The Divine Legality or a Legal Divinity? The Eternal Law Briefly Considered

Written by on August 13th, 2014. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Ethics, about Aquinas Anscombe Natural Law Eternal Law

|||Anscombe, G. E. M., Mary Geach, and Luke Gormally. “Modern Moral Philosophy” in Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays . Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005.|||

Saint Thomas d'Aquin To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues, failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)—that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of “obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word “ought” has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of “obligation,” it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts. It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.

I have chosen to use the above-cited quotation from Anscombe because of its contemporary relevance. However, we might as well appeal to the discussion of Plato’s Euthyphro: Is something pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?1 The question is not unimportant for the nature of the natural law and its relationship to the eternal law. In Aquinas, we regularly hear it said that the natural law is a participation in the eternal law. Now, the Summa theologiae lays out the schema very neatly, but what are we to make of this “eternal law”? It is my experience, at least, that most people have a tendency to equate the eternal law with “the Law” of the Old Testament rather easily. I do not believe that most people think that the natural law is only known by those who have read the Torah. However, it is my hunch that much of the discussion of “religion and morals” unhelpfully centers on some way that considers morality this way. Alas, the problem is large, so we can only begin to approach its outermost rim. Certainly, do not expect a full treatment. However, let us think together for a few moments.

The Western mind has forever been changed by Christianity. Even in its most post-Christian forms, our way of thinking is marked by the questions and problems that face the human mind in view of the claims of the Christian revelation. Still, we must make an abstraction that is quite clear—if controversial. We can consider the human being (and hence the moral life) completely in abstraction from any supernatural end. This does not mean that we can have a practical science in the state of such abstraction—a purely natural moral philosophy. However, talk about a controversial subject! This is quite key, nevertheless, for orthodox Christianity has always held that the vocation of human life is vision—the Beatific Vision—and everything here below (the theological virtues above all else) are true foretastes of that life, which only will be consummated in heaven. This whole supernatural order is a gift beyond the powers of the human person. The language of St. Bonaventure well expresses the nature of this order: gratia per modum gratiae, “grace according to the manner of [pure] grace.”2 Separate from this are the pure natural capacities of man, what we are capable of by our own, natural power, abstracting from any supernatural order. These can be considered alone (essentially, if not “existentially”) for, otherwise, we will end in many forms of errors related to Jansenism, etc.

Let us make our first distinction then. The “eternal law” is for now indifferent to these two orders—it can be spoken of in two ways, as we will see. This law is not, however, the particular laws laid out in the Christian scriptures. This is perhaps the first (and most fatal) mistake made by most who consider the problem of “religion and morals.” For Aquinas, the Biblical law is a type of positive law—it is a decreed law that is particularized in a manner at least analogous to how civil law functions. For the sake of brevity, I am going to consider only the Old Law. The “New Law” of the Gospel brings with it a host of further issues that would need much more space for adequate addressing. It is the law of the Spirit—the renewed life that directs the Christian to the supernatural end to which humanity is gratuitously called. Luckily, the common conception of divine law is most directly tied (in popular consciousness) to the Old Law—the explicitly promulgated laws of the Scriptures. Many contemporary questions of “God and morals” presumes that moral knowledge requires at least some subset of the contents of the Old Law. What of this “Divine positive law,” however? Is it merely an assemblage of moral precepts—perhaps with a few “culturally specific elements”?

Aquinas states that this law was gratuitously given to the people of Israel in order to prepare them for the coming of Christ.3 As repeatedly comes out in the questions on the moral,4 ceremonial,5 and judicial6 precepts, they were not all the same. The moral precepts are perhaps the most discussed of these “laws”, at least among Christians. We need only think of the controversies of the Ten Commandments on public ground to think of the continued resonance of this part of the Torah’s law. However, in addition we are all aware of the many other legalities covered in the Torah, including the direction of worship (ceremony) and life (judicial). Our main concern is with the moral precepts, which seem to mirror the general moral order. Indeed, this is the case, for Aquinas states that they are distinct in nature from the ceremonial and judicial precepts. They have the distinction of pertaining to the moral order in general. The law functions in the manner as a pedagogue for the people of Israel, teaching things that are discernible by reason alone. Even the case of the Sabbath is said to be knowable by reason—not regarding a particular day of observance but at least as regards the obligation to acknowledge God.7

However, this moral content is directed to a particular nation—Israel—for a specific end—the preparation for the reception of the Messiah. Its content may be “natural.” Its promulgation, nevertheless, is for the sake of a higher end—the supernatural event of the Incarnation. As we said in an earlier discussion, law is an extrinsic norm of action. It guides and judges our practical reason in view of a given end. Where the end is supernatural, so too the law. There are levels involved, we could say. The “New Law” might be more directly supernatural in its means and the new state of grace that it presupposes. Still, both things (“Old and New”) are directed to an end above reason—the gratuitous order of the Christian dispensation—thus, at least speaks traditional Christianity.

To return to the mundane order—extrinsic norms. When we act, what is measured? It is the individual action that is measured, tested, judged by the norm that is extrinsic. For the natural law, the norm is human nature—though I caution you against too rationalist a reading of this. Is this law a “measure without measure”? We must never speak lowly of human nature—an abyss desiring perfect happiness! Still, even the free core of the willing being must be founded on some ordination, some natural inclination to the good in general.8 That is, we are not completely without a nature. Pace certain existentialists (who are at the fringes of a deep truth, however), it is unthinkable to say that something is without essence. (Even a blob has some intelligibility, and prime matter does not exist without form as any good scholastic will tell you.) Our essence, however, is not where the story ends, and as a created nature, it is measured by that which creates it. The creative idea of the artist measures the reality that it shapes. We are a mensura mensurata—a measured measure, measured by the Eternal Reasons by which we have been created.

For those who know, we have now entered the nose-bleed territory of much medieval theology and Neo-Platonic philosophy. There is only one point for us to note now. To be measured by the Creative and Sustaining First Cause means, above all, to have all of our agency be directed by that Cause. That this can be reconciled with freedom, I wholly maintain—but once more, that is for another discussion. What I merely want to note is that we have now come to the Eternal Law—and note that it is not at all the Old Law. It is, instead, Providence—the guiding proper to the First Cause as First Cause. A true course in Metaphysics will cover the details of this. For now, I merely want to note that it is the “stopping point” upon which the regression regarding “legal foundations” ultimately ends. It is eternal precisely because it is the Divine Being Itself, considered—by us mere humans—as First Cause, ordaining all actions and measuring them according to their natural purposes, as well as the common good of all creation. Certainly there are two ways to discuss Providence and the eternal law. One is philosophical (i.e. as First Cause, as we have briefly done here). The other plunges us even more deeply into the Eternal Mystery of the Divinity in Itself. That is the theologian’s province. Suffice for now to have made some small foray into explaining the philosophical version, with an eye to our humble discussions concerning the natural law.

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. See Plato, Euthyphro, 10a. 

  2. Bonaventure, In 1 Sent. d.8 p.1 a.2 q.2 ad 9. 

  3. Aquinas, ST I-II q.98 a.2. 

  4. ibid., q.99 a.2. Also, see q.100. 

  5. ibid., q.99 a.3. Also, see q.101. 

  6. ibid., q.99 a.4. Also, see q.102. 

  7. See ibid., q.100 a.2 ad 2. 

  8. See ibid., q.9 a.6, and all of q.10.