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The Old Covenant: Abolished? Abrogated? Kaput?

The Old Covenant is not abolished. All our male children are circumcised on the eighth day (Lev. 12:3). We make sure to do no work on the seventh day, and we put to death whoever does any work (Ex. 35:2). We offer all our firstfruits to the Lord (Deut. 26:1–2). We keep all the feasts of the Lord at his Temple in Jerusalem: sacrificing the Lamb on Passover, offering our grain to the Lord on the Feast of Weeks, and making booths for the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16). We ensure that he whose testicles are crushed does not enter the assembly of the Lord and that a leper “shall dwell alone without the camp” (Deut. 23:1; Lev. 13:46). We make sure to eat no eagles, shellfish, or pigs (Lev. 11). And if we sin against any law unwittingly, we bring a female goat as a sacrifice to the Temple (Lev. 4:27–31).

Does this resemble the world today? Surely, it describes only the land of Israel before the famous conflagration of A.D. 70. Even in the Orthodox Jewish world, it is impossible to keep the Old Covenant in full, based as it is on animal sacrifice and purification for impurity in the Temple in Jerusalem. This reductio ad absurdum should be enough to prove the thesis of this article: that the Old Covenant of Moses is now abolished. Unfortunately, the veil of Moses (2 Cor. 3:13–14) seems to have blinded the eyes of not a few of our churchmen today!

There is a burgeoning movement claiming that the Old Covenant has not been abolished. This movement of Reconstructionist Protestants, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, and various others has even entered the Catholic Church. Increasing numbers of Catholics think both that the Jewish people should continue to obey the Law of Moses and that they themselves can keep a “Catholic Seder” or a “Christian Sabbath.” This article is written for them.

In discussing the “Old Covenant,” we are referring to God’s covenant with the people of Israel through Moses (2 Cor. 3:14), leaving aside for now the question of God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, and David.

Let us start by defining a covenant (Hebrew berith). Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary defines it as “an agreement between God and Israel in which God promised protection to the Chosen People in return for exclusive loyalty.” That is, it is a binding agreement between two parties. Modern examples include employment contracts, marriage vows, and property purchase. We will distinguish the different types of ancient biblical covenants below.

A Lost Article of the Summa Theologiae

Is the Old Covenant now abolished?

Objection 1. The Law remains binding. For even in the course of promulgating the New Law during the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord said that all of the precepts of Moses retain their force: “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:17–18). Since Heaven and Earth evidently remain, every precept of the Law remains, and Christians therefore ought to be circumcised, observe the festivals, and rebuild the Temple. Those who do not do so “shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:19).

Objection 2. St. Paul says of the Jews, “the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). Now, the Old Covenant was a gift and a call from God. Therefore, the Old Covenant remains in force.

Objection 3. According to modern personalist theology, a “covenant” is a binding relationship between two parties, whereas “laws” are the rules that govern the terms of the relationship. The laws within a covenant can change, but the covenant itself remains in terms of the relationship. God promised Himself that He will never break his relationship with the Jewish people (Deut. 31:6; 3 Kings 10:9). Therefore, although the Old Law is abolished by the New Law, the covenant itself is not abolished and remains in force.

On the contrary, The Apostle says, “There is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof: (For the law brought nothing to perfection,) but a bringing in of a better hope, by which we draw nigh to God” (Heb. 7:18–19).

I answer that, the Mosaic Law is divided into moral precepts, ceremonial precepts, and civil precepts. Now, Paul says of the ceremonial laws regarding festivals and diet, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of a festival day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16–7). But Christians are even to keep not the moral law because it is commanded by Moses, but rather the precepts of the natural law that Jesus has promulgated again. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent says, “lest the [Catholic] people, aware of the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, may imagine that the precepts of the Decalogue are no longer obligatory, it should be taught that when God gave the Law to Moses, He did not so much establish a new code, as render more luminous that divine light by which the depraved morals and long ­continued perversity of man had at that time almost obscured. It is most certain that we are not bound to obey the Commandments because they were delivered by Moses, but because they are implanted in the hearts of all, and have been explained and confirmed by Christ our Lord.”

Reply to Objection 1. In Holy Writ, each covenant with man is a new creation. Isaiah says of the New Covenant, “For behold I create new heavens, and a new earth: and the former things shall not be in remembrance, and they shall not come upon the heart” (Is. 65:17). St. Paul likewise says, “If then any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new” (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15). Therefore, in Christ’s death and resurrection, the old creation and covenant have passed away. In speaking of the fulfillment of the prophecies and the end of the old creation, Scripture says, “Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said: I thirst[.] … Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It is consummated. And bowing his head, he gave up the ghost’ (Jn. 19:28, 30). Further, Christ’s resurrected body is the inauguration of the new creation, for “in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week,” He rose from the dead, as the light typologically began the old creation on Sunday (Mt. 28:1; Gen. 1:3). Therefore, Christ has in His death and resurrection altogether fulfilled every prophecy of the Old Testament as well as every law given by Moses. As Pius XII explained, “on the gibbet of His death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees (Eph. 2:15) fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross (Col. 2:14), establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race (Mat. 26:28; I Cor. 11:25)” (Mystici Corporis 29).

Reply to Objection 2. God has called the Jewish people to salvation in Jesus Christ and granted them great gifts to achieve this end, so that indeed at the end of time, “all Israel should be saved” (Rom. 11:26). Not every gift of God, however, remains unrevoked. For example, the gift of the Garden of Eden was revoked after man’s sin. The Angelic Doctor says of this passage, “But it should be noted that ‘gift’ is taken here for a promise made according to God’s foreknowledge or predestination, and ‘call’ is taken for election. Because both are so certain, whatever God promises is as good as given and whomever He elects is somehow already called. Such temporal gifts and callings are not voided by a change in God, as though He repented of them, but by a change in man who casts them off: ‘Take heed lest anyone be wanting in the grace of God’ (Heb. 12:15).”

Reply to Objection 3. I distinguish among three types of covenant: a “kinship covenant” (between equals, e.g. a property sale), a “suzerain-vassal covenant” (conditional covenant between a superior and his vassal) and a “grant covenant” (unconditional covenant between a superior and his vassal, granting a good, e.g. land). According to the second, the suzerain lays down various stipulations and forms a covenant with the vassal on the condition of keeping the legal terms of the covenant. Such is the Mosaic Covenant. For in laying down the Ten Commandments, Moses said, “Hear, O Israel, the ceremonies and judgments, which I speak in your ears this day: learn them, and fulfill them in work. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. He made not the covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are now present and living” (Deut. 5:1–3).

As Israel did not observe the laws of this suzerain-vassal covenant, even from its beginning, God eventually decided to revoke it and replace it with the New Covenant. Doing away with this Mosaic law therefore also does away with the Mosaic covenant. As St. Justin Martyr taught, “law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law — namely, Christ — has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy” (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 11). This does not entail that the Lord has no relationship with Israel or has rejected the Jews altogether, for, as Justin goes on to quote Jeremiah, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” — namely, the New Covenant in Christ’s Blood (Jer. 31:31).

Conclusion

Thank God that He has given us the New Covenant to take away our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ! The Law of Moses, while certainly good and holy (Rom. 7:12), was only a shadow of the better things that Our Lord has given us. Let us pray that all may leave the shadow and come to the light of Christ, both Jew and Gentile. Finally, let us ask our liberal judaizing ecclesiastics (who also tend to oppose the death penalty as barbaric): are you really comfortable with claiming that the Old Covenant is not abolished? You are thereby claiming that Israel should still execute blasphemers (Lev. 24:16), murderers (Lev. 24:17), sodomites (Lev. 20:13), and adulterers (Lev. 23:10) and “utterly destroy” the non-Jewish inhabitants of Canaan (Deut. 7:2).

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