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, December 20, 2009

John Calvin: The Ten Commandments of the Natural Law

John Calvin

CONSONANT WITH ITS ROLE AS JUDGE AND CONSCIENCE KEEPER, Calvin virtually equated the content of the natural law with the content of the divine law as revealed in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments of Moses. Indeed, if one were to follow Professor Clark, "the most notable difference between Thomas and Calvin," in the area of epistemology and definition of the natural law, "is that the latter defined natural law primarily in terms of the Declaogue and Thomas did not." R. S. Clark, "Calvin on the Lex Naturalis," Solus Theological Journal 6:1-2 (May-November 1998), 7-8. Essentially, Calvin short-circuited the role of Reason as a legitimate source of morality, and facilely equated the natural law with the divinely-revealed law of Moses on Mount Sinai, and, to a lesser extent, Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount.

While St. Thomas viewed the natural law as overlapping with, and certainly not contradictory of, the precepts of the Decalogue or Jesus' divine teaching, St. Thomas sought to build his doctrine of the natural law on a broader, universal, and more sophisticated philosophical foundation. Relying on self-evident principles of practical reason and constructing from those, St. Thomas thus provides a non-confessional doctrine of the natural law. It is important to note that St. Thomas did not teach that the natural law and the Decalogue were at odds. What he insisted upon, however, was that the natural law--a law based upon Reason--was not in conflict with the Revealed Law of the Decalogue. The natural law began with the self-evident principle that good is to be done, and evil is to be avoided, that we ought to act in accord with reason, and then descends from there into the practical contingencies of life. S.T. IaIIae, art. 94.

Calvin, however, frowned upon philosophers, and doubted their value. Philosophers, Calvin, wrote
. . . saw things in such a way that their seeing did not direct them to the truth, much less enable them to attain it. They are like a traveler passing through a field at night (qualiter nocturni fulgetri coruscationem, qui in medio agro est viator) who in a momentary lighting flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of night before he can even take a step--let alone be direct on his way by its help.
Institutes, II.2.18. Calvin's negative assessment of the natural law and his virtual identification of the the content of the natural law with the Decalogue probably stems from Luther, and this explains Calvin's diversion from the Thomistic teaching. R.S. Clark, 11-12. It was Luther's "threads which Calvin took up in his exposition of natural law, not those of the Stoa or Thomas." R.C. Clark, 12.

Though Calvin would not have foreseen it in a European culture commonly Christian, his rejection of the Thomistic construct was to have serious repercussions. Calvin's emphasis of conscience over practical reason, and his equating the natural law with the Decalogue rather than upon a philosophical base, de-objectified the natural law, over-subjectified it. Once the Enlightenment ushered in a generation eager to reject the Mosaic dispensation as divinely revealed, Calvin's doctrine imploded into rank subjectivism and relativism. This partially explains the relativism and liberalism suffered by those polities originally fed by Calvin's strict Protestant ethos. As Marc Edouard Chenevière argued in his La pensée politique de Calvin, "Calvin broke the bonds that attached the knowledge of natural law to reason and rested it upon conscience, which he understood in conventionally modern terms as a subjective faculty that had no need for reason to authenticate its prescriptions and prohibitions." Grabill, 93 (Grabill, however, disagrees).

Title Page to Calvin's Institute of Christian Religion

All said and done, Calvin's teaching on the natural law is deficient. Because of his distrust of its inherently depraved nature post lapsus, reason was given no robust role. Instead of founding the natural law on practical reason, Calvin--following Luther--simply equated the natural law with the Ten Commandments. This was dangerously close to equating natural law and divine law. Calvin, who appears to have rejected a realist view of reality and adopted Luther's nominalism, rejected the role of eternal law and the Thomistic notion that the natural law participates in the eternal law. The result is a watered down theory of the natural law unable to provide positive guidance either to Christian or pagan. Natural law's only role relegated to the negative one of informing the non-Christian conscience of one's culpability before God. Consonant with his view of sola scriptura, the only moral law in practice was to be found in the Scriptures. Once society lost faith in the Scriptures, the natural law had no content to inform conscience, and so Calvin's recipe dissolved into a subjective and relative morality. The role of the natural law being shunted, laws that related strictly to politics, economics, and other mundane activities fell under a broad category called "general" or "common" grace, with little correspondence to the natural law, thus setting the stage for legal positivism.

No comments:

Post a Comment