Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

On Hemmingsonian Hexameters

Niels Hemmingsen makes use of the standard division of the law into three uses in the Enchiridion Theologicum (I may return at some point to his discussion more broadly).

The first use (usus) he discusses is the usus politicus, the “political” or “civil” use of the law, which consists in “external discipline” (externa disciplina). He notes that his teacher, Philipp Melanchthon, listed four “causes” (causas) for this use, which Hemmingsen prefers to remember by way of a line of Latin hexameter:

Mandatum, poenae, pax publica, dux ad Iesum. (Enchiridion Theologicum, p. 138)

Commandment, punishments, public peace, as a conductor to Jesus.

This is an interesting bit of Reformation humanism here; it is one I’ve discussed in Hemmingsen previously.

It has been known, of course, since time immemorial that poetry is about as helpful a mnemonic as one will find. But I wonder how many dogmaticians now would even consider making use of such a technique in their writings, despite its pedagogical value. I doubt that there would be many, both because of the declining capital of poetry in broad cultural terms, and because I’d guess that not a few theologians would see it as too frivolous and unbecoming to the “seriousness” of their work.1 Much of this stems from our very different view of the relationship between church and school, and the kind of training that is profitable for the former.

The four causes themselves of the political use of the law are significant. The law must be used in this way because: (1) God commands external obedience; (2) it is an aid to avoiding the penalties that come from breaking the law; (3) it contributes to the peace of society; and (4), perhaps most strikingly given that he is speaking of the political or civil use of the law, Hemmingsen claims that it leads one to Jesus Christ. Hemmingsen explains why he thinks so in the paragraph that follows: quia non possunt doceri Evangelium, qui externis delictis indulgent (“because those who are complacent toward external trespasses are not able to be taught the Gospel”). The rigor of the law even in external matters is a spur that drives sinners to Christ.

So, the next time you need to talk about the first use of the law, remember what The Most Interesting Man in the World says:


dos equis--usus politicus

  1. I put the word “seriousness” in quotation marks not to be ironic, but to indicate that our conceptions of what counts as “serious” may be seriously truncated and malformed.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.