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Aquinas on Old and New Laws

February 17, 2010
In his intensely provocative and insightful discussion of law in the Summa, Aquinas alleges three fundamental differences between “the Old [Testament] Law” and “the New Law.”  I’m not convinced on any of three headings:
“First, we have stated that the purpose of law is to be ordained to the common good, and this can be twofold.  The one is material and earthly benefit; this was directly envisaged by the Old Law, which from the start invited the chosen people to the promised land of Canaan.  The other is spiritual and heavenly good; to this we are directed by the New Law.  At the opening of his ministry our Lord invited us to the kingdom of heaven: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17).  Accordingly Augustine (Contra Faustum 4.2) says that the Old Testament contains the promise of temporal things, which is why it is called ‘old,’ whereas the New Testament offers the promise of eternal life.
Second, it is the role of law to guide human acts according to the plan of justice, and here also the New Law is much fuller than the Old Law by governing also the inner acts of heart and soul; ‘Unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:20).  Hence the saying that the Old Law restrains the hand, but the New Law the spirit (Lombard, Sentences 3.40.1).  
Third, it is the office of law to lead men into keeping its commandments.  This the Old Law did through fear of penalty, but the New Law through love shed in our hearts by the Old.  So Augustine remarks, ‘fear and love--the difference in brief between the Law and the Gospel’ (Contra Adimantum 17).”
So, according to Aquinas, Old Testament law aims only at earthly benefit, and the NT at (only?) spiritual benefit; OT law guides only external acts, but the NT also guides the heart; and OT law functions by fear, but NT by love.  I would argue that while all three have an element of truth, the first posits a false disjunction, and dozens of counterexamples from the OT could be offered on the second and third points.


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