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.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tertullian and the Natural Law: Christ not Chrysippus

NEQUE DEUS NEQUE NATURA MENTITUR, neither God nor nature lie. In this striking statement found in his De testimonium animae, Tertullian brings together both strands of the natural law and the divine law as components of our striving to comprehend the truth about what is, and what is good. Tertullian's theology was therefore informed by both nature and revelation. While he accepted the Christian revelation without reserve, he did not for all that disdain the testimony of natural theology and a natural moral law. Much of Tertullian's notion of a natural moral law was borrowed from the Stoic philosophy which Christians found so hospitable to their concept of the good. The notion of the natural moral law was complimentary, indeed, a necessary adjunct to, the Law of Christ. And yet in crafting their ideas of the natural moral law, the early Christians, including Tertullian, were not slavish, uncritical adopters of the Stoic moral philosophy. Tertullian was a follower of Christ, not of Chrysippus.

In light of Christ's abrogation of some of the Mosaic ceremonial and juridical laws, and under the divine commission to bring the Gospel to all men, Jew and Greek, the Christians sought to found their moral thinking upon those aspects of the divine law that remained binding, e.g., the Decalogue, and the law that was communicated by the natural moral law, that is, by reason and by conscience. Christ's redeeming death overcame the mankind's failure to obey both the Mosaic Law and the Natural Law. Christ was the end, the fulfillment, the telos of both the Mosaic Law and the Natural Law.

In deriving their synthetic position on universal morality, i.e., the existence of a natural moral law that bound all men, that governed their relationship with God, and by which they would be judged, the Christians both borrowed and added to the Stoic and Jewish concepts, and therefore enlarged both. "Broadly speaking," Michael Crowe states in his The Changing Profile of the Natural Law, "the Fathers seem to have been content with a conception of the natural law similar to that of Cicero. This conception was, of course, now put into a Christian setting; the impersonal deity or nature of the Stoics gives way to the Christian God, sovereign lord and lawgiver; and the knowledge of the the natural law and its precepts becomes more intimately a matter of conscience." (Crowe, at 59.) Tertullian followed this pattern. As Professor Marcia Colish puts it in her historical review of Stoicism:
By natural law, [Tertullian] means both the order of the universe and the moral bonds that unit all men, as well as man's natural capacity to know them, a distinctively Stoic amalgam although he does not name it as such. All men can know God and the good by natural law (naturale iuri), he avers, but this knowledge is by no means adequate to man's needs. It does not constitute the saving knowledge of god's ethical commandments or of God's transcendent power over nature, nor does it create a personal relationship between man and God. These vital epistemological and moral conditions are met only be revelation, first in the Mosaic covenant and consummately in the Gospel. In this instance, Tertullian rigorously deemphasizes any harmony that can be found between pagan truth and Christian truth in the light of the superiority of revelation.
Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985), 16-17.

Mosaic Depiction of Tertullian

Though therefore not an uncritical advocate of Stoic ideas, and though clearly not seeing the Stoic conception of the good sufficient in the light of Christ, Tertullian readily employs Stoic philosophy, especially in the areas of natural theology and the natural moral law. "He draws freely on the Stoic argument for the existence of God and His primary attributes on the evidence of the created order and on the basis of man's natural rational capacity to perceive God's connection with the creation." Colish, 17. Tertullian naturally "correlates man's natural knowledge of God with revelation, observing that God provides a fuller and more authoritative knowledge of Himself and His moral law in Holy Scripture." Colish, 18. One can summarize Tertullian's treatment of Stoicism thus: Tertullian treats Stoicism "as an ancilla [ancillary or sevant] to Christian truth." Colish, 18. Obedience to the natural law is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of salvation. The natural law formula alone is insufficient. But though the revelation of Christ must be joined thereto, the natural moral law is not therefore without essential value.

Tertullian saw the universal basis of the natural law in God's creation, and in the natural brotherhood of man that arose from mankind's common nature. In Chapter II.4-5 of his Spectaculis, Tertullian found that our nature bespoke of its creation by a benevolent God, and so was the source of universal moral instruction. Tertullian found that belief nearly universal, indeed, almost self-evident, although subject to limitations arising from ignorance or lack of clarity:
No one denies, because no one is ignorant of, that which nature of herself suggests: that God is the maker of the whole universe, and that that universe is both good and placed under man's dominion. But because they [the Pagans] know not God thoroughly, except by the natural law (naturali iure), not as being also of his household, but from afar, not close by, they necessarily must be ignorant regarding the manner in which he administers what he made, that is, what he encouraged and what he prohibited with regard to them, as well as the rival force from the opposing side which acts in adulterating the uses of the creatures of God. For they cannot know either the will, or that which resists the will, of him of whom they know nothing.
Nemo negat, quia nemo ignorat, quod ultro natura suggerit, deum esse universitatis conditorem eamque universitatem tam bonam quam homini mancipatam. Sed quia non penitus deum norunt nisi naturali iure, non etiam familiari, de longinquo, non de proximo, necesse est ignorent, qualiter administrari aut iubeat aut prohibeat quae instituit, simul quae vis sit aemula ex adverso adulterandis usibus divinae conditionis, quia neque voluntatem neque adversarium noveris eius quem minus noveris.
De spect., II.4-5. The natural law, therefore, found its source in the creation of the universe. This included man's nature, something that all men shared. So it was the common brotherhood of man, man created by the one God, that allowed for a common or universal notion of right and wrong, a univeral natural moral law. For example, in Chapter 39 of this Apologeticus pro Christianis, Tertullian dedected the natural law in the common humanity Christians shared with all men:
But we are also your brothers, by right of nature, the one mother, although you are little deserving of the name men, because you are evil brothers. But how much more worthily are those both called and considered brethren who have recognised one Father, namely God, who have imbibed one spirit of holiness, who from one womb of the same ignorance have quaked before one light of truth! (Souter, trans.)
Sed et quod fratres nos vocamus, non alias, opinor, insaniunt, quam quod apud ipsos omne sanguinis nomen de affectione simulatum est. Fratres autem etiam vestri sumus iure naturae matris unius, etsi vos parum homines, quia mali fratres. At quanto dignius fratres et dicuntur et habentur, qui unum patrem deum agnoverint, qui unum spiritum biberint sanctitatis, qui de uno utero ignorantiae eiusdem ad unam lucem expaverint veritatis!
Apol., XXXIX.8-9.

16th Century Woodcut of Tertullian

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