Friday, May 14, 2010

Why is the moral instruction of the New Testament so lacking in concrete norms compared with the Old Testament?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

As with much in tradition, certain aspects are settled matters. No one debates them anymore because most people have a common understanding. Jesus in the New Testament was not debating the basic moral precepts of the Old Covenant. However, he did enter into debates about the extent and interpretation of the moral law, not dispensing from it but reaching back to its origins.[i] Jesus assumed the validity of the moral precepts but attends to their broader interpretation.[ii] What Jesus did address were those interpretations which were in dispute at the time.[iii]

We also must look at the New Testament overall as an interpretation of the Old Testament, seeing the New Testament nascent in the old, and the Old Testament fulfilled in the new. Whereas the Writings and the Prophets put the Law into practice and reflect the Jewish understanding, the New Testament represents the fulfillment of the Law and its revelation.[iv] Jesus goes beyond the letter to reveal the heart of the commandments, to emphasize the words of the prophets, and to expand the covenant to include all of humanity.[v] However, because He was extending the Law beyond the Mosaic covenant, those elements that applied only to the People of Israel had to be addressed by the Apostles and reconsidered. St. Paul was the first to come up against the dramatic differences between Gentile and Jewish culture (although Peter also came to understand this early on as well).[vi]

In the letters of Paul and the Catholic epistles, we do see some discussion of morality, particularly in terms of what one owes to members of the family and community.[vii] However, Paul frequently makes reference to activities that may have been common among Pagans but were unacceptable to Christians as well as Jews—often detailing immoral behaviors that indicated that someone has not given their life over to God. For Paul, just as for Jesus, the moral law of the Old Testament is always binding on everyone, while the ritual and juridical law applies only to the people of the Old Covenant.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 3A—Lesson Five,” International Catholic University, 6 February 2010,
ii. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 31.
iii. Ashley,
iv. Ashley, 30.
v. Ashley,
vi. Ibid.
vii. Ibid.
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