This is a supplementary post to the 3-part series The Sabbath Commandment and the Old Covenant.
In Part 1 of that series, we saw that the Sabbath commandment is one of the 10 Commandments, that the 10 Commandments are the words of the Old Covenant, and that the Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant. In Part 2 we looked at the New Covenant’s legal code, and saw that the 10 Commandments are no longer binding as a legal code under the New Covenant. In Part 3 we saw that the 10 Commandments still apply to Christians, but due to their moral content continuing in the New Covenant, even though, as the words of the Old Covenant, they no longer apply as a legal code.
Christians are under the New Covenant, and therefore the legal code in effect is the New Covenant law.
The Old Covenant and the words of the Old Covenant (the 10 Commandments) are not the legal code in effect today.
There is therefore no legal basis for the observance of the Sabbath by Christians.
The average layman, and likely the average priest, has not needed to be taught all of this – it’s not a controversy many encounter. To us it’s a technicality – because the precepts of the Decalogue remain valid under the New Covenant. Just like we have to dig to find Trent’s confirmation (reaffirmed in Dies Domini) that the Apostles were the ones who began Sunday observance, so too do we need to scratch through official Catholic statements (again Trent for one) which affirm that the Decalogue is indeed, as a legal code, no longer valid under the New Covenant, while the precepts underlying the Decalogue ARE found – and expanded upon – in the New Covenant (with the interesting exception of the Sabbath). You’ll find that more clearly expounded by Evangelical Protestants, but all of us usually simply say “Obey the 10 Commandments” because to obey the 10 Commandments is a sure way to obey the precepts upon which they were based.
Evangelical Protestants are more articulate when it comes to this topic, as they have developed a theology that has needed to explicitly deal with rejection of salvation by means of the law, and simultaneously express the truth that God has moral expectations of Christians. A good article by Wayne Jackson, Did Christ Abolish the Law of Moses? , deals with the Adventist problems with the Law of Moses in the context of Matt 5:17.
For Catholics, that was dealt with at Trent, and we’re happy with it:
If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
– Council of Trent, Session 6, Decree on Justification, Canon 1
Now we will look at Catholic explanations, showing that this concept of the 10 Commandments being part of the Old Covenant legal code, and therefore not the legal code in effect today, is indeed believed by Catholics and supported by Catholic teaching.
Catholicism doesn’t always express every complexity in its full detail each time it says something. Since this is a topic Catholicism has not had the need to expressly make statements on, we have to look at related topics to find clues.
Some Catholic apologists have encountered the Adventist/Sabbatarian argument and expressed the same view as I have:
Over at Catholic Answers, Jim Blackburn states (emphasis mine throughout this post):
Old Testament law, as such, is not binding on Christians. It never has been. In fact, it was only ever binding on those to whom it was delivered-the Jews (Israelites). That said, some of that law contains elements of a law that is binding on all people of every place and time. …
The Ten Commandments are often cited as examples of the natural law. Christians are obliged to follow the laws cited in the Ten Commandments not because they are cited in the Ten Commandments – part of Old Testament law – but because they are part of the natural law – for the most part. …
Christians are not and have never been bound by Old Testament law for its own sake, and those elements of Old Testament law which are not part of the natural law – e.g., the obligation to worship on Saturday – were only ever binding on the Jews. Christians do have liberty on those issues.
– Why We Are Not Bound by Everything in the Old Law
Again, in an answer to the question “Does the Church dogmatically declare that I must believe, de fide, that the Decalogue-in every respect-is written on the hearts of all men? If so, where?“, Jim Blackburn writes:
The Church teaches that the Decalogue is an expression of the natural law. … This does not mean, however, that the Decalogue “in every respect” is written on the hearts of “all” men.
– Where Is It Written, Exactly?
Jim cites CCC 1955:
1955 The “divine and natural” law shows man the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his end. The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. … Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. …
Note that the Decalogue is an expression of the principal precepts of the divine law.
He also cites CCC 2070:
2070 The Ten Commandments belong to God’s revelation. At the same time they teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person. The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law: “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue.”
The natural law is written on our hearts. The Decalogue was a reminder.
The My Catholic Faith Delivered blog says in their post Protestant “Verses” Catholic:
Matthew 5-7 – Christ’s Sermon on the Mount
… [I]t is truly the “Magna Charta” of the life Christ calls us to lead. Here we see Christ as the New Moses giving us a New Law. While Moses brought the Old Law down to us from Mt. Sinai, Our Lord takes the crowd (and us) up on the mountain to give us His blueprint for our eternal happiness or “beatitude.”
– Protestant “Verses” Catholic [here via Internet Archive if the primary link is broken]
The Old Law is clearly the 10 Commandments, or at least includes them.
Again on Catholic Answers, this time Michelle Arnold:
The Old Testament Sabbath commandment contains two elements. The primary element, and the one that binds Christians as it does Jews, is the moral obligation to set aside adequate time for the purpose of divine worship. This could never be abrogated, as it is rooted in the natural law.
– What about the Seventh-day Adventist claim that the sabbath shouldn’t have been changed to Sunday?
Again, Jim Blackburn from Catholic Answers, on their forum:
The law found in the Old Testament (including the Ten Commandments) is known as the Old Law. The Old Law was revealed to the Israelites and, as given, was binding only on them. … Common to both the Old Law and the New Law is that part of the law known as natural moral law.
– Sabbath or Sunday?
Nick has a great article on Sabbatarianism, and includes the following:
The Ten Commandments are the heart of Mosaic Law and abolished as a legal code; they now only serve as guidelines. Many people think the Ten Commandments are an eternal code of laws that only accompanied the Mosaic Law, rather than being at the heart of it. Contrary to this, the fact is the Ten Commandments were the very core of the Mosaic Law, given specifically to the Jews, by which all other laws would be built around (see Ex 34:27-28; Deut 4:10-13; Deut 9:9). So when Jesus ended and fulfilled the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments most certainly were abolished along with it! … After the Mosaic Law was abolished, Christians only kept the Ten Commandments format to use as guidelines for general morals (e.g. don’t kill, steal, lie), but not as a legal code with detailed regulations and legal penalties.
– 7 Reasons to reject Sabbatarianism (Seventh Day Sabbath Keeping)
Robert Sungenis, who is really dealing with another topic, but the 10 Commandments comes up frequently:
That is, we must affirm that the Mosaic covenant, in toto, was legally abolished at the cross of Christ, but that some provisions of the Mosaic law continue into the New Covenant by the Church’s choice. And we must equally affirm that they continue in the New Covenant not because the Mosaic covenant has any legal or “binding” power, but because the New Covenant incorporates them into the legal jurisdiction of the New Covenant.
– Scott Hahn and God’s Covenant with Israel (alternative version here)
Again, in a debate about whether the Old Covenant is still applicable to Jews:
Sungenis: And “works of the law” has always been understood to mean the divinely-inspired Mosaic statues, including but not limited to rites, as apart from God’s laws, the Ten Commandments. This parallels the Church’s mutable religious disciplines, like not eating meat on Friday, versus the immutable dogma, like the divinity of Christ.
Sippo: This is not correct. Among the Catholic Fathers and Doctors, there were a variety of opinions as to what these words meant. Some saw them as referring to the Mosaic Law as a whole. Others limited it to those laws that were ceremonial.
Sungenis: Yes, there were some Fathers who understood “works of law” as referring to the ceremonies, but those same Fathers understood that ceremonies were merely a subset of the larger issue of “works righteousness” and that ultimately, the ceremonial law was a representation of the whole Mosaic law that needed to be abrogated to make room for the New Covenant. This is especially true in Justin Martyr, the one Father that Hahn has tried to use to limit “works of law” to the ceremonies.
[T]he second [quote] reveals that Justin is fully aware that the whole law was to be abrogated, not just the ceremonial law, in order for the New Law to be inaugurated. …
“I have read, Trypho, that there will be a final law, and a covenant the most authoritative of all, which must be observed by all men who seek after the inheritance of God. That law on Horeb is old, and was only for you; but this is for all in general. A law set down after another law abrogates that which was before it, and a covenant made later likewise voids the which was earlier” Dialogue with Trypho, 11.
– Art Sippo and the Demise of Catholic Apologetics
Sungenis, again on the nature of the Old Covenant with regard to the Jews:
But it’s not just the ceremonial laws that were set aside. 2 Cor 3:7-14 says it was the laws written on stone, the Ten Commandments, that were also part of the Old Covenant.
– Does the Catechism Contain a Heresy?
It was the New Covenant that brought grace back into the picture, and when it came it set aside the Old Covenant with its legal system of moral, ceremonial and civil laws.
– Works of the Law
Sungenis on the “works of the law“:
As a LEGAL entity, the entire Old Covenant is abolished. But as a PRACTICAL guide to life, the entire Old Covenant is very much alive and useful for us. That is, in the New Covenant we borrow many ethical and worship principles from the Old Covenant. We borrow the Ten Commandments (although the New Covenant alters them a little to fit the New Covenant gospel); we borrow from some of the civil laws (e.g., paying just wages) … But whatever we borrow and practice from the Old Covenant, it is not because the Old Covenant, in whole or in part, is itself still legally valid, but because the New Covenant has the authority to incorporate any principle from the Old Covenant …
– Question 166 – “Works of the Law” in the Ignatius Study Bible
Jimmy Akin , in his article Paul and the Law
[W]e do not view the Torah the way the first century Jews did – as God’s binding legal code. Paul is concerned to show that Gentiles are under God’s Law too, and thus their consciences function for them like the Torah functions for the Jews – i.e., as a medium by which God’s Law is communicated to them. …
Of course, the only Law which was given four centuries after Abraham was the Mosaic Law, not God’s eternal moral law. …
From the New Testament it is clear that certain commandments in the Torah, such as “You shall not murder” are still binding on us today …
Aquinas speaks of “the moral precepts of the Old Law,” “the civil precepts of the Old Law,” and “the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law,” but not “the moral law, the civil law, and the ceremonial law. The casting of the matter as if there were three separate laws is a misstep for several reasons. …
The most basic reason is that in Paul’s writings he does not talk about there as being three laws given by Moses but one Law – the Torah. The Torah may be able to have its precepts classified according to some scheme … but in Paul’s mind there is only one Torah. …
The Torah is a united entity in Paul’s mind … The Federal Law of the United States is a single entity …
Because these laws are united entities, when one of them passes away, every piece of it looses its force. …
The Torah was thus added to make the Jews aware of their sins in a way they would not have been otherwise. As Paul says, “if it had not been for the Torah, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the Torah had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). …
[T]he Torah of Israel was not suited for use as a Law in future historical epochs, such as when the Gentiles would be included in the family of faith … The Torah, the Old Law, thus had to be torn down. … Thus the Old Law had to be abolished to make way for the New Law, the Law of Moses replaced by the Law of Christ. Of course, the New Law would reflect the eternal and the natural Law the same way the Old Law had done … However, it had to be replace the Old Law.
This is what Paul means when he says the Law of Moses passed away. He doesn’t mean “The ceremonial law passed away,” or “the civil and the ceremonial law passed away.” Paul doesn’t know anything about three separate codes of law being given by Moses. He knows of the one Mosaic Law, as embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and he means exactly what he says – the Torah, the Mosaic Law, passed away, as a unit, as an entity.
However, specific precepts within that Law may still be binding on us today, not because the Torah has any legal authority anymore, but because those precepts are included in the eternal Law, the natural Law, or the Law of Christ, which all do have legal authority for us today. We may still look to the Torah for instruction by example and to learn of God’s will, but it is not legally binding on us today. We do not have to refrain from murdering because the Torah says so, but because the natural Law and the Law of Christ say so.
– Paul and the Law
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, wrote The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament, which doesn’t deal directly with the relationship between the 10 Commandments and the Old Covenant, but gives a good indication of where they belong:
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes a sharp antithesis between the covenant instituted by Christ and that instituted by Moses, the one being enduring, the other transitory. Characteristic of the Mosaic covenant is its provisional nature, which Paul sees manifested in the stone tablets of the law. Stone is an expression of that which is dead, and whoever remains merely in the domain of the law, remains in the realm of death. … If at first the text emphasizes the transitory and futile nature of the Mosaic covenant … [p638]
The covenant at Sinai appears in Exodus 34 primarily as an “imposition of laws and obligations on the people”. Such a covenant can also be broken. [p640]
[T]he Last Supper narratives … present, so to speak, the New Testament counterpart to the establishment of the covenant at Sinai (Ex 24), and thus constitute the Christian faith in the new covenant which has been sealed in Christ. [p641]
In place of the broken covenant on Sinai, God will, as the prophet says, establish a new covenant, never to be broken again, because it no longer confronts man as a book or as tablets of stone, but is engraved upon his heart. [p644]
The shattered tablets at the foot of Mt Sinai were the first dramatic expression of the shattered covenant. When, after the exile, the restored tablets were lost forever … [p644]
The old covenant is particular, referring to the “fleshly” descendants of Abraham … The old covenant rests on a principle of ethnicity … The old covenant is conditional; because it is founded on the observance of the law, and is thus essentially bound to man’s conduct, it can be and has been broken. Because its basic content is the law, it relies upon the formula: “if you do this …” … As far as the covenant of Sinai is concerned … it refer strictly to the people of Israel, bestowing a legal and cultic order (both are inseparable) on this people … [p645]
The Torah of the Messiah is Jesus the Messiah himself. … [T]he covenant of Sinai has indeed been surpassed … [p647]
– The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament, Communio, Winter 1995
Some of the Church Fathers were cited above; to this is worth adding St Augustine of Hippo (h/t Robert Sungenis for sending me in this direction), St John Chrysostom, and St Thomas Aquinas:
Although, therefore, the apostle seems to reprove and correct those who were being persuaded to be circumcised, in such terms as to designate by the word “law” circumcision itself and other similar legal observances, which are now rejected as shadows of a future substance by Christians who yet hold what those shadows figuratively promised; he at the same time nevertheless would have it to be clearly understood that the law, by which he says no man is justified, lies not merely in those sacramental institutions which contained promissory figures, but also in those works by which whosoever has done them lives holily, and among which occurs this prohibition: “You shall not covet.” Now, to make our statement all the clearer, let us look at the Decalogue itself. It is certain, then, that Moses on the mount received the law, that he might deliver it to the people, written on tables of stone by the finger of God. It is summed up in these ten commandments, in which there is no precept about circumcision, nor anything concerning those animal sacrifices which have ceased to be offered by Christians. Well, now, I should like to be told what there is in these ten commandments, except the observance of the Sabbath, which ought not to be kept by a Christian – whether it prohibit the making and worshipping of idols and of any other gods than the one true God, or the taking of God’s name in vain; or prescribe honour to parents; or give warning against fornication, murder, theft, false witness, adultery, or coveting other men’s property? Which of these commandments would any one say that the Christian ought not to keep? Is it possible to contend that it is not the law which was written on those two tables that the apostle describes as “the letter that kills,” but the law of circumcision and the other sacred rites which are now abolished? But then how can we think so, when in the law occurs this precept, “You shall not covet,” by which very commandment, notwithstanding its being holy, just, and good, “sin,” says the apostle, “deceived me, and by it slew me?” What else can this be than “the letter” that “kills”?
– On the Spirit and the Letter, ch 23
St Augustine shows that the 10 Commandments are included in the letter of the law that kills. He then asks which of the 10 Commandments should not kept, and if it could be that only the laws on circumcision and sacred rites were abolished? He then says that this is unreasonable, because St Paul includes the Decalogue in his analysis.
St Augustine goes on to show that St Paul discusses definitely includes the Decalogue:
In the passage where he speaks to the Corinthians about the letter that kills, and the spirit that gives life, he expresses himself more clearly, but he does not mean even there any other “letter” to be understood than the Decalogue itself, which was written on the two tables. For these are His words: Forasmuch as you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who has made us fit, as ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance, which was to be done away; how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more shall the ministration of righteousness abound in glory. (2 Corinthians 3:3-9) A good deal might be said about these words; but perhaps we shall have a more fitting opportunity at some future time. At present, however, I beg you to observe how he speaks of the letter that kills, and contrasts therewith the spirit that gives life. Now this must certainly be “the ministration of death written and engraven in stones,” and “the ministration of condemnation,” since the law entered that sin might abound. (Romans 5:20) But the commandments themselves are so useful and salutary to the doer of them, that no one could have life unless he kept them. Well, then, is it owing to the one precept about the Sabbath day, which is included in it, that the Decalogue is called “the letter that kills?” Because, forsooth, every man that still observes that day in its literal appointment is carnally wise, but to be carnally wise is nothing else than death? And must the other nine commandments, which are rightly observed in their literal form, not be regarded as belonging to the law of works by which none is justified, but to the law of faith whereby the just man lives? Who can possibly entertain so absurd an opinion as to suppose that “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones,” is not said equally of all the ten commandments, but only of the solitary one touching the Sabbath day? In which class do we place that which is thus spoken of: “The law works wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression?” (Romans 4:15) and again thus: “Until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law?” (Romans 5:13) and also that which we have already so often quoted: “By the law is the knowledge of sin?” (Romans 3:20) and especially the passage in which the apostle has more clearly expressed the question of which we are treating: “I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet?” (Romans 7:7)
– On the Spirit and the Letter, ch 24
St Augustine asks if 9 of the 10 Commandments (other than the Sabbath commandment) are excluded from St Paul’s assessment, and then concludes that this would be absurd. Clearly he is saying that the entire law is abolished, not just the ceremonial law.
There it was on tables of stone that the finger of God operated; here it was on the hearts of men. There the law was given outwardly, so that the unrighteous might be terrified; here it was given inwardly, so that they might be justified. (Acts 2:1-47) For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment,” – such, of course, as was written on those tables – “it is briefly comprehended,” says he, “in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love works no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10) Now this was not written on the tables of stone, but “is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:5) God’s law, therefore, is love. “To it the carnal mind is not subject, neither indeed can be;” (Romans 8:7) but when the works of love are written on tables to alarm the carnal mind, there arises the law of works and “the letter which kills” the transgressor; but when love itself is shed abroad in the hearts of believers, then we have the law of faith, and the spirit which gives life to him that loves.
– On the Spirit and the Letter, ch 29
St Augustine compares the past – the law written on stone – with the Christian law – written on our hearts, and says God’s law is love, and that love is written on our hearts.
As then the law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament, so the law of faith, written on the heart, and its reward, the beatific vision which the house of the spiritual Israel, when delivered from the present world, shall perceive, belong to the new testament.
– On the Spirit and the Letter, ch 41
St Augustine shows that the law written on tables of stone belongs to the Old Covenant (“testament” and “covenant” are synonyms here).
He goes on:
I beg of you, however, carefully to observe, as far as you can, what I am endeavouring to prove with so much effort. When the prophet promised a new covenant, not according to the covenant which had been formerly made with the people of Israel when liberated from Egypt, he said nothing about a change in the sacrifices or any sacred ordinances, although such change, too, was without doubt to follow, as we see in fact that it did follow, even as the same prophetic scripture testifies in many other passages; but he simply called attention to this difference, that God would impress His laws on the mind of those who belonged to this covenant, and would write them in their hearts, Jeremiah 31:32-33 whence the apostle drew his conclusion—”not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart;” (2 Corinthians 3:3) … By the law of works, then, the Lord says, “You shall not covet:” Exodus 20:17 but by the law of faith He says, “Without me you can do nothing;” John 15:5 for He was treating of good works, even the fruit of the vine-branches. It is therefore apparent what difference there is between the old covenant and the new – that in the former the law is written on tables, while in the latter on hearts.
– On the Spirit and the Letter, ch 42
St Augustine explains that the prophecies of the New Covenant said nothing about changes being limited to sacrifices and sacred rites – and so St Paul explicitly includes the Decalogue in his explanation of the abolished law of works.
He shows that the law we are under is not the Old Covenant law, and he shows that the Old Covenant law we are not under includes the 10 Commandments. He does not, however, deny that Christians are not expected to follow a moral law, but he clearly shows that it is both different to and greater than the Decalogue.
St John Chrysostom:
St John Chrysostom, in his homily on 2 Corinthians 3:7-18:
He said that the tables of Moses were of stone … Now by “ministration of death” he means the Law. … “For if that which passes away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.” For the one ceased, but the other abides continually. … For if it be brought to an end by Christ, as in truth it is brought to an end, and this the Law said by anticipation, how will they who receive not Christ that has done away the Law, be able to see that the Law is done away?
– Homily 7 on Second Corinthians
The tables of Moses were the law, the “ministration of death” – and the Law is done away!
In his Homily on Romans, he includes murder, adultery, and coveting in his definition of the Law, explaining that it was the law given to Moses, and then goes on to say, re Romans 6:12:
Yet surely Paul’s object everywhere is to annul this Law …
– Homily on Romans 6:12
St John Chrysostom makes another very interest point, although not directly addressing this issue: 9 of the 10 Commandments were part of natural law, known to man before the 10 Commandments, and therefore not in need of any explanation. The Sabbath commandment was not like this – it needed to be revealed, and that is why it did not remain binding when the Mosaic Law came to an end – it was not part of natural law.
It is, that when God formed man, he implanted within him from the beginning a natural law. And what then was this natural law? He gave utterance to conscience within us; and made the knowledge of good things, and of those which are the contrary, to be self-taught. For we have no need to learn that fornication is an evil thing, and that chastity is a good thing, but we know this from the first. And that you may learn that we know this from the first, the Lawgiver, when He afterwards gave laws, and said, “You shall not kill,” Exodus 20:13 did not add, “since murder is an evil thing,” but simply said, “You shall not kill;” for He merely prohibited the sin, without teaching. How was it then when He said, “You shall not kill,” that He did not add, “because murder is a wicked thing.” The reason was, that conscience had taught this beforehand; and He speaks thus, as to those who know and understand the point. Wherefore when He speaks to us of another commandment, not known to us by the dictate of consciences He not only prohibits, but adds the reason. When, for instance, He gave commandment respecting the Sabbath; “On the seventh day you shall do no work;” He subjoined also the reason for this cessation. What was this? “Because on the seventh day God rested from all His works which He had begun to make.” (Exodus 20:10) And again; “Because thou were a servant in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 21:18) For what purpose then I ask did He add a reason respecting the Sabbath, but did no such thing in regard to murder? Because this commandment was not one of the leading ones. It was not one of those which were accurately defined of our conscience, but a kind of partial and temporary one; and for this reason it was abolished afterwards. But those which are necessary and uphold our life, are the following; “You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal.” On this account then He adds no reason in this case, nor enters into any instruction on the matter, but is content with the bare prohibition.
– Homilies on the Statutes 12:9
St Thomas Aquinas:
St Thomas Aquinas was one of the leading Catholic theologians ever. Not technically a Church Father, but his theology, like St Augustine’s, has formed an important basis for Catholic theological study. It is from him that the popular use of the term “Old Law” comes, and this must be kept in mind when reading later documents heavily influenced by his theology.
St Thomas states that the Old Law included the moral law:
I answer that he is speaking here about keeping the commandments of the Law insofar as the Law consists of ceremonial precepts and moral precepts.
– Commentary on Galatians 3:12
St Thomas is explicit as to whether the contents of the Old Law include the Decalogue:
The Old Law contained some moral precepts; as is evident from Exodus 20:13-15: “Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal.” This was reasonable: because, just as the principal intention of human law is to created friendship between man and man; so the chief intention of the Divine law is to establish man in friendship with God. Now since likeness is the reason of love, according to Sirach 13:19: “Every beast loveth its like”; there cannot possibly be any friendship of man to God, Who is supremely good, unless man become good: wherefore it is written (Leviticus 19:2; 11:45): “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” But the goodness of man is virtue, which “makes its possessor good” (Ethic. ii, 6). Therefore it was necessary for the Old Law to include precepts about acts of virtue: and these are the moral precepts of the Law.
– Summa Theologica, Ia.IIae.99.2
The Old Law’s moral precepts included the 10 Commandments:
On the contrary, It is written (Deuteronomy 4:13-14): “Ten words … He wrote in two tables of stone; and He commanded me at that time that I should teach you the ceremonies and judgments which you shall do.” But the ten commandments of the Law are moral precepts. Therefore besides the moral precepts there are others which are ceremonial.
– Summa Theologica, Ia.IIae.99.3
The New Law also has moral precepts:
Accordingly the New Law had no other external works to determine, by prescribing or forbidding, except the sacraments, and those moral precepts which have a necessary connection with virtue, for instance, that one must not kill, or steal, and so forth.
– Summa Ia.IIae.108.1
The New Law is the law of the New Covenant (“Testament” and “Covenant” are synonyms here):
The New Law is the law of the New Testament. But the law of the New Testament is instilled in our hearts. For the Apostle, quoting the authority of Jeremias 31:31,33: “Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord; and I will perfect unto the house of Israel, and unto the house of Judah, a new testament,” says, explaining what this statement is (Hebrews 8:8,10): “For this is the testament which I will make to the house of Israel . . . by giving [Vulg.: ‘I will give’] My laws into their mind, and in their heart will I write them.” Therefore the New Law is instilled in our hearts.
– Summa Ia.IIae.106.1
The Old Law has been replaced by the New Law:
The state of the world may change in two ways. In one way, according to a change of law: and thus no other state will succeed this state of the New Law. Because the state of the New Law succeeded the state of the Old Law, as a more perfect law a less perfect one. Now no state of the present life can be more perfect that the state of the New Law: since nothing can approach nearer to the last end than that which is the immediate cause of our being brought to the last end.
– Summa Ia.IIae.106.4
The Old Law replaced, and the similarities and differences between the Old Law and New Law:
We must therefore say that, according to the first way, the New Law is not distinct from the Old Law: because they both have the same end, namely, man’s subjection to God; and there is but one God of the New and of the Old Testament, according to Romans 3:30: “It is one God that justifieth circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.” According to the second way, the New Law is distinct from the Old Law: because the Old Law is like a pedagogue of children, as the Apostle says (Galatians 3:24), whereas the New Law is the law of perfection, since it is the law of charity, of which the Apostle says (Colossians 3:14) that it is “the bond of perfection.”
– Summa Ia.IIae.107.7
That the Old Law has been set aside:
Those works of God endure for ever which God so made that they would endure for ever; and these are His perfect works. But the Old Law was set aside when there came the perfection of grace; not as though it were evil, but as being weak and useless for this time; because, as the Apostle goes on to say, “the law brought nothing to perfection”: hence he says (Galatians 3:25): “After the faith is come, we are no longer under a pedagogue.”
– Summa Ia.IIae.98.2
That the moral precepts of the Old Law are to be observed, not because they are the Old Law, but because they are part of the natural law, and therefore part of the New Law:
The Old Law showed forth the precepts of the natural law, and added certain precepts of its own.
– Summa Ia.IIae.98.5
From the above we can see that the Catholic Church teaches that the 10 Commandments are valid in precept, in their fundamental or primordial content, but not as a legal code. The Old Law is not binding on Christians, yet the 10 Commandments form part of the Old Law.
Official Magisterial statements
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Since they express man’s fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor, the Ten Commandments reveal, in their primordial content, grave obligations. They are fundamentally immutable, and they oblige always and everywhere. No one can dispense from them. The Ten Commandments are engraved by God in the human heart.
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2072
The 10 Commandments reveal grave obligations. They are not themselves grave obligations.
They reveal these obligations – in their primordial content. Their primordial content is natural law – it is because they is part of natural law that a) they are obligations, and b) they could be written into the Decalogue for those who did not read it in their hearts.
Their non-primordial (ethnic: see Joseph Ratzinger, above) content, e.g. the need for “thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” to rest, and coveting neighbours’ oxen and donkeys, is not relevant to non-Israelites. Even the mention of Creation and the Exodus are replaced, for Christians, with the New Creation and the redemption from sin.
The 10 Commandments are fundamentally immutable – they are immutable at their most basic level, in their primordial content, because they are part of natural law.
The Council of Trent:
If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema.
– Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Canon 19
It is wrong to say that the 10 Commandments “nowise appertain” to Christians. In modern English, “nowise” means “in no way“. We already know that the 10 Commandments DO apply to Christians because their principles are part of natural law and the New Law. So this is not contrary to what I have been saying, and have found support for in the writings of the Church Fathers, modern Catholic apologists, and the official Catholic magisterium.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Law of the Gospel “fulfills,” refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection. In the Beatitudes, the New Law fulfills the divine promises by elevating and orienting them toward the “kingdom of heaven.” It is addressed to those open to accepting this new hope with faith – the poor, the humble, the afflicted, the pure of heart, those persecuted on account of Christ and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom.
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1967
The Pontifical Biblical Commission:
As regards the central contents of the Law (the Decalogue and that which is in accordance with its spirit), Ga 5:18-23 affirms first of all: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law” (5:18). Having no need of the Law, a person will spontaneously abstain from “works of the flesh” (5:19-21) and will produce “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22).
– The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, section 45, Pontifical Biblical Commission, 2001
Mystici Corporis Christi, 29-30, Pope Pius XII:
And first of all, by the death of our Redeemer, the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished … “To such an extent, then,” says St. Leo the Great, speaking of the Cross of our Lord, “was there effected a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from the many sacrifices to one Victim, that, as Our Lord expired, that mystical veil which shut off the innermost part of the temple and its sacred secret was rent violently from top to bottom.”
Pope Pius XII uses St Thomas Aquinas’ term “Old Law“.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent:
With regard to the exposition of this Commandment, the faithful are carefully to be taught how it agrees with, and how it differs from the others, in order that they may understand why we observe and keep holy not Saturday but Sunday.
The point of difference is evident. The other Commandments of the Decalogue are precepts of the natural law, obligatory at all times and unalterable. Hence, after the abrogation of the Law of Moses, all the Commandments contained in the two tables are observed by Christians, not indeed because their observance is commanded by Moses, but because they are in conformity with nature which dictates obedience to them.
– Catechism of the Council of Trent
The other commandments are precepts of natural law, and that is why Christians need to observe them. The Law of Moses was abrogated – in the context of the 10 Commandments, clearly the term includes them. We do not observe the 10 Commandments because their observance was commanded by Moses. We observe them because they are part of natural law.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent again:
But, lest the people, aware of the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, may imagine that the precepts of the Decalogue are no longer obligatory, it should be taught that when God gave the Law to Moses, He did not so much establish a new code, as render more luminous that divine light by which the depraved morals and long-continued perversity of man had at that time almost obscured. It is most certain that we are not bound to obey the Commandments because they were delivered by Moses, but because they are implanted in the hearts of all, and have been explained and confirmed by Christ our Lord.
– Catechism of the Council of Trent
When God gave Moses the Law, he established a new code, but more importantly, he shone a light on natural law that people had forgotten. (See CCC 1962 below.) We are bound to obey the 10 Commandments because natural law has been written onto our hearts, NOT because they were given to Moses. Our obligations to obey these principles existed before and after the time during which the Old Law was legally in force.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Old Law is the first stage of revealed Law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments. The precepts of the Decalogue lay the foundations for the vocation of man fashioned in the image of God; they prohibit what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor and prescribe what is essential to it. The Decalogue is a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God’s call and ways known to him and to protect him against evil: God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1962
The precepts of the Decalogue … that doesn’t mean the Decalogue itself. The principles underlying the 10 Commandments are part of natural law, written on our hearts. The Decalogue was given because men did not read in their hearts what was written there.
In the three part series that came before this, we have seen from the Bible that the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant Law, and that the 10 Commandments are part of the Old Covenant Law, which has been abolished. St Paul explicitly includes the 10 Commandments, written on tables of stone, in his thesis. Adventists, for some reason, have failed to comprehend that the 10 Commandments are part of a law no longer legally in force, and they fail to understand how we can be under a better law.
The Old Law, as a whole, was binding on Israel, but never anyone else, not even the Gentiles they lived alongside. The moral components of that law, however, were binding on all, even before the 10 Commandments were given, because they were part of the natural law anyone could grasp.
I have given plenty of evidence that the Catholic Church does not deny this, and in fact it is easy to support from Catholic statements on other matters. The more common Catholic statements promoting the 10 Commandments are part of a fight against moral relativism rather than a technical appraisal of the status of a legal code. In discussions about the technical aspects of the Old Covenant, it becomes clear that the 10 Commandments, in their fundamental content, are binding on Christians, even though the 10 Commandments as a legal code are not the law in force today for Christians. The New Law has been written on our hearts, and there is no evidence that the 7th day Sabbath was included in what was written there.
- Why We Are Not Bound by Everything in the Old Law … Catholic Answers
- 7 Reasons to reject Sabbatarianism (Seventh Day Sabbath Keeping) … by Nick
- The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament … Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Communio, Winter 1995
- The Sabbath vs Sunday debate (a look at all the biblical texts relating to Sabbath and Sunday observance)
- Sabbath and the First Day – Why do Catholics worship on Sunday instead of Saturday? … By John Hellman
- Dies Domini: Is Saturday the True Sabbath? … by Jacob Michael
- Sabbath or Sunday? – The Church Fathers … Catholic Answers
- The Covenant With Israel … by Avery Cardinal Dulles [via the Internet Archive here]
- On the Spirit and the Letter … by St Augustine of Hippo
- Paul and the Law … by Jimmy Akin