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(Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso)


The Moral Precepts of the Old Law



Can dispensations be granted from the precepts of the Decalogue?


It seems that there can be dispensations from the precepts of the Decalogue:


Objection 1:  The precepts of the Decalogue belong to the natural law, and as the Philosopher says in Ethics 5, what is naturally just fails in some cases and is mutable, just as human nature is.  But as was explained above (q. 96, a. 6 and q. 97, a. 4), the failure of the law in some particular cases is the reason for granting a dispensation.  Therefore, a dispensation can be granted from the precepts of the Decalogue.


Objection 2:  God is related to divinely given law in the same way that man is related to human law.  But man is able to grant dispensations from those precepts of the law that are man‑made.  Therefore, since the precepts of the Decalogue were established by God, it seems that God is able to grant dispensations from them.  But prelates function on earth in the place of God; for in 2 Corinthians 2:10 the Apostle says, “If I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.”  Therefore, prelates, too, can grant dispensations from the precepts of the Decalogue.


Objection 3:  The prohibition of homicide is included among the precepts of the Decalogue.  But it seems that men grant dispensations from this precept, e.g., when, in accord with the precepts of human law, certain men, viz., evildoers and enemies, are lawfully killed.  Therefore, dispensations can be granted from the precepts of the Decalogue.


Objection 4:  The observance of the Sabbath is included among the precepts of the Decalogue. But a dispensation was granted from this precept; for 1 Maccabees 2:41 says, “And they determined in that day, saying, ‘Whoever shall come up against us to fight on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him’.”  Therefore, dispensations can be granted from the precepts of the Decalogue.


But contrary to this:  In Isaiah 24:5 certain people are rebuked because “they have changed the Law, they have broken the everlasting covenant”—which must, it seems, refer especially to the precepts of the Decalogue.  Therefore, the precepts of the Decalogue cannot be altered by a dispensation.


I respond:  As was explained above (q. 96, a. 6 and q. 97, a. 4), a dispensation should be granted from a precept when some particular case occurs in which the observance of the letter of the law is contrary to the lawmaker’s intention.  But the intention of every lawmaker is ordered first and principally toward the common good and, second, toward the order of justice and virtue, in accord with which the common good is attained and preserved.
Therefore, if there are any precepts which embody the very conservation of the common good or the very order of justice and virtue, then precepts of this sort preserve the lawmaker’s intention and so are such that dispensations cannot be granted from them.  For instance, if a community were to establish the precept ‘No one may destroy the republic or betray the city‑state to the enemy’, or the precept ‘No one may do anything in an evil or unjust way’, then there could not be dispensations from precepts of this sort.
By contrast, if there were other precepts which were ordered to the [primary] precepts and which specified certain particular modes for them, then a dispensation could be granted for such precepts to the extent that their being overridden (per omissionem huiusmodi praeceptorum) in certain cases would not be prejudicial to the primary precepts that embody the lawmaker’s intention.  For instance, if, in order to save the republic, it were decreed in a city that certain men should take turns keeping guard over the city when it is being besieged, then some men could be dispensed from this precept for the sake of some greater advantage.
Now the precepts of the Decalogue embody the intention of the lawmaker, viz., God.  For the precepts of the first tablet, which are ordered toward God, embody the very ordering toward the common and final good, which is God.  On the other hand, the precepts of the second tablet embody the very order of justice to be observed among men, so that, namely, nothing undue is done to anyone and what is due is rendered to each one; for the precepts of the Decalogue should be understood according to this rationale.  And so there cannot be any dispensations at all from the precepts of the Decalogue.


Reply to objection 1:  The Philosopher is not speaking here of the naturally just, which embodies the very order of justice; for the precept ‘Justice is to be preserved’ never fails.  Rather, he is speaking about specific modes for observing justice, and in some cases these modes fail.


Reply to objection 2:  As the Apostle says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “God remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”  But He would be denying Himself if He destroyed the very order of His justice, since He is Justice Itself.  And so God cannot grant a dispensation that would permit a man either (a) to behave in a disordered way toward God or (b) not to submit to the order of His justice, even in those matters in which men are ordered toward one another.


Reply to objection 3:  The killing of a man is prohibited in the Decalogue insofar as it has the character of something undue; for this is the sense in which a precept embodies the very nature of justice.
Now human law cannot permit that a man should be killed both lawfully and in an undue way.  But it is not undue for an evildoer, or for the enemies of the republic, to be killed.  Hence, this is not contrary to the precept of the dialogue; nor is such a killing (occisio) a homicide (homicidium)—which is what the precept prohibits, as Augustine says in De Libero Arbitrio 1.
Similarly, if what belongs to someone is taken from him, then if it is due that he should lose it, this is not theft or robbery, which is what the precept of the Decalogue prohibits.
And so when, by God’s command, the children of Israel took the spoils from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35), this was not theft, since these spoils were owed to them by God’s decree.  Similarly, when Abraham consented to kill his son (Genesis 22), he did not consent to homicide, since by the command of God, who is the Lord of life and death, it had been made due that his son should be killed.  For it is God who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both the just and the unjust, because of the sin of our first parent; and if a man executes this sentence by God’s authority, then he will not be committing homicide (non erit homicida), just as God does not commit homicide.  Similarly, when Hosea takes to himself a “wife of fornications,” i.e., an adulterous woman (Hosea 1), he is not an adulterer or a fornicator; for he took a woman who belonged to him according to the command of God, the author of the institution of matrimony.
So, then, the precepts of the Decalogue are immutable with respect to the character of justice that they embody.  However, regarding the specification of the precepts as applied to singular acts—that is, as regards whether this or that act is or is not homicide or theft or adultery—there is indeed mutability, sometimes by God’s authority alone, viz., in those things that have been instituted by God alone (e.g., matrimony and other things of this sort), and sometimes also by human authority, as in those matters that have been entrusted to the jurisdiction of men.  With respect to those matters, but not with respect to all matters, men act in the place of God.


Reply to objection 4:  The thought expressed here was more of an interpretation of the precept than a dispensation.  For someone who does what is necessary for human welfare is not thought of as violating the Sabbath, as the Lord shows in Matthew 12:3ff.





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