The Old law as a necessary preparation for the New Law of Christ and grace.
We have already examined, in an earlier essay, the truth of original sin and the twofold darkness of malice and ignorance that it brought when we were deprived of our supernatural and preternatural gifts, as well as the need for grace to restore and heal our fallen nature.
This need for grace could only be received as a gift of God. But what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Even to receive the saving grace of the New Law in Christ, a certain healing had to begin.
What follows here is a summary of the Thomistic teaching, as presented in the Summa Theologica, of the Old Law and its purpose in forming a chosen people in preparation of the sending of the Christ, who would be the savior of the whole world through the grace He merited for us.
According to St. Thomas, Law is a standard of measurement for behavior, fostering certain actions and deterring from others. Thomas notes that, according to Aristotle, “the aim of legislation is the fostering of virtue.” Now moral virtue, or excellence of character, concerns what we do voluntarily, and not what we do because we are forced to do so, but as Thomas himself will tell us in his treatise on law, “they (the non-virtuous) start doing from choice what they earlier did from fear and so grow virtuous.” Here he was speaking in particular of human law, but I think we can see the same pattern in the divine law of the Old Covenant. Our fallen nature was such that we needed time, and by God’s wisdom, apparently a very long time, merely to right our actions and dispositions enough to be prepared for the coming of the new law, established by Christ.
Now law is an ordinance of reason, for the general good, made by whoever has care of the community, and promulgated. Clearly, in the Old Law, we must understand all of these elements at work to understand it purpose. After a short explanation the four kinds of law, we will be able to see the place of divine law in the eternal law.
The eternal law is indeed nothing else than God’s wise plan for directing every movement and action in creation. So the eternal law is one single, universal plan. All laws that proceed from right reason derive from the eternal law. Everything created, whether it could have been otherwise or had to be as it is, is subject to the eternal law.
Now, man participates in this eternal law with what he can know through his own reason. By nature, we know simple precepts, such as that good is to be done and evil avoided. However, we often fail to do the good because of our fallen nature. We now seek lesser goods, or those things perceived as a particular good, over and above the good itself. As St. Thomas tells us of the most general premises of natural law, there is no way that they can be altogether removed from the human heart; but passion can stop reason from applying general premises in a particular case.
Now humans can form and promulgate law, and they do this in order to live peacefully in society and hopefully to build virtue in men. Reason’s ultimate standard is the law we have in us by nature, and law framed by men is law only to the extent it derives from that law. If it runs counter in any way to the natural law, it is no longer law but a breakdown of law. Given the fallen nature of man and our weakness in living out the law that is in us by nature, as mentioned above, mere human law itself is distorted and has no power to bring us back to God.
The goal of God’s law, then (divine positive law), is to lead us to eternal happiness. Any wrongdoing, internal or external, will hinder that. This law alone could not save us, but it was given to be a remedy for man’s ignorance. The Old Law was given us by the good God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to direct us towards Christ, by witnessing to Him – Moses wrote of Me, says Jesus – and by preparing us for Him, withdrawing us from idolatry into the worship of the one God who was to save the whole human race through Christ. The same God that was to save men through Christ’s grace also gave them the law. But commands given to children must be suited perfectly to the child’s condition rather than be perfect in some abstract sense.
Now Christ was destined in the future to save all nations, but still He had to be born of one particular people. So, although certain injunctions of the Old Law proclaimed the natural law and as such had to be observed by all, not as Old Law but as natural law, certain other injunctions of the Old Law were peculiar to it and obliged only the people of the Jews, designed to give that people a special holiness out of reverence for Christ, who would be born from them.
The Old Law is one law with one goal, but issues different commands to cover the different steps to be taken toward that goal. The goal of the law is charity, for all law aims at fellowship of men with each other and with God. Love is based on likeness, and to love God, who is most good, man must become good himself, so the Old Law had to contain moral injunctions commanding virtuous behavior.
As we noted at the opening of our essay, according to St. Thomas, Law is a standard of measurement for behavior, fostering certain actions and deterring others. The law, therefore, imposes a certain conformity, at least externally, toward doing good and avoiding evil. As mentioned, to do good and avoid evil is the principle of all natural law. Our fallen nature, however, has caused this an ignorance in us in respect to the particulars of this natural law in its application. The Old Law restored us from this ignorance in many ways.
What it did not do was give us the ability to will the doing of good and avoidance of evil. In the fall, we attained not only ignorance but malice. The Old Law itself could never correct this. However, as we said above, the aim of legislation is the fostering of virtue, and the non-virtuous might start doing from choice what they earlier did from fear and so grow virtuous. Accordingly, Thomas can say that the Old Law did not save men on its own, but God did not fail men. Together with the law He gave the saving help of faith in a go-between to come: faith in Christ saved our forefathers just as it saves us.
Clearly then it is appropriate for God’s law to command acts of virtue, obliging us to behavior without which orderedness of reason and virtue is impossible, and counseling us to behavior which will perfect virtue. According to Aristotle, we act virtuously when we act knowingly, choosing what we do voluntarily for some intended goal, and doing it wholeheartedly with a firm and unwavering commitment. Human law, even when conceived and promulgated correctly and in accordance with natural law, cannot fulfill this.
Both human and divine law take ignorance into account when punishing or pardoning; but choosing and punishing are inner acts subject only to God’s law. Human law doesn’t punish those who want to do wrong but don’t. Human law does not and should not punish one who wants to kill but does not do so.
Another example can be taken directly from the Old Law: someone who honors his parents and yet is devoid of the love of charity does not infringe the particular commandment regarding parents; but he does infringe the commandment to love and so earns punishment.
Now the laws used as an examples here are of the Ten Commandments. However, the law of charity derives completely from the natural law, that we could know by reason alone. This is an example of the divine law clearly stating what we could know by reason alone, but given as a cure for our state of ignorance. In fact, all of the Ten Commandments, save one, could be known from natural law. The keeping holy of the Sabbath, as a particular day, would be unknowable by reason alone, but all others were given simply to destroy our ignorance in things we know perfectly before the loss of grace in original sin.
In addition to these moral laws, certain ritual laws were given. These too had saving a saving purpose, even though they have been fulfilled in Christ. Thomas tells us that the worship of God has two parts: the first- external bodily worship – is at the service of the second – an interior worship of our minds and hearts to God. As bodily creatures, we derive all our knowledge first from our senses. As such, God’s truth can only express itself to us in symbols we can sense. The Old Covenant rituals, then, not only prefigured the truth to come in our heavenly home, but also Christ, who is our way home.
While the rituals of the Old Covenant are no longer binding, they are fulfilled and not abolished. The incarnation is God’s ultimate revelation to us, and in this He was not shy to condescend to us. We are spiritual beings but also material. Our worship, even now, likewise involves both. Ritual continues to be how we worship God, but this worship is internal primarily and external only secondarily.
Indeed, the sacraments have fulfilled the primary Old Law rituals. Baptism has replaced circumcision, and the Eucharist is the fulfillment of the Passover meal. Indeed, the sacraments are at one and the same time the worship we give God and the means by which we receive grace.
Thomas, before study would say a prayer that included these lines: remove far from me the twofold darkness in which I was born, namely, sin and ignorance. The Old Law was primarily given so that this ignorance would be removed. Being saved from our ignorance, we would know what to do, but unable to do it. Yet this Law would not fail to lead us to salvation:
For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? hanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:22-7:25)