Newman: “The Jewish Church and the Christian Church are one”

This evening I read for my first time John Henry Newman’s Sermon 15 on “The Principle of Continuity between the Jewish and Christian Churches.” Newman takes as his point of departure the Letter to the Colossians in which St. Paul asks, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.”

While this might sound like a rejection of outward religion as a mere remnant of Judaism, Newman says, he intends to show that the opposite is the case: “that the existence of a polity, a ceremonial, and a code of laws, under the Gospel, is the very point in which Christianity agrees with Judaism, and in consequence of which the Christian Church may be considered the continuation of the Jewish.”

Jews have asked me how and why Jesus possibly abrogated the Law. The word “abrogated” has often startled me, but Newman also uses it and makes this distinction: “[…] the Moral Law remains, that the rites and ceremonies are abrogated. They are abrogated, yet only in the letter; and not in such sense abrogated, but they are in their substance continued still.”

Throughout the sermon, Newman endeavours to explain the continuity between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sabbath, between circumcision and baptism, between Passover and the Eucharist, and between the Temple and the Communion of Saints.

He says, “the Gospel has not put aside, it has incorporated into itself, the revelations which went before it. It avails itself of the Old Testament, as a great gift to Christian as well as to Jew. It does not dispense with it, but it dispenses it. […] The precepts remain; the observance of them is changed.”

Protestants have asked me how and why Catholics read the Bible other ways than literally, which Newman also addresses with this passage worth quoting at length about the application of scripture:

They think the Old Testament must be supposed to be our rule directly and literally, or not at all; and since we cannot put ourselves under it absolutely and without explanation, they conclude that in no sense it is binding on us; but surely there is such a thing as the application of Scripture; this is no very difficult or strange idea. Surely we cannot make any practical use even of St. Paul’s Epistles, without application. They are written to Ephesians or Colossians; we apply them to the case of Englishmen. They speak of customs, and circumstances, and fortunes, which do not belong to us; we cannot take them literally; we must adapt them to our own case; we must apply them to us. We are not in persecution, or in prison; we do not live in the south, nor under the Romans; nor have we been converted from heathenism; nor have we miraculous gifts; nor live we in a country of slaves; yet still we do not find it impossible to guide ourselves by inspired directions, addressed to those who were thus circumstanced. And in somewhat a like manner, the directions of the Old Testament, whether as to conduct, or ritual, or Church polity, may be our guides, though we are obliged to apply them. Scripture itself does this for us in some instances, and in some others we ourselves are accustomed to do so for ourselves; and we may do so in a number of others also in which we are slow to do it. For instance, the Law says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” [Lev. xix. 18.] Does the Gospel abrogate this command? of course not. What does it do with it? it explains and enlarges it. It answers the question, “Who is my neighbour?” [Luke x. 29.] The substance of the command is the same under Law and under Gospel; but the Gospel opens and elevates it. And so again the Ten Commandments belong to the Law, yet we read them still in the Communion Service, as binding upon ourselves; yet not in the mere letter; the Gospel has turned the letter into spirit. It has unfolded and diversified those sacred precepts which were given from the beginning.

It’s interesting to read these reflections of Newman on Jewish continuity in the Church. On Jewish rules and rituals, he says, the manner and virtue being different, the substance remains the same.

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