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Saints of the Old Testament

Canisius | 01 December, 2007 09:29

The brief entry for December 1 (I,297-299) urges us to meditate on the may Old Testament saints who lived and died in hope of the savior, along the lines of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.

In book III of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine picks up what Paul says in Galatians 3 about how the Old Testament led to slavery while the New Testament leads to freedom. In chapters six through nine, Augustine says that to use a sign without realizing it is a sign is a kind of slavery to the sign, and so many of the Israelites were in slavery under the law. However, he notes that even this slavish condition was better than the condition of the Gentiles, who worshipped false gods and practiced immorality. He distinguishes the saints of the Old Testament from both groups:

Now he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies: he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors a useful sign divinely appointed, whose force and significance he understands, does not honor the sign which is seen and temporal, but that to which all such signs refer. Now such a man is spiritual and free even at the time of his bondage, when it is not yet expedient to reveal to carnal minds those signs by subjection to which their carnality is to be overcome. To this class of spiritual persons belonged the patriarchs and the prophets, and all those among the people of Israel through whose instrumentality the Holy Spirit ministered unto us the aids and consolations of the Scriptures.

Now, I am not comfortable attributing to, say, Abraham as crystal-clear a knowledge of Christ, as Augustine seems to do. He seems to think of all the great saints and sacred writers as being exempt from the slow progress of the divine pedagogy: while the rest of Israel had to wait thousands of years to learn these things from Christ, certain individuals were walking about as though they had read John's Gospel.

But Augustine's distinction between the slave and the free in the Old Testament does make sense, and it seems necessary when you put together Gal 3 and Heb 11. Let me try to rephrase it, and see what you think.

There were three possible responses to God's gifts in the Old Testament.

First, one could reject the gifts and worship idols instead; this was a rejection of God, and simply bad.

Second, one could accept the gifts and rejoice in them, and in fact place one's love and trust in those gifts rather than in the Giver. This would be to reify or absolutize the gifts, as though they were the point of it all. This was, I think, the reaction of those we see the prophets warning against vain hope in the temple or in the sacred davidic monarchy.

Third, one could accept the gifts and rejoice in them gratefully, but place one's love and trust in the Giver of the gifts. This is the reaction of faith: just as faith today is not directed at propositions but at God, so faith then was not directed at buildings or rituals but at Yahweh. Even if one had faith early on in the economy of revelation, as Abraham or Isaac did, so that one had little light concerning the savior, nonetheless this divine faith was already a disposition that viewed the rituals and gifts merely as means or vehicles in service of God; it was a disposition towards the revelation that these things were partial and temporary, destined to give way to the fullness of blessing.

So those celebrated in Heb 11 were free with regard to the gifts, and really did walk, however dimly, in the hope of Christ. Those whose faith and love terminated in the gifts rather than in the Giver were at least constrained to worship the one who was in fact the true creator, and to give up at least that gross immorality that deforms humanity. For them, as St. Paul puts it, the law was a pedagogue, like a servant who leads a child by the hand towards his destination.

So the saints of the Old Testament offer us a model of how we should live in this world with our hearts set on the next. We should accept the goods of this life and rejoice in them, but our trust and our love, our treasure, should be in heaven.

And I should point out that spiritual slavery is still possible today. There are those who, despite our freedom as Christians, seem to live in slavery to signs--to certain rituals and customs not essential to the Church's identity as the body of Christ. The saints of the Old Testament offer us a model in this regard, too.


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