BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (200): Does the New Law supersede the Old?

Rev. José Mario O Mandía

In BST 172-175, we spoke about the need for the moral law. In BST 174 we talked about the Divine Positive Law, the Law that God proclaims in both the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Old Testament, we read how God gave Moses the commandments (Exodus 20:2-17). This law is reiterated in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

The traditional formula we use in catechesis (listed before point 2052 of the CCC and point 434 of the CCCC) is as follows:

1. I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.

2. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

3. Remember to keep holy the LORD’S day.

4. Honor your father and your mother.

5. You shall not kill.

6. You shall not commit adultery.

7. You shall not steal.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Regarding the numbering of the commandments, CCC 2066 explains: “The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history. The present catechism follows the division of the Commandments established by St Augustine, which has become traditional in the Catholic Church. It is also that of the Lutheran confessions. The Greek Fathers worked out a slightly different division, which is found in the Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities.”

There are some who misinterpret our Lord’s words when he seems to say that He is changing the law: “You have heard that it was said…” (Matthew 5:21, 23, 31, 33, 38, 43) “but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).

The CCCC (no 434) answers this by recalling the young man who asked Jesus what he had to do to have eternal life. “To the young man who asked this question, Jesus answered, ‘If you would enter into life, keep the commandments,’ and then he added, ‘Come, follow Me’ (Matthew 19:16-21). To follow Jesus involves keeping the commandments. The law has not been abolished but man is invited to rediscover it in the Person of the divine Master who realized it perfectly in himself, revealed its full meaning and attested to its permanent validity.”

The Decalogue (Divine Positive Law) is an explicit statement of what the Natural Law requires of us. Hence, it covers not only Catholics or Christians, but all men. Jesus Christ confirms the commands of the Old Law but reveals more demands for His followers: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus sets a higher standard, as we have seen in BST 183. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Some people think that Jesus taught the Beatitudes (cf. Matthew 5:3-12) to replace the Commandments. Yet, if we examine the Eight Beatitudes closely we find that these (the Beatitudes) cannot be put into effect without the Commandments. Thus, they do not replace the Commandments. They do not render the Commandments “old-fashioned.” In fact, they require fulfillment of the Commandments. And they reinforce the Commandments and make greater demands.

Thus, Pope John Paul II wrote in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 15) teaches: “Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love (cf. Colossians 3:14).”

No. 18 of Veritatis Splendor explains further (I have written the key words in bold for emphasis): “Those who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom.

“On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love as something freely chosen and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge – a genuine ‘necessity’ and no longer a form of coercion – not to stop at the minimum demands of the law, but to live them in their ‘fullness.’ This is a still uncertain and fragile journey as long as we are on earth, but it is one made possible by grace, which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God (cf. Romans 8:21) and thus to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as ‘sons in the Son.’”