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The Spirit of the Law vs. the Letter of the Law

Applying God’s Law in our Lives and in the Life of the Church

The Constitution of the United States grants seventeen specific powers to Congress.  They are found in Article one, Section eight.  Nothing in this section, or anywhere else in the Constitution, expressly allows for the United States Congress to impose taxes for national health care.

While Congress has not been specifically granted powers to tax its citizens for health care, those in Congress who support nationalized health care would say the Constitution implies this power.  They defend this view by citing the first paragraph of Article one, Section eight which states:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

Advocates of national health care say the words “general welfare” imply Congress indeed does have the right to create a nationalized health care plan.  They argue that the spirit of the Constitution is to provide for its citizens in the best possible way, and this includes health care coverage.

Opponents state that if a power is not expressly granted in the Constitution, Congress has no right to claim that power; and additionally, that the tax burden imposed is not in the best general welfare of the country.  Many states are now challenging the constitutionality of the new federal health care law.

While the health care bill debate is certainly more complicated than mentioned above, I mention it just to illustrate that interpreting the law is a challenge, even today.

Interpreting Scripture for Our Personal Lives

The challenge of addressing the health care debate pales in comparison to the challenge the Rabbis faced in the Old Testament as they struggled to interpret divine law.  Rabbis developed elaborate interpretations of Biblical law in order to answer the questions posed to them by their ‘parishioners’.   For instance, one of the Ten Commandments says not to work on the Sabbath.  The people would approach a rabbi and ask, “If I pick an apple off a tree and eat it, would that be considered working?  What if I picked a dozen apples?  At what point is it considered work?”  Or another might ask, “If I walk to spend the Sabbath with a friend who lives an hour away, is that considered work?”   The rabbis strove to interpret the general Ten Commandments in ways that answered people’s detailed questions.  The problem with the rabbis’ answers was the Jews’ understanding of the Old Testament gradually became overly juridical and ultimately opposed, in many cases, to the spirit of God’s law, which is the Holy Spirit.  Rather than the Sabbath becoming the day of rest as God intended, for many Jews it became a tension filled day when they endeavored to make sure they didn’t break any of the Rabbi’s elaborate explanations as to what qualified as ‘work’.

The Pharisees were a group of ultra religious Jewish scholars who clashed with Jesus over the interpretation of Biblical law.  There are many examples of this clash in the gospels.

In Luke 14:5 Jesus asked the Pharisees,

"If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?"

Another Sabbath law states that harvesting is not allowed on the Sabbath.  In Matthew 22 we read: "Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, `Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.' "

And in Mark 3 we read:

(Jesus) went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone."

4Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent.

5He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Again and again Jesus was criticized for breaking the letter of Old Testament law, but Jesus defended his actions, demonstrating that it was the Pharisees, and not he, that were misunderstanding the law.

The Pharisees interpretation of Old Testament law was clearly problematic.  By over regulating the people, they took good laws given by God to serve man and turned those laws into something burdensome.  God’s law to rest on the Sabbath was good and rightly given to serve man; but the Pharisees elaborately developed regulations as to what comprised ‘rest’ became, over time, more like a curse than a blessing to God’s people.  This is why Paul, himself a Pharisee, writing in Galatians 3:13 says that Jesus, “redeemed us from the curse of the law.” And also, “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;” Galatians 3:25 .

Our being “justified by faith” means that the overly juridical restrictions of the Old Testament law no longer bind today’s Christian; i.e. the laws of keeping kosher.  God’s faith community no longer needs to keep endless lists of “dos” and “don’ts” in mind in order to be right with God.  Our “rightness” or “righteousness” with God is now accomplished by a faith filled relationship with our living Savior.  In response to our faithfulness, Jesus sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts.  God is right; and God in us ‘rights’ us.  This is why we are ‘justified’ (made right) by faith.  If we wish to be right with God we must simply remember that living in holy communion with Christ is the fulfillment of divine law.  Right decisions in our personal lives and within the church community can only be made by people living in a faith-filled communion with Christ.

God is in us, His ‘law is written on our hearts.’ (Hebrews 10:16 ).  To celebrate God’s law in our hearts is not to devalue the Bible, but it is to put it in its proper perspective.  The Bible in Armenian is Asdvadzashounch which translates, “the breath of God”.  As apostolic Christians we confess that the same breath of God that inspired the writers of the Bible indwells us when we live in communion with our Lord.  When we live in communion with God’s indwelling spirit, while reverently considering the light of church Holy Tradition, we can best interpret scripture.

Our church also teaches however, that when one who is familiar with church teachings still finds themselves struggling to apply biblical law to a particular foggy situation, Christ, himself, can provide the answer needed by touching someone’s heart.  Those who live in ‘holy communion’ with Christ have discovered that when they are uncertain as to what course of action to take, but remain prayerful, Jesus Himself provides the direction they are seeking, by guiding them, and at times convincing them, to follow a particular course of action.

Canon Law and Divine Law

Even as individuals have struggled to understand God’s direction for their lives, so too the Holy Church has struggled with understanding God’s will for her corporate life.  Through the centuries the church has endeavored to determine how to best live by God’s laws.  Periodically the church had created guidelines to help herself understand how to live out the gospel.  These guidelines are created by the bishops and are called ‘canons’.

The word, ‘canon’ comes from a Greek word which means ‘rudder’.  Canon law is intended to ‘steer’ the church through the rapids of this fallen world.  It is written to help the church deal with particular issues during a particular generation.  This is why canon law is changeable.  Since canon law is temporal, changeable, and written by man, it does not have the same authority in the church as dogma.

The word ‘dogma’ refers to eternal truths revealed by God.  These truths cannot be changed by man.  For instance the dogma of the Nicene Creed cannot be revised according to the needs of a particular generation.  The apostolic church has, through the centuries, wisely distinguished canon law from dogma.  This is why our diocesan by-laws are all changeable; as they function as ‘mini-canons’ written by the church to govern its temporal affairs.  Distinguishing dogma from canon is critical to the well being of the church.

Modern Day Canons

Our church canon law needs to be revised.  Some canons must be changed and some new ones must be created.

There are many pressing issues that canon law needs to address: the permissibility of organ donation, the revision of sacramental rites, how to deal with cremation, the ordination of women to church orders, the method of reception of holy communion and the language of worship in the church, to name just a few.

While some quote canon law or pontifical pronouncements as though they are unchangeable dictates of our church, the educated Apostolic Armenian understands that the authority to affect change in canon law rests squarely on the shoulders of the Council of Bishops.  In order for our church to adequately address the many issues facing her, and to move forward in the best possible way, our bishops need to periodically meet to review our church canons and to develop new canons.  This is their sacred duty and obligation.  The Catholicos of all Armenians, as the president of the Council of Bishops, can convene a holy synod (meeting of bishops) to discuss the many important issues facing the church. Yet, surprisingly, for the past fifty plus years no Bishops’ Council has been convened in the Armenian Church.  As parishioners who understand the need for our canons to be reviewed, and the method by which canon law is addressed in our church, we have to pray that our Lord Jesus Christ see to it that a Holy Synod of bishops is convened, and pray that the Lord grants wisdom and His spirit to that synod so that they might best understand how to guide the church through the turbulent waters of this generation.

Correctly understanding and applying God’s law in the church and in our lives is essential to our spiritual well-being.  May we continue, both in our church life and in our personal lives, to learn God’s revealed biblical truths and to live according to those truths. In doing so we will make His will present on this earth.  We will become beacons of His light, and will lead others to see His glory, so that they too might embrace the one who took flesh, died, and rose for us.  To our risen Lord is befitting eternal glory, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, from this age into the age to come.

Fr. Tavit

Armenian Church canon law

Canon law Armenian Church

Orthodox canon law


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