The Threefold Division Of The Law In The Thought Of Aquinas -- By: Stephen J. Casselli

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:2 (Fall 1999)
Article: The Threefold Division Of The Law In The Thought Of Aquinas
Author: Stephen J. Casselli


The Threefold Division Of The Law In The Thought Of Aquinas

Stephen J. Casselli*

I. Introduction

Since the time of the apostles the law has been a problem. Immediately following the birth of Christianity one finds controversies swirling about the status of the law of God as a new sect of Judaism began to take shape.1 That controversy continued into the earliest generations of the Christian church with the rise of the Marcionites, and a variety of other antinomian currents within the fledgling movement. Centuries later, one of the major theological problems in the English Reformation was the corresponding rise of Antinomianism.2 The late twentieth-century has also witnessed a wholesale reevaluation of the biblical teaching on the law beginning with the monumental work of E. P. Sanders Paul and Palestian Judaism.3 Every generation of the Christian church has had to wrestle with these same issues.

*Stephen J. Casselli is pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church, Tampa Florida.

A complex web of theological, hermeneutical and exegetical problems surround any consideration of the law, but the fundamental question concerns the relation of the church to OT law. Most Christians recognize that in Jesus Christ a decisive transition in redemptive history occurred that affects the church’s relationship to the law of God. The question then becomes how does one properly formulate that transition while negotiating the dangers of legalism on one side and antinomianism on the other. There are some NT texts that appear to teach clearly and simply that the law of the OT has been totally abrogated (i.e., Romans 7, Galatians 3). On the other hand there are statements of Jesus himself to the opposite effect (Matt 5:17–48); and there is the ethical teaching of the apostle Paul that freely borrows from the law of the OT. Every generation of Christian theologians has made some attempt to explain and account for these apparent discrepancies with some coherent theology of law. Perhaps the most comprehensive effort in the history of the church is found in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

Aquinas’ teaching on the law provides a monumental attempt to synthesize more that 1200 years of Christian reflection on the law. His analysis has also had an enduring influence on the way in which the doctrine of the law is understood and articulated by Christian theologians down to the present da...

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