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.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

John Calvin and the Natural Law: The Natural Law as Doom

John Calvin

TO RENDER MANKIND INEXCUSABLE before God was Calvin's conception of the purpose of the natural law. Calvin's doctrine of the natural law was decidedly pessimistic, and the role he allowed it to play in governing and ordering the moral life of man was restricted. Its role is largely negative, and partakes of a prosecutorial or judicial as, distinguished from a discursory or legislative, flavor. Perhaps the best place to start is by quoting John Calvin's Institutes. In the Second Chapter of the Second Book of the Institutes, Calvin provides us with a provisional definition of the natural law remarkably at odds with the definition of natural law that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas:
There is nothing more common that for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law (of which the apostle is here speaking). Let us consider, however, for what purpose men have been endowed with this knowledge of the law. How far it can lead them toward the goal of reason and truth will then immediately appear. This is also clear from Paul's words, if we note their context. He had just before said that those who sinned in the law are judged through the law; they who sinned without the law perish without the law. Because it might seem absurd that the Gentiles perish without preceding judgment, Paul immediately adds that for the m conscience stands in place of law; this is sufficient reason for their just condemnation. The purpose of natural law, therefore, is to render man inexcusable. [Finis ergo legis naturalis est, ut reddatur hom inexcusabilis.] This would not be a bad definition: natural law is that apprehension of the conscience that distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony. [Nec male hoc modo definietur, Quod sit conscientiae agnitio, inter iustum et iniustum sufficienter discernentis: ad tollendum hominibus ignorantiae praetextum, dum suo ipsourm tstimonion redarguuntur.]
Institutes, II.2.22.

Title Page to Calvin's Institute of Christian Religion

This definition of the natural law is cheap, and is a far cry from St. Thomas's positive conception of the natural law as a rule of reason, one that is "nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law." S.T. IaIIae, q. 91. In Calvin's view, the natural law is not a blueprint, a map that provides positive orientation or information about man's end. It is not a ladder that aids in man's acquisition of natural virtue. It is not a norm that informs us of our good. It is not a participation in the eternal law. Ultimately, Calvin's concept of the natural law is not really legislative, but markedly judicial. It arises, not in practical reason to guide men to the good, but only in the conscience, and then only to inform man of its infraction. As Grabill notes, Calvin's natural law view is derived from Calvin's "attributing greater weight to the post-lapsarian conscience over the pre-lapsarian reason," a reason which is not to be trusted after the fall, and that this change in emphasis is the "hallmark of his natural-law doctrine." Grabill, 73-74. For Calvin, natural law thus distills itself down to its single negative and prosecutorial or accusatory function "to affirm human culpability for actions that violate the moral law." Grabill, 71. That indefatigable inquisitor conscience, with the voices of "a thousand witnesses," Institutes, IV.10.3, "arraigns [men] as guilty before the judgment seat," Institutes IV.10.3. Natural law's role is in aid of that internal prosecutor, informing the always-certain condemnatory judgment, to render men inexcusable, to deprive them of excuse, to damn them. The natural law results in man's doom.

This limited conception of the natural moral law is also to be found in Institutes II.8.1:
Now that the inward law, which have above [II.2.22] described as written, even engraved, upon the hearts of all, in a sense [quodammodo] asserts the very same things to be learned from the two Tables [i.e., the Ten Commandments]. For our conscience does not allow us to sleep a perpetual insensible sleep without being an inner witness and monitor [intus testis sit ac monitrix corum] of what we owe God, without holding before us the difference between good and evil and thus accusing us when we fail in our duty . . . .
This rather one-dimensional role of the natural law and conscience may be compared to the rich, ebullient, and positive role of conscience in traditional teaching. One may quote John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas . . . .
Calvin thus denatures the natural law from its positive, guiding, legislative role, one based upon practical reason, and ultimately based upon the eternal law and God's overriding plan for us and four our end. The natural law is related to nothing other than the role of a Grillo parlante of Carlo Collodi, the Jiminy Cricket of Walt Disney, though with a personality significantly less cheery, and mercilessly dour.

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