” (Rom. 6:16-17). A slave does not act out of love for its master but out of compulsion, whereas a child obeys its parent for the sake of love.
This new position is a gift, and as such it engenders liberty, though responsibility is proportionate to the greatness of the grace given. In various places, the Epistles explain the nature of this freedom, stating that one ought not to sin in order to increase the outpouring of grace (Rom. 6:1). Although children of God are free, they shouldn't use their liberty as a “cloak for vice” (I Pet. 2:16, NKJV). And although everything is permissible, not everything is profitable (I Cor. 10:23).
Following this train of thought, we recognize that there continues to be a struggle, even after being “born again” of the Spirit (John 3:3). In some cases, the law of the old covenant still holds value:
“...the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine...” (I Tim. 1:9-10, NKJV)
In cases such as these, it is useful to have a juridical application of law not only for the protection of society, but it also must be recognized that in bringing about the consciousness of sin, the law serves to point out the need for a saviour (Gal. 3:24).
Although Christians do have the Spirit of Christ, it is often the case that we do not follow its promptings. Indeed, there are many examples of baptized believers who go astray into gross immorality and worldlyambition. To place a bulwark against the works of the flesh, Crotty suggests that “external commandments are not restrictions on the Christian's liberty but a true safeguard to its exercise.”3
Nevertheless, it is through the inner convictions of the Spirit that we hope to grow into thefullnessof promise rather than through the moral prohibitions of the old covenant. The difference, says Crotty, is that the law of Moses was imperative while the law of Christ is indicative.4 The norms to be adhered to have shifted from the outside to the inside, with liberty for individuals and communities to express those parts of God's character which they desire.5
The object of focus in the old commandment was the self, and one acted with an eye on reward or censorship from that limited point of view. In the new commandment, the commandment to love, the object is not the self but the Other. Charity is the summation of the old law, and to love God is to obey His command (John 14:15), which command is that we love one another (John 13:34).
That the life of the Spirit is progressively evolving both in the individual believer and in the body of Christ universal is unquestionable. For we were children under the tutelage of the law at one time in order that we be led to Christ (Gal. 3:23-24). Previously law was given so that for humanity as a whole, the lesson of justice could be learned- the knowledge that for evil deeds, a proportionate punishment was required. When that lesson was understood, the quality of mercy was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
But the lessons did not stop there, as even Paul states in Ephesians 4:12-16, we are being “knit together” in order to “reach unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God and form the perfect Man, fully mature... no longer children...” but growing “until the body has built itself up in love.” (New Jerusalem Bible). The end result of our corporate groaning will be that ultimately, we will be set free from the body (Rom. 8:22-23).
This final freedom, not only from the demands of the old law but from the material world itself, is a work accomplished through the power of the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is continually mouldingthe character of the believer into the very image of Jesus, with all the privileges and responsibilities that a child of God might have. It is an ongoing process, of submission through trust. It involves discernment and hence, of necessity, wisdom.6
Thus the law of the Spirit has as its object perfection of virtue in order to ascend to fellowship with the Father. It is teleological7 in the classical sense, as it names happiness as its goal. Unlike the old law, which asked neither of ascension nor of blessedness, but only for obedience,8 the new law gives hope for the believer to climb Jacob's ladder, as it were, to the heights of heaven itself.
In the old covenant, it was thought that adherence to the command would impart sanctity and ensure salvation. In the new covenant, it is God in the person of the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ who sanctifies and saves. In Christ, we are elevated to a position of value that looks beyond performance. The guarantee of our security is now based on our being children of God. Such a gift invites us to fellowship rather than demanding our efficiency. And coming to the presence of the Holy One, we are motivated to be holy ourselves, for His mind is made known to us.
The life of the Spirit, therefore, although delivering liberty from the old law, pours fresh desires into the bosom.9 We respond to these new “appetites” in freedom, not out of compulsion. As such, discernment is a rational exercise in experimentation, sometimes the product of trial-and-error. The closer we come to union with the divine, the greater the sense we have of peace, joy and love. Via the grace of the Spirit we maintain the freedom of spontaneity and approach the truth more clearly.
What the old law could not do was enable one to do the good that it prescribed. That law could only condemn through the knowledge that one had failed to keep it. The inner reality of an individual without Christ was that of a sinful nature. The law helped to bring that fact to light, but could not deliver one from its judgment (Rom. 7:7-11).
The church, following the lead of Paul, took the stance that the Mosaic law was good, but that it could not save, only faith in Jesus could do that. The entire life of the early church, therefore, centered around proclamation of the salvific work of the cross in the celebration of the Eucharist.
It was liturgy which informed tradition, tradition which helped shape scripture, and scripture which declared, “for what you received was not the spirit of slavery to bring you back into fear; you received the Spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, 'Abba,Father!'” (Rom. 8:15, New Jerusalem Bible). Not only at the point of departure from pharisaical Judaism, but all through the ages since, the living tradition of the church has existed to safeguard the freedom of the children of God from the exigencies of legalism.
Since the life of the catholic church is largely sacramental, understanding the liberty of the Christian life means understanding the sacraments. Far from being empty performances in the confining sense of rituals known to the Israel of old, the sacraments are a declaration of Christ in every facet of life. From baptism, which signifies the promise of a clean conscience through identity with Christ's death and resurrection (I Pet. 3:21) to marriage, which takes as its model the love Christ has for his church (Eph. 5:25), the traditions we have inherited serve as reminders of our freedom.
When one goes to confession, it is not because one is constrained but because one is called to be restored and renewed by the Holy Spirit's life-giving power. Through sacraments for the sick and dying, healing of the soul takes place which affords interior, if not exterior liberty. The whole effort of the community is one of testifying to the freedom of Christ within.
The social conscience granted through the Spirit has promoted a multitude of good works throughout the earth, which no religion of legalism has matched. When one's focus is relieved from the self and from fear of punishment, one is able to turn to the Other, to see needs beyond oneself, even to incorporate the Other into one's perspective. Politicians would be well-advised to revisit catholic faith as a source for the interior freedom that they would impose from without on foreign cultures. Or, put simply, Bibles, not bombs!
So too reason, the force behind Natural Law, demonstrates adequately the fact that different motivations produce different effects. Mosaic law, with its emphasis on punishment and reward, can be likened to Pavlovian behaviourism. It is a system suitable only to the application of primitive external controls, one which can never grant the insight which is necessary to the creativity which higher life demands.
The shaping of the intellect and the emotions is no doubt under the influence of the Spirit, and it is probable that with the passage of time, the church's understanding in particular moral matters has grown. One example is that of slavery, which was seen in New Testament days as something to be tolerated. Indeed it was not until recently (historically speaking) that the collective conscience of society, through meditation on the dignity of all human persons made in the image of the Creator, came upon the insight that slavery was indeed a fundamental abuse. Thus an evolution in the awareness of the Other in a cultural sense was wrought, which is continually moving towards a greater interiorization. Yet we must be respectful of the fact that while the change took place for some through conviction, it was imposed on others from without, through the exercise of law. This brings to light the necessity of freedom, for those who believed in freedom for slaves were themselves free through the law of love for one's neighbour, whereas those who wished to keep others in physical chains were themselves in the spiritual chains of bigotry and hatred.
Whether the church has been implicated in such abuses is not in doubt; it has. That is merely a reflection of the ongoing evolution of her conscience and of her responsiveness to the progressive, unfolding revelation of the Spirit. Nonetheless, we might do well to heed the warning of one of her servants: “Power is profane and adapted to profane purposes; but why should the Church have profane purposes?”10
“Freedom from law”, we have seen, means the liberty of the Christian to act without fear of punishment. It is a reality underwritten by the gift of grace God has poured out in the person of the Holy Spirit, whose indwelling presence serves to guide the individual and collective personalities of the universal body of Christ. Rather than being subject to the old law, whose purpose it was to bring about the knowledge that one was sinful, believers are subject to a new law, the law of charity, whose aim it is to propel us towards that union with God and His character which will produce the greatest happiness. Not the imposition from without of a multiplicity of demands, but the flowering from within11 of the very life of Christ, drawing us to act through relationship as children of the living God rather than commanding us as His slaves.
Crotty, N. “Biblical Perspectives in Moral Theology” inTheological Studies26 (1965), pp. 574-595.
Johnstone, B. “The Argument from Tradition in Catholic (Moral) Theology”,Irish Theological Quarterly,Vol. 69, No. 2, 2004, pp. 154-5.
Gallagher, J. “The New Testament as Guide to Action”,The Basis for Christian Ethics,pp. 98-115.
MacKenzie, J. “Law in the New Testament”,The Jurist, 26 (1967), pp. 167-180.
McQueen, M. Lecture Notes for Ethics. (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
New Jerusalem Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
New King James Bible. Online version: http://bible.gospelcom.net.
Spicq, C. “Liberty According to the New Testament” , Spiritual Life,6 (1960), pp. 323-336.
1 Johnstone, B. “The Argument from Tradition in Catholic (Moral) Theology”, Irish Theological Quarterly,Vol. 69, No. 2, 2004, p. 155.
2 “Even before God commands, what He orders is already experienced by the Christian as an exigency of the very love which impels him.” In Spicq, C. “Liberty According to the New Testament” , Spiritual Life,6 (1960), p. 330.
3 Crotty, N. “Biblical Perspectives in Moral Theology” in Theological Studies26 (1965), p. 584.
5 Spicq, Op. Cit., p. 335-6: “...there is no formula of Christian life. No two children of God are alike. If there are general laws which are valid for all the members of the same nature and of the same society, still, each case is unique. Each Christian... acts according to the sovereign spontaneity of his divine instinct.”
6 McQueen, M. Lecture Notes for Ethics. (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 2004).
7 Johnstone, Op. Cit., p. 154.
8 Spicq, Op. Cit.,p. 326.
9 Gallagher, J. “The New Testament as Guide to Action”, The Basis for Christian Ethics,p. 99.
10 MacKenzie, J. “Law in the New Testament”, The Jurist, 26 (1967), p. 180.
11 Spicq, Op. Cit., p. 335.