Pseudo-Dionysian Biblical Exegesis

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“Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” by Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), Oil on panel

If you know anything about Pseudo-Dionysius you will know that his works, aside from the Bible, were the most studied works of the Medieval period. Though certain works of Augustine were just as influential, Augustine’s complete works did not become available until the 14th century. Even Aquinas, known for his devotion to Aristotle and Augustine refers to Pseudo-Dionysius more than any other author in his opera. Among Protestants, Dionysius never carried as much authority as with other Christian traditions, primarily because Valla’s proof of forgery was unanimously accepted by all of the Reformers. Also, Luther’s and Calvin’s criticisms of “that Dionysius whoever he was” mentioned the latter’s seemingly unbridled devotion to Platonic philosophy, placing him at odds with their renewal of biblical exegesis.

Modern research on the Corpus Dionysiacum, however, through the use of modern tools of textual criticism has displayed a more careful reading of the Pseudo-Areopagite. My point here is not to summarize the entirety of this research but to point out the curious mixture of biblical and Proclian exegesis within Dionysius’s works. István Perczel, for instance, makes an interesting point re: Dionysius’s eclectic synthesis:

It is quite obvious that the structure of the Dionysian Corpus imitates that of the New Testament. We have in Dionysius three « synoptic Gospels », so to speak: the Divine Names and the two Hierarchies; another « Gospel », the Mystical Theology which, like Saint John, treats the loftiest theological ideas, and, finally, letters clarifying the meaning of the « Gospels. » And just as the canonical Gospels tell the same story – that of Jesus the Son of God – from different aspects, so the four major treatises of Dionysius treat one common story – that of the manifestation of the divine in the world – from four different angles. In this context, it is all the more interesting to note that the structure of all four treatises is determined above all by the Platonic Theology of Proclus.   Perczel, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Platonic Theology,” in Proclus et la Theologie Platonicienne: Actes du Colloque International de Louvain (13-16 mai 1998), A. Ph. Segonds and C. Steel, eds., (Leuven University Press, 2000), 491-531.

Based on this information, one may interpret the Dionysian enterprise as an attempt at Neoplatonic biblical exegesis similar in some ways to that of Augustine.

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Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.

Jupiter Is God: Calvin on Aratus’s Notitia Dei

In ipso enim vivimus, movemur, & sumus: sicut & quidam vestratum poetarum dixerunt, Nam huius progenies etiam sumus. (John Calvin’s translation of Acts 17:28)

For in him we live, move, and have our being; as certain of your poets have said, “For we also are his progeny.”

Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς
Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς

I have mentioned St. Paul’s Areopagus Address and Calvin’s commentary upon it before. In the previous post on this passage I noted Calvin’s opinion on Paul’s use of demonstration. In essence, he said that Paul did not seek to demonstrate God’s existence to the Athenians since all men, even pagans, already have a natural knowledge of God imprinted in their souls. Rather, Paul’s method was to show the Athenians (a) “what” God is (i.e., he is not physical) and (b) how God must be worshipped (i.e., not as if he requires anything from man). Later in his commentary Calvin reveals a bit more of his thoughts on natural theology. He comments on the passage quoted above in which Paul quotes from the pagan poet Aratus (from Phaenomena 1-5):

Now, that I may return unto this sentence which I have in hand, it is not to be doubted but that Aratus spake of Jupiter; neither doth Paul, in applying that unto the true God, which he [Aratus] spake unskilfully of his Jupiter, wrest it unto a contrary sense [in alium sensum detorquet – i.e., Paul does not “twist” the meaning of “Jupiter”]. For because men have naturally some perseverance [sense] of God [Aliquo Dei sensu imbuti sunt], they draw true principles from that fountain. And though so soon as they begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so the pure seed doth degenerate into corruptions; yet the first general knowledge of God [generalis Dei notitia] doth nevertheless remain still in them. After this sort, no man of a sound mind can doubt to apply that unto the true God which we read in Virgil touching the feigned and false joy, that “All things are full of joy.” Yea, when Virgil meant to express the power of God, through error he put in a wrong name. (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, XVII.28.)

That last sentence is so butchered by the translator that I am obligated by prudence to quote it correctly. The Latin reads, In hunc modum quod de Iove fictitio habetur apud Virgilium, Iovis omnia plena, ad verum Deum transferre nemo sanae mentis dubitet. This sentence should read, “In this way that which is said of the fictitious Jupiter by Virgil, ‘All things are full of Jupiter,’ no one doubts to apply to the true God.”

Therefore, it is the name “Jupiter” which is fictitious and incorrect, but the substance of that knowledge is the true God. Many are amazed by these passages from Calvin, the rigid Reformer who saw men as “totally depraved” and natural knowledge as utterly worthless. True as those statements are in some sense – Calvin does say these types of things in certain passages – they prove inadequate when we “read the footnotes” – i.e., when they are viewed in the light of his whole corpus. This knowledge of God does render the unbeliever without excuse coram Deo but it is knowledge nonetheless.

Vermigli on Man’s Natural Knowledge of the Final Judgment

The Last Judgment by Memling

God is set forth to be both mercifull and good, but yet in such sort, that his long sufferyng and patience have endes & limites. And by reason of this differryng of punishments which happeneth in thys lyfe, the Apostle is compelled to make mention of the last iudgement. Otherwyse, forasmuch as in this lyfe many are passed over unpunished, & others are most severly delt with all. God might be thought to deale uniustly. Wherefore he urgeth them wyth the feare of the last iudgement and affirmeth that the differryng of vengeaunce bryngeth more grevous punishmentes. Which thyng Valerius Maximus, an Ethenike writer speaketh of, that God by the grevousness of the punishment, recompenceth the long delaying thereof. Whereby it is playne, that Paule, disputing against the Ethenikes, which knew not the holy scriptures, reproved them by those thynges, which might be known by the lyght of nature. Wherefore there is a certayne naturall knowledge grafted in the hartes of men, touchyng the iudgement of God to come after thys lyfe: which thyng the fables also of the Poets declare, whiche have placed Minoes, Radamanthus, and Eacus as iudges in hel. Wherefore they shall be more grevously punished, which have bene the longer borne withall: because the contempt of God addeth no small waight unto theyr sinnes: which contempt semeth to have crept into them, whilest thy so long tyme despised his lenitie and patience. (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, 50)

This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons:  1) Knowledge of “other-worldly” stuff is often confined to the realm of faith, but here Vermigli attributes the knowledge of a final reckoning of spiritual and physical affairs to the natural man. 2) Vermigli notes that Paul uses arguments from reason because the Greeks did not accept the authority of scripture. Some Reformed folks today would not admit such a style of argument to St. Paul, seeing it as a tacit admission of the basic coherence of the pagan’s position. Vermigli did not view rational argument through such a minimalist lens. Neither was he afraid to admit the possibility of coherence within the philosophy of the natural man. The point of using reason in this situation is not to find elements of agreement between two “worldviews” but to discover and demonstrate the pagan’s misuse of philosophy. In this case, Vermigli implies, Paul sought to demonstrate the contradiction of a natural knowledge of the final judgment coupled with a continued lifestyle of misconduct and rebellion against God.

Paul, Plato, and Aristotle on the Lex Naturalis: The Interpretation of David Pareus

David Pareus

David Pareus (d. 1622) is one of those church reformers that most people have never heard of. In fact, his name was world renowned in his day. He was known via his association with former tutors such as Zacharius Ursinus and Jerome Zanchi, and for his biblical scholarship, defense of the Reformed churches against Catholic apologists, and for his humanism. The divines who gathered in Dordrecht for the famous Synod held there, requested his attendance as a distinguished scholar. Though he was unable to attend, the delegates requested his assistance through letters and his writings were held in high regard by all of those in attendance at the Synod. On the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, both moderates and extremists acquiesced to his opinion on the matter. 

The following is taken from Pareus’s In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli Epistolam Commentarius (p. 153), and demonstrates a Reformed Catholic humanism, not only in Pareus’s knowledge of the Classic languages and literature, but also in his willingness to use pagan philosophy as a true explanatory reference for principles found in both Holy Scripture and nature. I have cited the Latin/Greek original with a translation underneath. Any correction to perceived errors in the translation would be greatly appreciated:

Dubium:  Ex ver. 15. Ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis: quomodo dicat Apostolus, legem esse scriptam in cordibus: cum physici doceant, intellectum esse instar tabulae rasae, in qua nihil sit scriptum: omnia tamen nohta¿ scribi possint? Plato in Philebo: dokei√ moi to/te hJmw◊n hJ yuch\ bibli÷w tini« proseoike÷nai quam sententiam sequitur Aristoteles I.3. capit 4. de anima: wJsper ejn grammatei/w wvJ mhde\n uJparxei ejnteleceia gegrammenon oJper sumbainei ejpi\ touv nouv. 

Responsio. Non pugnant: Nihil enim est in intelectu scriptum actu, quod Aristotel. dicit ejnteleceia: Omnia vero sunt scripta potentia: quoniam intellectus ad omnia intelligibilia habet se in potentia. Et quodamodo tamen actu inscripta dicuntur ea, ad quae ratio & mens sana se convertit per se sine demonstratione: ut sunt notitiae de Deo colendo, de parentibus honorandis, de discrimine honesti & turpis, etc. quae notitiae dicuntur lex naturae & naturales, quia harum femina nobiscum nascuntur. Praeter has sunt aliae, quas vocant koi\naß ejnnoiaß, quibus assentitur ratio ex solo sensu totum esse maius sua parte, ignem urere, aequalia aequalibus addita facere tota aequalia, etc. ex qualibus doctrinae mathematicae exstructae sunt. Platonis sententia est, omnia naturaliter inscriptura esse: sed nascentibus propinari poculum Lethes, unde oblivio omnium notitiarum, quas discere, sit reminisci. Intellexit praestantiam mentis & naturae humanae non esse a Deo conditam cum tanta ignorantia: sed quia veritatem non novit, fabulam finxit, quam etiam tabula Cebetis proposuit. 

Translation:

Problem. From verse 15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts”: Why does the Apostle say that the law is written in the hearts: when the physicians teach that the intellect is like a blank tablet upon which nothing is written, yet every intellect can be written upon? Plato in his Philebus says: “It seems to me that our soul in such a situation is like a book,” which is followed by a sentence of Aristotle (I.3. Chap. 4. de Anima): “just as characters may be on a tablet on which nothing has been written, so it happens with the mind.”

Response. They do not disagree: For nothing is written upon the intellect actually, which Aristotle calls entelechea: Indeed, all things are written potentially: because the intellect is itself in potency to all intelligible things. And in a certain way, nevertheless, those things are said to be actually inscribed, to which reason and the whole mind itself is converted by its very nature without demonstration: as is the knowledge about worshipping God, honoring the parents, the distinction of honest and filthy things, etc. which knowledge is said to be the law of nature and natural because it is begotten with us from woman. After these there are other [types of knowledge] which they call koinas enoias [common sense], to which reason ascends by sense alone: the whole is greater than its parts, fire burns, equals are added to equals to make whole equals etc. by which sort of doctrine mathematics were built. The sentence of Plato is, all things are inscribed naturally [upon the intellect] but after being born it drinks the cup of Lethe, whereupon all knowledge is lost, which to discern is to remember. He knew that the excellence of the mind and human nature was not preserved by God after so great an ignorance: but because he did not know the truth, he imagined a tale, which even the tablet of Cebes proposed. 

For Pareus, as for Vermigli, Zanchi, et alia, this law of nature that is inscribed upon the hearts of man – the law that tells us to worship God, honor our parents, and distinguishes between good and evil – was known by Paul, Plato, and Aristotle. Pareus does not see a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, an innate knowledge and a knowledge by acquisition. The two may be reconciled by the distinction between the passive and active intellects. The former is in potency to all things, and the latter only gains knowledge through abstraction.

Even the active intellect contains certain types of innate knowledge, in the sense that these things are self-evident and are assumed within rather than proven by demonstration. The natural law pertains to that ability given from birth to distinguish between good and evil. Common sense, on the other hand, pertains only to sense perception and those principles that are discovered through those means. Finally, Plato’s tale of the river Lethe came close to the true cause of man’s ignorance, but without divine revelation he could not know that ignorance did not come from drinking the wrong water but from a volitional choice to abandon nature and God. Pareus’s ideas in this passage do not differ from those of Vermigli, Zanchi, and even Calvin. But, his exposition is more scholastic than the latter, as can be seen in his use of the method of proposition-aporia-response. He is a paragon for a Reformed humanism that seems all but forgotten today, and we could all benefit greatly from the translation of his whole corpus.

John Calvin on Man’s Natural Desire to Know

CalvinusCalvin says, as Aristotle and numerous others before him, that all men have a natural desire to know the truth that continues to function in some manner after the fall. Passages such as these are crucial in understanding Calvin’s theology of original sin. Man’s natural gifts remain after the fall but they are wounded by the removal of grace and the inherent habit of sin. The understanding also remains but with an added corruption.

When we so condemn human understanding for its perpetual blindness as to leave it no perception of any object whatever, we not only go against God’s Word, but also run counter to the experience of common sense. For we see implanted in human nature some sort of desire to search out the truth to which man would not at all aspire if he had not already savored it. Human understanding then possesses some power of perception, since it is by nature captivated by love of truth. The lack of this endowment in brute animals proves their nature gross and irrational. Yet this longing for truth, such as it is, languishes before it enters upon its race because it soon falls into vanity. Indeed, mans mind, because of its dullness, cannot hold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly, as if it were groping in darkness, until it strays away and finally disappears. Thus it betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth.  Institutes, II.2.12.

By the phrase “finally disappears” Calvin is not saying that no unbeliever can know anything of the truth. Rather, he is explaining  in metaphorical terms the habit or wound of ignorance that has come upon human understanding due to original sin. Further on he again affirms that the understanding has not lost all of its good functions.

Yet its [the understanding’s] efforts do not always become so worthless as to have no effect, especially when it turns its attention to things below. On the contrary, it is intelligent enough to taste something of things above, although it is more careless about investigating these. Ibid., II.2.14.

I think it is often difficult for us to look beyond some of Calvin’s less philosophical rhetoric concerning the damage of original sin. For example, he states a bit earlier in his Institutes that “that part in which the dignity and excellence of the soul are most conspicuous, has not only been wounded, but so corrupted, that mere cure is not sufficient. There must be a new nature.” Ibid., II.2.9.

We must not think that Calvin is always speaking in terms of Aristotelian philosophy. Rather, in these passage he is discussing the inability of man, through the use of his corrupted faculties, to render himself complete and righteous before God. In this sense he follows in the tradition that descends from St. Paul himself, who says that men are “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good not even one.” (Rom. 3:12)

However, Calvin does speak in terms of Aristotelian anthropology when he distinguishes between the essential nature of man that remains after the fall and the corrupt habit that is added afterward. In this vain he admits than all men still have a natural desire for the truth and may even partially fulfill this desire through the knowledge of natural things and even some things supernatural.

Christ Abolished the Dividing Wall: Aquinas on the Old Law

Wailing WallMany theologians don’t want to interpret Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:14, 15 about Christ breaking down the “wall of hostility” as referring to an actual abolishing of the Old Law.  Some are also afraid of viewing the passage in terms of Jew/Gentile relations because those within the New Perspective on Paul camp interpret similar passages in that light.  The latter see within 1st Century Judaism an exclusivism that Paul finds more problematic than an apparent legalism.  I found it interesting that Thomas Aquinas includes both of these ideas in his commentary on Paul’s statements in Ephesians 2.  He affirms that the “wall of hostility” is the Old Law and that Christ has broken down this wall, causing the rift between Jew and Gentile to be removed:

What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field, “and the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: “Before the faith came, we were kept under the law shut up, unto that faith which was to be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: “Behold, he standeth behind our wall” (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that he hath made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier.

St. ThomasThomas views the Law in cosmic terms.  The Old Law divided the whole world into different classes.  He goes on to explain that this “dividing wall” was never meant to be permanent because it was a wall that lacked mortar: 

I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. “Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons” (Rom. 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. “As long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father. So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:1-3). (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, II. Lect., 5.)

Moses and Ten CommandmentsIn this passage Thomas affirms that there is not a stark distinction between the two testaments, as if those living under the Old Testament were merely required to meet certain external conditions without any internal motive. Rather, those who lived under the Old Testament participated in the New Testament by keeping the Old Law out of love.  Matthew Lamb explains Thomas’s view of the relationship and difference between the two covenants:

[Thomas borrows from] St Augustine’s De Gratia Christi et Peccato Originali, 2, 24-25 (P.L. 44, col. 398-400); also Contra Adamantum Manich. Discip. 17, (P.L. 42, col. 157-62). In St. Thomas’ view of salvation-history the Old Law had an embryonic relationship to the New: “As the effect is in its cause, or the perfect is in its less perfect beginnings-just as the whole tree is contained in the seed-so is the New Law contained in the Old Law.” S.T. I-II, 107, 3. This is a corollary of the general pattern of God’s salvific revelation to man, it is gradual in order for man to better assimilate it (ibid., 99, 6). Thus the New Covenant fulfills the Old by realizing its deepest potentialities (ibid., 107, 2); they both have the same goal while they differ as less perfect and more perfect in their methods of attaining that goal (ibid., 107, 1). This is why Aquinas characterized the Old Law as one of Fear and the New as one of Love. For a genuine supernatural love could only be offered to God by God himself become man and communicating his love, the Holy Spirit, to other men (S.T. II-II, 24, 2c; III, 8, 6c). Hence Christ is the head of all mankind (ibid., III, 8, 3) and those who observed God’s commands out of supernatural love in the Old Testament really belonged to the New, while those in the New Covenant who still practice virtue out of fear of punishment are acting as though they were under the Old Law (ibid., I-II, 107, 1 ad 2). (Matthew Lamb, Ibid. footnote 56.)

Glorification of ChristThis cosmic and eschatological understanding of the relationship between testaments is essential to understanding Paul’s view of the Old Law.  Those who keep the Old Law under the New Testament are acting as if the dark age of Moses has not been superseded by the light of Christ. Those who attempt to live in the old age are bound to keep the whole law. The faithful who lived before the New Testament were given supernatural charity which actually belonged to a future age. God has providentially guided his people through salvation history in an upward pattern.  The virtues of the new age existed in seed form in the old age and came to full bloom with the incarnation of the eternal Word.  Thomas believed that God is moving his world from death to glorification.