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 8, 2010

Origen on the Natural Law: Contra Celsum, Part I

IN HIS GREAT APOLOGY OF THE CHRISTIAN'S refusal to participate in the pagan ethos of the Roman empire, and responsive to the missive of the philosopher Celsus—Origen, in his Contra Celsum (Against Celsius or Κατά Κέλσου) addresses the distinction between human law and the natural moral law. Finding it amenable to his vision of the Christian life, Origen adopts the Stoic distinction between the law of the polis and the universal law, the natural law. The distinction between human law and the divinely-promulgated natural law, and the insistence that there is a higher law than human law, de-divinizes or de-absolutizes the human law. The existence of a natural moral law allows for human law to be criticized, both by reason and by the Gospel. The existence of such a standard also resists the pull of relativism, a relativism which demands tolerance of the truth that falsehood is many, but intolerance of the truth that truth may be one.
Origen depicted in Parchment

Celsus's first point against the Christians is to accuse them of violating the public laws in entering into "secret associations with each other contrary to law." Celsus propounds this accusation in an effort to discredit the law-abiding nature of the Christians, and to bring them into disrepute on account of their "agape feasts" of the Christians (ἀγάπην Χριστιανῶν)." Since . . . he babbles about the public law (τὸν κοινὸν νόμον)," alleging its violation, Origen responds by insisting that truth is above all human law. Thus, if a man "were placed among Scythians, whose laws were unholy (νόμους ἀθέσμους), and having no opportunity of escape, were compelled to live among them, such an one would with good reason, for the sake of the law of truth (τῆς ἀληθείας νόμον), which the Scythians would regard as wickedness, enter into associations contrary to their laws, with those like-minded with himself." Contra Cels., 1.1. The laws that require worship of images, or those that relate to atheistical polytheism (τῆς ἀθέου πολυθεότητος), such as those Celsus complains the Christians violate, are "Scythian" laws, or perhaps even more impious than the Scythian laws. "It is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of truth." Οὐκ ἄλογον οὖν συνθήκας παρὰ τὰ νενομισμένα ποιεῖν τὰς ὑπὲρ ἀληθείας Contra Cels., 1.1. At the inception of his work against Celsus, it is clear that Origen unapologetically makes reference to a "higher law," a law of "truth" which trumps human law to the extent that human law is in direct violation of it. Human law must bow to truth. Clearly, this alludes to a notion of the natural moral law which ought to govern the laws of men. It also clearly raises the threat the the State and its law may have to be disobeyed.

Origen also attacks the suggestion by Celsus that Christian morals are bizarre or out of the ordinary, and are not commonly accepted by any "venerable or new branch of instruction." Specifically, Celsus appears to be directing his complaints on "what the Greeks regard as a myth," namely God's writing of the Ten Commandments. Origen rejects the pagan philosopher's slight against the Ten Commandments. These, Origen observes, are consonant with the natural law, and so are not weird or predicated upon myth. The universal belief that we are punished or receive reward for our behavior suggests the existence of a standard.

[U]nless all men had naturally impressed upon their minds sound ideas of morality, the doctrine of the punishment of sinners would have been excluded by those who bring upon themselves the righteous judgments of God. It is not therefore matter of surprise that the same God should have sown in the hearts of all men those truths which He taught by the prophets and the Savior, in order that at the divine judgment every man may be without excuse, having the 'requirements of the law written upon his heart.'
Contra Cels., 1.4 The Christian system of morals is therefore not parochial; on the contrary, it is universal, as its basis is in those sound ideas of morality that are shared by all men. It is precisely this natural law that prohibits the worship of idols, as Celsus himself admits. Celsus cites Heraclitus as an example of how the Greeks disdained idolatry. It is as sensible to pray to images as if they were gods, says Heraclitus, as it is to "enter into conversation with houses." But Origen counters that the Heraclitean disdain of image worship is more ancient then Heraclitus, because it finds its basis "in the minds of men like the principles of morality (τῷ ἄλλῳ ἠθικῷ), from which not only Heraclitus, but any other Greek or barbarian, might be reflection have deduced the same conclusion." Contra Cels., 1.5 This very opinion is evidentiary "that there has been engraven upon the hearts of men by the finger of God a sense of the duty that is required (τοῦ δόγματος γέγραπται ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων γράμμασι θεοῦ τὸ πρακτέον)." Contra Cels., 1.5.

Later on in his defense against Celsus's invective against the Christians, Origen once again refers to the natural law and distinguishes it from the "written law of cities." There are, Origen begins, "generally two laws presented to us, the one being the law of nature, of which God would be the legislator [τῆς φύσεως νόμου, ὃν θεὸς ἂν νομοθετήσαι], and the other being the written law of cities [πόλεσι γραπτοῦ]." Contra Cels., 5.37.
[I]t is a proper thing, when the written law is not opposed to that of God, for the citizens not to abandon it under pretext of foreign customs (ξένων νόμων); but when the law of nature, that is, the law of God, commands what is opposed to the written law (ἔνθα δὲ τὰ ἐναντία τῷ γραπτῷ νόμῳ προστάσσει ὁ τῆς φύσεως τουτέστι τοῦ θεοῦ), observe whether reason (ὁ λόγος) will not tell us to bid a long farewell to the written code, and to the desire of its legislators, and to give ourselves up the legislator God (τῷ θεῷ νομοθέτῃ), and to choose a life agreeable to His word (τὸν τούτου λόγον), although in doing so it may be necessary to encounter dangers, and countless labors, and even death and dishonor.
Contra Cels., 5.37. The theme announced by Origen here is as old as Acts 5:29-30: "We must obey God rather than men!" It is as grating to the ear of the ancient tyrant, as it is to the ear of the modern secularist who bristles at the name of Jesus, or the the modern relativist who tyrannizes anyone who believes in objective truth or in objective good. Origen's appeal to the natural law is not, however, a cry for antinomianism or moral or legal anarchy. Quite the contrary, it is the cry of supernomianism, of a law above law which defines an end to human law, a reason or ordo by which it may be measured and critiqued, and a challenge to human law that we shall never allow it to utter the words non serviam. Origen continues:
For when there are some laws in harmony with the will of God, which are opposed to others which are in force in cities, and when it is impracticable to please God (and those who administer laws of the kind referred to), it would be absurd to contemn those acts by means of which we may please the Creator of all things, and to select those by which we shall become displeasing to God, though we may satisfy unholy laws (οὐ νόμοις νόμοις), and those who love them.
Contra Cels., 5.37 It is therefore reasonable to refuse allegiance to a law that contradicts the natural moral law. A fortiori, Origen continues, it is reasonable to refuse allegiance to a law that contradicts the positive law of God or that relates to his worship.
But since it is reasonable in other matters to prefer the law of nature, which is the law of God, before the written law, which has been enacted by men in a spirit of opposition to the law of God, why should we not do this still more in the case of those laws which relate to God?

Εἴπερ δὲ εὔλογον ἐπὶ τῶν ἄλλων τὸν τῆς φύσεως προτιμᾶν νόμον, ὄντα νόμον τοῦ θεοῦ, παρὰ τὸν γεγραμμένον καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἐναντίως τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ θεοῦ νενομοθε τημένον, πῶς οὐχὶ τοῦτο μᾶλλον ἐν τοῖς περὶ θεοῦ νόμοις ποιητέον
Contra Cels., 5.37. So Christians will reject all parochial and national gods: Jupiter and Bacchus of the Ethiopians, Urania and Bacchus of the Arabians, Osiris and Isis of the Egyptians, Athena as the Saïtes are wont to worship, or Serapis as the modern inhabitants of Naucratis have seen fit to invoke. The God worshiped by the Christians is not novel. Nor is He of local import. He was in the beginning, though only recently become incarnate. "For the holy Scriptures know him to be the most ancient of all the works of creation; for it was to Him that God said regarding the creation of man, 'Let Us make man in Our image, after our likeness.' Contra Cels., 5.37.

Medallion Possibly Depicting Origen

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