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(Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso)


The Old Law



Was the Old Law good?


It seems that the Old Law was not good:


Objection 1:  Ezechiel 20:25 says, “I gave them precepts that were not good, and judgments in which they shall not live.”  But a type of law is called good only because of the goodness of the precepts it contains.  Therefore, the Old Law was not good.


Objection 2:  As Isidore points out, part of the goodness of a law consists in its promoting the common welfare (communis salus).  But the Old Law did not bring salvation (non fuit salutifera .....) and brought death and harm instead (sed magis mortifera et novica).  For in Romans 7:8‑10 the Apostle says, “Without the Law sin was dead.  And I lived some time without the Law.  But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died”; and in Romans 5:20 he says, “The Law entered in that sin might abound.”  Therefore, the Old Law was not good.


Objection 3:  Part of the goodness of a law is that it is possible to observe it in a way that accords with both nature and human custom.  But the Old Law lacked this characteristic; for in Acts 15:10 Peter says, “Why are you trying to impose on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”  Therefore, it seems that the Old Law was not good.


But contrary to this:  In Romans 7:12 the Apostle says, “And so the law is indeed holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.”


I respond:  There is no doubt that the Old Law was good.  For just as a theory is shown to be true by the fact that it is consonant with right reason, so too a law is shown to be good by the fact that it is consonant with reason.  But the Old Law was consonant with reason.  For as is clear from the commandment laid down in Exodus 20:15, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” the Old Law curbed sense desire (concupiscentia), which is opposed to reason.  It likewise prohibited all the sins that are contrary to reason.  Hence, it is clear that it was good.  And in Romans 7:22 the Apostle’s reasoning is this:  “I am delighted with the Law of God, according to the inward man’; and, again, “I consent to the Law, because it is good.”
However, notice that, as Dionysius points out in De Divinis Nominibus, chap. 4, the good admits of different degrees.  For some goods are perfect and some are imperfect.  In the case of things that are ordered toward an end, perfect goodness consists in a thing’s being such that it is sufficient per se to induce the end, whereas an imperfect good is such that it contributes something toward the acquisition of the end but is not sufficient to induce the end.  For instance, a perfectly good medicine is one that cures a man, whereas an imperfect medicine is one that helps a man but is unable to cure him.
Now note that the end of human law is distinct from the end of divine law.  For the end of human law is temporal peace within the political community (temporalis tranquillitas civitatis), and human law achieves this end by curbing exterior acts that involve evils capable of disturbing the peaceful state of the political community.  By contrast, the end of divine law is to lead a man to the end of eternal happiness, and this end is impeded by any sin whatsoever—and not just the exterior acts, but the interior acts as well.  And so what suffices for the perfection of human law, viz., that it prohibit sins and mete out punishments, does not suffice for the perfection of divine law; rather, divine law has to make a man totally fit for participation in eternal happiness.
Now this can be brought about only through the grace of the Holy Spirit, by which the charity that fulfills the law is diffused in our hearts.  For as Romans 6:23 says, “The grace of God is eternal life.”  But the Old Law was unable to confer this grace, since this was reserved to Christ.  For as John 1:17 says, “The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”  Hence, the Old Law is, to be sure, good, but it is an imperfect good—this according to Hebrews 7:19 (“The Law brought nothing to perfection”).


Reply to objection 1:  The Lord is speaking here about ceremonial precepts, which are called “not good” because they did not confer the grace through which men are washed of sin—even though precepts of this sort did show men to be sinners.  That is why the verse expressly says, “and judgments in which they shall not live,” i.e., judgments through which they cannot acquire the life of grace, “and I polluted them in their own gifts,” i.e., I showed them to be polluted “when, because of their sins, they offered everything that opened the womb.”


Reply to objection 2:  The Law is said to have killed not as an efficient cause but as an occasion—and this because of its imperfection, viz., insofar as it did not confer the grace through which men would be able to fulfill what it commanded or to avoid what it forbade.  And so this occasion was not given, but was instead taken by men.  Hence, in the same place the Apostle says, “For sin, taking the occasion, seduced me through the commandment, seduced me, and by it killed me.”  It is for this same reason that he says, “The law entered in that sin might abound,” where ‘that’ implies succession rather than causality—viz., insofar as men, taking the occasion from the Law, sinned more abundantly, both because their sin was more grave after it had been prohibited by the Law, and also because concupiscence increased, since we desire all the more what is forbidden to us.


Reply to objection 3:  The yoke of the Law could not have been obeyed without the help of grace, which the Law did not give.  For Romans 9:16 says, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs”—i.e., to will and to run within God’s precepts—“but of God who shows mercy.”  Hence, Psalm 118:32 says, “I have run the way of Your commandments, since You enlarged my heart”—i.e., through the gift of grace and of charity.





I-II, q. 90, The Essence of Law

I-II, q. 91, The Different Kinds of Law

I-II, q. 92, The Effects of Law


Eternal law

I-II, q. 93, Eternal Law

Natural law

I-II, q. 94, The Natural Law

Human law

I-II, q. 95, Human Law

I-II, q. 96, The Force of Human Law

I-II, q. 97, Changes in Human Law

The old law

I-II, q. 98, The Old Law

I-II, q. 99, The Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 100, The Moral Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 101, The Ceremonial Precepts of the Old Law in Themselves

I-II, q. 102, The Causes of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 103, The Duration of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 104, The Judicial Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 105, The Nature of the Judicial Precepts

The new law

I-II, q. 106, The Law of the Gospel, called the New Law, in Itself

I-II, q. 107, The Relation between the Old Law and the New Law

I-II, q. 108, The Contents of the New Law