A Physical/Spiritual Dichotomy in Reading the Two Testaments

             The Church’s encounter with Marcion in the 2nd century taught her many things. When this innovative heretic-to-be suggested that Christianity existed in opposition to the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish God, the Church quickly showed him the door. In this process, above all, she learned that her identity and the identity of the Gospel which she was given is dependent upon the Jewish Scriptures, this Old Testament (or, “OT”). This, of course, goes back to the words of the Apostle Paul himself. When narrating to the Corinthian Christians the matters of “first importance,” he roots his statements in the testimony of the “Scriptures,” i.e., the OT (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV). That “Christ died for our sins” is “in accordance with the Scriptures”; so also the fact “that he was buried” and “that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). When Marcion suggested that the Church of Christ cut the umbilical cord to those Jewish texts which, in his view, chained her to their religious immaturity, the Church noted, aptly, that the scissors were not aimed at any cord, but at her legs.

            The Old Testament, then, is here to stay. To the extent that it vanishes, so do the people of God whose name is written in its language. Removing the Old Testament from Christianity would be like removing color from a sunset; it makes up the base material by which such a glorious sight is constructed. Anyone who misses this has yet to put the Synoptic Gospels and 1-2 Kings side by side, or perhaps has ignored all the miniature footnotes in his Bible when reading the book of Revelation. Birdwatchers have tuned their ears to distinguish the calls of a vast array of species amidst what most people (including myself) hear only as a cacophony. Reading the books of the Old Testament tunes the Christian’s ears to hear the Lord Jesus, to recognize nuances of sound and harmonic allusions.

            Approaching the Old Testament, therefore, is no mean task. Quite the opposite: the way one approaches this body of texts will determine his slant on many issues of Christian theology. So often, the hermeneutical lens with which the OT is read ends up, whether intentionally or not, sifting various texts into categories of “Use” or “Do Not Use” for the purposes of the Christian Church. This twofold systematization is built upon a certain dualistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

            This primary dualism—the one dualism to rule them all—is a physical/spiritual dichotomy. We must discuss this in detail, because matter matters, and so matters about matter matter. This dualistic principle, in general, states that the OT contained physical promises, physical worship, and physical rituals which have now been surpassed and superseded by a truer and more spiritual version of all these things. There is certainly some truth to this. When asked if worship should take place on the mountain of Jerusalem or of Gerizim, our Lord stated that true worship would exceed the worship in Jerusalem (which heretofore was the correct answer), and that God’s people would worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). In this way, Jesus relativizes the specificity of worship. In the Old Testament, God ordained that worship would occur in Jerusalem. In the New, He has restructured the liturgical system such that Jerusalem is no longer central. This example is crucial, but this principle could be extended to other themes (e.g., inheriting Canaan to inheriting the whole earth, sacrificial system to the sacrifice of Christ, etc.)

            Nevertheless, I do not think it would be appropriate to name this transition a “physical-to-spiritual” one or to make some assumptions that are often smuggled in with it. In the same Gospel, John’s thunderous prologue hinges upon the claim that “the Word became flesh” (1:14). The Word who is one with the God who is “spirit” (4:24), has become fleshly, material, physical, and now “tabernacles,” or “temples,” (eskēnōsen) among us. “Temple”, indeed, is relativized, but not obliterated from God’s economy. In fact, Jesus relativizes the existence of the Jewish temple not in a dualistic physical/spiritual scheme, but in one of sacrament/reality, which is not a dichotomy, but more akin to childhood and adulthood, or the life of a seed and the life of a tree. Jesus says the true temple is his body (2:21). For the Scriptures, according to Jesus, “bear witness about [Him]” (5:39). All along, therefore, the OT had been testifying to Jesus, and one such testimony came from the temple itself. Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. And this fulfillment is organic; he was already there. Jesus does not seem to envision that He’s “reading Himself into” the OT, but that the traffic is flowing the other way. So, the incarnate Christ fulfills the existence of the physical temple by being physical. Yes, the accoutrements of Israel’s worship, such as the elaborate sacrificial system and cultic rites, which were intended for training and preparation, have been exceeded. But the worship of the Church remains physical, nonetheless, since it is grounded in the Word-made-physical.

            But all of this seems abstract. Let’s take a practical example of this assumed physical/spiritual, OT/NT dichotomy. It is often claimed that “the Church is not a building, it’s a people.” In former times, it is said, true religion was grounded in particular, sacred spaces, but now it is no more so. Once again, this is true as far as it goes. St. Peter, for example, uses temple language to describe the members of the Church (1 Peter 2:4-5). In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul even claims that the bodies of individual members are the temple of God (6:19). The OT imagery of the temple, then, is applied to Christ’s own body, the collective body of believers, and the individual bodies of Christians. The saying concerning the Church being a people looks to be basically right, so far as the fulfillment of the temple goes.

            Where it can potentially go wrong is when it is used to completely minimize the meaning bestowed upon church buildings. This should not be. The Church still retains its physicality. God made us as local creatures, so congregations will naturally be local. The spaces in which they meet, therefore, are unavoidably physical. What is more, the physicality isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. God uses local churches to reconstitute the earth as the garden-temple which He created it to be. Sacred space has been central to God’s purposes from the beginning. The Church does not eschew this creational mandate to spread the garden-temple. She has not “evolved past” material worship. Rather, matter matters more. While the New Testament is more spiritual than the Old, it is not the case that spirit exists in isolation from matter, leaving it untouched. The kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36), but through Christ it is now in our midst (Luke 17:21). Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50), but, as St. Irenaeus points out, they can be inherited (Against Heresies, 5.9.4). Physical creation is not left behind when Christ comes along. Rather, its transfiguration, consummation, and deification have been confirmed.

            All of this could be summarized with St. Thomas Aquinas’ nice phrase: Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit (“Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”). In essence, what Thomas is saying is that God’s supernatural grace does not exist at a remove from His natural creation. The two do not exist in opposition or competition. So, when God’s good creation falls into rebellious sin, His response is not to destroy it completely and start from scratch, but to restore what has been lost. The natural order of creation—such as the differences between men and women, the process of birth and childrearing, human existence in physical spaces—is not incidental to the process of redemption but makes up the content of that which is redeemed. God redeems fathers as fathers, mothers as mothers, humans as local land-dwellers, not as a mere matter of convenience, but because it is these very things in creation that he is seeking to redeem: fatherhood, motherhood, land, and the rest. Fatherhood is, of course, ordered to the higher and spiritual reality of the Fatherhood of God, but this does not abolish earthly fatherhood but fills it with meaning. Mutatis mutandis motherhood, land, buildings, etc. The physical/spiritual dualism, therefore, is not a proper hermeneutic for the Old/New Testaments. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Spirit does not destroy matter but perfects it. The NT does not destroy the OT but perfects it.

            Clearly, the NT is not perfectly continuous with the OT. There is newness in the New; some things change, while others fade away. I have demonstrated, however, that a material/spiritual dichotomy is not the most helpful category in accounting for the differences. Many conclusions follow. The Old Testament prioritizes lineage, family, children, liturgy, feast days, priests, rituals, buildings, and land. The New Testament does not abolish these things. On the one hand, it actually further emphasizes their importance; the realities are more plainly manifested and understood. On the other, they are shown to be penultimate realities, for the telos is Christ Jesus. All of these wonderful things find their end in Him. How else could they matter? And how else could they matter more?

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