The Function of the Prophets and Natural Law

[The problem of the conflict between the power of the king and the covenant of the people with God] reaches into the modern era: There is always the question that the order of man to God and to his fellowmen has been laid down through the covenant with God.

Now if the ruler, who has the instruments of power at his disposal, violates this order by setting up a temple for other gods, or violates the duties of the Decalogue regarding his fellowmen by building up the military or at least some kind of bureaucratic organization where certain levels of society, of employers and merchants, emerge who no longer display the right behavior in the decalogical sense toward their fellowmen, then there arises the question of the control of the ruler in the social as well as political sense, through representatives of the idea of the covenant, of the covenant with God.

That means that the prophet will now be the critic of the political and social organization. This is a new phenomenon. So, the prophet is first and foremost a social critic, because he must keep the political organization under control, in accord with the standards of the covenant. The question now is, Who in each individual case has the calling to be the interpreter of the covenant and its determination?

As I have said, these problems continue into the modern era, where the prophets are no longer a social institution, but where new prophets must emerge in order to carry out the social criticism. In the discussions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the English revolution, we therefore have two opposed viewpoints. One holds that the king is the legitimate interpreter of God's covenant, which is the opinion represented above all by James I. The other holds that the people is the legitimate authority for the interpretation of God's covenant, represented in particular by Puritan preachers. That would play a great role in the Puritan revolution.

So we have to detect in the seventeenth century the emergence of a new wave, which now, in order to distinguish it from the Christian and old Israelite problems, may be called that of "Hebraism" in the sense of the problematic of the king and of the prophets, approximately as in the books of Samuel.

Within Christianity itself there is no such development with regard to social organization and social criticism, for the early Christian idea of the relationship to God and to fellowmen is apocalyptically determined, that is to say, it is dominated by the expectation of the approaching end of the world. So, unlike in the ancient Israel of the kingdom, there is not developed a Christian organization and a Christian organizational criticism. When the Christian communities come into contact, positively or negatively, with political organizations, the church—now transformed into an organization in the world—must, in order to clarify conduct within its organization and to explain the relationship between it and the permanent secular community, consult as sources above all the classic philosophers and the post-classic Stoic natural law.

As a result, the early church fathers, above all Lactantius, inserted the natural law, particularly in its Ciceronian form, into the Christian idea of order in the world, thus making that order viable in the world.

Thus we have two great sources for world organization in the Western world: the Hebrew tradition and the Stoic-natural law tradition, one introduced to ancient Israel, the other to early Christianity. Consequently further problems arise.

Representative for order, therefore, are not only the covenant or the Sermon on the Mount or the formulations of the New Testament—handed on in apocalyptic expectation—but also the philosophic insight into the nature of man and the ideas of human and social order arising from it, as they were taken over from the pre-Christian philosophic complex.

From this rather complicated situation there now arises a whole series of problems for the relationship of the church to the temporal community. Because the church took over the worldly idea of order from classic and Stoic philosophy, this became a component of Christian theology, as for example in the Summa theologiae of Thomas. This had disastrous consequences for the later development of natural law, for, first of all, it became, as it were, Christian natural law and the church took on the role of guardian of natural law.

However, it is nowhere written that in the various historical situations church personnel are particularly suitable guardians of the natural law. For all the propositions of the natural law derive from the noetic experience, whereas within the church the noetic experience is not the primary source of experience and truth for clerics and theologians, but is replaced by the pneumatic experience of revelation. Thus there is a very considerable stock of knowledge of order coming from philosophy that is denatured and deformed in the theological field, because it had to be inserted into a complex of pneumatic symbols of revelation not intended to establish the order of temporal society.

Therefore we have the odd situation today that the Social Democrats, for example, who want to get out of revolutionary ideology and again recognize that there is something like natural law—which indeed also held for Marx, before the aspect of natural law was completely lost in the revolutionary phase—turn to the churches for information on natural law. They flirt with Christian natural law, apparently in complete ignorance of the fact that it is a pre-Christian, philosophically pagan phenomenon concerning existence in the world, with absolutely nothing to do with the church as such. So it would be much better for such rather openminded Social Democrats to begin to interest themselves in the pre-Christian natural law instead of allowing themselves to be instructed by the church about what natural law is.

CW VOL 31,
Descent into the Ecclesiastical Abyss
The Catholic Church,
pp 207-209.