Law and Mercy

I was looking at Cresconius, Concordia canonum, from the mid-500s today, and I see that he prefigures in some ways Ivo, Bishop of Chartres (1090-1115). Both of these men are compilers of canon law collections, taking excerpts and canons and arranging them topically to make life easier for those who have to deal with those who transgress church law.

Cresconius writes:

when an extremely fair judge has examined for himself that each and every canonical ruling of a decree concerning which a question has been stirred up at some time has been set in order in many ways, he may learn by proveable examination whether he ought to guide his judgement through severity or through leniency. (My translation)

Thus, looking at the options available, a(n episcopal) judge can make use of his own discretion, his own discernment (an ancient Christian virtue) and decide which option to choose.

The principle seems similar to that of Ivo, who believes that the variations amongst the canons are not to be explained away or one to be chosen above another as universally correct. Rather, he argues that one should follow the paths of justice or mercy based upon the case.

In this we have been led to caution the prudent reader that if perhaps he should read some things that he may not fully understand, or judge them to be contradictory, he should not immediately take offense but instead should diligently consider what pertains to rigor, to moderation, to judgment, or to mercy. For he did not perceive these things to disagree among themselves who said, ‘Mercy and judgment I will sing to you, O Lord,’ (Ps 101:1) and elsewhere, ‘All the pathways of the Lord are mercy and truth.’ (Ps 25:10) (Trans. Somerville & Brasington)

Things to ponder, I guess.

Advertisements

Justice, righteousness, law

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

My current direction of research is focussed upon Latin canon law, turning between its origins in the fifth century and its manuscripts around 1100 in Durham. One of the trains of thought I find myself moving down every once in a while is the integration of canon law with wider knowledge, specifically as an element of theology.

To that end, the following passage from St Anselm of Canterbury is worth pondering:

S. So what is the evil that makes them bad and the good that makes them good?

T. We should hold that justice is the good whereby they are good or just, both angels and men, and that whereby the will itself is called his and just; and injustice is the evil that is only a privation is the good, and makes angels and men bad and makes their will bad. So we should say that injustice is nothing but the privation of justice. As long as the will originally given to a rational nature is simultaneously oriented to its rectitude by the same act with which God gives it, thus not only inclined to rectitude, but created right, that is, oriented to what it ought to do, as long as, I say, the will remains in that rectitude that we call truth or justice, it was just. But when it distanced itself from what it ought and turned itself against it, it did not remain in the original rectitude in which it was created. And when it abandoned it, it list something great, and acquired in exchange only the privation of justice we call injustice and that has no positive being. –On the Fall of the Devil, ch. 9 (trans. in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. B. Davies and G. Evans, p. 206).

The word justice here is, of course, iustitia. In other contexts, we would translate iustitia as righteousness and iustus as righteous rather than just. We see here also rectitude, which is a matter of order. In Law and Theology in the Middle Ages, G. R. Evans discusses the fact that rectitudo is about the right ordering of human relationships in light of the wider cosmos.

Canon law is the law of the church, and it is about the ordering of our human relationships rightly in line with divine principles as derived from Scripture and tradition (the Fathers, the councils, the popes). At a theoretical level, then, the canons of the church are not mere ‘dead’ regulations as perhaps people view them today. Rather, they are seen as manifestations of how we can live in accordance with divine rectitude.

In the Anselmian passage above, the more we live in line with rectitude, the more we live according to justice/righteousness, and the more we are just/righteous. In a way, this is the whole of practical theology, isn’t it? The whole of ethics? If we live justly, then we become just. Righteousness. The ius, the law, helps us do so.

But we have not remained in our ‘original rectitude’, and so we often fall into unjust living contrary to rectitude and justice and are thus bad. How we get out of this so that we can live according to justice is the subject of Cur Deus Homo.

My final thoughts are that this is a reminder of the integrated mindset of the patristic and medieval thinker. We are just because we live justly. While they would probably agree with the phrase simul iustus et peccator, they would be confused by the absolute division between us becoming just by grace and us demonstrating that we are just by our actions, a division often asserted by Protestants.

God makes us just. We thus live justly. By living in accord with justice, we become just. It is an integrated matrix of the whole. God works in us as we work ourselves. In the Greek tradition, it is called synergeia. And I, for one, am not sure that it is any worse than sixteenth-century theological maxims. It may even be better…

Quick thoughts on the injustice of grace

Image from the Orthodox Church in America

A call for papers passed through my inbox recently for a conference entitled ‘Divine (In)Justice in Antiquity and the Middle Ages‘. In my perversity, I immediately thought about this sublime post by Fr Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend that you skip my post and read Fr Aidan’s.

Anyway, I thought it would be a laugh to submit a paper to the conference about the injustice of divine grace in St Isaac the Syrian (‘of Nineveh’, d. 700) — to challenge our ideas of what it means when God is ‘unjust’. Generally speaking, when folks say that God is ‘unjust’, they really mean that God allows ‘bad’ things to happen to ‘good’ people. My paper, inspired by Fr Aidan and giving him full credit (of course), would use St Isaac to question this idea of just and unjust as well as bad and good in relation to divine-human relationships.

Upon further thought and reading the call for papers more closely, I decided that it wasn’t such a good idea — I can’t read Isaac in the original Syriac; I have yet to read his complete works; blog posts by Fr Aidan are the only secondary material I’ve read. The groundwork for me to produce an academic paper on St Isaac the Syrian is too great, even if the seed of a thesis exists. And I have a feeling that seed is correct.

Nevertheless, as I brough to the fore on my posts about St Augustine of Hippo and medieval Cistercians on divine love (here and here), God goes far beyond justice in His dealings with the human race, according to the teachings of historic Christianity. Whether one believes in apokatastasis as do St Isaac and Fr Aidan, God — the overwhelming Trinity that is, in His essence, agape, dilectio, love — loves us more than we can ask or imagine, and that love has overflown and continues to overflow in the divine action with regard to the human race.

Remember, as we were taught in Sunday School or heard from an evangelist on the street, the human race is fallen, broken, twisted, diseased, suffering. One glance at footage shot by drones in Homs, Syria, will show you that. One look at the clubbing scene in Glasgow on a Saturday will show you as well. Having turned our backs on God, and being ourselves ultimately ex nihilo, we are headed for destruction without God (see St Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation).

God loves us, so He comes to save us. Justice, which is balance (I always quote Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins for that), means that ‘bad’ things happen to ‘bad’ people. No one is good, no one is righteous — not one (Cf. Romans 3:12; Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:0).

Yet when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us so that we might become the friends and children of God, heirs of the universe. This is absolute, overpowering love, agape at its deepest and truest.

It is also, by the ancient understanding of justice (in a judiciary sense, typically a retributive idea), unjust.

All of this, of course, has been said better and more beautifully by St Isaac the Syrian.*

[Insert plug for Late Antiquity here.]

*Also said by the Newsboys, ‘When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. A real good thing.’