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, October 9, 2011

Duns Scotus: Decalogue or Trilogue? Part 1

THE COMMON TEACHING OF MEDIEVAL THEOLOGIANS was that the Decalogue or Ten Commandments represented a synopsis or summary of the natural law, and, as natural law, their precepts were immutable, and therefore admitted of no dispensation.* Granted, formally, these laws were revealed, but they were, at the same time, materially equivalent to laws that were discoverable by reason, i.e., they were part and parcel of the natural moral law. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church (more vaguely, perhaps, in part as a concession to Scotus) in section 1981 "The Law of Moses contains many truths naturally accessible to reason." In section 1958, the Catechism states: "The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout all the variations of history." Scotus takes a different view. The only precepts of the Decalogue that are natural law, strictly-so-called, are those of the "first table," i.e., those that pertain only to man's relation to God. The precepts of the "second table" of the Decalogue are not part of the natural law strictly-so-called, although they are "exceedingly in harmony with that law."

The big problem confronting those who advance the position that all the Ten Commandments present the immutable natural law from which there is no dispensation even by God, arises from those areas in Scripture where God seems to give approval to behavior not consonant with some of Decalogue's precepts. Frequently, the command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Gen. 22:1-12, the spoliation of the Egyptians by the Jews, Exodus 11:2, 12:35-36, and the command to the prophet Hosea to take the harlot Gomer, daughter of Debelaim, and through her have "children of fornication," Hosea 1:1-3.

Statue of Blessed Duns Scotus at his birthplace

Scotus handles the problem of these seeming Biblical infractions of the precepts against murder, stealing, and adultery in Ordinatio III, suppl, dist. 37 (translated in Wolter, 198-207), where he handles the 37th distinction of Book III of Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences, and addresses the question: "Do all the commandments of the decalogue belong to the law of nature?"

As is typical in setting up his view, Scotus presents the differing views, pro and con. The most fundamental argument against the view that all the precepts of the Decalogue are part of the natural law and hence immutable is the apparent dispensations of that law in revealed Scripture. The argument is that if the precepts of the Decalogue are natural law, they are immutable and necessarily so and admit of no dispensation, even by God. The reason for this is as follows. Scotus begins with his definition of natural law strictly so-called: "What pertains to the law of nature is either a practical principle known immediately from its terms or necessary conclusions that follow from such principles." For Scotus, a precept of natural law must either be self-evident, or must be immediately a conclusion from those self-evident precepts. Even God cannot make these false, as to make these precepts false would involve denial of the fundamental principle of non-contradiction which constrains even God. Something cannot both be and made not to be. If the precept is necessary (self-evident) or is a necessary conclusion from a self-evident precept, God cannot dispense without self-contradiction, and God, like reality, cannot be self-contradictory. It follows that those precepts in which God has dispensed cannot, strictly speaking, be precepts of the natural law. Either that, or what appear to be dispensations are not really dispensations, but clarifications. God "cannot make what they say is good to be anything but good, or what they say must be avoided to be anything but evil, and thus he cannot make what is illicit licit." Scotus cites to the loci classici of problematic situations: Abraham's test, the spoliation of the Egyptians, and the command to Hosea as apparent dispensations from the commands that prohibit killing, stealing, and committing adultery.

As Scotus summarizes the prevalent view:

One view here claims that the whole decalogue pertains to the law of nature and explains it in some such way as this. The law of nature is a law proceeding from first principles known to hold for actions; these are seminal practical principles known from their terms. The intellect is naturally inclined to their truth because of their terms, and the will is naturally inclined to assent to what they dictate. From such principles everything in the decalogue follows either mediately or immediately. For all that is commanded there has a formal goodness whereby it is essentially ordered to man's ultimate end, so that through it a man is directed to his end. Similarly everything prohibited there has a formal evil which turns one from the ultimate end. Hence, what is commanded there is not good merely because it is commanded, but commanded because it is good in itself. Likewise, what is prohibited there is not evil merely because it is prohibited, but forbidden because it is evil. On this view, then, it seems the reply to the first argument should be that God simply cannot dispense from such cases, for what is unlawful of itself cannot, it seems become licit through any will.
(Wolter, 200)

How, then, do the advocates of this view (such as St. Thomas) "explain away those texts where God seems to have given dispensation"? According to Scotus:
One way of doing this is to claim that though a dispensation could be granted to an act that falls under a generic description [like killing in general], it could never be given insofar as it is prohibited according to the intention of the commandment [e.g., killing an innocent neighbor], and hence [killing and unjust aggressor, for example] would not be against the prohibition. Put another way, an act that is inordinate cannot become well-ordered, but an act insofar as it violates a prohibition is inordinate. Therefore, it cannot be subject to dispensation insofar as it is against a prohibition.
(Wolter, 200)

St. Thomas avers absolutely that strict dispensation from the natural law is impossible. IaIIae, q. 100, art. 8. What appear to be dispensations in Scripture, are just apparently so. These apparent exceptions or dispensations to the law are either interpretations of the law (clarifications in a specific case, a clarification of the intent of the legislator), IaIIae, q. 94, art. 5, ad. 2; q. 100, art. 8, ad. 4, or involve, not a dispensation from law, but a change of circumstance effected by God who, as the Lord of the cosmos and Judge of men, changed underlying circumstances, thus changing the application of that natural law which remained immutable. Accordingly, God can take a person's life and allow another to be the executioner, and there is no violation of the precept, "thou shalt not kill." God can take another person's property in punishment, and transfer title to another, which thereby results in no violation of the precept "thou shalt not steal."

Scotus finds the positions of St. Thomas and similar positions unconvincing. By definition, a dispensation is not allowing the precept to stand and allow permission for a person to act against. Rather, a dispensation revokes the precept or declares how it is to be understood. Dispensations are therefore of two kinds: "one revokes the law, the other clarifies it."

Given that definition, Scotus asks whether, under a particular precept of the natural law and under identical circumstances, God can prohibit and make illicit a certain act (say, murder) with one individual, but licit and allowable for another? Is there a situation where God can dispense Abraham from the law, but not Philip, though Philip and Abraham are in identical circumstances? If the answer is yes, then God has the power to dispense from the law unconditionally, and the natural law would be no different than those Mosaic ceremonial prescriptions or other prescriptions that are of the nature of positive law. The law against murder, then, would be identical to the kosher laws. And God seems to have done just that in these exceptional Scriptural situations.

For this reason, Scotus insists that the only real precepts of natural law, strictly so called, in the Decalogue, are found in the "first table" or the decalogue, and not in the "second table." All the precepts of the "first table" regard God immediately as their object. All the precepts of the "second table" do not. As Scotus explains the difference between the precepts of the "first table" and the "second table" of the Decalogue:

[T]he first table . . . regard God immediately as object. Indeed, the first two, if they are understood in a purely negative sense--i.e., "You shall not have other gods before me" and "You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain," i.e., "You should show no irreverence to God"--belong to the natural law, taking law of nature strictly, for this follows necessarily [from the proposition] "If God exists, then he alone must be loved by God." . . . Consequently, God could not dispense in this regard . . . .

Ordinatio III, suppl., dist. 37 (Wolter, 202) The precepts of the "second table" in Scotus's opinion do not participate in this necessary nature:
[T]he reasons behind the commands and prohibitions [of the second table of the Decalogue] are not practical principles that are necessary in an unqualified sense, nor are they simply necessary conclusions from such. For they contain no goodness such as is necessarily prescribed for attaining the goodness of the ultimate end, nor in what is forbidden is there such malice as would turn one away necessarily from the last end, for even if the good found in theses maxims were not commanded, the last end [of man as union with God] ;could still be loved and attained.
Ordinatio III, suppl., dist. 37 (Wolter, 2002).

According to Scotus, the only real precept of natural law, then, is, as Christ summarized it, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. E.g., Luke 10:27, Mark 12:30. The precepts that Christ summarized as involving the principle of loving one's neighbor as one self, i.e, those involved in the "second table" of the Decalogue are not natural law precepts.

As to the third precept of the "first table" of the Decalogue--to keep holy the Sabbath day--the underlying precept that some time be allotted to give God worship is a principle of the natural law strictly so-called, but the specification of when that time is is not a natural law precept. Nothing necessarily requires that God be worshiped on the Sabbath, but the natural law does require that he be worshiped at regular intervals. Though some suggest that the entirety of the Third Commandment is not of the natural law, Scotus disagrees. If the requirement that God at least be worshiped during a definite time is not part of the indispensable natural law, then:

God could dispense from it absolutely, so that a man for the entire duration of his life would never have to manifest any affection or love for God. This does not seem probably, for without some act of goodwill or love towards God as ultimate end, one could not do anything simply good that would be needed to attain that end, and thus this person would never be bound to will anything that is simply good in an unqualified sense. . . . Therefore, strictly speaking, it is not clear how one could infer that a person is bound then or now to worship God, and, by the same reasoning, how anyone is bound at some undefined time to do so, for no one is obliged to perform at some undefined time an act which he is not obligated to perform at some undefined time an act which he is not obligated to perform at some definite time when some opportunities so present themselves.

(Wolter, 203)

While the precepts in the "second table" of the Decalogue are, in Scotus's view, not part of the natural law strictly-so-called, they belong to the natural law in an attenuated sense because "they are exceedingly in harmony with that law." In other words, the precepts in the "second table" of the Decalogue are not self-evident or direct conclusions from self-evident principles, such as those of the "first table" which obviously implement the great principle of Scotist morality: God is to be loved, Deus diligendus est. The precepts of the "second table" "are very much in harmony with the first practical principles that are known of necessity," and thus are part of the natural law "speaking broadly."

So Scotus summarizes his conclusions:
To put all we have said together, first we deny that all the commandments of the second table pertain strictly to the law of nature; second, we admit that the first two commandments belong to the law of nature; third, there is some doubt about the third commandment of the first table; fourth, we concede that all the commandments fall under the law of nature, speaking broadly.
(Wolter, 204).

This distinction between the natural law strictly-so-called, and the natural law "speaking broadly," postures Scotus in a position where he can explain those seeming exceptions to the natural law if all ten commandments are made part of the law of nature strictly-so-called.

*A summary of St. Thomas's view that the Decalogue contains the natural law and admits of no dispensation may be found in the Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, q. 100, arts. 1, c., and 8, c.
It is therefore evident that since the moral precepts are about matters which concern good morals; and since good morals are those which are in accord with reason; and since also every judgment of human reason must needs by derived in some way from natural reason; it follows, of necessity, that all the moral precepts belong to the law of nature; but not all in the same way. For there are certain things which the natural reason of every man, of its own accord and at once, judges to be done or not to be done: e.g. "Honor thy father and thy mother," and "Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal": and these belong to the law of nature absolutely. And there are certain things which, after a more careful consideration, wise men deem obligatory. Such belong to the law of nature, yet so that they need to be inculcated, the wiser teaching the less wise: e.g. "Rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man," and the like. And there are some things, to judge of which, human reason needs Divine instruction, whereby we are taught about the things of God: e.g. "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything; Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Now the precepts of the decalogue contain the very intention of the lawgiver, who is God. For the precepts of the first table, which direct us to God, contain the very order to the common and final good, which is God; while the precepts of the second table contain the order of justice to be observed among men, that nothing undue be done to anyone, and that each one be given his due; for it is in this sense that we are to take the precepts of the decalogue. Consequently the precepts of the decalogue admit of no dispensation whatever.

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