Aquinas and the Law


Editors Note: The following is a discussion of Aquinas' Summa Theologica Book I-II.98-100. All quotations are from the Complete English Edition in Five Volumes. Christian Classics: Westminister, Md.

For many commentators it is a debate as old as James and Paul. Just what is the law? And just what is its function in society? In questions 98 to 100 Thomas tackled several important distinctions in this burdensome topic.

Of first importance was the distinction between human and divine law. Human law was designed for “the temporal tranquility of the state which end law effects by directing external actions” (I-II.98.1). This law bridged the relationship of humanity one to another. Conversely divine law brought humanity into the happiness of relationship with God. This divine law governed both the external, and the internal actions. One of these laws was deemed to be a law of perfection while one of these was to be thought of as imperfect in nature. Aquinas wrote that “in things ordained to an end there is perfect goodness when a thing is sufficient in itself to conduce to the end while there is imperfect goodness when a thing is of some assistance in attaining the end but is not sufficient for the realization thereof” (I-II.98.1). In this schema human law was seen in myriad imperfections because of its ability only to check the sinful urges while never providing the ability to do so. In this sense Aquinas can say with Paul that human law served only as a way to reveal sin and the need for a savior who would institute his divine law and write it upon the hearts of men.

That was not to say that this imperfect law was not important and does not have its continued usefulness. Nor that this imperfect law was weak and small in nature. This Old Law consisted of up of three parts: the moral law, which served as a natural law for both the hard-hearted, and the good man (see I-II.98.5); the ceremonial law, which was given to direct the correct worship of God (see I-II. 99.3); and the judicial law, which was given to direct the quest for justice within a society (see I-II. 99.4). Each of these worked together within the Old Law. In this way the law directed a group of people who because of the promise of God in the way to be the recipients of this great Savior (I-II.98.4). He wrote movingly that “it was necessary that Christ be born of one people, which for this reason was privileged above all other people,” not because anything special to them [rather often in spite of this obtuseness], but because of the good grace of God who chooses to give “the benefits of salvation on the human race gratuitously” (I-II. 98.4).

By further qualification one could not argue that the Gentiles are without blame and without recourse. Aquinas launched a continuing argument that the moral law was synonymous with the natural law. It is here that many modern readers may have trouble and that trouble is understandable due to the horrors wrecked upon modern theology by the argument over and for natural law. Because of this one must pay special attention to the important discussion of what natural law was. Aquinas, himself, spent an entire section elsewhere discussing this topic; yet, some understanding can also be found in the questions considered here. He wrote that:

“There are certain things which the natural reason of everyman of its own accord and at once, judges to be done or not done: e.g. honor thy father and thy mother and thou shalt not kill…. And there are certain things which after a more careful study, wise men deem obligatory… e.g. rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man…. And there are certain things, to judge of which, human reason need Divine instruction whereby we are taught about the things of God: e.g. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything; Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain” (I-II. 100.1)

The natural law of Aquinas worked on three levels: that which is understandable based on the use of reason alone; that which was understandable only when reason combined with good scholarship and discussion among able men; and that which was understandable only with divine aid.

In this sense the Old Law as seen in its fullness encapsulates all the needed teachings into the Decalogue and further down into the teaching of the two principles: Love God and Love Your Neighbor. All of this was meant to point the people of God to the coming Savior by whose Spirit the grace to fulfill all that the Lord required. Thus the law served as a potent medicine which helped to cure but not bring perfect health. That perfect health would have to await its perfect healer. If one were to follow the sublime logic of Aquinas, one could possibly find some answers that both Paul and James could agree on.

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