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Christ Abolished the Dividing Wall: Aquinas on the Old Law

March 14, 2009

Wailing WallMany theologians don’t want to interpret Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:14, 15 about Christ breaking down the “wall of hostility” as referring to an actual abolishing of the Old Law.  Some are also afraid of viewing the passage in terms of Jew/Gentile relations because those within the New Perspective on Paul camp interpret similar passages in that light.  The latter see within 1st Century Judaism an exclusivism that Paul finds more problematic than an apparent legalism.  I found it interesting that Thomas Aquinas includes both of these ideas in his commentary on Paul’s statements in Ephesians 2.  He affirms that the “wall of hostility” is the Old Law and that Christ has broken down this wall, causing the rift between Jew and Gentile to be removed:

What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field, “and the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: “Before the faith came, we were kept under the law shut up, unto that faith which was to be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: “Behold, he standeth behind our wall” (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that he hath made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier.

St. ThomasThomas views the Law in cosmic terms.  The Old Law divided the whole world into different classes.  He goes on to explain that this “dividing wall” was never meant to be permanent because it was a wall that lacked mortar: 

I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. “Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons” (Rom. 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. “As long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father. So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:1-3). (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, II. Lect., 5.)

Moses and Ten CommandmentsIn this passage Thomas affirms that there is not a stark distinction between the two testaments, as if those living under the Old Testament were merely required to meet certain external conditions without any internal motive. Rather, those who lived under the Old Testament participated in the New Testament by keeping the Old Law out of love.  Matthew Lamb explains Thomas’s view of the relationship and difference between the two covenants:

[Thomas borrows from] St Augustine’s De Gratia Christi et Peccato Originali, 2, 24-25 (P.L. 44, col. 398-400); also Contra Adamantum Manich. Discip. 17, (P.L. 42, col. 157-62). In St. Thomas’ view of salvation-history the Old Law had an embryonic relationship to the New: “As the effect is in its cause, or the perfect is in its less perfect beginnings-just as the whole tree is contained in the seed-so is the New Law contained in the Old Law.” S.T. I-II, 107, 3. This is a corollary of the general pattern of God’s salvific revelation to man, it is gradual in order for man to better assimilate it (ibid., 99, 6). Thus the New Covenant fulfills the Old by realizing its deepest potentialities (ibid., 107, 2); they both have the same goal while they differ as less perfect and more perfect in their methods of attaining that goal (ibid., 107, 1). This is why Aquinas characterized the Old Law as one of Fear and the New as one of Love. For a genuine supernatural love could only be offered to God by God himself become man and communicating his love, the Holy Spirit, to other men (S.T. II-II, 24, 2c; III, 8, 6c). Hence Christ is the head of all mankind (ibid., III, 8, 3) and those who observed God’s commands out of supernatural love in the Old Testament really belonged to the New, while those in the New Covenant who still practice virtue out of fear of punishment are acting as though they were under the Old Law (ibid., I-II, 107, 1 ad 2). (Matthew Lamb, Ibid. footnote 56.)

Glorification of ChristThis cosmic and eschatological understanding of the relationship between testaments is essential to understanding Paul’s view of the Old Law.  Those who keep the Old Law under the New Testament are acting as if the dark age of Moses has not been superseded by the light of Christ. Those who attempt to live in the old age are bound to keep the whole law. The faithful who lived before the New Testament were given supernatural charity which actually belonged to a future age. God has providentially guided his people through salvation history in an upward pattern.  The virtues of the new age existed in seed form in the old age and came to full bloom with the incarnation of the eternal Word.  Thomas believed that God is moving his world from death to glorification.

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