Christ Contains the Law: insights from an early church leader on Matthew 5

While studying for my message at Eastbrook from this past weekend, “Real Righteousness,” I came across these words by an anonymous church father from homily 11 of an incomplete work on Matthew. I found these insights helpful in understanding how Christ does not abolish the Law but fulfills it. The author is commenting on the first of six examples by Jesus of true righteousness, here addressing anger and murder: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

This fulfilling of the law, depending on the circumstances, fell naturally into place. As Christ did and taught these things, he fulfilled the law–he did not do away with it. For Christ’ commandment is not contrary to the law but broader than the law. Christ’ commandment contains the law, but the law does not contain Christ’s commandment. Therefore whoever fulfills the commandments of Christ implicitly fulfills the commandments of hte law. For one who does not get angry is much less capable of killing. But on who fulfills what the law commands does not completely fulfill what Christ commands. Often a person will not kill because of the fear of reprisal, but he will get angry. Do you see then that the fulfilled law has the benefit of not being abolished? Consequently, without these commandments of Christ the commandments of the law cannot stand. For if the freedom to get angry is allowed, there are grounds for committing murder. For murder is generated by anger. Take away anger, and there will be no murder. Therefore whoever gets angry without cause commits murder with respect to the will, even if he does not actually do so out of fear of reprisal. The remorse may not be the same as if he had committed the deed, but such a sin matches the one who gets angry. Thus John in his canonical epistle says, ‘Everyone who hates his brother without cause is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15).

Consider the wisdom of Christ. Wanting to show that he is the God who once spoke in the law and who now commands by grace, he placed that commandment before all others in the law. And now he placed it at the beginning of his commandments. It was first written in the law: ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). He immediately begins with murder, so that through a harmony between commandments he is found to be the author of the law and of grace. ‘Everyone who is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). Therefore whoever gets angry with cause will not be liable. For if there is not anger, teaching will be of no use, nor will judgments be necessary, nor will criminal actions have to be held in restraint. Therefore just anger is the mother of discipline. Those who get angry with cause not only do not sin, but, unless they get angry, they do sin. Moreover, irrational patience sows the seeds of vice, nurtures negligence and encourages not only the wicked but also the good to do evil. Although a wicked person may be rebuked, he is not made to change his way; but a good person, unless he is rebuked, will come to ruin because evil rather than good prevails in his body. Anger with cause is not anger but judgment.”

[Anonymous, Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 11, from Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 101-102.]

The Threshing Floor: a word from an early church leader

While studying for my message at Eastbrook from this past weekend, “The Voice of One Calling Out,” I came across these words by an anonymous church father from homily 3 of an incomplete work on Matthew that I found both illuminating and challenging. They are a commentary on the final words from John the Baptist’s message in Matthew 3:12: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The threshing floor is the church, the barn is the kingdom of heaven, and the field is the world. Therefore, like the head of the household who sends out reapers to mow down the stalks in the field and bring them to the threshing floor that he may thresh and winnow them there and separate the wheat from the chaff, the Lord sends out his apostles and other teachers as reapers. He will cut down all the people in the world and gather them onto the threshing floor of the church, where we are to be threshed at one point and then winnowed.

As the grain of wheat enclosed in the chaff cannot escaped unless it has been threshed, so too it is hard for one to escape worldly encumbrances and carnal affairs while one is enclosed in the chaff, unless one has been shaken by some hardship. Note that once the full grain has been slightly shaken it sheds its chaff. If it is flimsy, it takes longer to escape. If it is empty, it never emerges but is ground in in its chaff and then thrown out with the chaff. In this way, all who take delight in carnal things will be like the grain and the chaff. But one who is faithful and has a good heart, once he experiences adversity, disregards those things that are carnal and hastens to God. If he has been somewhat unfaithful, however, only with great difficulty will he go back to God. As for him who is unfaithful and empty, though he may be sorry of his circumstances, like empty grain he will emerge from the chaff—he will never leave carnal things or worldly encumbrances behind, nor will he go over to God. Rather, he will be ground up with the things that are evil and thus be cast out with the unfaithful like the chaff.

[Anonymous, Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 3, from Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 48.]

Let Your Light Shine

I came across the quotation while studying for a message from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount on God’s people living as light. As a pastor, I found these words convicting and encouraging. I hope you are blessed by them as well.

The church leader should be equipped with all the virtues. He should be poor, so that he can chastise greed with a free voice. He should always be someone who sighs at inordinate pleasure, whether in himself or in others. He is ready to confront those who do not hesitate before they sin and those who do not feel sorry for having sinned after they sin. So let him sigh and lament. Let him show thereby that this world is difficult and dangerous for the faithful. He should be somebody who hungers and thirsts for justice, so that he might have the strength confidently to arouse by God’s Word those who are lazy in good works. He knows how to use the whip of rebuke, but more by his example than by his voice. He should be gentle. He rules the church more by mercy than by punishment. He desires more to be loved than feared. He should be merciful to others but severe with himself. He sets on the scales a heavy weight of justice for himself but for others a light weight He should be pure of heart. He does not entangle himself in earthly affairs, but more so he does not even think of them.

Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 10 in Matthew 1-13, ed. Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1A (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 95.

Recovering our way: Thomas Oden on the Antinomian infection in North American Christianity

tom odenMy continued reflections on pastoral ministry, the church, and what it means to be in ministry in North America led me back to Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. I first read this book while still an undergrad at Wheaton College but enrolled with special permission in a graduate level class entitle “Pastoral Ministry,” I believe, with Dr. Timothy Beougher. The class was outstanding and I still remember many things from it, including Dr. Beougher’s own wisdom from experience as a pastor.

Tom Oden is perhaps best known today for his turn from liberal Methodism to classic Christian orthodoxy through his encounter with the church fathers and mothers. He traces this journey in two works, After Modernity…What?: Agenda for Theology and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. The fruit of that journey is Oden’s invaluable systematic theology, as well as the renowned Ancient Christian Commentary series.

While returning to this book with one of our staff members at Eastbrook as part of their ordination journey, I encountered this simple, yet vastly important, statement on the antinomian infection within North American Christianity. Here are Oden’s words:

The tradition has used the term antinomianism (from “against law,” or “lawlessness”) to speak of that undernourished view of God’s grace that views the gospel as if it implied no moral response or ethical constraint or norms of redemptive behavior. Antinomianism is the weird, wild, impulsive, unpredictable sleeping partner of much contemporary pastoral care. It mistakes the gospel for license, freedom for unchecked self-actualization, and health for native vitalism. The classical pastoral tradition has struggled mightily against “cheap grace” solutions and premature reassurances in a way that will be reflected on almost every page that follows.

Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice….

As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me not matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.

The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.