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.

Friday, June 15, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Command and Fulfilment

THE COVENANTAL UNDERSTANDING of morality poses some problems for theologians. Perhaps the most significant is that it risks confusing the transcendent and the immanent. How can anyone say "no," or perhaps better, how can one say anything but "yes" to the sovereign God who created heaven and earth? There is something of a difficulty in supposing that contingent being can be an equal partner in a covenant with Being Himself.  When we pray, like St. Francis did, Deus meus et omnia, my God and my all, doesn't the "all" crowd out the "my"?  How does the "my" survive at all?

To put the issue another way, how does one preserve the integrity of nature, of natura pura, once the supernatural element is superimposed as the ultimate ground of action?   How can the natural order mean anything when the supernatural order intervenes through a covenant, a one-on-one agreement, a postitive command?  Doesn't this one-on-one agreement supplant the earlier order?  Isn't all then to be governed by the terms of the covenant, and none by the pre-existing order?  Don't we run the risk of a divine positivism?

In fact, those who stress the covenantal view of God and ethics, such as Karl Barth and Jaques Ellul,* How dare we speak of an order separate and apart from God, an order that is quasi-independent of him?  If God is sovereign, so is his will, and to posit some sort of order with its own rationality offends against this sovereignty.  For this reason, both Barth and Ellul rejected any notion of the natural law.  "They go so far as to characterize the kind of human control over ethics advocated in natural law approaches as instances of sinful human pride."  Steck, 63.**

 Abraham Sacrifices Isaac by Marc Chagall

By stressing the covenantal aspect of our relationship to God, von Balthasar also tends to posit a discontinuity between the "immanent operations of reason and moral discernment."  In other words, sometimes--perhaps the best example is Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac--God may require something unreasonable of his lesser partner. 

[God's personal address] represents an ethical claim that is not grounded in the horizontal (creaturely) order or discovered by the immanent operation of human reason. It transcends these and thus can only be received through some form of obedience (e.g., submission, assent, consent).

Steck, at 63.  In tension with this, von Balthasar also argues that such discontinuity between the transcendent God who commands and the immanent man who obeys the command (and therefore potentially if not actually turns back on the immanent order of nature) does not reduce the creature's integrity; rather, it serves to promote it and to fulfill it.  In this manner, von Balthsar tries to put a cushion between God and man so as to preserve human autonomy and creative freedom.  Man must be more than a slave who has no will but God's will, who has no reality of his own but God alone.  Even if his will is subordinate to God's he has something freely to subordinate.  Some question whether von Balthsars effectively does and remains with the Catholic ethical tradition.

How does von Balthasar, who focuses on a covenantal ethic (which works on a person-to-person command, and not a universal law basis) preserve the integrity of the human order?  Specifically, how does the requirement of man's obedience to the covenantal command preserve man's freedom and integrity?

To answer this question, we must look at von Balthasar's notion of command, notion of obedience, and see how he puts the two together so that obedience-to-command (what von Balthasar understands as mission) preserves and fulfills the lesser partner to the covenant.  We may wonder whether von Balthasar is successful, or whether his form of the divine command theory goes astray from the Catholic tradition.
*Of course, neither of these two men wrote within the Catholic tradition.  Barth was more or less Calvinist and wrote clearly within the Reformed tradition; Ellul was rather idiosyncratic and is frequently characterized as a Christian anarchist.
**All is grace for them.  But if all his grace, what is grace saving?  Isn't there a nature (and hence an order) that grace (and its order) is saving?  Grace isn't saving nothing!

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