Skip to content

God’s Will as Moral First Principle

January 7, 2009

John Donnelly, in his book on Peter Martyr, refers to the Reformers’ moral theology as a system of “thou-shalt-nots” contrasted with Thomas’s system of moral virtue. Others have referred to the former theory of morals as divine command ethics.  This view is way too simplistic.  Sure, Calvin believed the ten commandments to have Christian pedagogical value, so did Luther and others.  Yet, Martyr did not reject but embraced Aristotle’s theory of virtues (with qualifications of course).  In fact their theologies are not much different from that of St. Thomas.  

As I have demonstrated in other posts Thomas saw a necessity for revealed divine law in the fact that original sin has corrupted man’s natural ability to direct his actions in a right order.  Pinckaers and others have rejected the notion that virtue is the center of Thomas’s moral theology.  If that were his view there would be little room for grace, an issue that spans a significant part of the Summa.  If virtue is not central to Thomas’s moral theory then does that mean the divine law is?  No.  I think it is fairly clear that God’s grace plays a central role for Thomas, although my point here is not to err by creating a center where none exists.  Many issues can be called central to his moral thought but one can be quite certain that grace and the divine law do play a significant role.  In commenting on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians Thomas notes three norms for living the just life:

There are three norms immanent in man by which he may be guided and regulated if he is to walk justly and make spiritual progress.  In man, one of these is the reason which judges about what is to be done in concrete circumstances.  Another is the understanding of universal principles, called synderesis; and thirdly, there is the divine law or God.  Actions are good and meritorious when the person is guided by these three in their proper interrelations; namely, when the action is in accord with the judgment of reason, and this reason judges according to true understanding, or synderesis; and this synderesis is, in turn, directed by the divine law.  (Commentary on Ephesians, pp. 174-5)    

(This is not an example of Pelagian moralism since Thomas has already established in his commentary the necessity of grace for justification).  Thomas continues to affirm that the Gentiles lack all three of these things saying, “This is traceable to their not sharing in the divine light, or not being enlightened and directed by the divine law.” (Ibid.) I find Thomas’s tone in withholding these three norms from the Gentiles very Augustinian but that is beside the point. For Thomas the divine law is made up of both the Old Law which “restrains the hand” and the New Law that “controls the mind.” (ST I-II, Q.91, a.5)  The divine law contains precepts and spiritual guidance. In fact, Thomas sees three conditions that this divine law includes:  it orders man to the common earthly and heavenly good, it directs human internal acts in righteousness, and it induces man to observe its commandments by causing fear and love.  Therefore, one of the main purposes of the divine law is to lead man to virtue. (ST I-II, Q.92, a.1) Thomas is still far from Pelagianism here since the New Law, which is contained in the divine law,  is the grace of the Holy Spirit within believers.  “… the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” (ST I-II, Q.106, a.1)

So, Thomas does see a necessity for “though-shalt-nots” but not without the grace of the Holy Spirit.  It does seem, since he states that the divine law leads to virtue, that virtues are more important in Thomas’s moral theory than divine commands. Virtue may be the end of the divine law, but man cannot be truly virtuous without it.  Thomas states that man is only prudent who puts things in proper perspective. “Everyone who sets things in perspective considers their end; hence he is wise in an absolute sense who knows and acts for the universal end, God.” (Commentary on Ephesians, p. 211.)  How does one know how to act for this universal end of beatitude?  Thomas answers:

For just as speculative reason puts whatever is to be done in perspective and judges it – it is necessary to have conclusions and to judge them by principles – so likewise in the field of performance. Now the first principle through which we ought to judge and regulate everything is the will of God.  Hence the intellect, in moral matters and those which lead to God, must have the will of God for its principle.  If it does, then the intellect becomes prudent. (Ibid)

Therefore it is not true that Thomas’s moral theology is centered on virtue in opposition to “thou-shalt-nots” since he sees both virtue and the divine commands as necessary for right moral actions.  Whether the Reformers held to a high view of virtue is a different discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: