human law and God's
In order to aid in the flourishing of the race, human law should
be based on natural law. However, when constructing human laws,
Aquinas warns us that while it is easy to agree on the generalities,
there will be many exceptions in the particulars, so laws that
are too detailed can fail to be right. He thinks human laws should
be general, formulated over time from accumulated experience,
possible, suited to the place and time, needed, clear, framed
for the general good rather than for private interest, and should
forbid only serious wrongdoing, chiefly what would cause harm
to others. He also (wisely and refreshingly) thinks that to "insist
on a degree of perfection that most people cannot manage would
only cause them to break out into worse wrongdoing." It is
the mark of a good law that "nature and custom find it possible."
For a law to be just, it must "serve the general good"
and "not exceed the lawmaker's authority" and must "fairly
apportion the burdens of the general good amongst all members
of the community." If a law is unjust, Aquinas says it is
a form of violence and we are not obliged to follow it, except
for practical purposes (i.e., smoother operation of society).
But laws going against obvious good must not be followed. "It
is by serving men's general welfare that law gets its force and
character of law, so when it fails to do so it has no binding
And laws have to go through an evolution through time to fix
things missed and to adapt to changed conditions, but only after
consideration and acceptance by custom.
The purpose of human law is this-worldly tranquility and the
avoidance of disruption. The point of God's law is to lead us
According to Aquinas, the purpose of the Old Law (the Jewish
tradition from which Christianity sprang) is the commanding of
virtuous behavior (the most important command being to love your
neighbor as yourself), and the rituals and laws that support them.
The New Law (i.e., Christianity) is different from the Old Law
from which it grew in two distinct ways. First of all, it is more
of a gift than a set of external commands; it is the "inward
gift and grace of the Holy Spirit," which, as you recall,
Aquinas describes as the happy love between God and God's knowledge
and awareness of himself. Secondly, it changes the context of
religion from one of behavior to one of happiness. The new law
is a "law of freedom," allowing us to grow into what
we are supposed to grow into, "a disposition that accords
with one's nature acting from oneself." (1a2ae, 108, 1) In
fact, "the New Law does not need to command or forbid any
external activity" other than the sacraments and basic behavior
to keep the peace.
Jesus knew what gets humans to grow into what they are supposed
to be, overcoming the false trappings of ego by loving the good
and being happy in our love affair with existence. The gift by
which this happens is grace.
"When he went to Hillel, he said to him, What is hateful
to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all
the rest of it is commentary; go and learn."
Talmud, Shabbat 31a