Common objections of Protestant Christians to various Catholic practices and teachings include appeals to the individual believer’s direct access to God. A prayerful relationship with Mary the Mother of God, the Saints, sacraments, priests, bishops, the pope, icons, sacramentals, even a high view of the Church itself are suspected by some for ‘getting in the way,’ for setting up spiritual blockage, maybe even idols, between God and the individual soul.
This appeal to an imagined pure, simplified, primitive Christianity involves a fear of legalism gone wild, as St. John Henry Newman points out in his sermon “The Principle of Continuity between the Jewish and Christian Churches.” It takes certain passages from St. Paul about the primacy of grace over law as to discount the fact of our embodied and social human nature in the Christian life, and, as Newman stresses, even more dangerously might miss the very nature of the New Law established by and in Christ.
Colossians 2:20-22 is Newman’s touchstone passage, wherein St. Paul wonders, “If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not, taste not, handle not, which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?” [Newman’s translation; see here for RSVCE]
The focal word, “ordinances,” might be taken as “law” in the sense of “decrees” or “rules and directions” from established authorities. Any Christian must admit that St. Paul does not speak about grace in order to deny the need to follow all rules or laws—the ten commandments are as much Christian as they are Jewish, and all humans are accountable to basic moral laws. Quite the contrary, grace is that new law by which we obey the law of Christ in faith, on trust. St. Paul implies a contrast between the “doctrines of men” and the commandments and doctrines of God. Certain aspects of the Jewish heritage contained shadows and types of the Christian dispensation that were fulfilled, even expanded, in Christ. Christ’s fulfillment of the Jewish law separated the human chaff from the godly grain—certain Jewish laws related to diet, circumcision, and animal sacrifice were transformed (not destroyed) into the new law of Christ.
One can look to the first Church Council in Jerusalem to see how the authority granted by Christ to Peter and the Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, handed down new teachings, new Christian laws. In this case, the first Council decreed that Gentiles need not be circumcised nor follow Jewish dietary custom, but should remain sexually pure and not eat meat used in pagan idolatrous rituals (Acts 15). In consultation with the other Apostles, Paul then resumes his missionary journeys and delivers this teaching to Antioch (Acts 15:30). Christ’s laws extend and expand through human and historical organs, through persons established in roles of authority. Newman clarifies that Colossians 2:20-22 “does not at all speak against ordinances generally, but against those particular ordinances which did not come from Christ.”
So Christianity is not a repudiation of Jewish legalism; it is a repudiation of worldly legalism in favor of the law of Christ. There are ordinances, there are laws, under Christ, laws which are in fact stronger than Jewish laws. Christ gives the substance of which the Old Covenant was a “shadow.” He characterizes his new laws with phrasing that intensifies the old laws: “You have heard it said… but I say unto you…,” for example, teaching that adultery includes even lusting after a woman in one’s heart (Matt. 5:27-28).
All three types of law—moral, spiritual, and cultic (or “ritual”), are continuous from Judaism to Christianity. The Jewish sabbath was a shadow of the Christian day of Resurrection; the glory of the Resurrection makes the fourth commandment all the more forceful. Just so, the Jewish cults (i.e. worship practices) of circumcision and sacrifice were not annulled in Christ, but fulfilled, lifted up and transfigured into something new. Baptism with water and the trinitarian prayer is the new Christian circumcision, marking us as members of the family of God (rf. 1 Peter 3:20-21, Matt 28:19). The Eucharist—the Church’s on-going sacrifice of the true Body and true Blood of Christ to the Father for our salvation—is the final glorious fulfillment of all Jewish sacrifice, in which Christ himself is our Lamb and Lord, our High priest and our victim, now and for eternity (rf. John 6:53, Matt. 26:26-28). Notably, the Scriptures document in clear detail that both of these Christian rites are in fact instituted and commanded by Christ; they are binding ritual laws for all Christians.
Newman’s description of Holy Communion as a new ritual law under Christ sums up well the continuity between Judaism and Christianity: “the Paschal feast was a type of our Lord’s atoning death, and therefore has come to an end, as being a type fulfilled; but it has not come to an end without leaving behind it a rite in its place, without reviving, as it were, in a new form; why? because the Jewish Church and the Christian Church are one; and the rules given to the Jewish are in some sort the ritual and the canons of the Christian, though not as Jewish rules; the form, the manner, the virtue being different, the substance the same.”
As St. Philip the Apostle opened the Ethiopian eunuch’s understanding of Isaiah’s prophecy in the light of Christ, so we look to the Old Testament to see the shape of the New Law of the Church through the substance, which is Christ (Acts 8:26-40). Judaism is the trunk on which has grown the glorious branches, foliage and fruit of Christ and His Church.
In today’s democratic age, which does not lack its strengths and virtues, a prevalent weakness is discomfort with and even ire against any kind of mediation or intermediaries; that is, everything in heaven and earth is expected immediately, not just instantly, but in a manner that places the individual on top, at the fore-front, beyond any hint of hierarchy or higher authority or distinctions. But we must of first importance ask what Christ Himself has willed, instituted, and commanded, lest we assume to our own perdition that whatever is self-pleasing, convenient, or easy for ourselves must be what a kind and benign Christ wants. This would be to follow a “doctrine of man,” and to miss those of God. Whether the questions are about Mary or the Church, Sacraments or the Saints, perhaps, with Newman’s prayerful aid, we might simply ask cheerful questions about discerning what Christ Himself wishes, what he has decreed and commanded, and look to Scripture with renewed Christian eyes.