Volume 81, Issue 2, Spring 2007
Sean Eisen Murphy
“The Law was Given for the Sake of Life”
Peter Abelard on the Law of Moses
Abelard’s most famous spokesman for the ancient and abiding moral and religious worth of the Law of Moses is probably the character of the Jew, invented
for one of two fictional dialogues in the Collationes. The equally fictive Philosopher, a rationalist theist who gets the last word in his exchange with the Jew, condemns the Law as a useless addition to the natural law, a threat to genuine morality with a highly dubious claim to divine origin. The Philosopher’s condemnation, however, does not go unanswered. Abelard himself, writing in his own voice in two major treatments of the Law (the Sermon for the Feast of the Circumcision and the Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans), defends the ancient worth of the Law as a revolution in moral understanding and a potential guarantor of salvation. The Law is just and rational, he argues, in every one of its precepts, even when interpreted according to the letter. As such, the letter of the Law has been and ought to be retained in Christianity: its moral precepts are binding everywhere and always; its non-moral precepts are binding, when, in the changing circumstances of the Church, they are found to be useful and not conducive to scandal.