March 1, 2015: How the church got a crucial point really wrong

Lent Day 12, What I Believe, Chapter 5 continued

“Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled.” Matthew 5:17-19

The Sermon on the Mount, part of St. Matthew's Church altarpiece in Copenhagen by Danish artist Henrik Olrik,

The Sermon on the Mount, part of St. Matthew’s Church altarpiece in Copenhagen by Danish artist Henrik Olrik,

Yesterday I wrote about a seeming inconsistency between Christ’s overall message of forgiveness, love, and non-resistance to evil and the Church’s teaching that He totally affirms the written Mosaic law in all its complicated, precise, and brutal detail. Versions of this problem constantly come up in our modern discussions about issues such as gay rights. As in, “Well the Bible also says you can’t eat shellfish.”  Tolstoy says that after much study and deep thought, the whole inconsistency problem was solved when he realized the Church’s interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19 is wrong, that when Jesus said “not one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled” He was referring to the eternal law and not the written law.

Tolstoy does say at one point in the book that it was a big obstacle for him to go against the weight of Church teaching. For 1600 or so years all these wise commentators had written and justified a certain interpretation of these verses, and who was Tolstoy to come along and say they were all wrong? But he was convinced they were wrong, very wrong, and not only that, he detected a willful purposefulness in creating a Jesus who upholds the written law.

In Matthew 5:17-19 Tolstoy notices that Jesus does not say “the law and the prophets” as he does in other passages where He is clearly denouncing the written law, but says rather “the law or the prophets.” This is different. As Tolstoy studies various old translations of the scripture he notices that the conjunction was switched back and forth between “or” and “and” several times before the “or” version was finally accepted into the canon. Even though the “correct” version was accepted into to canon, the Church commentators continued promote the incorrect interpretation – that Jesus affirms Mosaic law. Therefore is it okay for Christians to judge and punish people for crimes.

Tolstoy’s idea that Jesus is talking about the eternal law and not the written law is supported by the very next verse, Matthew 5:20, which reads, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, was of course, based entirely on their precise observance of the written law in all its details. Whether a Pharisee loved or despised his neighbor, whether he looked at anyone is lust, or whether he held grudges, had no effect on his righteousness score. Because the usual erroneous interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19 is deeply engraved in the minds of so many people, Tolstoy restates it like this:

“I have not come to destroy the eternal law, for the fulfillment of which your books and prophecies are written; but I have come to teach you how to fulfill that eternal law. I do not speak of the law that your teachers, the Pharisees, call the law of God, but of the eternal law, which is less liable to change than heaven and earth.”

In case the reader does not really buy Tolstoy’s hair-splitting explanation, he points out that Christ says the same thing in the Gospel according to Luke in a way that cannot be misinterpreted. Speaking to some Pharisees, Jesus says:

“You are those who justify themselves before men; but God knows your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among me is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presses into it.”

Here the eternal law and the written law are placed in unmistakable opposition. Tolstoy goes on to expound upon the meanings of the word for law in Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, but I will let you read that part for yourself.  The upshot is that Tolstoy is absolutely convinced that Jesus never intended to affirm Mosaic, written, or human law in any form, but to replace it.

However, Tolstoy says, Jesus does acknowledge wherever possible that the Torah, or old law, does contain elements of eternal truth, especially when he quotes the prophets such as Isaiah. “Christ could not confirm the whole law, neither could He completely deny the law that says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ not the prophets in whose words He often clothes His thought.” Jesus was not working in a vacuum. He was working within a certain tradition, in a certain language, a certain culture, and He spoke to the people in stories and symbols to which they could relate.

But Church teachers and commentators, especially those in the 5th century, latched onto Christ’s partial support for elements of Mosaic law and ran with it. Tolstoy implies that it was in their interests cover up true implications of Christ’s teaching. “No effort is made to solve the only question that is of essential importance to every believer: how these two contradictory laws, referring to life, can to united into one.”

Tomorrow: I think I’ll be writing about the practical application of non-resistance to evil.

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