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.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Origen on the Natural Law: The Pedagogue of the Soul

ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA, THE INCARNATION of the theology of the Alexandrian Catechetical School as it were, is an ecclesiastical figure that is truly sui generis. Intellectually, he is a prodigy, one of the colossi of Christian thought. His father, Leonides, was beheaded by order of Emperor Septimius Severus when Origen was still a teenager, a fact which had a deep influence on Origen's efforts to be a worthy successor to a martyr father. Origen himself was arrested during the Decian persecution, was tortured, and succumbed to his injuries a few years later, not yet seventy years of age.

Origen was, as one might expect from a student of Clement of Alexandria, deeply influenced by a neo-Platonist speculative philosophy. The combination of this speculative neo-Platonism with a Stoic practical philosophy, a deeply Scriptural Christian theology, and a mind of incredible inventiveness, makes Origen's work extremely delicate and nuanced, complex, even abstruse. As a result of his assertion of controversial speculative positions, and some, indeed, heretical doctrines (e.g, a hierarchical notion of the Trinity, the apokatastasis, the pre-existence of souls), Origen has never comfortably settled into the Church's Tradition, and never will. Indeed, some of his doctrines, at least as advanced by his disciples, and even he by name himself, were anathematized in a local council in Constantinople in 545 A.D., and then, more formally, in the so-called "15 Anathemas" against Origin in the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople, of 553 A.D. Though his texts are cited by Catholic theologians, and though he is recognized as a great theologian within that communion, he is not considered, nor ever will be, a Father of the Church. Similarly, though his life was driven with a great zeal of discipleship, even to martyrdom, it is tainted by such severity as his self-mutilation by castration. Given such intellectual and moral imbalance, erring perhaps on the side of zeal by excess, Origen has not been accepted as a model of balanced, integrated, yet heroic virtue, that is to say, a canonized Saint. In fine, Origen must be judiciously read, and followed only temerariously, as within the undeniable wheat of his work, there is some significant an unpalatable chaff.

Deeply steeped in the Scriptures, and armed with a knowledge of Hebrew, Origen interpreted Scripture in a highly-allegorical fashion. Origen's constructions were, however, tied to the Apostolic tradition, and tempered by allegiance to the teaching of the magisterial authority of the Church. Despite his problematic positions on some doctrinal issues, Origen tried to live as a faithful son of the Catholic Church. Origen's corpus of works was immense: perhaps as many as 320 books, including Scriptural Commentaries, his philosophical treatise, De principiis (On First Principles), a work of Scriptural textual criticism called the Hexapla, 310 homilies, and numerous letters. And though many of these works have not survived, the works that have remained extant are truly formidable. Thankfully, the works of Origen that address the issue of the natural law do not seem particularly tainted by any of his controversial positions, and where they are, I will try to point that out.

Origen depicted in Parchment

The two of Origen’s works that address the issue of the natural law are his Commentary on Romans and his Contra Celsum. We shall focus in this blog entry on Origen’s Commentary on Romans.* In the next we shall focus on Origen's Contra Celsum.

In his Commentary on Romans, Origen clearly uses the term natural law in a moral sense. Its use by him is fully compatible with both the Stoic notions of the natural law, as well as St. Paul's teachings of it in the Epistle to the Romans. It is however within the context of Scriptural exegesis that Origen uses the term. At the outset of his commentary on St. Paul's great epistle, Origen warns that St. Paul's use of "law" in his Epistle to the Romans can be confusing, as he refers variously to the Mosaic law and the natural law, and careful distinction must be made in construing St. Paul's text. Only rarely does Origen use the term natural law in a physical sense, such as it being part of the law of nature that we die. e.g., Com. Rom., 4.10(1). Essentially, Origen understands the natural law in an exclusively moral sense, as a law of practical reason, implanted by God, and which directs us, through the testimony of conscience, to do good and avoid evil. Origen ties in the natural law or the natural moral law with St. Paul’s “law of my mind” in Romans 7:23. Com. Rom., 5.6(3). His view of the natural law is therefore decidedly more than mere biological: it is both intellectual and moral, and ultimately spiritual.

Origen, like his master Clement of Alexandria, and like the Jewish Hellenistic philosopher Philo, equates the essence of the Mosaic law, specifically the Decalogue, with the natural moral law. Whether in its positive form and promulgated by Moses (i.e., the Decalogue) or as manifested in the natural law by the witness of conscience, that "pedagogue" to the soul, the natural law binds both Jew and Gentile, that is to say, all mankind. At the heart of this natural law is the Golden Rule. And while the Gospel did not supplant the natural moral law, the natural law is not the sum-total of man’s end, for man, who has sinned and fallen short of the natural moral law and thus stands condemned by it, is called to go beyond the natural moral law, to the Son of God who fulfilled the natural moral law, who is the end of that law (in the sense of its objective or culmination). Ultimately, then, the natural moral law is a necessary preamble, a foundation, as it were, to knowledge of the righteousness of God, to the law of Christ, the law of faith and of grace. Through Christ, God effects his merciful forgiveness for past violations of the natural law, and provides the strength and ability to follow it. More than that, Christ is the avenue to truth, to goodness, to justice, and to communion with God in supernatural life. This is a short summary of Origen's teachings.

Origen’s notion of the natural law is firmly based upon St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. According to Origen, the law “written in the heart” of the Gentiles referred to by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (2:14-15) is not the Mosaic law in so far as it deals with rituals or sacrifice, but it would include all the precepts of the Decalogue: “The reference is instead to what they are able to perceive by nature, for instance, that they should not commit murder or adultery, they ought not to steal, they should not speak falsely, they should honor father and mother, and the like.” Com. Rom. 2.9(1) It is clear from this enumeration that Origen equates, as was common teaching at the time, the Decalogue revealed to the Jew with the natural moral law revealed to the Gentile. It is through the natural law that God has revealed his law to the Gentiles, albeit in an implied manner relative to the express revelation to the Jew in the form of the Mosaic law. Com. Rom., 2.7.5-6; 7.19.6. This natural law in the heart of the Gentiles, however, should not be construed as excluding the Jew: the natural law “is naturally innate within men, both Jews and Gentiles” Com. Rom., 3.6(2) It is thus universally binding upon all men.

One finds that God has in fact given to man every disposition and every drive by which he can press forward and advance toward virtue. Over and above the power of reason God has ensured that man should know what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid. One finds then that God has supplied these things universally to all men. But if a man who has received these things has disdained to advance upon the road of virtue, this man, to whom nothing was lacking from God, is found to be lacking in what is given to him by God. Deservedly, then, God is said to prevail in such a judgment and to be justified in his words.
Com. Rom., 3.6(2). Origen goes beyond the natural moral law as being just the tutor of good, and also suggests the possibility that “written in the hearts of the Gentiles” is the fact that “God is one and the Creator of all things.” Com. Rom. 2.9(1) The natural moral law would thus compel the recognition of our creaturehood, and the obligation to reverence the God who made us.

Medallion Possibly Depicting Origen

Origen advances the notion, common with the fathers and seen in Clement of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, and others, that not only is the natural law consonant with the Mosaic Decalogue, it is consonant with the “evangelical laws,” or the laws of the Gospel, “where everything is ascribed to natural justice,” the centerpiece of which is the Golden Rule. “For what could be nearer to the natural moral senses than that those things men do not want done to themselves, they should not do to others?” Origen asks rhetorically. Com. Rom., 2.9(1)

With respect to the particular, positive precepts of the Mosaic law, where reason is hard-pressed to find an explanation or justification, there remains, for Origen, even there a tenuous link between even those Jewish-specific rites such as circumcision, the prohibition of wearing wool woven with linen, or the prohibition of the use of yeast during the Passover. Cf. Gen.17:12; Lev. 12:3; Deut. 22:11; Ex. 12:15-20; 23-15. Here, however, we must go into allegorial construction of the laws, and interpret these provisions in a spiritual, not literal sense. “Natural law is able to agree with the law of Moses according to the spirit but not according to the letter.” Com. Rom., 2.9(1) Thus the Jewish rites and customs as revealed in the Old Testament, interpreted in a spiritual sense, may still have useful purpose in the life of the Christian.

The law that St. Paul speaks of, Origen clarifies, is not literally written in the heart; rather, it is a law of practical reason, as “one should realize that the soul’s rational power is normally called the heart.” Com. Rom., 2.9(2). This law of reason is made known to us through the testimony of conscience. The conscience of which St. Paul speaks of, and which condemns us and approves us is, in Origen’s view, “identical with the spirit, which . . . is with the soul.” “The conscience functions like a pedagogue to the soul, a guide and companion, as it were, that it might admonish it concerning better things or correct and convict it of faults.” Com. Rom., 2.9(3); see also 2.9(4). Thus conscience is part of man’s spiritual nature, and for Origen, is separate from the soul. [Note: This Origenist view is consistent with a Platonic or Pythagorean notion of a tri-partite or trichotomous view of human nature: body, soul, and spirit [soma, psyche, pneuma]. It may not be entirely consistent of a more proper dichotomous view of man [body and spiritual soul]. In a dichotomous view of man, conscience would, strictly speaking, be part of, or a component of, man's spiritual soul, and not a separate or different substance.] Upon reaching the age of reason, and coming to understand the natural moral law, faults or violations of that law are imputed to that person, and with such imputation spiritual death. Com. Rom., 3.2.(7)-(8); 5.1(23)-(26); 6.8(3)-(4). “Those who are at the time of life at which they have already received the ability to distinguish good and evil are under this law,” this “natural law, which is written in men’s hearts.” Because it requires the use of reason, it certainly excludes children, may exclude mentally incompetents, but includes all intelligent creatures, including the angels. Com. Rom., 3.6(1), (3), (4).

The natural law, however important it is in the life of man, is not an absolute end all. The natural law has limits to its witness. It does not, for example, witness to the righteousness of God. “God’s righteousness is disclosed apart from the law. For the law of nature was able to reveal the nature of sin and bring to light the knowledge of sin; but the righteousness of God surpasses and rises above whatever the human mind can scrutinize by natural senses alone.” Com. Rom., 3.7(5). Further, through both the natural moral law as well as the Mosaic law comes knowledge of sin. Com. Rom., 3.6; cf. Rom. 3:19-20. Yet in this regard, Origen is quick to defend both the Mosaic law and the natural law. The fact that sin is known through law does not impute evil on either the Mosaic law or the natural law. Knowledge of sin does not come “from the law,” but rather “through the law." Com. Rom., 3.6(9). Since the Fall, moreover, the “law in the members,” the fomes peccati, enters the world “under the cover of the natural law.” Com. Rom., 5.6.(1)-(4). Finally, the Jew, by his failure to comply with the jot and tittle of his law, stands condemned before his Mosaic law. The Gentile likewise stands condemned by his conscience before the natural moral law. Com. Rom., 3.2(7)-(9). The violation of the positive or natural law invites wrath. Com. Rom., 4.4; cf. Rom. 4:15. Most significantly, neither the Mosaic law nor the natural moral law offer a way out of the moral and soteriological problematic caused by the knowledge of sin, the existence of the law of the members, and the guilt associated with having violated them.

So it is that the natural law, despite the fact that it is good and of God, has limits. It does not and cannot save. Yet there is hope nevertheless, as man is called to go beyond the natural moral law. Alone, the natural law is an insufficient witness to the entire truth and the entire end of man. It is unable to testify to the revelation of God in Christ. The law of nature is not the law of Grace, and so it does not impel or draw a man to believe that Jesus is Lord, the son of God. Com. Rom., 3.7.8-10. The natural moral law is not equivalent to the “law of faith” that St. Paul speaks of in Romans 3:27. For fulfilment, we must also turn to the law that is Christ.
Christ is not under the law but is the fulfillment of law. And just as he himself is the righteousness through which all become righteous; and he is the truth through which all stand firm in the truth; and he himself is the life through which all live; so also he himself is the law through which all are under law. He comes to the judgment, then, not as one who is under law but as one who is law.
Com. Rom., 3.6(5). Both the Gentile and Jew, therefore, share a mutual need of Christ in addition to the Decalogue or natural moral law. Through the letter of the law, or the witness of conscience, and through obedience to the Decalogue or the natural moral law, Christ leads us to mystery, and in fact is that mystery. From the natural, we are lead to the supernatural. From the letter we are led to the spirit. From the law written to the heart, we are led to the very heart of God through the Word. There is the letter, which leads to law, and beyond all law is mystery.
The doctrine of the Law . . . at the school of Christ is like this, the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin [of a walnut]; secondly, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; thirdly, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future.

Hom. Num.
9, 7

*English translation of Origen's Commentary is from Scheck's translation, published by CUA as part of its Fathers of the Church series (2001).

No comments:

Post a Comment