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, February 26, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: Origen

ORIGEN IS ANOTHER AUTHORITY THAT IS frequently cited in exploring the early Christian attitudes regarding the death penalty. Origen's Contra Celsum (also called Contra Celsus), a work written against the anti-Christian polemic The True Word (Λόγος Ἀληθής) written by the anti-Christian philosopher Celsus, is the work that is taken as expressive of Origen's world view.


In his Contra Celsum, Origen (184/185–253/254) states that, as a result of Christ's coming, Christians are proscribed from applying the death penalties required by Mosaic law as part of their religious law. This has been misconstrued to suggest that Origen teaches that early Christians were against the death penalty. For example, David W. T. Brattston has opined that Origen's argument, which might be taken as "most able to related the consensus of ancient Christian teaching," is that "if Christians were in government they would be restrained by the laws of their religion" from putting wrongdoers to death.*

Brattston's interpretation of Origen is a colossal misinterpretation. The best way to show this is to reflect on Origen's text itself:
However, if we must refer briefly to the difference between the constitution which was given to the Jews of old by Moses, and that which the Christians, under the direction of Christ's teaching, wish now to establish, we would observe that it must be impossible for the legislation of Moses, taken literally, to harmonize with the calling of the Gentiles, and with their subjection to the Roman government; and on the other hand, it would be impossible for the Jews to preserve their civil economy unchanged, supposing that they should embrace the Gospel. For Christians could not slay their enemies, or condemn to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands, those who had broken the law, and were therefore condemned as deserving of these punishments; since the Jews themselves, however desirous of carrying out their law, are not able to inflict these punishments. But in the case of the ancient Jews, who had a land and a form of government of their own, to take from them the right of making war upon their enemies, of fighting for their country, of putting to death or otherwise punishing adulterers, murderers, or others who were guilty of similar crimes, would be to subject them to sudden and utter destruction whenever the enemy fell upon them; for their very laws would in that case restrain them, and prevent them from resisting the enemy. And that same providence which of old gave the law, and has now given the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not wishing the Jewish state to continue longer, has destroyed their city and their temple: it has abolished the worship which was offered to God in that temple by the sacrifice of victims, and other ceremonies which He had prescribed. And as it has destroyed these things, not wishing that they should longer continue, in like manner it has extended day by day the Christian religion, so that it is now preached everywhere with boldness, and that in spite of the numerous obstacles which oppose the spread of Christ's teaching in the world. But since it was the purpose of God that the nations should receive the benefits of Christ's teaching, all the devices of men against Christians have been brought to nought; for the more that kings, and rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more have they increased in number and grown in strength.
Contra Celsum, VII.26.**

Clearly, what Origen is speaking about in this text is the Christian notion of separation of Church and State. (cf. Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26) In ancient Judaism, like in traditional Islam, the political and religious realms were joined. Ancient Israel was both a Church and a State, and the Mosaic laws allowing capital punishment were given the Jews for the protection of their State. Origen therefore recognized that such laws that meted out the death penalty for adultery, murder, and other crimes was a proper power of the State. It was part of the natural law, separate and apart from divine law.

Christianity's particular doctrine, Origen states, and one which is necessary to its universal mission, is that things that are Caesar's are to remain Caesar's and that things that are God's are to remain God's. Therefore, Christians--unlike the historical Jews and traditional Muslims--can live under any political system, including that of Roman law, and indeed under the civil laws of any nation so long as they do not contradict the divine law or the natural law. Their religion does not incorporate into itself those kinds of laws that are necessary for the existence of the State.

Implied in Origen's entire argument is that the State, in the Christian view now separated from the Church, has the authority to inflict the death penalty for serious offenses and for the preservation of its constitutional, gubernatorial, justicial, and territorial integrity. There is nothing in Origen that would suggest that even a Christian confessional State would be morally required to prescind from the use of the death penalty in the proper circumstance.

*David W. T. Brattston, "Early Challenges to Capital Punishment," Catholic Insight, Vol. 17, no. 6 (June 2009) also published earlier in Christian Ethics Today (Fall 2008), Vol. 14, no. 4,
**The original Greek text: Εἰ δὲ χρὴ κἂν ὀλίγα περὶ τῆς διαφόρου πολιτείας εἰπεῖν, ἥντινα Ἰουδαῖοι κατὰ Μωϋσέα πρότερον ἐπολιτεύοντο, καὶ ἣν Χριστιανοὶ νῦν κατὰ τὴν Ἰησοῦ διδασκαλίαν βούλονται κατορθοῦν, φήσομεν ὅτι οὔτε τῇ κλήσει τῶν ἐθνῶν ἥρμοζε κατὰ τὸν Μωϋσέως ὡς πρὸς τὸ γράμμα πολιτεύεσθαι νόμον, ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίοις τεταγμένων, οὔτε τοῖς πάλαι Ἰουδαίοις οἷόν τ' ἦν τὸ σύστημα τῆς πολιτείας ἔχειν ἀκαθαίρετον, εἰ καθ' ὑπόθεσιν τῇ κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον πολιτείᾳ ἐπείθοντο. Ἀναι ρέσει μὲν γὰρ πολεμίων ἢ τῶν παρὰ τὸν νόμον πεποιηκότων καὶ ἀξίων κριθέντων τῆς διὰ πυρὸς ἢ λίθων ἀναιρέσεως οὐχ οἷόν τ' ἦν Χριστιανοὺς χρῆσθαι κατὰ τὸν Μωϋσέως νόμον, εἴ γε οὐδ' οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι θέλοντες κατ' ἐκείνων δύνανται ταῦτα, ὡς ὁ νόμος προσέταξεν, ἐπιτελεῖν. Πάλιν τε αὖ ἐὰν ἀνέλῃς ἀπὸ τῶν τότε Ἰουδαίων, σύστημα ἴδιον πολιτείας καὶ χώρας ἐχόντων, τὸ ἐπεξιέναι τοῖς πολεμίοις καὶ στρα τεύεσθαι ὑπὲρ τῶν πατρίων καὶ ἀναιρεῖν ἢ ὅπως ποτὲ κολάζειν τοὺς μοιχεύσαντας ἢ φονεύσαντας ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτοις παραπλησίων πεποιηκότας, οὐδὲν λείπεται ἢ τὸ ἄρδην αὐτοὺς ἀθρόους ἀθρόως ἀπολέσθαι, ἐπιτιθεμένων τῶν πολεμίων τῷ ἔθνει, ὡς ὑπὸ τοῦ ἰδίου νόμου ἐκνενευρισμένων καὶ κωλυομένων ἀμύνεσθαι τοὺς πολεμίους. Καὶ μὴ βουλο μένη γε ἡ πάλαι μὲν τὸν νόμον δεδωκυῖα πρόνοια νῦν δὲ τὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εὐαγγέλιον κρατεῖν ἔτι τὰ Ἰουδαίων καθεῖλεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν καὶ τὸν ναὸν καὶ τὴν παρὰ τῷ ναῷ διὰ θυσιῶν καὶ τῆς ἀναγεγραμμένης λατρείας θεραπείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. Ὥσπερ δ' ἐκεῖνα μὴ βουλομένη ἐπιτελεῖσθαι ἔτι καθεῖλε, τὸν τρόπον τὸν αὐτὸν τὰ Χριστιανῶν ηὔξησε καὶ ὁσημέραι εἰς πλῆθος ἤδη δὲ καὶ παρρησίαν ἐπιδέδωκε, καίτοι γε μυρίων ὅσων κωλυμάτων γενομένων πρὸς τὸ μὴ ἐπισπαρῆναι τὴν Ἰησοῦ διδασκαλίαν τῇ οἰκουμένῃ. Ἀλλ' ἐπεὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ βουλόμενος καὶ τοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν ἐθνῶν ὠφεληθῆναι διὰ τῆς Ἰησοῦ τοῦ Χριστοῦ διδασκαλίας, πᾶσα μὲν ἀνθρωπίνη βουλὴ κατὰ Χριστιανῶν καθῃρέθη, ὅσῳ <δ'> αὐτοὺς ἐταπεί νουν βασιλεῖς καὶ ἐθνῶν ἡγούμενοι καὶ δῆμοι πανταχοῦ, τοσούτῳ πλείους ἐγίνοντο "καὶ κατίσχυον σφόδρα σφόδρα".

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