Not of the Letter But of the Spirit

God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  (2 Corinthians 3:6) 


St Paul says of himself that he was a champion of Pharisaic Judaism (Philippians 3:4-8), and yet when in his spiritual sojourn he encounters Christ, he changed his spirituality completely.  He moves away from obedience to Torah and reading the Scriptures literally, to a spiritual understanding of the Torah – it is not about law, rules and regulations, but about recognizing the Messiah.  A literal reading of the Scriptures (even though they are inspired by God) will not bring you to the correct understanding of God’s will or plan.  Thus, Paul concludes “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” and so he advocates a more spiritual reading of the Scriptures (that is the Old Testament).  His method of reading and interpreting Scripture changes, as does his understanding of what God was hoping from His people all along. He puts Christianity on a separate track from Judaism by advocating for a new way to interpret Scripture.  Orthodox scholar John McGuckin says that though Christianity shares the same Scriptures with Judaism, it does read these Scriptures differently from Judaism by seeing Torah as witnessing to Christ more than providing rules and regulations for living.  The Scriptures were a tutor for the ancients Jews, but now that Christ has come, the tutor is no longer needed as now we have the One whom the tutor was preparing God’s people for – Jesus the Messiah.  “So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26).  McGuckin writes:

“So, although Christianity is very different indeed from Second Temple Judaism, differing precisely in its attitude to Torah observance, it in some real sense retains a claim to be an heir of Judaism, a new iteration of it albeit one that has effectively rewritten the Law. . . .  In short, the Church elevates Jesus as its Lawgiver in preference to Moses. . . .  The moral laws are held by the Church to be still in force, if not always literally prescriptive then symbolically so (exegesis in the hands of the Christians always seeks to interpret the moral laws ‘spiritually’ and ‘pastorally’.”


Christianity looks for Scriptures not just to give laws governing daily life, but more to shape how we see and understand the cosmos.  The literal reading of Scripture falls short of discerning what  God is saying to us.  McGuckin continues his comment in a footnote:  

“In other words, throughout history it has only been the real ‘dummies’ who have thought that texts such as the Conquest of the Holy Land by Joshua’s armies give a moral legitimation to ‘holy war,’ or that sinners ought to be stoned or such like.  Sadly there have been, and still are, a good number of ‘dummies.’”  (THE ASCENT OF CHRISTIAN LAW, p 19 and footnote) 


Trying to return Christianity to literally reading the Scriptures or to use the Old Testament to interpret the New is a mistake – a path the first disciples of Christ rejected.  Christ gives us new wine which means a new reading and understanding of Scripture in order to know God and what is God’s will is in God’s New Covenant.  The old way of reading Scripture (literally) as offered by Pharisaic Jews is wrong as St Paul concludes.  We come to see the Scripture, and God, in a different light than in Pharisaic Judaism. The 7th Century’s St Isaac of Nineveh reminds us:

49978209638_4d8283b4e9_wJust because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal.  Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His true) nature.  And just as (our) rational nature has (already) become gradually more illumined and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in (Scripture’s) discourse about God – that we should not understand everything (literally) as it is written, but rather that we should see, (concealed) inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all—so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in (our) supposition about Truth.”   (THE SECOND PART, p 171) 

If not in this world, then in the next the Scriptures will be made clear to us and we will see that the Christian understanding of the text was godly corrective of the zealots in Judaism.  As St Mark the Ascetic writes in the 5th Century: 

“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive the hidden meanings. ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction’ (Rom 15:4)”  (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 1, p 112) 

The Scriptures were not written so much as a history of what God did in the past, but to instruct us today in how to follow Christ.  It is in the light of Christ that we come to fully understand the depth of Scripture including any of the aspects of Torah that are law, rules or regulations.