The Roots of Western Culture. Chapter 5: The Great Synthesis
53 min read
53 min read
When the Christian ground motive entered the hellenistic, late-Greek world of thought, its indivisible unity was threatened on every side. Already in the first centuries of its history, the Christian church fought a battle of life and death in order to keep its ground motive free from the influences of the Greek ground motive and the ones that later intermingled with Greek religion in its contact with the different near-eastern religions, notably Persian Zoroastrianism.
All of these non biblical ground motives were of a dualistic nature, divided against themselves. Torn by inner contradictions, they knew neither God the creator, the absolute origin of all things, nor man in the root of his being. In other words, they were apostate in their direction.
We have discussed the Greek form-matter motive at some length in previous chapters. It originated in an unreconciled conflict within Greek religious consciousness between the older nature religion and the newer culture religion of the Olympian gods. The spiritual momentum of this internally divided ground motive led mature Greek thought to accept a twofold origin of the world. Even when Greek thinkers acknowledged the existence of a cosmic order originating through a divine design and plan, they still categorically denied a divine creation. Greeks believed that whatever came into existence arose merely through a divine activity of giving form to an already present and formless matter. They conceived of divine formation only in terms of human cultural activity. The “rational deity” was merely a “heavenly architect” who formed a given material according to a free design. He was not able to forestall the blind, autonomous activity of the matter principle.
A dualistic conception of human nature was directly related to this dualistic idea of divine nature. This demonstrates once again that man’s self-knowledge depends upon his knowledge of God. Just as the rational deity found the autonomy of the matter principle over against himself, so also the “rational soul” of human nature confronted an earthly, material body. The actual centre of the rational soul was theoretical thought, which was divine in character. The soul was the invisible “form” of human existence, and as the faculty of theoretical thought it was immortal. By contrast, the material body, the “matter” of man’s being, was subject to the stream of life and blind fate.
In the hellenistic period it was not difficult to combine the Greek ground motive with the dualistic ground motives of the near-eastern religions with which the Greeks had already made acquaintance. The ground motive of the Persian zoroastrian religion consisted of a battle between a divine principle of light and an evil principle of darkness. Thus one could easily identify the Greek form motive with the zoroastrian motive of light and the Greek matter motive with the evil principle of darkness.
The Christian church realized the enormous danger the Greekzoroastrian ground motive posed for the pure ground motive of divine revelation. In its life-and-death struggle against this motive the church formulated the doctrine of the divine unity of the Father and the Son (the Word or Logos) and soon afterwards the doctrine of the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This determination of the basic doctrinal position of the Christian church was not intended as a scientifictheological theory but as a necessarily imperfect formulation of the living confession of the Body of Christ, in which the pure ground motive sought expression. Specifically, these creedal formulations broke the dangerous influence of gnosticism during the early centuries of the Christian church, so that a purely scriptural point of departure for theology was restored.
Under Greek and near-eastern influences, the gnostic movement reverted to a dualistic origin of creation. It distinguished between a lower “Creator God” of the Old Testament and a higher “Redeemer God” of the New Testament. The former was the God of the Jews who could not be perfect since he had come into contact with unclean matter at creation. And just as Greek philosophy had seen the true path toward knowing God in philosophical theory, so also “Christian gnosticism” placed contemplation about God fgnosis] above scriptural faith of the Christian community. The apostle John had already been forced to warn against one of the forerunners of “Christian gnosticism,” the sect of the Nicolaitans.
Especially by upholding the unbreakable unity of the Old and New Testaments the Christian church, under God’s guidance, was able to overcome the religious dualism that had crept in with gnosticism in its attempt to drive a wedge between creation and redemption. Unfortunately, however, the Greek ground motive worked itself into Christian thought in other ways.
For example, the influence of the Greek ground motive was evident among the so-called apostolic church fathers, who had taken upon themselves the defence of Christian ity against Greek thought. The Greek church fathers conceived of creation as a result of the divine activity of giving form to matter. They could not consider matter divine. Consequently, they hesitated to recognize that the Word, through which all things were created and which became flesh in Jesus Christ, stands
on a par with God. Accordingly, they degraded the Word (the Logos) to a “semigod” who, as “mediator” of creation, stood between God and creature.
The Greek church fathers also placed contemplative theoretical knowledge of God above faith. In a dangerous fashion their philosophical theory relegated the Christian religion to the level of a “higher moral ethic.” Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross was pushed to the background in favour of the idea of a “divine teacher” who advocated a higher moral walk of life. Thus the Christian religion was robbed of its indivisible and radical character. Neither creation, nor the fall, nor redemption were understood in their scriptural meaning. Even after the Christian church established the doctrine of the trinity the influence of the Greek religious ground motive continued in the thought of the church fathers.
The orthodox direction of Christian thought reached a high point in Augustine. Augustine placed his stamp on Christian reflection through the thirteenth century, and even afterwards he maintained a considerable influence. The ground motive of his thought was undoubtedly scriptural. After his conversion his powerful, talented intellect increasingly drew from this source. However, the Christian theology of his day was confronted with philosophical problems whose solutions could not be avoided. Insofar as the church fathers had been philosophically educated – Augustine very much so – they had come to absorb the Greek way of thought. They had appropriated its views of cosmic order, human nature, and human society. The church fathers attempted to rid these conceptions of their pagan elements and to adapt them to the Christian religion. However, they failed to see that these elements were rooted in a pagan ground motive. They failed to understand that this I ground motive controlled not merely a few components but its entire foundation and elaboration. In other words, they failed to see that because of its radical character the ground motive of the Christian religion demands an inner reformation of one’s scientific view of the world order and of temporal life. Instead of reformation they sought accommodation; they sought to adapt pagan thought to divine revelation of the Word.
This adaptation laid the basis for scholasticism, which up to the present impedes the development of a truly reformational direction in Christian life and thought. Scholasticism seeks a synthesis between Greek thought and the Christian religion. It was thought that such a synthesis can be successfully achieved if philosophy, with its Greek basis, is to be made subservient to Christian theology.
Here Augustine again played a key role. He denied the autonomy of philosophy; that is, its independence with respect to the Christian faith. For him this indeed meant that the Christian faith must give guidance also to philosophic thought, for without this guidance it would be dominated by an apostate faith. As such this idea was utterly scriptural. However, Augustine’s search for accommodation and synthesis led him to work this out in an unacceptable way. Philosophy, not intrinsically reformed, was not allowed to develop itself independently but had to be subjected to the control of dogmatic theology. Philosophical questions could be treated only within a theological frame of reference. Augustine attempted to Christian ize philosophy along these lines, assuming that theological theory and the Christian religion were identical.
One cannot deny that Augustine was influenced by the Greek conception of contemplative theory, which presented itself as the path toward the true knowledge of God. Earlier, Aristotle had elevated metaphysics (philosophical theory of first principles, which culminated in “theology” or the philosophical knowledge of God) to the “queen of the sciences.” She was to “enslave” all other sciences; they were never allowed to contradict her. Augustine merely replaced this Greek notion of “philosophical theology” with Christian theology, the scientific theory concerning Christian doctrines.
Augustine did accept the ground motive of revelation in its purity. But he could not develop it radically because the Greek ground motive, transmitted by Greek philosophy, placed a firm hold upon his entire world view. For example, he read the creation account with Greek eyes. According to him “the earth without form or void” signified still unformed “matter,” although in opposition to the Greek notion he believed that this matter was created by God. Likewise, he conceived of the relation between the “soul” and the “body” within the framework of the Greek ground motive. For him the soul was an immortal substance characterized by the faculty of theoretical thought. The body was merely a “material vehicle” of the rational soul. The divine revelation of the religious root unity of human existence was thus again undermined by Greek dualism.
Especially in his doctrine of “original sin” the Greek matter motive achieved a dangerous practical impact on Augustine’s entire view of life. For Augustine “original sin” was sexual desire. Marriage was merely a therapeutic device to control unbounded lust after the flesh. Unfortunately, this view has crippled Christian marital ethics for centuries. As a rule, Christian s did not see that original sin is seated in the heart and not in a temporal, natural drive. The sexual drive was viewed as sinful, and sexual abstinence was applauded as a higher Christian virtue. But this asceticism is not scriptural; its lineage reaches back to Plato, who explained sensual drives in terms of the ominous principle of matter. At the same time, Augustine did defend the scriptural teaching of the radical fall. He understood the depravity that lies in the root of human nature.
The example of Augustine clearly demonstrates how even in a great father of the church the spiritual power of the Greek ground motive worked as a dangerous counterforce to the ground motive of revelation. It is not right to conceal this out of love and respect for Augustine. Insight into matters where Augustine should not be followed need not detract from our love and respect for him. It is an urgent matter that we, openly and irrespective of persons, choose sides in the issue: reformation or accommodation. This question dominates Christian life today. Only the ground motive of God’s revelation can furnish us with the appropriate answer.
The effort to bridge the foundations of the Christian religion and Greek thought necessarily entailed the further attempt to find a deeper reconciliation between their respective religious ground motives. During the Middle Ages, when the church of Rome gradually gained control over all of temporal society, this attempted religious synthesis produced a new dialectical ground motive in the development of western culture: the well-known motive of “nature and grace” (nature and supernature). Its inherent ambiguity and disharmony dominated even the thought of the Reformation to a great extent, although in principle the Reformation had overcome its dialectical tension by returning to the scriptural teaching of the radical significance of the fall for human nature and to the confession of justification by faith alone.
How did Roman Catholicism conceive of “nature”? It derived its concept of nature from Greek philosophy. As we saw earlier, the Greek view of “nature” (physis) was entirely determined by the religious motive of matter and form. The matter motive lay at the foundation of the older nature religions which deified a formless, eternally flowing stream of earthly life. Whatever possessed individual form arose from this stream and then passed away. By contrast, the form motive controlled the more recent Greek culture religion, which granted the gods an invisible, imperishable, and rational form that was supranatural in character.
Aristotle listed the various meanings of the word physis in Greek thought in chapter four of the fifth book of his famous Metaphysics. In his account, the ancient concept of “nature” alternated from a formless stream of becoming and decay (the matter principle) to an imperishable and invisible form, which was understood as the enduring substance of perishable things. For Aristotle, who gave religious priority to the form principle, the second meaning was the most authentic. He defined “nature” as the “substantial form of things which in themselves possess a principle of movement (becoming, growth, and maturation).” In this way he sought to reconcile the principles of form and matter.
Aristotle’s Greek view of nature was pagan. Nevertheless, the roman catholic ground motive of nature and grace sought to accommodate the Greek ground motive to that of divine revelation. The scholastics argued that whatever was subject to birth and death, including man, was composed of matter and form. God created all things according to this arrangement. As a natural being, for example, man consists of a “rational soul” and a “material body.” Characterized by its capacity for thought, the rational soul was both the “invisible, essential form” of the body and an imperishable “substance” that could exist apart from the body.
Moreover, scholasticism maintained that when God created man he furnished him with a “supranatural” gift of grace, a suprahuman faculty of thought and will by which man could remain in right relationship with God. Man lost this gift at the fall, and as a result he was reduced to mere “human nature” with its inherent weaknesses. But this human “nature,” which is guided by the natural light of reason, was not corrupted by sin and thus also does not need to be restored by Christ. Human nature is only “weakened” by the fall. It continues to remain true to its in-created “natural law” and possesses an autonomy, a relative independence and self-determination in distinction from the realm of grace of the Christian religion. Nature is only brought to a higher form of perfection by grace, which comes from Christ and reaches nature through the mediation of the institutional church. This grace must be earned and prepared by good works in the realm of nature.
Clearly, this new religious ground motive conflicts with the motive of creation, fall, and redemption at every point. It introduces an internal split into the creation motive by distinguishing the natural and the supranatural and by restricting the scope of fall and redemption to the supranatural. This restriction robs the scriptural ground motive of its integral and radical character. Broken by the counterforce that “accommodated” the Greek nature motive to the creation motive, the scriptural motive could no longer grip man with all its power and absoluteness.
One consequence of this dualistic tendency was that the scholastic teaching on the relation between the soul and the body allowed for no insight into the radical meaning of either the fall or redemption in Jesus Christ. If the human soul is not the spiritual root unity of man’s whole temporal existence but consists of “the rational form of a material body,” then how could one speak of man as corrupted in the very root of his nature? Sin arises not from the function of thought but from the heart, from the religious root of our being.
Like the Greek form-matter motive, the ground motive of nature and grace contained a religious dialectic which drove life and thought from the natural pole to the supranatural pole. The naturalistic attitude summoned the ecclesiastical truths of grace before the court of natural reason, and a supranatural mysticism attempted to escape “nature” in the mystical experience of “grace.” Ultimately this dialectic led to a consistent proclamation of the unbridgeable rift between nature and grace; nature became independent, losing every point of contact with grace. Only the official authority of the Roman Catholic Church was sufficiently powerful to uphold the religious pseudosynthesis by formally denouncing the heresies that sought a following on the basis of this ground motive. Its defence drew heavily on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274], the prince of scholasticism.
For Thomas “nature” was the independent “stepping-stone to grace,” the substructure of a Christian superstructure. He construed the mutual relation between these antithetical motives in Greek fashion, understanding it as a relation between “matter” and “form.” He believed that nature is matter for a higher form of perfection bestowed upon it by grace. In other words, the Redeemer works in the manner of a sculptor who shapes his material into a new form.
But it is evident that this construction, derived from Aristotle, could not truly reconcile the inherently contradictory motives of nature and grace. Real reconciliation would have been possible only if a higher standpoint had been found that could have transcended and encompassed both motives. However, such a motive was not available. To the Church of Rome today “grace” is not “everything,” for otherwise grace would “swallow up” nature. But does this state of affairs not testify that the roman catholic ground motive was not that of God’s Word? Is it not clear that the nature motive diverged significantly from the creation motive of scriptural revelation?
Surely, the Roman Catholic Church did not incorporate the Greek ground motive into its own view of nature without revision. Since the church could not accept a dual origin of the cosmos, it tried to harmonize the Greek motive with the scriptural motive of creation. One of the first consequences of this accommodation was that the form-matter motive lost its original religious meaning. But because of its pretended reconciliation with the Greek nature motive, Roman Catholicism robbed the biblical creation motive of its scope.
To the Greek mind neither the matter of the world nor the invisible pure form could have been created. At best one could admit that the union of form and matter was made possible by divine reason, the divine architect who formed the available material. According to Thomas Aquinas, the medieval doctor of the church, the concrete matter of perishable beings was created simultaneously with their concrete form. However, neither the matter principle (the principle of endless becoming and decay) nor the pure principle of form (the principle of perfection) were created. They are the two metaphysical principles of all perishable existence, but with respect to their origin Thomas was silent.
Thomas maintained that the principle of matter was the principle of imperfection, arguing that what “comes into being” is still imperfect. Conversely, he continually called the “thinking soul,” the “rational form” of human nature, “divine.” He never referred to matter as divine. Clearly, the Greek form-matter motive led to a dualism in Thomas’s conception of the creation, a dualism reinforced by the contrast between nature and supernature. How, for example, could a principle of imperfection originate in God? Unintentionally, Thomas allowed the Greek form-matter motive to overpower the creation motive of the Christian religion. Although he did acknowledge God as the “first cause” and the “ultimate goal” of nature, he divided the creation order into a natural and supranatural realm. And his view of the “natural order” stemmed from Aristotle.
Roman catholic thinkers believe that the contrast between nature and grace is biblically based. They appeal in particular to Romans 1:19-20 and 2:14-15. We are obliged to consider these texts in detail, beginning with Romans 1:19-20, where we read:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
Did not Paul therefore admit that man can attain a degree of knowledge concerning the true God by means of the natural light of reason? We need only refer to the very text itself. Nowhere does Paul say that man arrives at this knowledge through the natural light of reason. On the contrary, he writes: “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” In this very context Paul refers to God’s general revelation to fallen men who, because of their apostate inclination, “by their wickedness suppress the truth” [Romans 1:18] Revelation is heard and understood only in faith. Man’s faith function is active also in concrete human thinking. It is through sin that faith developed in an apostate direction, according to Paul. Because man’s heart turned away from God, Paul lashes out against the idolatrous tendencies of both Greek and “barbarian”: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” [Romans 1:22]
Thomas employed the aristotelian idea of God in his “natural theology.” This idea was the product not of purely intellectual reasoning but of the religious ground motive of Greek thought. The various “proofs” for the existence of God, which Thomas developed in Aristotle’s footsteps, stand or fall with one’s acceptance of both the formmatter ground motive and the religious priority Aristotle attached to the form motive of Greek culture religion. For Aristotle God was pure form that stood completely apart from matter. This divine form was “pure thought” itself. Aristotle did not grant matter, the principle of the eternal stream of life, a divine status, for matter represented the principle of imperfection. On the premise of this idea of God, Aristotle’s first proof of the existence of such a deity is a tight logical argument. It proceeds as follows: everywhere in our experience we perceive movement and change. Every motion is caused by something else. If this too is in motion it again presupposes a cause for its motion. But this causal chain cannot possibly be infinite, since an infinite chain of causes can never be complete. Hence there must be a first cause that is itself not moved. There must be an “unmoved mover” causing the entire process of motion. The “unmoved mover” is God, pure “form,” who is perfect and complete.
This proof seems logically sound. For the thinker who proceeds from a belief in the autonomy of theoretical thought in the thomistic sense, it seems that not a single presupposition of faith plays any part. After all, the proof starts from undeniable data of experience (the continuous change and motion of temporal things) and restricts itself to a consistent reflection on the concept of the cause of motion.
So it may seem. But suppose that I agree with the early Greek philosophers of nature. Suppose that I see the truly divine as an eternal flux of life and not as an absolute form. My faith would then reverse the direction of the entire “proof.” The proof would proceed as follows: in our experience we always perceive completed forms – the forms of plants, animals, men, and so forth. However, we also see that all these forms arise and pass away. If this process of becoming and perishing were halted, the great stream of life itself would cease. This in turn would signify the end of whatever comes to exist in individual form and shape. The great stream of life, which stands above all form and which is itself formless, cannot itself become or pass away. It is therefore the first cause of all that receives concrete form. This first cause is God.
I trust that the reader will agree that this proof of the existence of God is as logically correct as that of Thomas’s “natural theology” and that it too begins from undeniable data of experience. But the belief, the presupposition that lies at the basis of this second proof, is different; the truly divine is found not in pure form, as Thomas taught, but in the matter principle of the eternally flowing life stream.
Clearly, our logical thinking is not “autonomous” with respect to faith. It is always guided and directed by a faith commitment which in turn is controlled by the religious ground motive that grips one’s thinking either implicitly or consciously. The ground motive of Thomas’s thought, the roman catholic motive of nature and grace, was a motive that allotted a place to the Greek motive. It is foreign to scripture and to its message of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit.
The roman catholic thinker will appeal further to Paul’s statement in Romans 2:14-15, which reads:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them…
This text has stimulated much speculation. It has been hailed as proof of the influence of the Greek view of nature in Paul’s thought. Certainly it is true that Paul, an educated man, was familiar with this Greek view. But Paul’s statement cannot possibly mean that he advocated the selfsufficiency or independence of natural understanding over against divine revelation. The text must be read against the background of the passage just considered, where we saw that God engraved the law into the heart of man’s existence already in His “general revelation.” The scholastics interpreted this law as a rational, natural law that man could know by “the natural light of reason” apart from faith. Accordingly, they translated the word heart with the word mind, a reading that eliminated the profound meaning of Paul’s words. Paul makes his statement in the context of a hard-hitting sketch of the deep apostasy of both Jew and Greek, on account of which both were lost. This statement is therefore governed by the motive of the fall, which affects the spiritual root of existence. What is the sin of a heathen if he knows the law for creation only “rationally” and if this law is not engraved into his heart, into the root of his being?
The Church of Rome of course does not teach that sin arises in the mind. To the Roman Catholic mere rational knowledge of the law is not sufficient to justify Paul’s judgment that whoever sins perishes. Rather, the law as the law of general revelation is written into man’s heart, and therefore man is without excuse. Serious damage to the brain may cause a man to lose temporal, moral conscience and may force him to lie, steal, or deceive. A mentally deficient person may lack an intellectual understanding of what is good or bad. But the law that is inscribed within our hearts touches the hidden root of life, where judgment is reserved for God alone.
The philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas stands behind the official roman catholic view of the state and of the other societal spheres. It is undoubtedly true that in roman catholic circles some adhere to conceptions other than those of Aquinas. Augustinian trends are certainly not unimportant. But thomistic philosophy, supported by official recommendation in a series of papal encyclicals, has a special status among Roman Catholics. The two famous social and socioeconomic encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891, from Leo XIII) and Quadragesimo anno (1931, from Pius XI) are based on a thomistic foundation. They present guidelines for a solution to social questions and to the problems of economic order from a roman catholic vantage point.
Thomas’s view of human society was completely dominated by the religious ground motive of nature and grace in its roman catholic sense. The main lines of his view of natural society were derived from Aristotle. We have already noted that in conformity with Aristotle he conceived of human nature as a composition of form and matter. This conception of human nature is the basis for Thomas’s view of society. Man’s “form” was the rational soul, and his “matter” was the material body, which owed its real being to the soul. Every creature composed of form and matter arose and came into being, and the principle of form gave this becoming the direction toward a goal. By nature, every creature strove to reach its perfection through a process whereby its “essential form” realized itself in the matter of its body. Thus a plant naturally strove to develop its seed into the mature form of a plant, and an animal developed itself toward its mature form. The natural perfection of man consisted in the complete development of his rational nature which distinguished him from plants and animals. His rational nature was equipped with an innate, rational, natural law that urged him to do good and to refrain from evil. Thus, according to Thomas, man naturally strove toward the good. This conception radically conflicts with the scriptural confession of the total depravity of “human nature.”
Thomas also believed that man could not attain his natural perfection as an isolated individual. He came into the world naked and helpless, and therefore he depended on society, which had to aid him by providing for his material and moral needs. Thus for Thomas a social inclination or a predisposition toward society is also innate in rational human nature. This social propensity develops in stages, through the formation of smaller and larger communities that are mutually related in terms of lower to higher, means to end, part to whole.
The lowest community is the family, which provides the opportunity for satisfying man’s lower needs, such as food and sex. The highest community is the state, which brings man’s social tendency to perfection. All the lower communities relate to the state as their completion; for, unlike the other natural societal forms, the state is the overarching and perfect community. It possesses autarchy and self-sufficiency, since in the natural realm it is the highest and most embracive community. The state is based on the rational disposition of human nature. Its essence is characterized by its goal, the common good. This natural goal is also the immediate basis of governmental authority, without which the body politic cannot exist. Thus, if the state is grounded in “nature,” so is the authority of government. Thomas certainly recognized that ultimately the government’s authority is rooted in the sovereignty of the creator but, in typically roman catholic fashion, he inserted the motive of rational nature between man and the creator. In this nature motive the Greek form-matter motive came to expression.
Insofar as it fully influences one’s view of human society, the scriptural creation motive always points to the intrinsic nature of the life spheres of our temporal existence. The scriptural conception that God created everything after its own nature does not tolerate the idea that in the natural realm the state is the perfect community embracing both individuals and other societal structures as parts. The nature of a part is always determined exclusively by the nature of the whole. It is undoubtedly correct to maintain that prpvinces and municipalities are parts of the state; governed by the same intrinsic law of life, they are of the same intrinsic nature. Similarly, it is correct to say that hands, feet, and head are essential parts of the human body. They are only members of the body, and as such their nature is determined by the intrinsic nature and law of the whole.
A whole-part relationship does not exclude the possibility that the parts possess autonomy within the whole. Municipalities, counties, and provinces are indeed constitutionally autonomous. That is to say, they are relatively independent within the whole. They institute bylaws and regulations that govern their internal affairs even though the ultimate control rests with a central authority. But in the modem state the limit of this autonomy always depends upon the interest of the whole, the so-called common good.
From a scriptural point of view the relation between the state and the life spheres of different internal structure is radically distinct from the whole-part relationship within the state. According to their intrinsic character and peculiar law of life, these spheres should never be described as parts of the state. In principle they are of a nature different from the institutionalized body politic. They are sovereign in their own sphere, and their boundaries are determined not by the common good of the state but by their own intrinsic nature and law. They are indeed related to the state, but their relation involves only those matters that belong to the competence of the state and not to the jurisdiction of another sphere.
In other words, each sphere must leave the principle of sphere sovereignty intact. For its practical application sphere sovereignty demands a closer investigation of the internal structure of the various life spheres, but at this point I merely emphasize again that sphere sovereignty is rooted firmly in creation. When the integral character of the creation motive is operative in one’s life and thought, sooner or later it leads to a recognition of sphere sovereignty.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
The Greek nature motive with its dualism between the form principle and the matter principle permeated Thomas Aquinas’s view of human society. In his opinion the state, based on the rational nature of man, was necessary so that the rational form of human nature could arrive at perfect development and so that the matter principle – expressed in sensuous desires – could be held in check. In conformity with Greek thought, Thomas held that the state was the total, all-inclusive community in the realm of nature. All the other life spheres were merely its subservient parts. Thomas therefore conceived of the relationship between the state and the other natural spheres of life in terms of the whole-part relation. Certainly he would not defend a state absolutism that would govern all of life from “above.” The modern totalitarian regimes of national socialism and fascism would have met an unwavering opponent in Thomas, as they did among the modern Thomists. Thomas immediately added a restriction after declaring that individuals and “lower” communities were parts of the state; he maintained that they were parts only insofar as they were of the same order. To begin with, this limitation excluded the supranatural order from the jurisdiction of the state. Both the individual and marriage (in its sacramental superstructure) participated in the supranatural order, and the jurisdiction of the state did not extend beyond the natural. Secondly, this limitation signified that Thomas’s view of the state was anticentralist in principle. Thomas argued that the state is constructed from below in a hierarchy of lower and higher communities. Whatever could be adequately taken care of by a lower community should not be subsumed by a higher community.
The famous principle of subsidiarity is rooted in this train of thought. The encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931, from Pius XI) defended “subsidiarity” as a guide for delimiting the state’s task in the organization of labour and industry. The principle of subsidiarity holds that the state should contribute to the common good only those elements which the individual person cannot provide, either by himself or by means of the lower communities. At first glance this principle seems to be another name for “sphere sovereignty.” Those who agree with Groen van Prinsterer’s views concerning the structure of the state will be congenial to the idea that the state should be organized not from above but from below. Yet a decisive difference exists between the principles of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty.
Roman catholic social theory developed the principle of subsidiarity on the basis of the thomistic view of man’s “rational nature,” which itself was derived from the Greek concept of nature. Man’s natural perfection, which consisted in realizing the “rational essential form” of his nature, could not be attained in isolation. He came into the world naked and helpless, with the result that he depended upon the community for providing him with his “material” and “rational-moral” needs. Hence a social propensity lay implanted in his rational nature, a propensity that developed step by step in the societal forms which began with the lowest (the family) and ended with the state, the perfect and highest community in natural society.
Meanwhile, the human being as an individual always remained the thomistic point of departure, for he alone was truly a substance. In the context of Greek thought this meant that the individual possessed an independent existence while the community was regarded as merely a unity of order borne by the individual. In this pattern of thought a community like the state does not possess the same reality as the individual, just as one cannot ascribe the same reality to the colour red as to a red rose. The colour red is only a property of the rose and presupposes the rose as its bearer.
For analogous reasons the official roman catholic view maintains that the state and the lower societal communities cannot exhaust the reality of the individual as a “natural being.” The rational law of nature holds that man depends on the community only for those needs which he himself cannot fill as an individual. The same natural law also holds that a lower community like the family or the school depends on the higher communities (ultimately on the state) only for those interests that it itself cannot handle. Basically, this hierarchical structure describes the content of the principle of subsidiarity.
But Thomism still conceived of both the individual and the lower societal communities in the natural realm as parts of the whole, as parts of the state. It is against this (essentially Greek) view of human society that the scriptural principle of sphere sovereignty directs itself. Rooted in the creation motive of revelation, sphere sovereignty compels us to give a precise account of the intrinsic nature of the life spheres. God created everything according to its own nature. Two parts that completely differ in kind can never become parts of the same whole.
This insight into the inner structure and nature of the differentiated spheres was alien to thomistic social theory. Thomism distinguished communities only in terms of the immediate purpose they served in their cooperation toward the natural perfection of man. For example, marriage (apart from its ecclesiastical, sacramental dimension) was understood as a juridical institution grounded in human nature for the sake of the procreation of the human race. Does this definition focus at all on the intrinsic nature and structure of the community of marriage? If so, what should we say of a marriage in which children are no longer expected? What is the inner norm of the marriage bond in its internal character? Does one really identify the inner nature of married life by describing it as a juridical institution? Would not marriage be sheer hell if the juridical point of view would guide all of its affairs?
Following Aristotle, Thomas looked upon the family as a natural community serving the lower economic and sexual needs of life. The family consisted of three relations: husband and wife, parents and children, and master and servants. Does this in any way approach the internal character of the family? Does the family really include the servants? Is it true that the family serves only the “lower needs”?
Lastly, thomistic social theory considered the state to be the perfect human community. Its goal was the “common good” of its members. I ask: how can this teleological goal orientation help us define the internal nature and structure of the state? The concept of “common good” in thomistic political theory was so vague that it applied also to the “lower” societal structures. For example, the modern Thomist does not hesitate to speak of the “public interest” of an industrial corporation in distinction from the “specific interest” of the persons who work within it. For the Thomist the “common good” in the body politic can only refer to the interest of the “whole” that embraces all the “lower” communities and the individuals as “parts.” From this perspective, however, it is impossible to indicate an inner criterion for the “common good,” since a Thomist does not see the state according to its own intrinsic nature and structure. We know how even the most revolting state absolutism seeks to justify itself with appeals to the common good. As we mentioned earlier, Thomism certainly does not desire an absolute state, but it has no defence against state absolutism other than the principle of subsidiarity, a principle derived not from the intrinsic nature of the life spheres but from the aristotelian conception of the “social nature” of man and of the “natural purposes” of the various societal communities.
In this light it is not surprising that modern roman catholic social theory contains two potentially conflicting tendencies. In the first place, we note an idea of social order wholly oriented to the Greek view of the state as the totality of natural society. As a totality, the state must order all of its parts in harmonious cooperation. The Thomist who holds this conception of social order will view the principle of sphere sovereignty as a direct consequence of the “revolutionary” Reformation which merely placed the different spheres of life alongside each other and which sought their deeper unity only in the suprarational religious community of the human race. The roman catholic idea of social order, by contrast, conceives of the various life spheres within the “realm of nature” as ordered within a natural whole (the state) which finds its higher perfection in the “supranatural” community of the church as institute of divine grace.
In the second place, we note the principle of subsidiarity which must serve to prevent totalitarian political absolutism by means of an “order” not imposed “from above” but developed “from below” so that the central government will leave the task of establishing a socioeconomic order as much as possible to the individuals and to the lower communities.
The question as to how these two views must be reconciled is decisive for the stand Roman Catholicism will take with regard to the postwar issues of social order.
It is not surprising, then, that today one finds roman catholic social theory split into two more or less divergent camps. One stream places great emphasis on the whole-part relation it assumes obtains between the state and the other “natural” life spheres. It insists on the idea of ordering society without depriving the other life spheres of their “natural autonomy.” But it acknowledges no basic difference, for example, between the position organized industrial life must occupy within the state and the position constitutionally given to the municipalities and provinces.
This camp is greatly influenced by Othmar Spann [1878-1950], the well-known social theorist from Vienna who called his system “universalism” [Ganzheitslehre or Allheitslehre] The point of departure for his view is the community, not the individual. According to him, whatever is individual or singular can exist only as an expression of the whole, which is realized through its parts in this way. While it is true that from his vantage point the whole exists only in its members and has no existence apart from them, the whole does exist before its members. Lying at the basis of its parts, it does not cease to exist when its individual members perish. Thus the whole is “all in all”; everything is in the whole and the whole is in everything. For Spann the individuals and the lower communities of the “realm of nature” are part and parcel of the state, just as the state itself is part of the “community of nations.”
The second stream is the so-called solidaristic wing, founded by the roman catholic economist and social theorist Heinrich Pesch (1854- 1926). In his five-volume work on the principles of economy Pesch sought to apply the social ethics of solidarism to economics.* In his conception society is:
a whole composed of many and different parts. Each part is by nature directed to a goal of its own and to the fulfilment of a specific social (or political) service. Because of this orientation every part is a unity. Since, however, all these partial goals are many branches of the single perfection of human life, the parts stand in a certain natural relation to each other and to a greater whole. Therefore they must fulfil their task in partnership and in harmonious cooperation, so that the development and well-being of the whole (the state) can be the result of this.
W.M.J. Koenraadt and Max van Poll, Handboek der maatschappijleer (Manual of Sociology) (1937), vol. I, pp. 24f.
To this point solidarism and universalism are still largely in agreement. But the difference is this: on the basis of the fact that only the individual as a person has independent existence and that the community is only an independent “unit of order,” solidarism infers that the individual cannot be directed to the community in everything or in an ultimate sense, not even on the “natural level.” Solidarism does not accept the universalistic thesis that as a natural being man is wholly part of the community. It holds that the individual is “older” and prior to the community, and that he possesses a “personal sphere” of natural interests over against the state. In Casti connubii, the famous encyclical on marriage of 31 December 1930, pope Pius XI applied these ideas to the problem of sterilization:
Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.
Cited from The Church and the Reconstruction of the Modern World, ed. with an introduction by Terence McLaughlin (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1957), pp. 141f.
It is consistent with this solidaristic idea that the jurisdiction of government over the “lower communities” be limited as much as possible. On this point the solidaristic wing, which undoubtedly represents the official roman catholic view, in practice supports Calvinism with its principle of sphere sovereignty rather than the modern notion of order which views the various life spheres as merely parts of the state. Still, emphasizing the principle of subsidiarity does not offer a fundamental guarantee against the totalitarianism that continues to threaten society even after the collapse of the national socialistic and fascist regimes. For that matter, even the principle of sphere sovereignty does not arm us against totalitarianism if it is separated from the scriptural motive of creation and thereby robbed of its real intent. Before exploring this further, we shall complete our sketch of roman catholic social theory by devoting attention to the realm of human society called “specifically Christian ” or “supranatural.”
The roman catholic religious ground motive (nature and grace) requires an overarching structure of “supranatural” character above the natural substructure of human society. Man possesses not only a natural purpose in life (the perfection of his “rational nature”) but above that a supranatural final purpose through which man’s rational nature must be elevated to the sphere of grace.
Within this supranatural realm, where the soul’s eternal salvation is at stake, Roman Catholicism calls a halt to the interference of the state. Only the roman catholic institutional church can dispense supranatural grace to the believer by means of its sacraments. If, according to the roman catholic conception, natural society is indeed to have a Christian character, it must subject itself to the guidance of the church in all matters pertaining to the eternal salvation of the soul. Just as in the realm of nature the state is the perfect community embracing all other natural spheres of life as its parts, so also in the realm of grace the Roman Catholic Church is the whole of Christian society in its supranatural perfection. It is the perfect community of Christendom.
Our roman catholic fellow Christian s of today are still influenced by the medieval idea of the corpus Christian um (Body of Christ), the idea that the institutional church embraces all of Christendom and all of Christian life. This ideal of the Christian community rises far above the Greek conception of the “natural substructure,” like an imposing dome. Here too, however, it is not the scriptural ground motive that governs the roman catholic mind. Rather, Roman Catholicism submits to a halfChristian ized Greek conception which understands temporal society in terms of the whole-part scheme and which denies the intrinsic nature of the life spheres as rooted in the divine creation order.
Roman Catholicism looks for the whole – for the total unity – of Christian society in the temporal, institutional church. But according to the ground motive of God’s revelation the true unity of all Christian life is found only in the supratemporal root community of mankind, which is reborn in Christ. This community is the Kingdom of God, which resides not in a temporal institution but in the hearts of the redeemed. Without a doubt, the church here on earth, in its temporal, institutional organization as community of Christ-believers, can only exist as a temporal manifestation of the “Body of Christ.” The “visible church” can therefore not be separated from the “invisible church.” The latter is the “soul,” the “religious root,” of the former. But this “temporal manifestation” is not identical with the so-called “invisible church” which, as the spiritual Kingdom of Christ Jesus our Lord, transcends time and shall exist in all eternity. As man’s soul and religious root unity do not lie in his temporal existence, so too the spiritual root unity and true totality of Christian life do not lie in the “visible church,” which belongs to temporal society.
Notice then that the roman catholic view of the church conforms with the scholastic conception of the relation between the body and the soul in human nature. We recall that the scholastic view was governed by the Greek religious ground motive of form and matter. The soul was understood as an abstracted part of man’s temporal existence, the part characterized by the logical function of thought. Over against the soul stood the “material body,” the matter given form by the soul. Despite its relation to the body, the “rational soul” possessed an independent and immortal existence through its intellectual function.
We saw earlier that this Greek idea of the soul is radically different from the scriptural approach. What is at stake in the issue of the soul is self-knowledge, and self-knowledge depends entirely upon one’s knowledge of God. It is only through God’s revelation of creation, fall, and redemption that man discovers the religious root, the soul of his existence. But in the roman catholic view of human nature the dualistic, Greek nature motive of form and matter checked the spiritual vitality of this biblical ground motive. Accordingly, the roman catholic view lost insight into the spiritual root unity of human nature. It sought for the “immortal soul” in an abstract part of man’s temporal existence, thereby forfeiting the radical character of the fall and redemption in Jesus Christ.
It is therefore not difficult to understand that Roman Catholicism located the root unity of Christian society in the temporal, institutional church. As the “perfect community” of the supranatural realm, the church was the higher “form” of natural society, its “matter.” Natural society, climaxed in the state, was related to the supranatural Christian society of the church as the material body was related to the rational soul. Unintentionally, then, the Greco-Roman conception of the totalitarian state was transferred to the roman catholic institutional church. Roman Catholicism heralded the church as the total, all-embracing community of the Christian life.
Today’s Roman Catholic maintains that Christian family life, the christian school, Christian social action, and even a Christian political party must bear the stamp of the church. Certainly he does not reject the natural basis of these spheres of life. He argues that insofar as they operate on the “natural” level they are not part of the church. On this level they possess autonomy. Autonomy holds first of all with respect to the state itself. But with respect to their specifically Christian purposes, the state and all the other spheres must subject themselves to the guidance of the church. Marriage too has a “natural substructure”; marriage is the community of husband and wife, founded on natural law, with as purpose the procreation of the human race. But it is also a sacrament, and it therefore belongs to the ecclesiastical sphere of grace. And in view of this sacramental character the church demands that it regulate marriage by canon law, excluding the law of the civil magistrate.
According to the roman catholic view, nature and grace cannot be separated in a truly Christian society. This means that the Roman Catholic Church may intervene in the natural realm. Consequently, the relation between the church and the Christian (that is, roman catholic) state can never correspond to the relation between two sovereign life spheres. One might be led to think otherwise when Thomas argued that the state is not subject to intervention from the church in purely natural matters. The illusion is broken, however, when we realize that the church reserves for itself the binding interpretation of “natural morality,” to which the Christian magistrate is as bound as any individual church member. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church delimits the boundaries of the autonomy of the Christian state. Thus, when Leo XIII and Pius XI wrote their encyclicals Rerum navarum and Quadragesimo anno, they offered directives not merely for the “specifically Christian ” side of the social and socioeconomic issues of the modern day; they also explained the demands of “natural law” and “natural morality” for these problems. On both counts, then, the Roman Catholic Church demands that a Christian government subject itself to ecclesiastical guidance. The state is autonomous only in giving concrete form to the principles of natural law in the determination of so-called positive law.
In conclusion, let us briefly summarize our discussion of the roman catholic view of human society. Roman Catholicism cannot recognize the sphere sovereignty of the temporal spheres of life. Influenced by the Greek form-matter motive, it conceives of all temporal society in terms of the whole-part scheme. By virtue of its catholic character (“catholic” means “total” or “all-embracive”) the roman catholic institutional church functions as the total community of all Christian life. The state functions as the total community of “natural life,” but in those affairs that according to the judgment of the church touch the supranatural well-being of the citizen, it must always heed the church’s guidance.
During the German occupation of Holland an “underground” document appeared entitled The Glass House. Again a Roman Catholic Party? It ably expresses the roman catholic position in these words:
The place of church authority in these affairs comes into full view when we consider the question as to who must decide whether a temporal issue is necessarily connected with the salvation of the soul. This competence belongs to the church alone. It alone has the divine mission to guide man in “matters pertaining to heaven.” Thus the church is competent to determine the extent of its actual jurisdiction. Many have taken the church’s competence to determine its own competence as the essence of true sovereignty. German jurisprudence calls it Kompetenz-Kompetenz. Now, sovereignty in the above sense may be ascribed to the Roman Catholic Church only. It is in this light that the juridical relationship between church and state must be placed. This is not a voluntary cooperation from which the state is free to withdraw or determine as it pleases. The relation is best expressed as follows: an “ordered bond” .. . must exist between the church and the state, as (pope) Leo XIII said (in the encyclical Immortale Dei). Leo compares this bond with the connection between soul and body-a comparison common among the church fathers.
A second, expanded edition appeared in 1949. See F.J.F.M. Duynstee, Het glazen huis. Beschouwingen over den inhoud en den vonn van het staatkundig streven der nederlandse katholieken [The Glass House. Reflections on the Content and Form of the Political Aims of the Dutch Catholics].
The author cites from the encyclical:
Whatever, therefore, in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgement of the Church.
Taken from Social Wellsprings: Fourteen Epochal Documents by Pope Leo XIII, ed. Joseph Husslein (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1940), p. 72.
The author concludes that “the church, therefore, has juridical authority over the state in the full sense of the word.”
The argument of The Glass House certainly underscores our observations on the roman catholic view of the relation between the church and the state. A roman catholic society acknowledges only one truly sovereign authority-that of the institutional church. The other spheres
of life, including the state, have only autonomy. Although the writer of this document does speak of “sovereignty of the state” in all matters “which fall outside of the religioethical sphere,” he quickly gives this the correct roman catholic meaning by reducing this so-called sovereignty to autonomy.
The author understands the relation of the church and the state to be analogous to that of the soul and the body. We have seen that the roman catholic view of the soul and the body was Greek, not scriptural, and that it was determined entirely by the Greek ground motive of form and matter. The writer affirms this influence in his statement:
The catholic conception of the nature of man is immediately connected with this: “the human soul cannot be exhaustively defined except in relation to the body, to which the soul bestows life and with which it forms a real and substantial unity,” as Antonin Sertillanges says.* Redemption, the church, the sacraments, and the resurrection of the flesh are closely connected with this human character. The valuation of the body, of material things, of the natural, and of the rational, along with the spiritualization of all these through grace – together they witness to the allencompassing character of catholicism, to its wonderful harmony.
But because the Church of Rome no longer understood the soul in the scriptural sense as the religious root of human nature, conceiving it instead as an abstract complex of temporal functions, the church identified the “soul” of temporal human society with the institutional church.
The official (that is, thomistic) roman catholic view of the relation between faith on the one hand and philosophy and science on the other hand parallels the relation between state and church. In the decades just prior to the second world war roman catholic scholars were preoccupied with the question of the possibility of a Christian philosophy. Whereas the augustinian trend of scholastic thought often answered this question affirmatively, the opposite tendency was dominant among Thomists. As we have already seen, Thomism represents the official roman catholic stance.
Unlike Augustine, Thomas defended the “autonomy” of natural thought with respect to the Christian faith. He believed that philosophy must pursue its own task independently of the theology of revelation. It must proceed under the “natural light of reason” alone. If we look closely, we see that this “autonomy” of “natural” science over against the light of revelation is different in principle from the “autonomy” defended by modern humanism. Not recognizing a higher light of revelation, the humanist believes that natural reason is truly sovereign. His notion of the “autonomy of science” is controlled by the humanistic religious ground motive of nature and freedom, which will be considered in later chapters. In contrast to the humanistic motive, the thomistic view is rooted in the roman catholic ground motive of nature and grace.
As the Thomists prefer to phrase it, their philosophy “christened” Aristotle. That is to say, within the field of philosophy it accommodated the Greek thought of Aristotle to ecclesiastical dogma. Greek thought therefore always stands under the control of ecclesiastical dogma, which it may never contradict. According to Thomas, such a contradiction is not even possible if natural understanding reasons purely. If conflicts do arise, they may be the result of errors in thinking which thomistic philosophy will promptly expose. Hence the Thomist always maintains that the roman catholic philosophy of state and society can be accepted by all reasonable men apart from accepting the roman catholic faith.
But in reality matters are quite different. Orthodox scholasticism is never unprejudiced with respect to religion and church dogma. Philosophy is always determined by a religious ground motive without which it cannot exist. Forming an inseparable unity with roman catholic ecclesiastical belief, thomistic thought is roman catholic from beginning to end. Thomistic philosophy is the natural stepping-stone to ecclesiastical faith.
Whenever Roman Catholicism presents a critical account of its own ground motive, it will indeed recognize the universal scope of the antithesis established by the Christian religion. However, it understands this antithesis in the light of the religious ground motive of nature and grace. In this light the antithesis is viewed as an opposition between the apostate principle that severs “nature” from church dogma and the roman catholic principle that, under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority, places “nature” in the service of “supranatural perfection.” Nature and grace (supranature) cannot be separated in the roman catholic conception. Whoever believes that “natural life” is “sovereign” stands in irreconcilable conflict with Roman Catholicism.
This way of characterizing the antithesis also has implications for social and political activity. The anonymous author of The Glass House we cited earlier was quite aware of this. Of course, in a truly roman catholic country without a mixed population Catholics have no need for a political party or social organizations based on roman catholic principles. But in a diversified population they normally must accept the antithesis also in the political and social areas. Our writer states:
One should be aware of the choice: a roman catholic political organization is a party whose starting point is the proper relation between church and state; in other words, a party that seeks the true well-being of the citizens insofar as religion offers norms for it. This political party guarantees the basis of every political activity. It is open to the demands and directives of the church that it correct its activities if necessary. The church has the right to demand such correction. This party protects the Catholic from the dangers and conflicts he would experience in parties based on an unacceptable view of politics, that is, in parties where ecclesiastical authority is denied. Only a formal recognition of ecclesiastical authority can guarantee that the concrete political goals of the party, both now and in the future, will agree with extant and future declarations of the church.
Shortly after the war the Dutch roman catholic episcopacy reiterated its preference for a catholic party on the grounds that it safeguards catholic interest best.
“Further,” he continues, “reflection on ecclesiastical competence in temporal affairs leads to the conclusion that the question of whether a roman catholic political organization is necessary can become an issue subject to the jurisdiction or moral authority of the church.” In this connection one might recall the stand taken by the German episcopacy (in the elections of 1929, for instance) in support of the roman catholic Center Party. The standpoint of the Dutch episcopacy was very similar, at least before May 1940. * Of direct importance is a statement made by pope Pius XI (to bishop Aengenent on 3 November 1932): “Political unity among Catholics: before all else, after all else, above all else, and at the cost of all else. One should sacrifice personal opinion and insight to this unity, and count it higher than private interest.”
Immediately following the second world war a number of Dutch Roman Catholics, called the “Christopher Group,” joined the Labour Party in a conscious effort to break through the roman catholic antithesis in the political arena. This Group cannot be considered representative of the official roman catholic position, as the most recent elections  made abundantly clear. Moreover, soon after the formation of the Dutch National Movement, influential Roman Catholics, like professors Sassen and Kors, warned against the postwar attempts to eliminate the roman catholic antithesis in the political arena. Both strongly defended the inseparable unity of roman catholic political practice and the roman catholic world view.
Surely, in certain countries the church may consider the formation of a roman catholic party or labour union undesirable on pragmatic grounds. In the case of Mexico, pope Pius XI explicitly declared that Mexican Catholics should not establish a party that would call itself “catholic” (2 February 1926). Once again, our anonymous author remarks:
It is likely that in places where enemies of the church are in power and are prepared to use their power against the church, enemies who accelerate the battle rapidly for no apparent reason, a catholic party would only add fuel to the flames and would therefore be inappropriate. One might say that in an originally catholic country [France is meant] which is currently anticlerical, even though still connected with the church in many ways, a catholic party would cause anticlericalism to spread and would harm the souls of many anticlericalists over whom the church continues to watch. One could argue also that in a country with only slight antipapalism a catholic party might promote antipapalism, a detriment that would be the more serious if the catholic party had no great power … On these and similar grounds one must conclude that a political party is inappropriate in Mexico and perhaps also in France or England.
But the same author correctly defends the thesis that “a catholic party is in principle the right option wherever the state does not recognize ecclesiastical authority.”
The Christopher Group, whose adherents come largely from the southern roman catholic provinces of the Netherlands, were perhaps tempted to expect the realization of an ideal roman catholic society, a society not realizable in the Dutch nation. I take it that they will become more realistic when they discover that they acted on the basis of a nonexistent situation and that they alienated themselves from the majority of their roman catholic counterparts. It is not even certain whether the roman catholic party will join the Labour Party in the formation of a coalition cabinet. I am sure of this: if such a coalition is formed – and indeed the weakened position of the Labour Party has created new possibilities for the Roman Catholics – it will be possible only under roman catholic leadership. In that event the Labour Party will be in a position only to play second fiddle, accompanying the tune set by the Roman Catholic Peoples Party.*
The ground motive of nature and grace contained the seeds of a “religious dialectic.” That is, from the outset the Christian motive of grace and the conception of “nature,” which was oriented to the Greek religious ground motive, stood in irreconcilable opposition and tension. Wherever possible, this real religious tension drove life and thought from one pole to the other. On the one hand, the danger arose that the nature motive would overrun the motive of grace by summoning the mysteries of grace before the court of natural reason. On the other hand, there was the constant temptation of mysticism which attempted to escape “sinful nature” in a mystical experience of supranatural grace and thus inevitably led to asceticism and world flight. Finally, there was the constant threat that every connection between nature and grace would be systematically cut off in such a way that any point of contact between them would be denied. In the latter case we are confronted with an honest acceptance of an open split between “natural life” and the Christian religion, both of which are entirely independent of each other.
Only the doctrinal authority of the Roman Catholic Church was able to maintain the apparent synthesis between the Greek and Christian ground motives. Time and again the church intervened by officially condemning the “heresies” that arose out of the polar tensions within the dualistic ground motive of nature and grace.
During the latter part of the Middle Ages (the fourteenth century), when the dominant position of the church in culture began to erode on all sides, a movement arose within scholasticism that broke radically with the ecclesiastical synthesis. This turn of events announced the beginning of the “modern period.” The leader of this movement was the British Franciscan William of Ockham k. 1280-1349]. Ockham, a brilliant monk, mercilessly laid bare the inner dualism of the roman catholic ground motive, denying that any point of contact existed between the realm of nature and the realm of grace. He was keenly aware that the Greek view of nature flagrantly contradicted the scriptural motive of creation. Thomas Aquinas had maintained that the natural ordinances were grounded in divine “reason.” For him they were eternal “forms” in the mind of God, in accordance with which God had shaped “matter.” Ockham, however, rejected this entire position. Intuitively he knew that Thomas’s essentially Greek picture could not be reconciled with the confession of a sovereign creator. However, in order to break with the Greek deification of reason he ended up in another extreme. He interpreted the will of the divine creator as despotic arbitrariness, or potestas absoluta (absolute, free power).
In Greek fashion Thomas had identified the decalogue with a natural, moral law rooted immutably in the rational nature of man and in divine reason. For this reason Thomas held that the decalogue could be known apart from revelation by means of the natural light of reason. But for Ockham, the decalogue did not have a rational basis. It was the gift of an arbitrary God, a God who was bound to nothing. God could easily have ordered the opposite. Ockham believed that the Christian must obey the laws of God for the simple reason that God established these laws and not others. The Christian could not “calculate” God’s sovereign will, for the law was merely the result of God’s unlimited arbitrariness. In the realm of “nature” the Christian must blindly obey; in the realm of the supranatural truths of grace he must, without question, accept the dogma of the church.
Ockham abandoned every thought of a “natural preparation” for ecclesiastical faith through “natural knowledge.” Likewise, he rejected the idea that the church is competent to give supranatural guidance in natural life. He did not acknowledge, for instance, that science is subordinate to ecclesiastical belief. Neither did he believe that the temporal authorities are subordinate to the pope with respect to the explication of natural morality. In principle he rejected the roman catholic view of a “Christian society”; standing entirely independent of the church, secular government in his view was indeed “sovereign.”
In short, we may say that Ockham deprived the law of its intrinsic value. Founded in an incalculable, arbitrary God who is bound to nothing, the law only held for the sinful realm of nature. For Ockham, man is never certain that God’s will would not change under different circumstances. Radically denying that any point of contact between nature and grace existed, he rejected the official roman catholic view of human society, together with its subordination of the natural to the supranatural and of the state to the church.
The attempts of pope John XXII to stifle the spiritual movement led by Ockham were in vain. The pope’s position was very weak; having been forced to flee from Rome, he depended greatly on the king of France during his exile at Avignon. But above all, a new period in history announced itself at this time – a period that signified the end of medieval, ecclesiastical culture. Ockham’s critique convinced many that the roman catholic synthesis between the Greek view of nature and the Christian religion had been permanently destroyed. The future presented only two options: one could either return to the scriptural ground motive of the Christian religion or, in line with the new motive of nature severed from the faith of the church, establish a modern view of life concentrated on the religion of human personality. The first path led to the Reformation; the second path led to modern humanism. In both movements aftereffects of the roman catholic motive of nature and grace continued to be felt for a long time.
In order to gain a proper insight into the spiritual situation of contemporary Protestantism, it is extremely important to trace the aftereffects of the roman catholic ground motive. In doing this, we will focus our attention especially on the various conceptions concerning the relation between “church” and “world” in protestant circles. We will be especially interested in “Barthianism,” so widely influential today. And, with respect to our overriding theme, we must take note of the resistance against the “antithesis” in the natural realm of science, politics, and social action. This we will attempt to do in the following subsections.
The religious ground motive of nature and grace held the Christian mind in a polar tension. Near the end of the Middle Ages this tension ultimately led to Ockham’s complete separation of natural life from the Christian life of grace. Practically speaking, the school of Ockham drove a wedge between creation and redemption in Jesus Christ. This had happened earlier, in the first centuries of the Christian church, when the Greek and near-eastern dualistic ground motives began to influence the Christian motive. One could detect this not only in gnosticism but also in Marcion [second century AD] as well as in the Greek church fathers.
Although understood in the Greek sense, “natural life” within the framework of nature and grace did refer to God’s work of creation. The creation ordinances thus belonged to the realm of nature. As we saw above, Ockham deprived these ordinances of their intrinsic worth. For him the law proceeded from a divine arbitrariness that could change its demands at any moment.
Luther [1483-1546], the great reformer, had been educated in Ockham’s circle during his stay at the Erfurt monastery. He himself declared: “I am of Ockham’s school.” Under Ockham’s influence the religious ground motive of nature and grace permeated Luther’s life and thought, although certainly not in the roman catholic sense. The Church of Rome rejected a division of nature and grace, considering the former a lower portal to the latter. Luther, however, was influenced by Ockham’s dualism which established a deep rift between natural life and the supranatural Christian life. In Luther’s case this conflict expressed itself as the opposition between law and gospel.
To understand this polarity in Luther’s thought, which today plays a central role in Karl Barth and his followers, we must note that Luther returned to a confession which had been rejected by Roman Catholicism: the confession of the radicality of the fall. But within the nature-grace ground motive, Luther could not do justice to this truly scriptural teaching. The moment it became embedded in an internally split religious framework, it could not do justice to the meaning of creation. In Luther’s thought this shortcoming manifested itself in his view of the law. He depreciated law as the order for “sinful nature” and thus began to view “law” in terms of a religious antithesis to “evangelical grace.”
It might seem that this contrast is identical with the contrast made by the apostle Paul in his teaching on the relation of law to grace in Jesus Christ. Paul expressly proclaimed that man is justified by faith alone, not by the works of the law. Actually, however, Paul’s statements do not harmonize in the least with Luther’s opposition between law and gospel. Paul always calls God’s law holy and good. But he wants to emphasize strongly that fallen man cannot fulfil the law and thus can live only by the grace of God.
Under Ockham’s influence, Luther robbed the law as the creational ordinance of its value. For him the law was harsh and rigid and as such in inner contradiction to the love commandment of the gospel. He maintained that the Christian , in his life of love that flows from grace, has nothing to do with the demands of the law. The Christian stood above the law. However, as long as the Christian still existed in this “vale of tears” he was required to adjust himself to the rigid frame of law, seeking to soften it by permeating it as much as possible with Christian love in his relation to his fellowman.
However, the antagonism between law and gospel remains in this line of thought. It is true that Luther spoke of the law as the “taskmaster of Christ” and that he thus granted it some value, but in truly Christian life the law remained the counterforce to Christian love. It needed to be broken from within. For Luther the Christian was free not only from the judgment of the law, which sin brought upon us; in the life of grace the Christian was free from the law itself. He stands entirely above the law.
This view of law was certainly not scriptural. In Luther’s thought the scriptural creation motive recedes behind the motive of fall and redemption. This led to serious consequences. Luther did not acknowledge a single link between nature, taken with its lawful ordinances, and the grace of the gospel. Nature, which was “radically depraved,” had to make way for grace. Redemption signified the death of nature rather than its fundamental rebirth. From the perspective of Roman Catholicism Luther allowed grace to “swallow up” nature.
But because of his dualism, Luther could not conclude that the Christian ought to flee from the world. He believed that it was God’s will that Christian s subject themselves to the ordinances of earthly life. Christians had to serve God also in their worldly calling and office. No one opposed monastic life more vehemently than Luther. Still, nowhere in Luther do we find an intrinsic point of contact between the Christian religion and earthly life. Both stood within an acute dialectical tension between the realm of evangelical freedom and the realm of the law. Luther even contrasted God’s will as the creator, who places man amidst the natural ordinances, and God’s will as the redeemer, who frees man from the law. His view of temporal reality was not intrinsically reformed by the scriptural ground motive of the Christian religion. When in our day Karl Barth denies every point of contact between nature and grace, we face the impact of Luther’s opposition between law and gospel.
Luther’s view of temporal life was not informed by the spiritual dynamic of the scriptural ground motive. He too remained within the scholastic tradition by considering reason [Vernunft] the sole guide in the realm of nature. Unlike Roman Catholicism, however, he did not acknowledge a connection between natural reason and the revelation of God’s Word. “The whore reason” [Die Hure Vernunft] had to capitulate whenever one desired to understand the voice of the gospel. With respect to the truths of faith reason was hopelessly blind. But in matters of secular government, justice, and social order man possessed only the light of reason. It was Ockham’s rigorous dualism that sustained Luther’s separation of natural reason and the Christian religion.
Clearly, in principle Luther had not severed himself from the dualistic ground motive. For example, the great reformer expressed no more interest in “profane science” than his scholastic tutor Ockham. Although he fumed against Aristotle and pagan philosophy in general, he did not point the way toward an inner reformation of thought. From his dualistic starting point he did not see that human thinking arises from the religious root of life and that it is therefore always controlled by a religious ground motive. Similarly, even his new insight into our calling in the world was infected by the dualistic ground motive. To be sure, his idea that every profession rests upon a divine calling was thoroughly in line with the biblical thrust of the Reformation. And Luther certainly broke with the roman catholic view that monastic life had a higher value than worldly life. However, for Luther worldly life belonged exclusively to the realm of “law” and stood in an inner tension with the gospel of love.
But nowhere was the nature-grace dualism expressed more clearly than in Luther’s view of the church. Luther was relatively indifferent to the temporal organization of the church, believing that wherever the Word and the sacrament were found the church was present. He did not grant the church its own exclusive, internal legal sphere of competence. He did not, for instance, see an inner connection between the typical qualification of the institutional church as a community of faith and its inherently ecclesiastical legal order. Guided by “natural reason,” justice and order were “worldly matters.” Justice belonged to the sphere of the law, to “sinful nature.” Only proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments belonged to the realm of grace. Thus it was relatively easy for Luther to leave the juridical organization of the church to the worldly magistrates even if this delegation of authority were only “of necessity.” Ever since Luther’s day the “state church” has been a typical characteristic of Lutheran countries.
The peculiar dialectic of the nature-grace ground motive led Luther’s learned friend and coworker Melanchthon (1497-1560) to attempt a new synthesis between the Christian religion and the spirit of Greek culture. Melanchthon became the father of protestant scholasticism which even today opposes the truly biblical approach in scientific thought with the unbending resistance of an age-old tradition.
Unlike Luther, Melanchthon was trained in the literary humanism of his time. He had a great love for classical, Greco-Roman antiquity. Because of his efforts to “adapt” Greco-Roman thought to the Lutheran articles of faith, the form-matter motive of Greek philosophy soon dominated the protestant view of nature. Since Luther was basically indifferent to philosophy the Greek ground motive had temporarily lost its prominence; with Melanchthon, however, it regained its claim on the view of temporal life and on the view of the relation between soul and body. Thus the inherent dialectic of the unscriptural nature-grace ground motive also infiltrated the protestant mind. However, there was no pope who could maintain the new synthesis by means of official verdicts and decrees. And soon the unscriptural nature motive was filled with the new religious content of modern humanism, secularizing and absorbing the motive of grace.
It is against the background of the development of the nature-grace ground motive in the protestant world of thought that the so-called dialectical theology of Karl Barth [1886-1968) and his initial coworkers (Emil Brunner, Gogarten, and others) must be understood. Dialectical theology sharply opposes the religious antithesis in the area of worldly life, rejecting the idea of Christian politics, of a Christian political party, of a Christian labour organization, and of Christian scholarship.
This new theological movement arose in Switzerland shortly after the first world war. Its adherents forsook the modern humanism that had penetrated German and Swiss theology, having experienced the shocking inner decay of this humanism between the two wars. In harmony with the sixteenth-century reformers, dialectical theology seeks to press the incommensurable claim of God’s Word against the arrogance of humanism. It is antihumanistic in the full sense of the word.
Nevertheless, dialectical theology sustains itself on the dialectical, unscriptural ground motive of nature and grace. Moreover, the spiritual force of the humanistic ground motive is clearly at work in the view of nature defended by Barth and his immediate followers. They understand nature not in the Scholastic-Aristotelian sense but in the modern humanistic sense.
Prior to 1933, when national socialism came to power in Germany, Barth and his school advocated a radical dualism between nature and grace. Like Luther, they identified nature (conceived humanistically) with sin. They separated nature absolutely from the Word of God, which they understood as the “Wholly Other” [Ganz Andere]. Their fundamental depreciation of nature testified to the antihumanistic tendency of this theology. Casting the scriptural creation motive aside, they could not even hint at “points of contact” between nature and grace. However, they left the inner dialectic of this dualistic ground motive unchecked, and deep divisions soon arose within the circle of dialectical theology.
Briefly, let us consider the historical context behind the development of dialectical theology. In the preceding chapters we have discussed at some length three of the four religious ground motives that have dominated the development of western culture: the Greek motive of form and matter; the Christian motive of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ; and finally the roman catholic motive of nature and grace. We saw that these ground motives are the hidden, central forces that have lent a sustained direction to the historical development of the West up to this day. As genuinely religious community motives, they have controlled the life and thought of western man in all areas of life, including those of state and society.
We saw that the roman catholic motive of nature and grace had apparently bridged the radical antithesis and the irreconcilable contrast between the Pagan ground motive of Greek culture and the ground motive of the Christian religion. Roman Catholicism conceived of nature in the Greek sense; nature was a cosmos composed of formless, changing matter and of a form that determined the immutable essence of things. Human nature also was viewed as a composition of form and matter; man’s “matter” was the mortal, material body (subject to the stream of becoming and decay), and his “form” was the imperishable, immortal, rational soul, which was characterized by the activity of thought. For Roman Catholicism a supranatural sphere of grace, which was centred in the institutional church, stood above this sphere of nature. Nature formed the independent basis and prelude to grace. Catholicism “adapted” the church’s teaching on creation to the Greek view of nature, which itself was shaped in terms of the pagan religious ground motive of form and matter. When we exposed the true religious meaning of the Greek ground motive we demonstrated that this “adaptation” and “reconciliation” were only apparent.
We began by establishing that the form-matter motive originated in an irreconcilable conflict within Greek religious consciousness between the older religions of life and the newer culture religion of the Olympian world. The former rested on a deification of the “stream of life,” the stream that arose from “mother earth.” Although the life stream was without shape or form, whatever possessed individual form and figure arose from it and was subject to decay. Death was the consequence of fate, the blind and cruel Anangke or Moira. The life stream itself was eternal. Unceasingly it created new forms from the dead, forms that in turn had to make room for others.
By contrast, the later religion of culture was based on a deification of Greek cultural forms. The new Olympian gods were not formless; they took on personal form and figure. Leaving mother earth, they were enthroned on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. They stood far removed from the eternally flowing stream of becoming and decay. They were immortal; their form and shape stood above this earth and, although they were invisible to the eye of sense, they were full of light and glory. But the Olympian gods were only deified cultural forces. They had no power over Anangke, the blind fate of death. Anangke remained the self-determining antagonist of the deities of culture. The culture religion, therefore, was able to gain official status only in the Greek city-state; in private life the Greeks remained faithful to the old religion of life with its focus on the problems of life and death.
Harbouring the profound conflict between these two religions, the religious ground motive of form and matter was thoroughly dualistic. It was utterly incompatible with the creation motive of the Word of God, in which God reveals himself as the absolute origin and creator of all things.
The Roman Catholic attempt to bridge the Greek and Christian ground motives created a new religious dualism. The Greek conception of nature and the Christian teaching of grace were placed over against each other in dialectical tension. Only papal authority could preserve the artificial synthesis between these inherently antagonistic ground motives. The Reformation limited this papal authority. Thus, to the extent that the ground motive of nature and grace permeated the Reformation movement, its inner dialectic could unfold itself freely. Hence in the debates concerning the relation between nature and grace within Protestantism, we note the rise of theological trends which denied any point of contact between “natural life” and divine grace in Jesus Christ.
In recent years this tension has grown more extreme in the dialectical theology of Karl Barth who, in his debates with his former ally Emil Brunner [1889-1966), explicitly rejected every point of contact between the christian faith and natural life. It is said that Barth repudiated the idea of christian culture. Many feel that Barth, having absolutely separated nature and grace, mortally wounded the roman catholic synthesis. In truth, however, dialectical theology in its religious ground motive remained closely related to Roman Catholicism. Historically speaking, one might say that the Roman Catholic Church had taken revenge on the Reformation by way of the continued impact of its dialectical ground motive within Protestantism. For this motive had a “unifying” effect only as long as the roman catholic idea of the church, with its central papal authority, was accepted. With the rejection of the papacy, the artificial synthesis could not remain intact because of the tension within the ground motive. The Reformation split apart into a disconnected diversity of directions, each identifiable by its particular view of the relation of “nature” and “grace.” It was not the scriptural ground motive of creation, fall, and redemption that led to this division within the Reformation but the continual influence of the dialectical ground motive of Roman Catholicism.
Dialectical theology had of course severed itself from the Greek and scholastic conception of nature. Having undergone humanism, it incorporated the new humanistic view of nature in its dialectical tension with the humanistic view of freedom. Here the difference also becomes apparent. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church accepted the Greek view of nature in a positive sense by attempting a reconciliation with the christian creation motive, Barth allowed the creation motive to recede from sight, sacrificing it to the motives of fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. The great master of dialectical theology had no use at all for creation ordinances that might serve as guidelines in our “natural Hfe.” According to Barth the fall corrupted “nature” so thoroughly that the knowledge of the creation ordinances was completely lost.
Brunner was of a different mind on this point. He believed that the creation ordinances were valid as expressions of “common grace.” At the same time, however, he depreciated these ordinances by placing them in a dialectical polarity with the divine love commandment which he understood as the “demand of the hour” [Gebot der StundeJ. Because of their general character, the creation ordinances are cold and loveless. They form the realm of the law which stands in dialectical opposition to the freedom of the gospel in Jesus Christ who was free from the law. In Brunner too one clearly sees the continuation of the Lutheran contrast between law and gospel. This contrast is merely a different expression of the dialectical opposition between nature and grace which in this form – gospel vs. law – had made its first appearance already in late medieval scholasticism.
For Brunner the law, the cold and rigid framework in which God confines sinful “nature,” must really be broken through by the evangelical commandment of love. This commandment knows no general rule and is valid only in and for the moment. For example, marriage – a creation ordinance – cannot be dissolved; but the command of love can break through this rigid, general structure as the “demand of the hour” [Gebot der Stunde]. Brunner held that God is indeed the author of the creation order, but as “law” the creation order is not the authentic will of God, which manifests itself only in the evangelical love commandment.
Thus it is still the same ground motive of nature and grace which brought division even within the camp of dialectical theology. In Barthianism it led to such a rigorous dualism that the scriptural ground motive, the dynamic power of the christian life in this world, was cut off at its root. Christian scholarship, christian political life, christian art, christian social action – Barth, and to a lesser degree Brunner, considered them impossible. In their eyes, such efforts compromise the very name of Christ and express the synthesis scheme of Rome which proceeds from a hierarchic continuity between nature and grace.
In its religious root dialectical theology persistently demonstrates the inherent dialectic of the roman catholic ground motive in a modern way. The nature motive of dialectical theology embraces the humanist view of reality which immediately is brought into “crisis” because it expresses man’s “sinful nature.” The “Word of God,” wholly unilaterally, lashes into this “self-determining nature” like a lightning flash, bringing all of life, including so-called “christian culture,” into a crisis under the divine judgment. Barth acknowledged absolutely no connection between natural life as man knows it and creation. For him natural life must be viewed exclusively in terms of the fall. Although Brunner admitted that a connection exists between them, he too depreciated creation. Without a doubt, an unmistakable gnostic tendency asserted itself in dialectical theology. Dialectical theology drove a wedge into the ground motive of scripture, dividing creation and redemption and separating God’s will as the creator from God’s will as the redeemer.
Since dialectical theology incorporated both the roman catholic and the modern humanistic ground motives (the second within the framework of the first), it is necessary that we explore in detail the humanistic ground motive of nature and freedom. We will trace the dialectical development of the modern ground motive from its inception to the present day. In this way we hope to provide a thorough picture of the great spiritual movement of humanism.