Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Summa Theologica, Law and Religion

Who is entitled to make laws?  What gives the law authority over us? Thomas Aquinas believed that the authority and the power to make laws came from God.  This belief has been instrumental to the development of our legal and political system (e.g. "Under God the People Rule").  Just as important is the belief that there is a supreme being who is watching us and whose divine justice we cannot avoid.

My assignment was to read questions 90-97 of the Treatise on Law, which is set up as a series of queries, each containing several objections which Aquinas responds to in turn.  Here is an outline of these questions: 90-92 treat law in general, 93 addresses Eternal law, 94 questions Natural law and 95-97 focus on Human law.  Aquinas often cites Scripture as well as former church leaders (e.g. St. Augustine) in his responses.  Most significant are his references to Aristotle whom he calls "the Philosopher".  I am quite fascinated at how adeptly Aquinas incorporates the philosophy of an ancient Greek pagan into Christianity.

There are four types of law in order of importance: Eternal, Divine, Natural and Human.  Divine power gives the lawgiver of a society the ability to produce laws, but only when these laws consider the common good.

Divine Law

Eternal law supersedes everything as it rests with God.  Divine law descends from this and consists of the Old and New Testaments.   Divine law punishes those that avoid Human and Natural law.   According to Aquinas, the Old (Testament) laws depended on temporal rewards and fear while the New laws promoted eternal rewards and depended on love.  The Old laws were written for "children" but the New laws are made for "adults". It makes me wonder what we would be if we didn't need Divine laws.  Indeed Aquinas does say that the virtuous man does not need laws, therefore it is possible. However, who determines who is virtuous?

Don't sin, unless God says its OK. 

The Natural law is the pursuit of the good, which is the natural inclination of all creatures. It contributes to Human law, involves "reason", and doing what is virtuous (following your conscience). Interestingly, as Aquinas says, Natural law can be changed by instances such as "by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent without any injustice whatever.  In like manner adultery is intercourse with another man's wife who is allotted to him by the law emanating by God. Consequentially intercourse with any woman by the command of God is neither adultery nor fornication.  The same applies to theft".  Therefore, laws do not apply to God or his servants. Let's hope people think God's on your side.

How do these laws work together?  If for example you murder someone you break three laws:

1) Divine Law: Thou shall not murder
2) Natural Law: Murdering is irrational and against the common good
3) Human Law: Murder is a crime

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