Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Same Old Thing

Every time I read Aquinas, it seems I say the same old thing in my blog posts. Aquinas is really smart. The elegant organization always amazes me. Aquinas uses reason, authority, and observation to make his points. The same old thing.

Sure enough, in his Treatise on Law, Aquinas organizes his material and draws on a variety of sources to establish his points. The main points in the portion I’ve read so far include these:

• Law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” It makes a man good by habituating him to good acts.

• Several kinds of law exist: eternal, natural, human, and divine. All but the first spring from the first: the eternal, supreme wisdom of God.

• The natural law results from our created participation in Divine wisdom. Its most general principles – do good and not harm, for instance – cannot be blotted out from the human heart, but the corrosion of human reason resulting from the Fall has eroded some of the more specific tenets. We need human law to provide incentive to those not well disposed to virtue and Divine Law to give us details inaccessible to our reason and to address the intentions of the heart.

I admit that Aquinas still surprises me when he explains what seems to me standard Christian doctrine. I keep expecting him to launch into three-hundred pages of something that looks specifically “Catholic” (whatever that might mean in my Protestant-trained mind) and not what C. S. Lewis would call “merely Christian.” But so far, after about eight-hundred dense pages from the Britannica set (equivalent to around 2400 standard pages), he hasn’t. In his section on the Old Testament Law, the Angelic Doctor teaches that the Law was good, but not perfect, and that only grace can fit us for eternal happiness. Concerning the seemingly contradictory usage of the word “justification” in the Scripture, Aquinas teaches that following the Law confers its own acquired justification, but that justification before God can only come from the Holy Spirit by grace. His teaching echoes the doctrine of Paul (whom he quotes extensively here) and prefigures the sola gratia of the Reformation, suggesting that a stable core of Christian doctrine truly exists. If I keep saying the same old thing, maybe it’s because I’m happy to see Aquinas saying the Same Old Thing.

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