Friday, November 07, 2008

Aquinas' Decalogue

Dr Matthew Levering from Ave Maria University presented his paper "Aquinas on the Decalogue" as we moved forward into the second millennium after Christ. Like many of the earlier church fathers, Aquinas saw the Decalogue as the Natural Law revealed to man. He argued, interestingly, that God delayed in its revelation in order to show man the futility in his own reason and its inability to grasp universal law. Whereas Irenaeus believed one purpose of the Decalogue was to prepare man for friendship with God, Aquinas said that part of its purpose was to establish man's relationship to God. However, I'm not sure how significant this difference is.

Dr Levering prepared 4 parts in his paper. The first, already mentioned, looked at the Decalogue as revealed natural law. Then, the second looked at the Sabbath commandment, a seemingly out-of-place command better suited to the ceremonial law. Next, he considered Aquinas' view on whether obedience to the law was meritorious, justifying the sinner before God. Finally, he intended to examine the question of whether God had violated his own Decalogue with a case like the sacrifice of Isaac. This fourth part was the primary "cargo" that was thrown overboard due to time constraints. Dr Levering promised to his dismay that this was indeed the most compelling part of the paper.

With the first part, Aquinas argued that the Decalogue was made up of such principles as would be ready for the mind of man to apprehend immediately. This is because, for Aquinas, not even sin can remove from man the natural law in its first principles. (This seems to me to arise from the idea in places like Jeremiah and Ezekiel where God says he will write his law on men's hearts.) On the other hand, Aquinas believed that sin could remove from man the ability to apply via reason those first principles in specific situations. Dr Levering was sure to point out that the Natural Law for Aquinas was not autonomous morality.

With the second part, on the Sabbath command, Aquinas reasoned that not every Word of the Decalogue belonged to Natural Law "in the same way." As far as I could discern, this meant that certain precepts are not accessible to natural human reason. I assume this takes us back to the first few statements made here: Man's thinking is futile and unable to grasp universal law on his own; but when revealed to him, man sees these precepts as though they were quite reasonable and sensible. In the case of the Sabbath, Dr Levering explained that worship is a reasonable activity since all men worship something, someway, somehow. The Sabbath command sanctifies this reasonable impulse by calling us to it. This line of thinking though doesn't explain another piece of the revealed Decalogue: the name of Yahweh. Dr Levering did not sort out this conundrum, nor was the issue raised.

Going further on the topic of the Sabbath, Dr Levering said that Aquinas follows Augustine and Origen in his understanding of the Sabbath's presence in the Decalogue. It is not primarily a ceremonial precept or an application of the Decalogue. Instead it captures a universal of creation, but at the same time functions within the covenant in particular. It is both universal and particular. It also serves to point backward to Creation in the 7th day, and forward to the elevation of Creation in Christ himself. So in the Sabbath command we see a function, for Aquinas, of the Decalogue--to elevate the Natural Law through the revealed law and bring out of Creation a covenant community.

The third and, unfortunately, final part of Dr Levering's paper dealt with the Decalogue and justification. Here he cited Matt 19:17 as an important text. For Aquinas, justification happened through the Decalogue only for those already in covenantal union with God. Hebrews 11:6 points more specifically to argue that full obedience to the Decalogue requires charity (love). Finally, the Law functions to draw man to God, while grace assists man in movement toward Him. Similar to Tertullian and the Liber Graduum, Aquinas conceived of individuals as finding two ways in the Christian life: "possessing" justice (character) or doing works of justice (action).

No comments: