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, March 14, 2010

St. Justin Martyr: The Spermatikos Logos and the Natural Law

ST. JUSTIN MARTYR'S CONCEPT OF THE NATURAL LAW should be understood within his broader understanding of man. Like many Christians influenced by neo-Platonism, St. Justin Martyr viewed the nature of man to be composed of three distinct parts: body (σώμα, soma), soul (ψυχή, psyche), and spirit (πνεύμα, pneuma). His view of the natural moral law is therefore colored by this tripartite notion of man. In speaking about the pneumatic life, the vital spirit, in man St. Justin Martyr uses the term ζωτικόν πνεύμα (zotikon pneuma) (in Latin, spritus vitalis). St. Justin also appears to understand this ζωτικόν πνεύμα as the divine principle in man, the distinguishing feature of his nature, his unique dignity. He views this ζωτικόν πνεύμα as a participation in the very life of the Logos, and so he denominates it the "seed of the word" or reason in man, the σπερματικός λόγος (spermaticos logos; in Latin, ratio seminalis). Goodenough, 214. Man was to govern his soul and body by virtue of this ζωτικόν πνεύμα, this σπερματικός λόγος, "which never became an integral part of the soul, but which imparted life and true reason to it." Goodenough, 212. This ζωτικόν πνεύμα or σπερματικός λόγος constituted a divine element in man which "imparted reason as well as life to the soul." Goodenough, 212.

This divine principle in man had an intimate relation with the Divine Logos, the Word of God. "In every man," St. Justin Martyr believed, "there is a divine particle, his reason, which at least before Christ's coming was man's best guide in life." Goodenough, 214 (citing Ap. II 10.8) It is man's burden to live in accordance with reason, μέτα λόγου (meta logou), and not against or without reason, ἄνευ λόγου (aneu logou). It was thus living in accord with right reason, which was participation in divine reason, that was man's fundamental law.

Neo-Byzantine Styled Icon of St. Justin Martyr

According to St. Justin Martyr, the use of reason by men, even in men without express faith in Christ, is already Christ the Logos at work. “We have been taught," St. Justin declared, "that Christ is the First-born of God, and we have declared . . . that he is the Word of whom every race of men were partaken, and those who lived reasonable are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists.” Apol. I, 46.1-4. "All right principles that philosophers and lawgivers have discovered and expressed they owe to whatever of the Word they have found and contemplated in part. The reason why they have contradicted each other is that they have not known the entire Word, which is Christ." Apol. II, 10.1-3. "The seeds of truth" St. Justin states, "are the formative principle of right knowledge and right living." Apol. I, 44. And all men have these "seeds of truth," or "seeds of reason." As part of St. Justin Martyr's view of natural man and natural morality, we confront the fascinating Justinian concept of the logos spermatikos, σπερματικός λόγος .

Scholars debate the precise nature of the term logos spermatikos as used by St. Justin Martyr. Indubitably, the term, which St. Justin imports into a Christian context, has a Hellenic philosophical pedigree. It is certain that it is not used by St. Justin Martyr in its original pagan sense, but it is not clear how precisely St. Justin uses it in its Christian sense. Certainly, he was intending to engraft this Stoic concept and term into the greater bole of Christian revelation.

From whence did Justin Martyr take the term? Did he borrow it from Stoic philosophy generally and adapt to the Christian revelation (perhaps under the influence of the Matthean evangelical parable of the sower)? Or did he borrow it from the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo? Or did he take it from the Neopythagorean Numenius of Apamea?

And if the question from whence St. Justin obtained the term could be answered, perhaps the more difficult one remains. What exactly does Justin Martyr mean by the term? It would seem highly unlikely that St. Justin Martyr used it in a cosmological-pantheistic sense of the Stoic such as advocated by J. M. Pfätisch. This would seem too far a departure from the Christianity to which he devoted his life. Accordingly, St. Justin Martyr would not have viewed these logoi spermatokoi, these divine sparks in men, as being of the same substance (homoousios) as the divine Logos itself, though they clearly share in his mind, in some insubstantial, created, and relatively distance sense, in the divinity of the Logos (homoiousious). In is consequently more likely that St. Justin Martyr re-worked or adapted the Stoic physical and pantheistic notion into a notion distinctively Christian and consonant with the Trinitarian revelation contained in Scripture, and this would exclude a purely pantheistic or material interpretation.

The term logos spermatikos as used by St. Justin Martyr might therefore be viewed as a re-interpretation of this Stoic term which had indicated the primal and vital principal of fire, into a term essentially synonymous with human reason (as advanced by H. Meyer). It might be viewed as an adaptation of the Stoic ethical semina virtutum; in other words, it might mean those moral dispositions contained in the soul naturally subject and subject to organic or cultural development (paideia). Perhaps the term as used by St. Justin Martyr is something more supernatural in connotation, influenced and referent to the Scriptural parable of the sower of seeds [Matt. 13:3-9], as a grace of sorts which God sows in the heart. (M. Pohlenz). Perhaps it is the intellectual fruit derived from the combination of the doctrine of the Logos of the Gospel of John, God as verbum Dei, λόγος θεοῦ, (logos theou), with the revelation in Genesis that man is made in imago Dei, εἰκόν᾽ θεοῦ (eikon theou) [Gen. 1:26, 27]. In this view, the logos spermatikos is therefore the image of the Logos in man. Perhaps the term is broad enough to cover natural and supernatural meanings both since Christ is at work both naturally and supernaturally in man. Maybe St. Justin Martyr intended it as a spiritual-ethical principle, something close to the Ciceronian semina justiae, itself a development of the “seed-forces of the Stoa with the seeds of justice, so given them an ethical, rather than metaphysical, interpretation” (Andresen). Perhaps Holte is right: "[t]he logos spermatikos theory, terminologically an innovation, is nothing but an attempt to translate St. Paul’s doctrine on natural revelation, to the language of contemporary philosophy." See generally Leslie William Barnard, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1997), 196-200.

Whatever the precise sense of St. Justin Martyr's use of the term, it seems certain that the spermatikos logos in each man provides a common, non-confessional basis in each man, whether as a natural or supernatural gift from God (or both), by which he is called to participate in God’s Reason or Logos, from which he obtains a dignity over the brute creation, and out of which he discovers and obtains normative judgments of right and wrong. As H. R. Rommen, a historian on the natural law succinctly put it, the Stoic notion of the that natural law and its principle of the "seeds of the Word" or spermatikos logos was used by the Church Fathers, and in particular St. Justin Martyr, "to proclaim the Christian doctrine of the personal Creator-God as the Author of the eternal law as well as of the natural moral law which is promulgated in the voice of conscience and in reason." (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, trans., Thomas R. Hanley).

Doctrinally, there is a problem in adopting St. Justin Martyr's trichotomous view of man. The Church appears to have insisted on a dichotomous view of man, a body with a spiritual soul, and has insisted on a spiritual soul. Properly understood as part of the spiritual soul of man (anima, psyche), though distinguishable from that part of man's soul he shares with the animal creation, and not, in its Platonic sense, as a fully separate substance from the anima or psyche, St. Justin Martyr's insight is useful and valuable. This faculty of the logos spermatikos may be viewed as a faculty that is to govern man's lower nature. Man is to follow the promptings, the voice of this divine spark, this logos spermatikos in him, this zotikon pneuma, and in doing so he is already living the law of God in Christ. Following it, he is led to Christ. For in following it, he has already heard Christ's seminal word, and he will recognize his posture of subordination before his Creator, and his need for his Creator's grace, in view of the concupiscent and recalcitrant nature of his impulses, to follow the guidance of that faculty. He will recognize that he has failed in conforming to that inner standard, that inner compulsion, that inner law. In failing to follow it, he will recognize that he has sinned against his Maker, and will thus confront the need for forgivness for mercy, and this will lead him directly to Christ and his Church.

Plato's Chariot Allegory of the Soul

To explain St. Justin Martyr's concept, one may use Plato's chariot allegory of the soul. In his dialogue Phaedrus (sections 246a - 254e), Plato uses the allegory of a chariot to explain his view of the human soul. Plato describes the inner workings of man as charioteer governing a chariot pulled by two horses, one white and one black. The white horse is white, long-necked, well bred, well behaved, and runs without a whip. The black horse is short-necked, poorly bred, and undisciplined, requiring constant guidance. St. Justin Martyr would make his logos spermatikos his zotikon pneuma the charioteer charged with the task of using intellect and reason, that is, logos, to guide the white horse of the soul (psyche), and its rational moral impulses, and the black horse of the body (soma), with is irrational and concupiscent nature, to the true and the good. To St. Justin, the governing principle in us, the spermatikos logos or zotikon pneuma, is the source faculty of the natural moral law, the law that God has placed in the heart of man and which distinguishes him from the beasts. It is what makes him a child of the one only God, and makes him brother with all those of his kind. It is the ruler, the pilot, of his lesser natures, part rebellious, part docile.

This symbiosis between the Stoic philosophy and the Christian Gospel, so marked in the area of natural law, is perhaps not suprising. That reason and faith should intermingle, engage, as it were, in a dialogue in this area is to be expected. The Church has always insisted that grace builds on nature, that faith builds upon reason, and that the moral life is both natural and supernatural. God is the author of both.


  1. This is a great summary of the topic, well done!

  2. superbly written analysis of an arcane subject. I like this turn of a phrase: "Certainly, he was intending to engraft this Stoic concept and term into the greater bole of Christian revelation."

  3. Thank you to your elucidation of the Logos who is Christ-- that is present in all humans even before the Logos became flesh (sarx) as human.