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.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Jerome on the Natural Law: The Scintilla of Conscience

SAINT JEROME IS NOT TO BE NEGLECTED in considering the teachings of the natural law as found in the Church Fathers. St. Jerome, or Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (ca. 347 – 420 A.D.), was the son of Eusebius of Stridon, a town on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia. St. Jerome is therefore sometimes referred to as “the Dalmation.” St. Jerome was born into a Christian family, and one that valued a classical education highly. He pursued rhetorical and philosophical studies under Aelius Donatus at Rome, and became accomplished in both Latin and Greek. Though born into a Christian family, he does not appear to have taken his faith seriously until sometime during his student years, and then through a series of stages of increasing fervor. On a journey through Thrace and Asia Minor in 373, Jerome became ill, and, during his illness, experienced a vision that made him disdain his secular studies and devote himself to the study of Scripture, and to an ascetic life.

The Ascetic Jerome: Detail of Unfinished Work by da Vinci

After this transformational experience, St. Jerome spent some time in the desert of Chalcis, southwest of the city of Antioch, and there, in the company of hermits, tried to learn Hebrew and advance in the study of the Scriptures. He returned to Antioch to be ordained, and then traveled to Constantinople to study Scripture under the famous St. Gregory Nazianzen. After two years in Constantinople, St. Jerome returned to Rome, and became a confidant of Pope Damasus I.

St. Jerome was forced to leave Rome after the death of Pope Damasus I, as his criticism of the secular clergy in that city had earned him many enemies and the death of the Pope left him without a protector. Therefore, in 385, St. Jerome returned to Antioch, and then, with a group of pilgrims, traveled to the Holy Land. He then spent some time at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, and thereafter returned to Palestine in 388, where he remained the rest of his life in a hermit’s cell near the town of Bethlehem. For more than thirty years, writing from his cell in Bethlehem, St. Jerome led a tremendously productive life.

St. Jerome in his Cell by Domenico Ghirlandaio

St. Jerome’s accomplishments are legion. He is known as having translated the Scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate), using the original Greek and Hebrew texts as the basis of his translation. His writings are vast and accomplished, and include commentaries on Scripture, letters, historical, biographical, and hagiographical works, as well as numerous polemical and theological works. His literary corpus is extensive and monumental, perhaps only outdone by St. Augustine’s even vaster literary output. St. Jerome is considered both a Father of the Church and a Doctor of the Church.

St. Jerome’s doctrine of the natural law falls within the general scope of the other fathers we have reviewed over the last several weeks. Like the other Church Fathers, St. Jerome judiciously and critically borrowed from Stoic, Platonic, and Ciceronian sources to fill in, as it were, the Pauline notion of the natural law as found in his Epistle to the Romans 2:14-16. St. Jerome also used biblical imagery and his understanding of salvation history in deriving his concept of the natural moral law. What he offers to his reader, is a robust, expansive, and universal notion of the natural law. He insisted that the natural law remained part of the divine plan in man even after the Fall, and that the natural law served the purpose of providing foundational principles of moral action, a rule and guide of directing one to the good, and one able to inform man where and how he has erred and where, therefore, he was in need of repentance and God’s mercy. St. Jerome stressed the role of conscience as a handmaid of the natural moral law, and brought forth the notion of synderesis as a scintilla conscientiae, the spark of conscience which made man unique among God’s creation in terms of being self-guided by an internalized natural law. He insisted that the natural law was not abrogated by the Gospel, and it was error to suggest that the natural law did not retain its validity or dignity. However, consistent with his Christocentric and Scriptural emphasis (as St. Jerome famously stated in his Commentary on Isaiah, "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ," ignoratio Scripturarum, ignoratio Christi est. Comm. in Isaiam libri xviii prol.: PL 24, 17B), the natural law he advanced was not to be considered as a parallel means of salvation, but had to be supplemented, lifted, given sight by faith in Christ, and in Christ it was transformed into the twofold love of God and neighbor.

For the Church Fathers, St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 2:14-16 offered only the foundation for theological elaborations on the matter of the natural moral law. The Sacred Scriptures did not contain a profound theological elaboration of the concept of the natural law, much less a philosophically robust one. And so, in elaborating upon the Pauline concept, the Church Fathers were compelled to borrow from contemporary philosophical schools whose thought could be appropriately adapted to the teachings of Scripture and the traditions of the Church. The Stoic philosophy was clearly the most adaptable, and most consistent with the Biblical view of man and law. Severino Visintainer, La dottrina del peccato in San Girolamo (Rome: Libreria Editrice Dell'Universitá Gregoriana, 1962), 3-4.

St. Jerome by El Greco

Inasmuch as nature was created by God, it participated in a distant sense in God itself, and was manifestly good. The Church Fathers, and one must include here even the severely ascetic St. Jerome, insisted—against the heretical and dualistic Gnostic sects—that creation, and hence human nature, was good. This was true even in the area of marriage and the conjugal act. “One ought not to be ashamed of nature, but it is to be venerated,” natura non erubescenda, sed veneranda est, St. Jerome observed in his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Because nature was to be venerated, and was not to be something of which one should be ashamed, one ought not to regard nature as affording the false scruples of prudishness any purchase. Marriage and procreation, like all things pertaining to the nature of man, far from being evil and the work of the devil, are created by God and therefore fundamentally good. Com. ad Gal. 4.19; PL 26:211. St. Jerome is no advocate of a Lutheran or Calvinistic "total depravity" notion of man. He would have been intemperately disdainful of it as an enormity, a falsehood, a heresy.

This generally optimistic concept of nature, even after the Fall, is central to St. Jerome’s teaching on the natural moral law. Such an optimistic view of post-lapsarian natural man is not to be considered as contradictory to the Gospel and the need for the supernatural life, the product of faith and grace. One must not forget that St. Jerome was one of the staunch adversaries of Pelagius, and authored both his Letter to Ctesiphon and his Dialogue against the Pelagians against any concept that man could be virtuous without the need of supernatural grace, the fruit of faith in Jesus Christ, or the sacramental life of the Church he founded.

But the need for Christ and for faith and grace did not for all that nullify the importance of the natural law. After the Fall of mankind, the natural law retained sufficient vitality so as to govern the moral decisions of man. The natural law walked out with man when he was barred from Garden of Eden. It remained even in the greatest of sinners, the spark of conscience and the natural moral law remaining even in the breast of the first murderer, Cain. In his letter to a certain woman named Algasia, St. Jerome writes that the natural law is written in the heart, as St. Paul teaches, and that:
[T]his law, which is written in the heart, encompasses all nations, and no man is there, who is ignorant of the law, inasmuch as the whole world is under sin and all men are violators of the law (praevaricatores legis), and on that account the heart of all men is written the just judgment of God (iustum iudicium Dei est scribentis in corde generis humani): what you do not wish done to you, do not do unto others (quod tibi fieri nolueris, alteris ne feceris). Who is ignorant of the fact that homicide, adultery, theft, and all concupiscence are evil of themselves, and do not wish these evils done to them? If they did not recognize them as evil, they would not want them done to them. And it is through this natural law that Cain recognized his sin, saying “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” (Maior cause mea quam ut dimittar). And Adam and Eve recognized their sin and for that reason hid under the tree of life. Pharaoh also, before the law was given by Moses, prompted by the natural law, confessed his crimes . . . this law children do not know, and so infants are ignorant of sin, inasmuch as without commandment there is no law of sin. . . .
Ep. 121. Adam and Eve, Cain, Pharaoh are all examples, before the Law of Moses was revealed, of the natural law working in man to urge him to good, to inform him of the good, and to bring him towards repentance for his failure to achieve the good. "La legge di natura si identifica quindi, per metonimia, con la conscienza stessa: forse non solo nella individualità, ma anche estensione e comprensione." Visintainer, 10 (The natural law is identified, therefore, by metonomy with conscience itself, but not only in its individuality, but also its expansion and comprehension). As we shall see, St. Jerome advances a significant role of conscience, or synderesis, in the application of the natural law.

St. Jerome insists that the natural law remains pleasing to God, part of his plan, a law the compliance of which he finds pleasing. The pagan Gentile who follows the natural law is more pleasing than the Jew who violates the written law:
We understand that the Lord accepts the good life even of the Gentiles and philosophers. He regards those who behave justly one way, and those who behave unjustly in another way. Those who neglect the written law will be condemned in comparison with the one who serves the natural law.

Intelligimus etiam gentilium et philosophorum bonam vitam recipere Dominum, et aliter habere eos qui iuste, aliter qui iniuste agant, et ad comparationem eius qui naturali legi serviat, condemnari eos qui scriptam legem negligent.
Com. in Mt. 25.26-29; PL 26:208 (Scheck, trans.); Visintainer, 5. Because the natural law retains validity even after the Mosaic law has been revealed, the just pagan may be preferred to the unjust Jew. St. Jerome has the following to say in reference to Christ's words in the Gospel of Matthew 11:21-22: "Woe to you, Chorazin; woe to you, Bethsaida; for if in Tyre and Sidon had been done the miracles which were done in you, they would have done penance long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you: It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment that for you."
To them [Chorazin and Bethsaida] he prefers Tyre and Sidon, cities that were surrendered to idolatry and vice. Now the reason they are preferred is because Tyre and Sidon only trampled upon natural law, but these, after transgressing natural and written law, even slighted the signs that were done among them.

Praeferuntum quod Tyrus et Sidon naturalem tantum legem calcaverint, istae vero post transgressionem naturalis legis et scriptae, etitam signa quae apud eos facta sunt, parvi, duxerint.
Com. in Mat. 11:21-22) (Scheck, trans.). Christ can prefer the pagan Phoenecian cities of Tyrus and Sidon over the Jewish Galilean cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida because the latter violated the natural law, the Mosaic law, and ignored the signs that were intended to move them to repentance. Implied is the supposition that Tyrus and Sidon would realize they had violated the natural law were they confronted by the same signs.

Though Christ abrogated the ceremonial and ritual laws of the Mosaic law, he did not abrogate the entirety of that law, at least not that part that is consistent with the natural law. Christ's coming and the announcement of the Gospel did not supplant the natural moral law. "Essere liberi dall Legge non significa affatto che la natura abbia cessato di porre le sue esigenze morali." Visintainer, 14 (To be free of the Law did not signify by that fact that nature had ceased to be the source of moral requirements). St. Jerome refuses to countenance the possibility that the natural law has been abrogated by Christ, that Christ had somehow ushered in a time of libertinism or lawless grace. Grace and the natural law coexist in Christ’s dispensation. One ought not to get the idea that the need to be beneath the law has ceased, that man has been freed entirely of the law. Though there has been a dispensation or abrogation of the ceremonial and ritual obligations of the Mosaic law, the obligation to follow the natural moral law has been strengthened all the more. "Le altre 'opere della legge' quelle evidentemente che si fondano sulla natura, non sono invece abolite: solo si devono ora rivestire della fede." Visintainer, 15 (The other works of the law which are evidently founded upon nature, are thereby abolished: they ought to be now dressed anew by the faith). These would include the Ten Commandments. Visintainer, 16. The natural moral law rules imperatively so long as man has a nature, and it coexists with the law of grace. “Et ita fit, ut non ideo quia sub servitute Legis esse cessatis, putetis esse vos liberos: sed sciatis magis naturae vos Lege retinere, quia non statim si lex non imperat, et natura cessavit.” Com. ad Gal. 5.17, PL 26:502; Visintainer, 4-5.

St. Jerome's insistence that the natural law was not abrogated by Christ, but was reconfirmed, does not lessen man's need for faith in Christ. “Sed ideo non justificari operatores eius (Legis, sia naturale che mosaica), quia absque fide Christi fiant.” Com. ad Gal. 2.16. The words of the law, whether the Mosaic law or the natural law, do not justify the doers of the law absent faith in Christ. In the context of interpreting Jesus' words to St. John the Baptist in regarding to the former's baptism and the latter's hesitation in administering it: "For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice," Matt. 3:15, Jerome states as follows: “Non addidit: iustitiam legis, sive naturae, ut nos utrumque intelligamus.” “He did not add justice ‘of the Law’ or ‘of nature,’ so that we might understand both [forms of justice]” were fulfilled by Christ's willing baptism. Com. in Mat. 3.16 (Scheck, trans.). That is to say, Christ was the fulfillment of both the Mosaic and the natural law, and we must look to him as their end and their paradigm.

Not only can the Mosaic law or the natural law not save by themselves, they do not fully enlighten. "Non solo non salva, ma nemmeno illumina; ambedue i popoli, l'ebraico e il gentile, 'alter scriptam Legem, alter naturalem sequens, sine Christo coecus erat.'" Visintainer, 6 (quoting Com. in Mt. 3:16; 26 PL 158). Absent the law of Christ, our moral knowledge is substantially reduced. Visintainer, 6. Accordingly, both Jew and Gentile were in need of the light of Christ. Neither the natural moral law, nor the Mosaic law, was complete without faith in Christ. St. Jerome refuses to apply the natural law in a wholly naturalistic way, and here he clearly departs from the Stoic thought. "Qui ci troviamo in opposizione con le categorie stoiche; ci troviamo in opposizione al naturalismo: le 'virtù naturali', senza la fede non sono virtù." Visintainer, 17 (Here we confront an opposition with the stoic categories; we encounter an opposition to naturalism: the 'natural virtue' without faith is not virtue). It is manifest, albeit implicit, that virtue is supernatural. "E' implicito, ci sembra, il concetto di 'soprannaturale' per le virtù dei credenti." Visintainer, 17 (It is implicit, it seems, the concept of the 'supernatural' in the virtue of the believer). This supernatural life is a gift that follows from the recognition of Christ.

Therefore, with reference to the two blind men that cried out “Lord have mercy on us, son of David,” as Jesus and the Apostles, followed by crowds, left Jericho, as related in Matthew 20:29-31, St. Jerome had the following observations. These two blind men are by the wayside, they do not see light, and they may stand for those who have the Law, but not the Way, that is, Christ. Or they may stand for two peoples, the Jew and the Gentile. "For both were blind, the one by following written law, the other by following natural law without Christ." Com. in Mat. 20:29-31 (Scheck, trans.)

Without the light of Christ, St. Jerome insists the natural light of the natural law is dim. The natural law, St. Jerome concedes, is fed by reason, and thus gives proper directives. For example, it allows us to see the fundamental principle of the natural law that we ought to do good, and avoid evil. “naturali lege, quae loquitur in cordibus nostris, bona quaeque facienda, et vitanda mala.” Com. ad Gal. 3, 2. It functions, even in the sinner, to whom it gives precious directives, “sed cogitatio; mea, et ratio naturalis, quam etiam peccatoribus Deus auctor inservit, retraxerunt me et deduxerunt ad sapientiam.” In Eccle. 2.33; CC 72, 253, 44 (quoted in Visintainer, at 6, n. 15). Some fundamental wrongs the natural law acting through conscience is able to see, even without the light of Christ. These include: homicide, adultery, rape, the obligation to honor one’s parents, theft. See Visintainer, at 7 n. 17. (and citations therein).

St. Jerome thus recognizes that there are two states of knowledge of the natural moral law, "due stadi di consoscenza, corrispondenti alla mente senza la fede e con la fede," as Visintainer puts it, one state of conscience corresponding to a mind without faith and another state corresponding to the mind with faith. Visintainer, 7 (citing Comm ad Gal. 1, 5; 5, 19-21; 26 PL 391, 505).

St. Jerome identifies the natural law with the recognition of sin, and thereby understands it to be part of the tools of conscience, indeed, it is at the very heart of conscience.

Ezechiel's Vision by Raphael

One of the more fascinating contributions of St. Jerome to the concept of the natural law and conscience is the matter of synderesis or synteresis. Because of his teaching on this concept, the Scholastics referred to St. Jerome as the Father of the Church that was most distinguished in the area of synderesis or conscience. Visintainer, 11. "The word synderesis," Crowe states in his The Changing Profile of the Natural Law, "is hardly found in present-day moral theology." But that was not always so. The term synderesis was adopted by the Scholastics (see, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, S.T. I, q. 79, art. 12) to mean the natural capacity, disposition, or habit (habitus) of practical reason that apprehends intuitively the universal first principles of human action. The first such principle that is apprehended is the “good,” just as the first such principle apprehended by the speculative reason is “being.” Synderesis also includes the capacity to judge one’s actions, either prospectively or retrospectively, in light of those first principles. "It made a sudden appearance in the thirteenth century, enjoyed its crowded hour of glorious life and faded away before the end of the century." Crowe, at 123. The term synderesis is found in St. Jerome’s Commentary on Ezechiel, where it lay fallow for centuries until apparently revived in the Sentences of a certain Master Udo written in 1160-65, and then had a sporadic life until the thirteenth century, where it enjoyed its ephemeral life in the treatment of the moral life in the Scholastic theologians. Crowe, 124-25 ff. Interestingly, the use of synderesis or synteresis is probably a scrivener’s error, as it is likely that St. Jerome would have used the Greek word syneidesis, συνείδησης, the common Greek term for conscience or conscientia. The term was probably inaccurately transcribed as συντηρησις, from whence the term synderesis was born.

In his Commentary on Ezekiel’s vision found in Ezekiel 1:4-10 (of the four winged creatures, with four faces, being the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle), St. Jerome interprets the vision as follows. He sees the man as symbolizing the rational faculties in man, that part which is reason, and understanding, and thought of internal counsel, even virtue and wisdom (rationem et cognitionem, et mentem, et consilium, eademque virtutem atque sapientiam in cerebrice arece ponenentes). The lion is that which is of ferocity in us (feritatem vero et iracundiam atque violentiam in leone, qui consistat in felle). The ox is libidinousness, luxury, an all kinds of voluptuousness and cupidity (porro libidinem, luxuriam, et omnium voluptatum cupidinem in jecora, id est, in vitulo qui terrae operibus haereat). The man is thus considered to be symbol of the rational in man, (rationale animae, τὸ λογικόν, to logikon), and the lion is considered the irascible part of man (irascitivum, or τὸ θυμικόν, to thymikon), the ox the concupiscible in man (concupiscitivum, or τὸ ἐπιθυμετικόν, to epithymetikon). The eagle is understood, St. Jerome states, as what the Greeks have called synderisis, the spark of conscience (scintilla conscientiae) a fourth power which is above the other three (supra haec et extra haec tria). Com. i n Hiezech. 1, 7 (PL 25:10); see also Visintainer, at 11-12.

Thus, in a splendid image redolent of St. Justin Martyr's adoption of Plato's charioteer, and conceptually similar to his notion of the spermatikos logos (σπερματικός λόγος) or zotikon pneuma (ζωτικόν πνεύμα), St. Jerome places the spark of conscience, the eagle of man, at the zenith of man's faculties. All our other faculties, rational, irascible, concupiscible are to be ordered, ruled, and judged by the natural law (lex naturalis) under the guidance of the spark of conscience (scintilla conscientiae). It is the vice-regent of God in man, the still, silent, but imperious voice of the natural moral law.

St. Jerome in his Study by van Eyck

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