By Robert A. Sungenis, M.A., Ph.D.
Recently Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote an article for First Things titled “The Covenant with Israel.” By and large, I thought his essay made some good points. It sought to give a fair and Christ-centered focus to this very important question. I think it is one of the better treatments of this issue that I have seen coming from Catholic prelates close to these issues. But, in keeping with the Cardinal Dulles’ own words that he does not believe his is the definitive teaching, I also think there are a number of acute weaknesses and erroneous conclusions. I will remark intermittently to Cardinal Dulles’ paragraphs.
Robert A. Sungenis, Ph.D.
Copyright (c) 2005 First Things 157 (November 2005): 16-21.
Cardinal Dulles: The question of the present status of God’s covenant with Israel has been extensively discussed in Jewish-Christian dialogues since the Shoah. Catholics look for an approach that fits in the framework of Catholic doctrine, much of which has been summarized by the Second Vatican Council. According to post-conciliar documents, in interpreting the council, priority should be given to the four great constitutions, then to the decrees, and finally to the declarations. The Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, though excellent, is not exhaustive or sufficient. It needs to be understood in the broader context of the full teaching of the council.
R. Sungenis: I think this is an excellent point. Too often, statements in Nostra Aetatae and the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions are taken out of context and their words distorted.
Cardinal Dulles: The Second Vatican Council taught with great emphasis that there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. All salvation comes through Christ, and there is no salvation in any other name. In Christ, the incarnate Son of God, revelation reaches its unsurpassable fullness. Everyone is in principle required to believe in Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, and in the Church he has established as an instrument for the salvation of all. Anyone who, being aware of this, refuses to enter the Church or remain in her cannot be saved. On the other hand, persons who “through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them” may attain to everlasting salvation in some manner known to God.
R. Sungenis: These are also excellent points. The above and the following paragraphs help us to understand the balance between “no salvation outside the Church,” and the contingency caused by those who may be ignorant of the Church and her requirements, both now and in the past.
Cardinal Dulles: Christ gave the apostles, and through them the Church, the solemn commission to preach the saving truth of the gospel even to the ends of the earth: “The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his ability,” as Lumen Gentium puts it. The Church “prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, there may be rendered to the Creator and Author of the Universe all honor and glory.”
In seeking to spread the faith, Christians should remember that faith is by its very nature a free response to the word of God. Moral or physical coercion must therefore be avoided. While teaching this, the council regretfully admits that at certain times and places the faith has been propagated in ways that were not in accord with—or were even opposed to—the spirit of the gospel.
Christian revelation did not come into the world without a long preparation, beginning with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, God taught Israel “to acknowledge him as the one living and true God, provident Father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by him,” as the council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, declares. God “entered into a covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen 15:18) and, through Moses, with the people of Israel.” “The principal purpose to which the plan of the Old Covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming both of Christ, the universal Redeemer, and of the messianic kingdom.” One and the same God is the inspirer and author of both the Old and the New Testaments. He “wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and that the Old be made manifest by the New.”
The people of the new covenant have a special spiritual bond with Abraham’s stock, the council’s Nostra Aetate insists. The Church gratefully recalls that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people of Israel. She is aware that, even though Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, and the Jews in large numbers have failed to accept the gospel, still, according to Paul, the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers.
The Second Vatican Council, while providing a solid and traditional framework for discussing Jewish-Christian relations, did not attempt to settle all questions. In particular, it left open the question whether the Old Covenant remains in force today. Are there two covenants, one for Jews and one for Christians? If so, are the two related as phases of a single developing covenant, a single saving plan of God? May Jews who embrace Christianity continue to adhere to Jewish covenantal practices?
R. Sungenis: Here I think Cardinal Dulles is assuming something as true that he does not know. When he says: “In particular, it left open the question whether the Old Covenant remains in force today,” this assumes that Vatican II understood the question as a difficult one and therefore decided not to deal with it. But this is an argument from silence. Vatican II gave no indication of a difficulty, nor did it give an indication that the Old Covenant could possibly be in force today. If the Cardinal thinks otherwise, then he would need to cite the passages from the Council that suggest so.
Cardinal Dulles: In the half-century since Vatican II major contributions to Catholic covenant theology have been made by Pope John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Walter Cardinal Kasper, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission. With these contributions, together with some less authoritative writings, we may find a path through the thickets of controversy.
A place to start is the term “Old Covenant,” which is sometimes criticized on the ground that the adjective “old” suggests the idea of being antiquated, even obsolete. Perhaps because I am no longer young, I find it difficult to share this criticism. When people speak of the “old country,” for example, they do not imply that the old no longer exists or is close to dissolution. In any case the term “Old Covenant” is solidly in place. It appears in writings of Paul and in much official teaching, including the documents of Vatican II. Some writers, following the Letter to the Hebrews, may prefer to speak of the “first” or “prior” covenant. All of these terms, considered in themselves, leave open the question whether or not the earlier covenant is still in force.
To judge from the Scriptures, the Old Covenant itself is multiple. In the Hebrew Bible we read of a whole series of covenants being established before the coming of Christ, notably those made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. In Romans, Paul speaks of the Jews having been given “covenants” in the plural. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Missal praises God for having offered covenants to his people “many times” (foedera pluries hominibus obtulisti). The term “Old Covenant” could be used to refer to the whole series, but when Paul uses the term in 2 Corinthians 3:14 (compare Galatians 4:24-25), he is evidently referring to the Mosaic Law. And this, I believe, is the normal practice of Christians. The Old Covenant par excellence is that of Sinai.
The term “covenant” is the usual translation of the Hebrew b’rith and the Greek diatheke. Scholars commonly distinguish between two types of covenant, the covenant grant and the covenant treaty. The covenant grant, modeled on the free royal decree, is an unconditional divine gift and is usually understood to be irrevocable. An example would be the covenant of God with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9:8-17. God makes an everlasting promise not to destroy all living creatures by another flood such as the one that has just subsided. The covenant to make Abraham the Father of many nations in Genesis 15:5-6 and 17:4-8 and the promise to David to give an everlasting kingship to his son in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 are gratuitous and unilateral. They are also unconditional and irrevocable, though only in their deepest meaning.
The prime example of a conditional covenant is that of Sinai, as interpreted in the Deuteronomic tradition. It promises blessings on those who observe its conditions and curses on those who violate them (see, for example, Deuteronomy 30:15-20). The Israelites almost immediately broke the covenant by worshiping the golden calf, but after the people’s repentance, God in his mercy reestablished the covenant. Jeremiah teaches that Israel has broken the Sinai covenant, but that God will give them a “new covenant,” placing his law upon their hearts and making them his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The term b’rith is usually translated “covenant,” but this translation tends to emphasize the bilateral and conditional character of the engagement. The same word can also be translated “testament” and was so translated in the Old Latin version before Jerome composed his Vulgate. The term “testament” better conveys the idea that God is acting freely, out of sheer generosity, and that his gift is unconditional. The paradoxical intertwining of the unilateral and the bilateral, the conditional and the unconditional, is one of the elements that complicates the question whether the so-called “Old Covenant” still perdures.
The term “New Covenant” raises an additional set of questions. The New Testament authors, borrowing the term from Jeremiah 31:31, interpret it as a prediction of the new dispensation that would come about with Christ and the Church (Hebrews 8:8-13, 10:16; see also 2 Corinthians 3:3). According to the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospel of Luke and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Jesus referred to the chalice as “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). The Gospels of Matthew and Mark record only that Jesus spoke of his “blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24).
In both versions the mention of blood points back to the solemnization of the Sinai Covenant, at which Moses sprinkled the people with the blood of sacrificed animals and poured the remainder on the altar (Exodus 24:5-8). The Eucharist therefore is the covenant sacrifice that binds God and his Church to one another. The “New Covenant” is constitutive of the “New People of God,” or the “New Israel”—terms that Vatican II uses as designations of the Church of Christ.
In the Roman canon of the Mass, the Covenant established by the shedding of Christ’s blood is described as “new and eternal.” The word “eternal” comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, which speaks of “the blood of the eternal covenant” by which Jesus equips the sheep to do God’s will. Vatican II speaks in Dei Verbum of the Christian dispensation as “the new and definitive covenant.” The suggestion seems to be that the prior covenant or covenants were not eternal or definitive, but temporary or preparatory.
The New Testament, in certain passages, indicates that the Old Law or the Old Covenant has come to an end and been replaced. Paul in Second Corinthians draws a contrast between the Old Covenant, carved on stone, which has lost its previous splendor, and the New Covenant, written on human hearts by the Spirit, which is permanent and shines brightly. In the third and fourth chapters of Galatians he draws a sharp contrast between the covenant promises given to Abraham and the law subsequently given through Moses. The two covenants, in this passage, are represented by the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. The law, he says, was our custodian until Christ came, but it was incapable of giving justification, and loses its force once Christ has come. Fulfilling the promises given to Abraham, Christ brings an end to the Old Law.
In Second Corinthians Paul refers to the “old covenant” as the “dispensation of death,” which has “faded away.” In Romans he speaks of Christ as “the end of the Law,” apparently meaning its termination, its goal, or both. The Mosaic Law ceases to bind once its objective has been attained. The new dispensation may be called the “law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2) or the “law of the Spirit” (Romans 8:2). The Letter to the Hebrews contains in chapters seven to ten a lengthy discussion of the two covenants based on the two priesthoods, that of Levi and that of Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant. The Old Law, with its priesthood and Temple sacrifices, has been superseded and abolished by the coming of the New.
R. Sungenis: All the preceding paragraphs written by Cardinal Dulles are right on target. They are some of the best teaching on this subject I have seen. I have a little more trouble, however, with some of the Cardinal’s subsequent comments, as we will see.
Cardinal Dulles: All these texts, which the Church accepts as teachings of canonical scripture, have to be reconciled with others, which seem to point in a different direction. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, teaches that he has come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, even though he is here embarking on a series of antitheses, in which he both supplements and corrects certain provisions in the law of Moses. In a passage of great importance, Paul asserts in Romans that the Jews have only stumbled. They are branches broken off from the good olive tree, but are capable of being grafted on again, since they are still beloved by God for the sake of their forefathers, whose gifts and call are irrevocable. This seems to imply that the Jewish people, notwithstanding their failure as a group to accept Christ as the Messiah, still remain in some sort of covenant relationship with God.
R. Sungenis: I think it is counterproductive in an essay of this type to depend on ambiguous and leading statements such as “the Jewish people…still remain in some sort of covenant relationship with God.” Although sometimes there is room for shades of gray in theology, this is not one of those times. Either the Jews have a covenant with God or they do not. They cannot be in some quasi “sort of” relationship, since covenants are not quasi-relational. This is especially pertinent today since many Jews, and their liberal Catholic advocates, prop up the Mosaic-type of Old Covenant, that Cardinal Dulles has assured us is no longer in force, as the very covenant that today’s Jew can depend upon for procuring a saving relationship with God.
Cardinal Dulles: Such is the Church’s respect for Holy Scripture that Catholic interpreters are not free to reject any of these New Testament passages as if one contradicted another. Systematic theology has to seek a way of reconciling and synthesizing them. The task, I believe, is feasible if we make certain necessary distinctions. Thomas Aquinas, gathering up a host of patristic and medieval authorities, distinguished the moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts of the Old Law. Inspired in part by his reflections, I find it useful to distinguish three aspects of the Old Covenant: as law, as promise, and as interpersonal relation with God. The law, in turn, may be subdivided into the moral and the ceremonial.
R. Sungenis: Although it is true that sometimes “Aquinas…distinguished the moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts of the Old Law,” Cardinal Dulles also needs to acknowledge the instances in which Aquinas made no distinction between the moral and ceremonial law, and that lack of distinction has the greater bearing on the subject of the covenant and its duration.
For example, Aquinas’ interpretation of Galatians 2:16 says that the “works of the law” refers to the OT ceremonies. This is because the verses immediately prior are clearly focusing on that one aspect of the law (cf., Galatians 2:11-15). But when Aquinas comes to Galatians 3:10-12 he is very careful to say that the “Law” refers to the WHOLE Law of Israel, that is, the ceremonial law and the moral law. Here’s what he says:
“I answer that he is speaking here about keeping the commandments of the Law insofar as the Law consists of ceremonial precepts and moral precepts. This is the Law that is not of faith...Therefore, strictly speaking, he fulfills the command of faith who does not hope to obtain from it anything present and visible, but things invisible and eternal.” (Commentary on Galatians 3:12; Aquinas Scripture Series, trans., F. R. Larcher, p. 83).
Galatians 3:10-12 is not the only place where Aquinas teaches this truth. He does so also in his commentary on Romans 3:20; 5:20; 7:6 and 2 Corinthians 3:7, the latter being one of the passages that Cardinal Dulles has cited in his essay.
The 1992 Catholic Catechism takes the same approach. All the statements the Catechism gives, for example, on Justification (paragraphs 1987 through 2029) match, precept for precept, what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught on this subject. Not one time in those paragraphs does the 1992 Catechism use the argument that the Laws refers only to the ceremonial law, to the exclusion of the moral law. Nor does the Catechism, when it is discussing the Law, make a distinction between the ceremonial and moral laws (paragraphs 1949 through 1986).
We can also add the words of the Roman Catechism from the Council of Trent:
“But, lest the 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 b 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. The reflection that God is the author of the law is highly useful, and exercises great influence in persuading (to its observance); for we cannot doubt His wisdom and justice, nor can we escape His infinite power and might. Hence, when by His Prophets He commands the law to be observed, He proclaims that He is the Lord God; and the Decalogue itself opens: I am the Lord thy God; and elsewhere (we read): If I am a master, where is my fear? That God has deigned to make clear to us His holy will on which depends our eternal salvation (is a consideration) which, besides animating the faithful to the observance of His Commandments, must call forth their gratitude Hence Scripture, in more passages than one, recalling this great blessing, admonishes the people to recognise their own dignity and the bounty of the Lord Thus in Deuteronomy it is said: This is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of nations, that hearing all these precepts they may say: Behold a wise and understanding people, a great nation; again, in the Psalm (we read): He hath not done in like manner to every nation, and his judgments he hath not made manifest to them.”
Augustine teaches the same truth. Commenting on Romans 7 he writes:
Although, therefore, the apostle seems to reprove and correct those who were being persuaded to be circumcised, in such terms as to designate by the word “law” circumcision itself and other similar legal observances, which are now rejected as shadows of a future substance by Christians who yet hold what those shadows figuratively promised; he at the same time, nevertheless, would have it to be clearly understood that the law, by which he says no man is justified, lies not merely in those sacramental [ceremonial] institutions which contained promissory figures, but also in those works by which whosoever has done them lives holily, and amongst which occurs this prohibition: “Thou shalt not covet.”
Is it possible to contend that it is not the law which was written on those two tablets that the apostle describes as “the letter that killeth,” but the law of circumcision and the other sacred rites which are now abolished? But then how can we think so, when in the law occurs this precept, “Thou shalt not covet,” by which very commandment, notwithstanding it being holy, just, and good, “sin,” says the apostle, “deceived me, and by it slew me”? What else can this be than “the letter” that “killeth”? (On the Spirit and the Letter, NPNF, vol. 5, p. 93).
Notice that Augustine is well aware of the temptation some have in saying that the “Law” refers only to the ceremonial law. To avoid this temptation, Augustine tells us that Paul “would have it clearly understood” that he does not wish to confine “Law” to the ceremonies. One of Augustine’s proof texts is Romans 7:7, where Paul says that the Ninth and Tenth commandments, which are concerned with the sin of coveting, are representative of the entire Law that condemns men in sin and cannot be relied upon to justify him.
Cardinal Dulles: The moral law of the Old Testament is in its essentials permanent. The Decalogue, given on Sinai, is at its core a republication of the law of nature, written on all human hearts even prior to any positive divine legislation. The commandments reflecting the natural law, reaffirmed in the New Testament, are binding on Christians. But, as St. Thomas explains in the Summa (I-II.98.5), the Mosaic Law contains additions in view of the special vocation and situation of the Jewish people. The Decalogue itself, as given in Exodus and Deuteronomy, contains some ceremonial prescriptions together with the moral.
R. Sungenis: This is not altogether correct. First, the “law written on the heart” of man (Romans 2:14-15) makes no distinction between the worship laws (ceremonial) and moral laws (commandments). Both are written on the heart of man, not just the moral laws of the Decalogue which pertain only to one’s neighbor. Since God wrote worship laws on the heart of man, this is precisely why St. Paul says in Romans 1:18-21 that man knows in his heart that he must give God “honor and thanks” because they know of his “eternal power and divine nature” from what God has instilled into their being.
Second, it is not altogether proper to say that: “The moral law of the Old Testament is in its essentials permanent.” This gives the impression that the moral law of the Old Covenant was excluded from being superseded by the New Covenant. It most definitely was superseded. What Cardinal Dulles should have said is that the New Covenant re-institutes the moral commands from the Old Covenant, but puts them under the New Covenant. Even then, the New Covenant authorities can modify or change any of those commands to be more in line with worship and morality in the New Covenant, as even Cardinal Dulles admits in his next paragraph (e.g., worship on the seventh day; making of images to represent God).
Cardinal Dulles: Injunctions that were over and above the natural law could be modified. The Church, adapting the law to a new stage in salvation history, was able to transfer the Sabbath observance from the last day of the week to the first and to cancel the Mosaic prohibition against images. The New Law, in its moral prescriptions, is much more than a republication of the Old. The law is broadened insofar as it is extended to all peoples and all ages, inviting them to enter into a covenant relationship with God. It is deepened insofar as Christ interiorizes and radicalizes it, enjoining attitudes and intentions that were not previously matters of legislation.
Most important, Christ bestows the Holy Spirit, who writes the New Law upon the hearts of all who receive him. The Law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2) deserves to be called a law, according to St. Thomas, because the Holy Spirit, poured forth in the human heart, both enlightens the mind and stably inclines the affections toward acts of virtue. Although the law of the Spirit is especially characteristic of those who have entered the Church, St. Thomas adds the qualification that at all times some have belonged to the New Covenant. It would be a mistake to imagine that the commandment of love arose only with the coming of Jesus. Even in the Old Testament, the love of God and neighbor is seen as a fundamental obligation.
Those who treat the Old Covenant as dead and superseded are generally thinking of its legal prescriptions, especially those connected with worship, as treated in the Letters of Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews. Paul’s strictures on the Mosaic Law are found especially in Second Corinthians and Galatians, where he vehemently rejects the position of some Judeo-Christians who were seeking to impose circumcision on members of the Church. Christians, Paul insists, are not obliged to observe the rites of the Old Law. The Letter to the Hebrews, which is essentially a treatise on priesthood, teaches that with the cessation of the Levitical priesthood and the Temple sacrifices, the Old Covenant is to that extent superseded: “For where there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change of law as well.” The former commandment is set aside, since a “better hope” and a “better covenant” have been introduced. Christ therefore “abolishes the first in order to establish the second.”
R. Sungenis: When Cardinal Dulles says: “The Letter to the Hebrews, which is essentially a treatise on priesthood, teaches that with the cessation of the Levitical priesthood and the Temple sacrifices, the Old Covenant is to that extent superseded,” he inadvertently leaves the impression that it is only the ceremonial observances that have been superseded. The Hebrew writer (whom the Church has traditionally understood as St. Paul) never uses qualifications such as “to that extent.” He emphatically says the Law has been “set aside” or “abolished” (Hebrews 7:18; 8:13; 10:9).
Granted, within this ‘setting aside,’ the “priesthood and Temple sacrifices” have their basis for being terminated, but this should not be interpreted in the reverse sense, that is, that the termination of the ceremonial ordinances means that the Law is only partially set aside.
This is why a correct understanding of St. Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:10-12 is paramount in any discussions of this nature. There, as we saw in quoting from the teaching of Aquinas (and Augustine on Romans 7), the Law St. Paul has in view is the WHOLE Old Covenant. It is the whole concept of binding and condemnatory Law that St. Paul has in view in Galatians. And there is no official Church teaching that says otherwise.
Cardinal Dulles: The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, presents a thorough discussion of the Covenant and concludes that Paul regards the covenant-law of Sinai as provisional and insufficient. Hebrews, it declares, proclaims that the cultic institutions of the “first covenant” are now “abrogated to make way for the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ.”
It took several decades of heated controversy for the Church to reach a consensus that Christians, especially those of Gentile origin, were not bound by circumcision and Jewish dietary laws. Jesus himself, of course, had been circumcised and had kept the Law in what the Catechism calls “its all-embracing detail,” even though the Pharisees did not consider him sufficiently observant. With the help of further revelation, the leaders of the Church decided that Gentile converts are not bound by Jewish dietary laws (Acts 15). But even after that decision Paul allowed Timothy to be circumcised, because he was of Jewish parentage (Acts 16:1-3).
Even with respect to the ceremonial laws and institutions, the New Covenant is not a simple abolition of the Old, but rather its fulfillment. According to Christian theology, Christ is the new Moses, the new Aaron, the new David, and the new Temple. Thomas Aquinas explains in detail how the sacraments of the New Law fulfill what is foreshadowed in those of the Old Law. Baptism, as the sacrament of faith, succeeds circumcision. The Eucharist, he says, is prefigured under different aspects by different institutions of the Old Law: the offering of Melchizedek, the day of atonement, the manna, and especially the paschal Lamb. In another passage St. Thomas lists the various solemnities of the Old Law and their antitypes in the New. The Passover, for example, becomes the Paschal triduum. The Jewish Pentecost, which celebrated the giving of the Old Law, gives way to the Christian Pentecost, which recalls the gift of the Holy Spirit. The festivals of the new moons prefigure, and give way to, feasts of the Blessed Virgin, who reflects the light of the Sun that is Christ.
With respect to the ceremonial law, therefore, we may say that the Old Covenant is in a sense abolished while being at the same time fulfilled. The law of Christ gives a definitive interpretation to the Torah of Moses. Yet the ancient rites retain their value as signs of what was to come. The priesthood, the temple, and the sacrifices are not extinct; they survive in a super-eminent way in Christ and the Church.
R. Sungenis: Here, again, Cardinal Dulles makes the same error, and this time it is more prominent. He says: “With respect to the ceremonial law, therefore, we may say that the Old Covenant is in a sense abolished while being at the same time fulfilled.” This is not what the Catholic Church has taught, as we have seen earlier in the patristic, medieval and ecclesiastical sources I noted. The WHOLE Law has been abolished, and afterwards the Church decides which of the Old Covenant’s laws (whether ceremonial, civil or moral) it wants to absorb into the New Covenant.
The reason for this is that, legally speaking, we cannot have two covenants operating at the same time, since they will compete with one another, cause confusion, and infringe on each other’s territory (the same confusion we have today caused by Jewish advocates asserting that the Old Covenant has not been revoked).
Let’s use an analogy to explain this. In the Catholic Church, one cannot marry a person who is already married. Unless the previous marriage is annulled, one cannot enter into a second marriage, otherwise, there will be two marriages competing against one another. Either an annulment or a death will dissolve the first marriage. (Analogously, Christ had to die in order for the New Covenant to be put in force, as it says in Hebrews 9:15-21).
Cardinal Dulles: St. Augustine, followed by Thomas Aquinas and many medieval doctors, denied that Jewish rites had any saving efficacy, even for Jews. The Council of Florence, in its Decree for the Copts, taught that the legal statutes of ancient Israel, including circumcision and the Sabbath, ought no longer to be observed after the promulgation of the gospel, and that converts from Judaism must give up Jewish ritual practices.
In a letter to Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, then archbishop of Paris, Michael Wyschogrod pointedly asked what the cardinal meant when he wrote that in becoming a Christian he had not ceased to be a Jew and had not run away from the Jewish tradition. For Wyschogrod, it seems, Jewish identity would require observance of the Torah and Jewish tradition. By forbidding converted Jews to observe the Torah, he holds, the Church fell into a supersessionism from which it is today seeking to extricate itself. If Lustiger had responded he might have pointed out that according to the teaching of Paul, which is normative for Christians, circumcision and the Mosaic law have lost their salvific value, at least for Christians, and in that sense been “superseded.” But I do not wish to deny that the observance of some of these prescriptions by Jews who have become Christians could be permissible or even praiseworthy as a way of recalling the rootedness of Christianity in the Old Covenant.
R. Sungenis: Here we see the Cardinal equivocate. Prior to this he said: “With respect to the ceremonial law, therefore, we may say that the Old Covenant is in a sense abolished…” But now, because he must refute the views of Wyschogrod, the Cardinal adds the “Mosaic Law” (which includes more than ceremonies) to the equation, saying, “circumcision and the Mosaic law have lost their salvific value, at least for Christians, and in that sense been ‘superseded.’”
Moreover, the Cardinal fails to stipulate that “circumcision and the Mosaic law” never had “salvific value,” which is the very reason that Abraham, so says St. Paul, was “justified by faith and not by works of the law” (Romans 3:28). By “works of the law” St. Paul is referring to circumcision and the entire Mosaic law. Anyone who bases his salvation on the Mosaic law (which means he has repudiated the grace provided by Christ) puts himself under a curse, as St. Paul says in Galatians 3:10-12; 5:1-4.
Second I fail to see, if the Cardinal holds that “circumcision and the Mosaic law have lost their salvific value, at least for Christians, and in that sense been ‘superseded,’” how does this allow for “observance of some of these prescriptions by Jews” (ceremonial practices) for the mere sake of “recalling the rootedness”? Jewish converts need to understand that their Christianity is not rooted in Jewish ceremonial practices. The very reason these practices were abolished is that they no longer have spiritual meaning, and are, in fact, detrimental to the practice of Christianity, since they breed ethnic pride. Analogously, it would be as if an American citizen began practicing slavery simply because this was one of the roots of the American way of life prior to the Amendment to the Constitution.
Cardinal Dulles: Under its second aspect, the Old Covenant is promise. In itself, this is a point of commonality between Christians and Jews, since both groups are conscious of awaiting the historical fulfillment of the messianic age. While Jews still hope for the arrival of that age, Christians understand it to be already underway, though awaiting completion at the end-time.
The promise of the land to Abraham refers literally to the territory of Canaan, where he and his descendants were to settle, and was historically fulfilled in later centuries. The kingship promised to the Son of David in 2 Samuel is partially fulfilled in the reign of Solomon but, in its conditional aspects, was abrogated because of the sins of the king and the people.
The promises, however, have a deeper, spiritual meaning that remains intact. In the beatitudes Jesus reinterprets the “land” promised to Abraham in a spiritual sense to mean the kingdom of heaven, that is to say, the new earth to be inhabited by the saints in eternal life. Paul understands the “progeny of Abraham” to mean all who share the faith of Abraham. The Davidic kingship becomes, in the New Testament, the glorious reign of the risen Christ, the son of David. And the New Testament authors see the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church as the realization of the “New Covenant” predicted by Jeremiah.
R. Sungenis: I’m glad to see that Cardinal Dulles gave this truth its full glory. We know that he is no Dispensationalist.
Cardinal Dulles: The Pontifical Biblical Commission draws the correct conclusion: “The early Christians were conscious of being in profound continuity with the covenant plan manifested and realized by the God of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship with God, because the covenant-promise is definitive and cannot be abolished. But the early Christians were also conscious of living in a new phase of that plan, announced by the prophets and inaugurated by the blood of Jesus, ‘blood of the covenant,’ because it was shed out of love.”
R. Sungenis: Unfortunately, we see this perennial problem with many factions of the Catholic Church who speak about the “covenant.” They don’t tell us WHAT covenant they have in view. This causes undue confusion, and sometimes I think it is deliberate in order to placate our Jewish friends. The name of the game in theology is distinctions, and he who does not make the proper ones, will err. Even Cardinal Dulles pointed out earlier in his essay that it was absolutely necessary to make the proper distinctions concerning the covenants. Hence, when the Pontifical Biblical Commission says: “Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship with God, because the covenant-promise is definitive and cannot be abolished,” this is, at best, a half-truth, but more along the lines of distortion. The half could be considered correct only in this sense: because God established an eternal covenant with Abraham – the same covenant by which Abraham was justified because of his faith (Romans 4:1-4) – it is in THIS covenant only that the “promise is definitive and cannot be abolished.” But this covenant, because of the work of Jesus Christ, has transitioned into the New Covenant, and it is the New Covenant alone that is “definitive and cannot be abolished.” If the Pontifical Biblical Commission thinks otherwise, then what Scripture passage or official Church teaching can they produce to prove it? I can save them the time – there is none. This is why Romans 11:26-27 speaks of the “Deliverer coming from Zion” to “make a covenant with them” to “take away their sins.” There is only one covenant that takes away sins. It was the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. He came from Zion when he died on the cross. Because of his New Covenant given to the Jews, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” This means that God has never, and will never, take away the opportunity for the Jew to be saved. St. Paul counts his own salvation as an example of God not breaking his promise to Abraham (Romans 11:1-2), despite the fact that many in Israel, then and now, refuse to come to Christ.
Cardinal Dulles: It could be asked whether there are any promises to Israel that are not fulfilled in Christ and are waiting to be fulfilled in some other way. Is Judaism still needed to point to these further possibilities? Paul replies: “All the promises of God find their Yes in Him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). There is nothing incomplete in Christ’s fulfillment of what is promised and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. It is true, of course, that human beings still have to enter fully into that fulfillment. God is still leading the elect toward the fullness of truth and life in Christ. Christians themselves are still growing into him who is the head of the body (Ephesians 4:15) and becoming incorporated into God’s holy temple (Ephesians 2:21-22).
Judaism, in this view, does not point to possibilities Christ failed to fulfill. But the witness of Jews to their tradition helps Christians understand the foundations of their own faith. By providing a living testimony to the hope of Israel and to the ancient promises, faithful Jews can inspire and strengthen Christians, who share the same hope and promises, though in a new modality.
The Old Covenant has been understood predominantly in terms of the Law and the promises it contains. But in the light of modern personalism, another dimension is becoming more evident: the covenant as an interpersonal relationship between God and his elect people. In his Many Religions—One Covenant, Cardinal Ratzinger remarked: “In asking about the covenant, we are asking whether there can be a relationship between God and man, and what kind of relationship it might be.” At the heart of all the laws and promises is a loving relationship that the Scriptures do not hesitate to describe quite simply as a “marriage” (Hosea 2 and 11; Ezekiel 16). In this marriage God remains faithful to his partner even in the face of human infidelity.
R. Sungenis: Although I understand John Paul II’s quest to make Catholicism more personal (and I applaud it as well), there is a danger when subjective elements are mixed with objective decrees. Granted, the covenant is “an interpersonal relationship between God and his elect people,” but it is also a legal entity overseen by authorities, and their power especially comes into play when members of the covenant abuse their “an interpersonal relationship between God and his elect people.” Christ is just as much as a “judge and lawgiver” in the New Covenant (James 4:12; Hebrew 10:26-31) as he is the tender shepherd that gathers his flock. In any case, the subjective personal element cannot be used to dilute the objective and legal aspects of the covenant, nor can it be used to resurrect the Old Covenant in any legal forum. If the personalism seeks to extract from the Old Covenant its good and wholesome precepts for practice in the New Covenant, this is all well and good, but this process should not then be an excuse to give legal validity back to the Old Covenant, or to form some legal hybrid between the Old and New Covenant.
Cardinal Dulles: At the heart of the covenant lies the promise: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28, Leviticus 26:12, Jeremiah 7:23, etc.). Under Christianity, the Church understands herself to be the New People of God (1 Peter 2:9-10, Revelation 21:3). But this claim does not settle the status of the Old Israel, the People of the First Covenant. Does Israel cease to be the People of God?
For an answer to this question the key text would seem to be, for Christians, chapters nine through eleven of Romans. Paul’s thought in these chapters is exceedingly complex and has given rise to a variety of interpretations. Perhaps Paul himself intended to leave some questions open. He ends the section with an exclamation of awe-filled humility before the incomprehensible ways of God: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways!”
R. Sungenis: The Cardinal is again arguing from silence. He doesn’t know that St. Paul intended to leave the question open. St. Paul makes it very clear in Romans 11 that the Jews now find their identity in Christianity. There is no separate plan for the Jews. That is why St. Paul says: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). Those ethnic and cultural distinctions have no bearing on one’s status with God any longer.
Cardinal Dulles: Without any pretense of giving a final solution I shall try to indicate some elements of a tenable Catholic position. Paul in this passage clearly teaches that God has not rejected His People, for His gifts and call are irrevocable. As regards election, they are unceasingly beloved for the sake of their forefathers. “If they do not persist in their unbelief,” he says, the children of Israel “will be grafted in” to the olive tree from which they have been cut off. He predicts that in the end “all Israel will be saved” and that their reconciliation and full inclusion will mean life from the dead. God’s continuing love and fidelity to his promises indicate that the Old Covenant is still in force in one of its most important aspects—God’s gracious predilection for His Chosen People.
Pope John Paul II, whose theology was deeply affected by personalism, spoke of the Jews as a covenant people. In an address in Rome on October 31, 1997, he discussed the act of divine election that brought this people into existence: “This people is assembled and led by Yahweh, creator of heaven and of earth. Its existence is therefore not purely a fact of nature or of culture in the sense that the resourcefulness proper to one’s nature is expressed in culture. It is a supernatural fact. This people perseveres despite everything because it is the people of the covenant, and despite human infidelities, Yahweh is faithful to his covenant. To ignore this most basic principle is to adopt a Marcionism against which the church immediately and vigorously reacted, conscious of a vital link with the Old Testament, without which the New Testament itself is emptied of meaning.”
R. Sungenis: When Cardinal Dulles says: “This people perseveres despite everything because it is the people of the covenant, and despite human infidelities, Yahweh is faithful to his covenant,” this is something he simply does not know as a fact. God has preserved the Chinese communists, the Buddhists and the Arabs and Muslims. Can we then conclude he has some special relationship with them? Moreover, the Cardinal is now being as vague and ambiguous as the Pontifical Biblical Commission by using the phrase “people of the covenant.” Who, precisely, are such people? What covenant is it to which the Cardinal refers? They cannot be a “people of the covenant” merely by sentiment. They must possess a covenant to be the people of one. If the Cardinal has already admitted that the Old Covenant is set aside, then the covenant that these “people of the covenant” possess cannot be the Old Covenant. There is only one covenant of which we must be “the people,” and that is the New Covenant. But unfortunately, the New Covenant does not make any promises to save an ethnic group of people. It only promises to save those who from within an ethnic group desire to become Christian and divest themselves of their ethnic-religious barriers that serve as impediments to God.
Cardinal Dulles: Vatican II brought out the profound truth that the mystery of Israel and the mystery of the Church are permanently intertwined: “As this sacred people searches into the mystery of the Church, it recalls the spiritual bond linking the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.” The Church is conscious that she is a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. Pope John Paul II was deeply conscious of this affinity. Speaking at the synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986, he made the point: “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
R. Sungenis: Here the Cardinal is contradicting what he said earlier. Prior to the above paragraph, the Cardinal stated twice that Israel can be grafted onto the olive tree. He wrote: “They are branches broken off from the good olive tree, but are capable of being grafted on again,” and in the paragraph just before the one beginning with “Pope John Paul II” he wrote: “‘If they do not persist in their unbelief,’ he says, the children of Israel ‘will be grafted in’ to the olive tree from which they have been cut off.” But in the above paragraph the Cardinal says: “The Church is conscious that she is a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel.”
So the question is: how can Israel, on the one hand, be grafted back into the olive tree from whence it was cut off and, on the other hand, the Church is said to be grafted into the olive tree Israel? In the first case Israel is separate from the olive tree; in the second Israel is the olive tree. Both cannot be true. As it stands, St. Paul never says that Israel is the olive tree. Christ is the olive tree. This is why Israel could be cut out of the olive tree and then ingrafted back in. Moreover, this means the Church is not ingrafted into Israel, but into Christ. If Israel wants to come into the Church, it can once again be a part of the olive tree, but Israel itself is not the olive tree.
Cardinal Dulles: In continuity with Vatican II and earlier Catholic tradition, John Paul II saw the two covenants as intrinsically related. The Old is a preview and promise of the New; the New is the unveiling and fulfillment of the Old. “The New Covenant,” he declared, “serves to fulfill all that is rooted in the vocation of Abraham, in God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai, and in the whole rich heritage of the inspired Prophets who, hundreds of years before that fulfillment, pointed in the Sacred Scriptures to the One whom God would send in the ‘fullness of time.’”
Some Christians, in their eagerness to reject a crude supersessionism, give independent validity to the Old Covenant. They depict the Old and New Covenants as two ‘separate but equal’ parallel paths to salvation, the one intended for Jews, the other for gentiles. The commentator Roy H. Schoeman correctly remarks this thesis “has been presented as though it were the only logical alternative to supersessionism, despite the fact that it is utterly irreconcilable with both the core beliefs of Christianity and with the words of Jesus himself in the New Testament.” Joseph Fitzmyer, in his scholarly commentary on Romans, likewise opposes the theory of two separate ways of salvation: “It is difficult to see how Paul would envisage two different kinds of salvation, one brought about by God apart from Christ for Jews, and one by Christ for Gentiles and believing Jews. That would seem to militate against his whole thesis of justification and salvation by grace for all who believe in the gospel of Christ Jesus (1:16). For Paul the only basis for membership in the new people of God is faith in Christ Jesus.”
R. Sungenis: Although I agree with the Cardinal that Roy Schoeman is correct to say: “this thesis ‘has been presented as though it were the only logical alternative to supersessionism, despite the fact that it is utterly irreconcilable with both the core beliefs of Christianity and with the words of Jesus himself in the New Testament,’” the Cardinal should also be aware that Roy Schoeman has his own errors in the opposite vein, since he believes that supersessionism is a heretical teaching; that it was a mistaken theology held by the Catholic Church for nearly 2000 years until the advent of Nostra Aetatae; and the Roy Schoeman thinks he has been blessed with an “alternative” that is much better than what the tradition has given us (See his book Salvation is from the Jews, pages: 352-353). Roy Schoeman also believes many other things that are quite contrary to Catholic teaching, including the idea that God predestined the Jews to take over present day Palestine in order to initiate Judaistic ceremonies that were once practiced in the Old Testament, and that anyone who tries to stop this is in league with the Antichrist (pages 306-316; 350-356). In short, the evidence shows that Roy Schoeman is Zionist in his newfound Catholicism (Please see my articles in The Latin Mass and Culture Wars, both in November 2005).
Cardinal Dulles: It is unthinkable that in these chapters of Romans Paul would be proposing salvation for Jews apart from Christ. He spent much of his ministry seeking to evangelize his fellow Jews. In the very passage in which he speaks of God’s abiding love for Israel, he confesses his great sorrow and anguish at Israel’s unbelief. He would be ready, he says, to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his brethren, his kinsmen by race, who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah.
The Catholic Church clearly teaches that no one will be condemned for unbelief, or for incomplete belief, without having sinned against the light. Those who with good will follow the movements of God’s grace in their own lives are on the road to salvation. They are not required to profess belief in Christ unless or until they are in a position to recognize him as Messiah and Lord. The fact that Jews and Christians have honest differences about this point is a powerful incentive for dialogue between them.
John Paul II was not content to let Judaism and Christianity go their separate ways. Speaking at Mainz in 1980, he called for ongoing dialogue “between the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God, and that of the New Covenant.” He expressed hope for an eventual reconciliation in the fullness of truth. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994) he wrote of Judaism: “This extraordinary people continues to bear signs of its divine election. . . . The insights which inspired the Declaration Nostra Aetate are finding concrete expression in various ways. Thus the two great moments of divine election—the Old and New Covenants—are drawing closer together. . . . The time when the people of the Old Covenant will be able to see themselves as part of the New is, naturally, a question left to the Holy Spirit. We, as human beings, try only not to put obstacles in the way.”
The last word should perhaps be left to Pope Benedict XVI. In a set of interviews from the late 1990s, published under the title God and the World, he recognizes that there is “an enormous variety of theories” about the extent to which Judaism remains a valid way of life since the coming of Christ. As Christians, he says, we are convinced that the Old Testament is directed toward Christ, and that Christianity, instead of being a new religion, is simply the Old Testament read anew in Christ. We can be certain that Israel has a special place in God’s plans and a special mission to accomplish today. The Jews “still stand within the faithful covenant of God,” and, we believe, “they will in the end be together with us in Christ.” “We are waiting for the moment when Israel, too, will say Yes to Christ,” but until that moment comes all of us, Jews and Christians, “stand within the patience of God,” of whose faithfulness we can rest assured.
Believing that the Son of God has lived among us, Christians will wish to make him known, loved, praised, confessed, and obeyed by as many people as possible. They will want the whole world to profit from Christ’s teaching and to enjoy the fullness of sacramental life. But they will also strive to be patient in awaiting the appointed time. All of us, Jews and Christians alike, depend on God’s patience as we strive to be faithful to the covenant and enter into its deepest meaning.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.
R. Sungenis: In light of the comments by John Paul II in Mainz, 1980, since he did not specify what covenant he had in view, allow me to reiterate that, the only “Old Covenant” which has not been revoked is the covenant God made with Abraham concerning salvation. It is that “old covenant” (if we allow ourselves to use that term for the sake of this discussion), which is the covenant that all people, including Jews, are called to embrace, for it alone, as now represented and fulfilled by the New Covenant, is the covenant of salvation in Jesus Christ.