The Church in the Old Testament

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Adam and Eve lived an angelic life in Paradise. They were in the state of illumination of the nous, which is the first degree of the vision of God. They had communion with God.

According to the teaching of the holy Fathers, Paradise was tangible and intelligible. This is said by St. Gregory the Theologian and is repeated by St. John of Damascus. The tangible Paradise was a particular place, and the intelligible Paradise was the communion and union of man with God. And of course the two Paradises interpenetrated, in the sense that the Paradise of Eden was receiving God’s uncreated energy.

St. Gregory of Sinai gives us an interpretation of Paradise, which was the second period of the Church. He writes that Paradise was twofold,

“tangible and intelligible, namely that in Eden and that of grace”.

About the Paradise of Eden he says that it was not completely incorruptible nor completely corruptible, but it had been created “between corruption and incorruption”.

The trees that were in Paradise had their natural cycle of flower-bearing, fruit-bearing and the falling of the fruits. When the ripe fruits fell to the ground, and when the trees decayed

“they became fragrant dust and did not have a stench like the plants of the world”.

There was the natural recycling in the trees and plants, but since Adam had not yet lost the grace of God and therefore the deep darkness had not fallen on the whole creation, there was no decay, a stench did not prevail. There was the whole cycle, but not also decay and stench. And this was so, as St. Gregory of Sinai says,

“because of the great wealth and holiness of the ever-abounding grace there”.

Through Adam’s fall, man’s communion with God, with himself, and with the whole creation was broken. Thus man was wearing the garments of the skin of decay and mortality, and of course the whole creation fell into darkness, and

“has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22).

However, in spite of Adam’s fall, the Church does not disappear completely. Man struggles to restore his communion with God and attempts it through various forms of religion, because he has lost the true mindfulness and real knowledge of God.

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In the Old Testament there were righteous men, like the Judges, Prophets and saints, who were blessed with divine revelation and vision. They saw God. And since the vision of God in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church is identified with deification and man’s communion with God, we say that in the Old Testament the small remnant is preserved, the Church exists.

In what follows I would like to cite some patristic passages which clarify this truth.

We know from the teaching of the saints that all the manifestations of God in the Old Testament are manifestations of the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The difference between the manifestations in the Old and New Testaments is that in the former we have manifestations of the unincarnate Word, while in the New Testament we have manifestations of the incarnate Word.

Speaking on this theme, St. Gregory the Theologian, in his Homily on the Maccabees, says that the saints in the Old Testament knew Christ, and calls this saying mysterious and ineffable. He says that before the incarnation of Christ no one was perfected without faith in Christ.

“For the Word spoke boldly later in His own times, but He was also known before to the pure in mind, as is clear from many held in honour before that”.

And indeed he says of the Maccabees that we should not scorn them with the justification that they lived and acted before the cross,

“but that they should be praised in accordance with the cross and are worthy of honour by their words”.

The righteous men in the Old Testament acted according to the teaching of the cross and, essentially, they experienced the mystery of the Cross.

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St. John Chrysostom, referring to the righteous men of the Old Testament, says that they too belong to the Body of Christ, because

“they too knew Christ”.

Besides, by His incarnation Christ, as Chrysostom says again,

“assumed flesh of the Church”.

The Body of Christ is one and the Church is one. Chrysostom asks: “What is one body?” And he himself answers characteristically:

“The faithful of the world everywhere, those who are, those who have been and those who will be. And again, those who were well pleasing to God before Christ’s appearance are one body”.

Moreover, both the Old and New Testaments are inspired by the same Spirit. Therefore the holy Father says again:

“The Old and New Testaments are of the same spirit, and the same Spirit that uttered the voice then has spoken here”.

And this is seen from the fact that the holy Fathers interpreted the Old Testament, just as they also interpreted the New Testament, they spoke about dogmatic topics with arguments from the Old Testament as well as Old Testament persons whom they presented as examples of perfection. A characteristic example is St. Gregory of Nyssa, who, in order to present an example of a perfect spiritual man, analysed the person and work of Moses. The life of Moses is a model of the spiritual life for every Christian.

But also the champion of Orthodoxy, Athanasios the Great, presents a teaching of the same kind. He writes that the Holy Spirit is one Who, both then, that is, in the Old Testament, and now, sanctifies and comforts those receptive to being comforted.

“As one and the very Logos Son Himself leading the worthy ones into adoption even then. For they were sons also in the Old Testament, but if adopted by the Son, not by another”.

Thus there was a Church in the Old Testament as well, in spite of the fall of man. Members of this Church were the righteous and the Prophets, who had the grace of God. This is confirmed by the sacramental practice of the Church. All the sacraments which we perform in the Christian Church have reference to the Sacraments and rites of the Old Testament. We can take the Sacrament of marriage as an example. During the this ceremony, in the prayers which we address to God, we ask Him to bless the couple, as He blessed Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rebecca, etc. Then the words

“bless them, our Lord God as Thou didst bless Abraham and Sarah”

show that the blessing is the same. We observe this in all the sacraments. Actually there is one difference which we shall see in the next section, about the third period of the Church, that of the incarnation of Christ. In any case, here it is to be noted that the Church exists also in the Old Testament.

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Source: Mystagogy
From the book titled The Mind of the Orthodox Church.

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