Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Augustine: Natura Gratiaque aut Gratia Naturaque

The Catholic St. Augustine

THE DOCTOR OF GRACE, SAINT AUGUSTINE, SOUNDLY REJECTS Karl Barth's view of the total depravity or corruption of man's nature, the unreliability or irrelevancy of the natural law, and the doctrine of sola gratia. In this blog posting, St. Augustine's balanced viewpoint as found in his book Nature and Grace (written in response to Pelagius's book Nature) is presented as a balanced theory of the interplay between Grace and Nature, Grace and Law.

It should be kept in mind that Augustine's Nature and Grace was a polemic against Pelagius's book Nature (which essentially denied the need for supernatural Grace). (Barth's opposition to the natural law doctrine is that it detracts from the doctrine of Grace, and essentially leads to Pelagianism, and so it is interesting to compare Barth's response to St. Augustine's response.)

In his Retractions, St. Augustine discusses how Pelagius defended human nature "in opposition to the grace of God" (hominis naturam contra Dei gratiam), and how he sought in his response "not [to] defend grace in opposition to nature," but rather sought to show grace as nature's complement, a "grace by which nature is set free and ruled" (gratiam non contra naturam sed per quam natura liberatur et regitur) (I/23, p. 204, quoting Retractions II, 68(42)). Barth's mistake was to oppose grace to nature when confronting adversaries--real or imagined--that he felt opposed nature to grace. In contrast to Barth's either/or approach, St. Augustine chose a more balanced both/and response to nature's threat against grace, a via media that linked the two together.

St. Augustine views man's nature as vitiated, but not entirely destroyed, since Adam's fall. Man's nature is like that of a "man whom robbers left half-dead on the road" (semivivum latrones in via reliquerunt). "Injured and seriously wounded," gravibus saucius confossusque vulneribus, man's nature "cannot rise up to the peak of righteousness," non ita potest ad iustitiae culmen ascendere, as it was "able to come down from there," sicut potuit inde descendere, and even if at the inn, that is, even if Christian, "he is still undergoing treatment," etiam si iam in stabulo est adhuc curatur. Thus, for Augustine, all men are injured, and in urgent need of a divine Samaritan's and Physician's aid, to transfer them from the roadside, provide them medication, and assure them confinement in an inn while they heal. (I/23, No. 50(43), p. 250) Man's need for Christ the Divine Physician is essential, and the Cross of Christ is not rendered vain by a doctrine that salvation is obtained through natural means.

Man's wounded nature thus cries for a divine physician, and yet withal it does not decry its fundamental dignity:

The God who is his creator is also his savior. Hence, we should not praise the creator so that we are forced to say, indeed so that we are found guilty of saying, that the savior is unnecessary. We should, then, honor human nature with the praises it deserves, and we should refer those praises to the glory of the creator. But we should be grateful that he created us in such a way that we are not ungrateful that he heals us. We should attribute our defects which he heals, not to God's work, but to the human will and his just punishment. As we admit that it was within our power that they not occur, so we should admit that it lies in his mercy rather than in [our] own power that they be healed.
Ipse est autem Creator eius qui Salvator eius. Non ergo debemus sic laudare Creatorem, ut cogamur, immo vere convincamur dicere superfluum Salvatorem. Naturam itaque hominis dignis laudibus honoremus easque laudes ad Creatoris gloriam referamus; sed quia nos creavit, ita simus grati, ut non simus, quia sanat, ingrati. Vitia sane nostra, quae sanat, non divino operi, sed humanae voluntati iustaeque illius vindictae tribuamus; sed ut in nostra potestate fuisse ne acciderent confitemur, ita ut sanentur in illius magis esse misericordia quam in nostra potestate fateamur.
(I/23, No. 39(34), p. 244)

In his response to Pelagius, though he stresses mankind's need for Grace, Augustine insists on the value of Nature in a manner at odds with Barth. Augustine thus navigates between the Charybdis of Pelagius's sola natura, and the Scylla of Barth's sola gratia, preserving the role of the law of Grace and the law of Nature. Augustine's doctrine may therefore be summarized as natura gratiaque aut gratia naturaque. Augustine insists that the life of a Christian is nature and grace, grace and nature. Either way, nature was part of the equation. While St. Augustine insists on the necessity of grace in the matter of salvation and sanctification, he equally insists that man's nature, though severely injured by the Fall, retains sufficient amounts of its original image so as to be a natural source of God's law, that is, his reasoned, even naturally revealed will. For St. Augustine, the Christian life requires a cooperation between the Spirit and Grace, and the natural moral law.

In navigating between the shoals of grace and nature, St. Augustine is the better guide. If we follow Barth we shall founder and, in denying the Natural Law, ultimately deny the Gospel.

The Calvinist Karl Barth

(English translation is taken from Volume I/23 of The Works of Saint Augustine (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997). Citations are to paragraphs and page numbers. The Latin text is taken from the excellent web page dedicated to the works of St. Augustine,

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