Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How Lost Was Old Testament Israel?

Can God's covenant community fall into serious error? Protestants say Yes. They point to the nation of Israel. It fell into major sin for long periods of time. But is that the same thing? There are different levels of error one can fall into. There is disobedience. That is a constant reality in the church. The people can know the truth and simply ignore it. Neither Israel in the Old Testament nor the Catholic Church in the New Testament is protected from that. Even very serious disobedience that rightly shocks us because we don't expect God's covenant community to ever behave that badly. Both those communities have behaved very badly and did not lose their status as God's chosen community because of it.

Then there is another level of error. Where the truth is ignored. The community stops teaching the truth. Other teachings start to fill the void. But they know these other teachings are not the truth of Jehovah. They know it is something they have borrowed from some other religion. This can go on for generations and there might only be a vague awareness of the fact that there is a truth about God that has been lost. That is really a more extreme case of disobedience. Not only do they not respect God's truth enough to obey it  but they don't respect it enough to even understand it and pass it on to their children. So the practice of the faith goes from inconsistent to non-existent. Still when somebody calls them back to God they know what that is. Not in detail but they know it is not what they are doing.

Then there is another level of error. That is an error when they do something they think is holy and right in the eyes of Jehovah and it just isn't. That is a more serious error because when you have an obedient heart that is the time when you benefit from knowing God's truth. If you are not disposed to obey God then knowing what He wants of you is not going to help you. But if you want to do good but end up doing evil because of an honest mistake that is sad. You would expect that over the long term God would correct your mistake. At least when the entire covenant community is embracing the same error. God should have some method of correcting the error rather than having it persist for a long time and become firmly embedded in their spiritual life.

This is the level of error protestants say existed in the early church. The Eucharist, the papacy, saints, relics, penance, etc. If they are errors they are not small errors. They persisted for a long time. Many people during that time were very impressive believers. They were very smart. They were willing to sacrifice. There were many miracles and martyrs. People saw visions and dreamed dreams. Yet all these errors continued to be embraced without controversy. The Holy Spirit seemed to be working powerfully in some ways and yet not leading them into truth as Jesus promised He would.

The question is whether there is a parallel of that in Old Testament Israel. I don't know that there is. People engaged in temple prostitution and child sacrifices but they didn't think Moses and Elijah would have been fine with it. They knew they were following other faiths and other gods. When Ezra found the book of the law they read it eagerly. They knew they needed to hear it. Nobody thought they were already understanding and obeying God. They knew they were ignorant. Much of that ignorance was by choice. The book was always there. They just had not looked before. But that goes back to the first type of error. The error of disobedience rather than an error of invincible ignorance.

I don't see anything in the Old Testament that indicates a strong embrace of some false doctrine as if it were the truth of Jehovah God. Kings led Israel into sin. Even then some remained faithful. They did the best they could with the lights they had. Then as now people were not always blessed with strong spiritual leadership. But you didn't have strong spiritual leaders that were phonies and pushed a bunch of false teachings that fooled everyone. They got false teachings from false gods. It is not at all analogous to what protestants think happened in the early church.