Girolamo Zanchi Uses Aquinas as Authority

In the following passage Jerome Zanchi, the Italian Reformer and friend of Peter Martyr and Zacharius Ursinus, appeals to the authority of Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the orthodoxy of his own definition of original sin (something Peter Martyr also did). This definition assumes the correctness of the concept of original righteousness and the inherited guilt that accompanies the loss of that ontological status. Although Zanchi refers to Thomas as Scholasticus he places the current paragraph under the heading Confirmatio sententiae ex Patribus (confirmation from the opinions of the Fathers).

Thomas Aquinas eandem secutus est docrinam, & clarissime explicat, eum alibi tum in Quaestionibus disputatis, quaest. 4. de peccato originali, aritculo primo. Ubi concludit de actuali inobedientia Adae, eam convenire toti humano generi & singulis hominibus, quatenus omnes fuimus unum & sumus eum Adamo. Quod enim ille admisit, non illud eum admisisse ut privatum hominem, sed ut totius humani generis caput: quemadmodum etiam justitiam originalem non acceperat ut privatus homo, & sibi soli; sed ut pater omnium hominum, & nobis omnibus. Constat igitur nomine peccati originalis venire non solum justitiae originalis privationem naturaeque corruptionem, sed simul cum reatu & culpa inobedientiae Adami. Imo ideo cumprimis peccatum originale appelatur, quia omnes homines in Adamo tanquam in sua origine peccarunt. Sed interim non negatur altera ratio, nempe, quia quisque ex vitiosa origine peccatis concipitur nasciturque filius irae. Eadem doctrinam confirmant etiam alii seniores Shcolastici… (Zanchius, Commentarius in Apostolam Sancti Pauli Ad Ephesios, pp. 234, 235)

Translation:

Thomas Aquinas followed the same doctrine, and explains it most clearly in other places and in the Disputed Questions, quest. 4 concerning original sin, article one. Where he concludes concerning the actual disobedience of Adam that it unites the whole human race and every human being,  insofar as everyone was and is one with Adam. For although he committed this crime, he did not do it as a private individual but as the head of the whole human race: just as he did not receive original justice as a private individual or by himself; but as the father of all human beings, and for us all. It is agreed therefore that by the name “original sin” comes not only a privation of original justice and corruption of nature, but also the accusation and guilt of Adam’s disobedience. By all means therefore the first sin is called “original”, because all men sin in Adam as it were in their “origin.” But in the meantime another reason is not denied, namely, that whoever is conceived in sin from vicious origin is also born a son of wrath. Other older Scholastics confirm the same doctrine…

Many of those who consider themselves theologians in the Reformed tradition believe the Reformed position on Adam’s original state is antithetical to that of the Scholastics, positing a legal/ontological dichotomy between the language of “guilt” and that of “nature.” Here Zanchi shows no such dichotomy.

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God Provides Knowledge: Heinrich Bullinger on Natural Law

Heinrich BullingerHeinrich Bullinger, the Swiss successor of Zwingli, says that the natural law is an act of the conscience and an innate knowledge of good and evil. This is similar to Thomas Aquinas’s view of the natural law, the conscience is an act and synderesis is a habit of knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the principle which provides the foundation of the law of nature. Yet, where Thomas emphasized the whole faculty of reason and the necessity of virtue, Bullinger places emphasis upon the act of conscience in accusing and excusing the acts of man. This emphasis upon the intellect over the will does not mean that Bullinger de-emphasized or overlooked the role of the desiring faculty or the necessity of virtue in the natural law. He simply attributes the moving of men toward good things to the inspiration of God that comes by means of the conscience. He also attributes the natural law itself to God’s work in men’s souls:

The law of nature is an instruction of the conscience, and, as it were, a certain direction placed by God himself in the mind and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew. And the conscience, verily, is the knowledge, judgment, and reason of a man, whereby every man in himself, and in his own mind, being made privy to everything that he either hath committed or not committed, doth either condemn or else acquit himself. And this reason proceedeth from God, who both prompteth and writeth his judgments in the hearts and minds of men. Moreover, that which we call nature is the proper disposition or inclination of every thing. But the disposition of mankind being flatly corrupted by sin, as it is blind, so also is it in all points evil and naughty. It knoweth not God, it worshippeth not God, neither doth it love the neighbour; but rather is affected with self-love toward itself, and seeketh still for its own advantage. For which cause the apostle said, “that we by nature are the children of wrath.” Wherefore the law of nature is not called the law of nature, because in the nature and disposition of man there is of or by itself that reason of light exhorting to the best things, and that holy working; but for because God hath imprinted or engraven in our minds some knowledge, and certain general principles of religion, justice, and goodness, which, because they be grafted in us and born together with us, do therefore seem to be naturally in us. (Decades, II.194.)

The Reformers tended to answer the apparent discrepancy between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism by referring to the narrative of Genesis three, where the representatives of the human race fell from their upright state by sinning against the will of God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had innate knowledge and virtues. Yet, these gifts were not “natural” in the sense that they were produced solely by nature but they were “natural” in the sense that Adam was created with these gifts. They were not added later. After the fall, and because of original sin, men are no longer born with supernatural virtue or knowledge, yet, God does continue to write his law upon men’s hearts – both Melanchthon and Vermigli follow the Stoic notion of prolepseis, or precognitions that stir men up to think on divine things.  So, just as Adam’s gifts were not produced by nature in the beginning, much less may this knowledge be produced by nature after nature has become corrupt. Bullinger, in the above statement, appears to present this same resolution between the two concepts of innate and acquired knowledge. The natural law cannot come from nature because of the corruption of original sin. Yet, Bullinger seems to display a rather extreme doctrine of original sin in this passage. He notes that man’s nature, defined as “the proper disposition or inclination of every thing,” has been so corrupted by sin that reason no longer functions, leaving men utterly evil and debauched. And, because of this corruption the law of nature can only exist if God so delights to write it upon the hearts of men – these principles are written upon the hearts of all men by God and only seem to be natural.

I do not think Bullinger is truly saying that after the fall man’s nature was so corrupt that the very faculty that distinguishes man from beast was lost, that reason no longer held any directive power over the passions. Other Reformers such as Calvin and Vermigli hold to a less than optimistic view of original sin, but even they admit that man’s reason has been preserved from utter destruction, to the extent that even pagans may regulate their passions to the common good of society. Bullinger is being somewhat polemical in concert with Augustine’s condemnation of pagan virtue as “splendid vices.” He is viewing the first table of the law from the perspective of the second. In other words, he is speaking of the potentialities of nature in the City of Man from the perspective of the City of God. Viewed from this perspective, and the boasts of the City of Man that claims a purely autonomous path to perfection, the law of nature is utterly destroyed by the Fall. This is the case because the natural law originally guided man toward his supernatural goal, but after the fall man pursues whatever seems right in his own eyes. So, the pagans would know nothing of God or the difference between good and evil if God did not form the souls of men with these principles from the instant of their creation. Therefore, the City of Man cannot boast in an autonomous acquisition of this knowledge since these principles have been given to it by God. Bullinger seeks to keep Aristotle’s principles of acquired virtue and knowledge while at them same time safeguarding the Biblical doctrine of original sin and innate knowledge of God. He continues, explaining how this law is written in man’s nature:

But in what sort have they it [the law of nature] in themselves? This again is made manifest by that which followeth: “For they shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” But who is he that writeth in their hearts, but God alone, who is the searcher of all hearts? And what, I pray you, writeth he there? The law of nature, forsooth; the law, I say, itself, commanding good and forbidding evil, so that without the written law, by the instruction of nature, that is, by the knowledge imprinted of God in nature, they may understand what is good and what is evil , what is to be desired and what is to be shunned. By these words of the apostle we do understand, that the law of nature is set against the written law of God; and that therefore is is called the law of nature, because it seemeth to be, as it were, placed or graffed in nature. We understand, that the law of nature, not the written law, but that which is graffed in man, hath the same office that the written law hath; I mean, to direct men, and to teach them, and also to discern betwixt good and evil, and to be able to judge of sin. We understand, that the beginning of this law is not to the corrupt disposition of mankind, but of God himself, who with his finger writeth in our hearts, fasteneth in our nature, and planteth in us a rule to know justice, equity, and goodness. (ibid.)

Thus, this law is perfectly natural, just like every good with which man is adorned. But, in order to stay in line with the Aristotelian notion of acquired good while maintaining the Pauline notion of natural corruption, we must not speak of  this law as natural. God has given us these moral principles to lead us back to him, and they are ours, but as a corrupt nature cannot begin to lead man to do good things without the hand of God molding it and adorning it with knowledge of good and evil, so the Gentiles would have an utterly depraved nature were it not for the common grace of God.

Vermigli on the Contemplative Life

MonksThe Reformers did not believe that true perfection, as it may be had in this life, comes by living the purely contemplative life. Rather they saw a necessity of living both a contemplative and an active life, a supposition that falls in the same vein as that of the Renaissance humanists who sought a more practical way of life in opposition to the life of the detached ascetic. James Hankins explains that the the humanists of the 14 – 16th centuries did not consider philosophy something to be contemplated in a cell but a science that should be implemented in everyday life in order to bring about improvements in the behavior of ordinary citizens.

The idea of a philosophical school, of disciples pursing an alternative life and vision under the guidance of a master, separate from the world around them, was foreign to humanism; even Ficino’s supposed “academy” now appears to be nothing more than a kind of secondary school. Indeed, beginning with the so-called “civic humanists” of the early fifteenth century, humanists insisted that philosophy should serve the city by inculcating prudence and other virtues into its citizens. Philosophy now had to address, not a professional caste of specially trained experts with its own technical language, but the ruling class of the city-state; men and women who had studied humanistic Latin but had no special qualifications for philosophical study. (Hankins, “Humanism, scholasticism, and Renaissance philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosphy, pp. 45, 46.)

Thomas More's Utopia
Thomas More's Utopia

Calvin disapproves of the monastic culture of his day and even that of the early church, of which Augustine approved. His reasons for this disapproval may be traced to a humanistic Zeitgeist. Calvin refers to monks of various religious orders in his day as a “conventicle of schismatics,” since they followed a particular theologian, took the sacraments separately from the common folk, and considered themselves more perfect than the average citizen. Yet, his main objection to the ascetic way is that God calls all men to take charge of a household and to serve him  in a “definite calling” (obviously referring only to men). This does not mean that he considered contemplation trivial. On the contrary, he states, “It is a beautiful thing to philosophize in retirement, far from intercourse with men. But it is not part of Christian meekness, as if in hatred of the human race, to flee to the desert and the wilderness and at the same time forsake those duties which the Lord has especially commanded.” (Institutes, IV.13.xvi.) The Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, produces a more philosophical demonstration on the importance of living both a contemplative and active life. Commenting on Aristotle’s Ethics, Vermigli notes:

It is quite true that Aristotle deals separately with political life and activity, and also with the contemplative life; this is not with the intention, however, that someone should devote the whole of his life to one of these alone, but so that he may know that it is not possible for anyone who aspires to happiness to obtain it unless he participates fully in both aspects of life. There are two properties of our nature: for nature herself has made us both intelligent and social. For this reason we ought to accordingly take account of both conditions in our actions, and when either one occurs in our lives we should respond to them on the basis of the appropriate virtue. And when we have free time or are impeded from the action for some reason, we should occupy ourselves with great delight in the contemplation of human and divine things, with the result that these actions that seem to be different in kind are mutually beneficial. For anyone who has practiced the moral and civic virtues in the governance of a family or a state has a mind more composed and more prepared for assisting and supporting his associates, and the result is that he is better suited for contemplation. In turn, when someone has had the leisure granted to him to contemplate divine and human things in more depth, he is restored to the active life all the more ready to act. We know that Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Lucullus, and other outstanding men among the pagans did this. And we read in the holy scriptures that Christ our Savior sometimes retired into the mountains and woods in order to pray and meditate on divine matters, but soon he returned to the crowds and gave every kind of assistance to the human race. John the Baptist, Elijah, and the other prophets had the same practice. Indeed, Jesus our Lord first taught the apostles in solitude and then sent them forth throughout Judaea to preach and heal the sick. Certainly, there are two types of life, but one should not be exclusively devoted to either. (Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 179.)

For Vermigli, the contemplative and active life are the outcomes of two properties of human nature. Man is by nature both intelligent and social, and must bring both of these aspects of his nature to actualization in order to achieve happiness in this life. Therefore  these two ways of life should not be separated but are mutually beneficial. The contemplative life stirs one up for work within the civic sphere and working in the world with other people makes one better suited for the contemplation of things divine and human. Vermigli comes to this conclusion by the use of reason and the “ad fontes” spirit of humanism. Not only did pagans such as Cicero and Cato seek the good within the contemplative and active life but so did Jesus and his disciples. As I have already pointed out in a previous post, Vermigli chose a more humanist definition of Aristotle’s tagathon than had the Scholastics, because he believed that the common good of the civic sphere is the natural desire of the passions and thus the ultimate goal of man in this life. He delivered his lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics before a group of young students in the Strasbourg Academy, students aspiring to professions within the city and the church. Thus, he sought to educate the youth in a philosophy that spurred men and women on to work for the common good of neighbor and kingdom.

Calvin on Original Justice as Donum Pulcherrimum

I ran across John Calvin’s tract against the German Interim and discovered a more Medieval explanation of original sin than what he sets forth in his Institutes. I call Calvin’s demonstration in this tract “Medieval” because it mirrors the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, who taught that original sin was a privation of original justice formally and an added habit of concupiscence materially. I have provided the Latin with translations to follow each paragraph.

Deus creavit initio hominem ad imaginem & similitudinem suam, eum que gratia ornavit, & fecit per originalem iustitiam, ut esset omnibut cum corporis, tum animi viribus rectus, nec agitaretur ullis turpidis & pravis motibus: sed in eo caro spiritui, atque inferiores animi vires superioribus, quae tantum ad bonum hortabantur, parerent. (John Calvin, Interim Adultero-Germanum: cui adiecta est vera Christianae pacificationis, et ecclesiae reformandae ratio, p. 3)

God created man in the beginning in his image and likeness and adorned him with grace and by means of original justice made him to be upright in all the powers of the body and the soul, and unable to be shaken by anything foul or by perverse movements: but in him the flesh was obedient to the spirit, and also the inferior powers of the soul were obedient to the superior, which were so strongly encouraging him to good.

Verum, postquam premus parens noster contra, quam mandaverat Deus, fecit: incidit in poenam a Deo propositam, & iustitiae originalis donum pulcherrimum amisit: hinc carentia iustitiae huius, una cum vitioso concupiscentiae habitu, quae spiritui & superioribus animi viribus perpetuo repugnat. Quod peccatu, hoc est, privationem illius iustitiae, qua parte rationem subditam reddebat Deo, una cum concupiscentia in omnem posteritatem suam propagavit… (ibid., p. 4)

But after our first parent acted against God’s commandment he fell into the penalty proposed by God and lost the most beautiful gift (donum pulcherrimum) of original justice; hence there was a loss of justice, together with the vicious habit of concupiscence which continually battles with the spirit and the superior powers of the soul. Which sin, that is the privation of justice, by which it rendered reason subject to God, together with concupiscence, he passed down to all his posterity.

Reformed Robotics

Mechanical ManSome people within the Reformed world feel that the only way to validate faith is to denigrate reason. If philosophers can attain to a knowledge of divine things, then why do they need faith? There is a bit of intellectualism in that concept. Faith is an intellectual virtue, but faith does not occur apart from the desire of the will moving the mind toward God, and faith should not be separated from the virtues of hope and charity. In other words, the validity of faith, at least in one sense, is inherent within its own definition. Faith requires a repentant heart and an open mind. I think the Reformed argument would go this way if fully spelled out: “Our faith is a purely intellectual assent to theological propositions, the principal one being ‘God exists.’ Therefore if the Christian admits that the philosopher may have a knowledge of God, then our own ‘divine science’ will be merged into pagan ‘divine science.'” 

Of course, I could respond to this Christian argument that a proper definition of natural knowledge and sacred knowledge would solve this problem, since this distinction leaves some knowledge of God to the philosopher by self-evident principles, but knowledge that God reveals about himself  in the first principles of faith is supernatural and only for the Christian to know. As true as the distinction between pagan theology and Christian theology is, that is not my point. I have noticed that those who denigrate reason by denying a knowledge of God to unbelievers or denying that unbelievers may be virtuous tend to treat faith as if it were mere understanding. Once the distinction between natural science and divine science, natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge, philosophy and theology, is done away with by denying the validity of the former, then the latter science must compensate for lack of natural tools by which to unify or explain itself. Theology makes up for the loss of philosophy by either making up its own rules and language, by subjecting the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge, or both. Granted, those who submit the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge do not always realize what they are doing. Yet, when nature is done violence, whether “nature” refers to the science of philosophy or the faculty of reason itself, faith is also done violence. 

God converts our souls, he does not recreate them ex nihilo. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Therefore, the function of reason in the natural man is not destroyed when the divine illumination of faith is given. Rather, that natural knowledge is perfected by the conversion of the whole person. The first principles of faith would be useless for the healing of man’s depraved nature if they were not accompanied by a change of the individual’s heart. Those principles would also be useless if they were not somewhat built upon the principles of natural knowledge. For example, the religious knowledge that informs me of Christ’s incarnation assumes that I know what the word “incarnation” means or that I know what it means to be born. And, in terms of the science of theology, the study of the nature of God assumes that one knows the meaning of essence, being, nature, attribute, and so on. 

The “natural man” is that rare bird who is well schooled enough that he has actually taken time to think about the ultimate goal for the human race or a First Cause of the universe and come to the conclusion that there must be a God. If and when this person is converted to the Christian faith, he would not be asked to recant his former knowledge of an ultimate goal of humanity or a First Cause of the universe. Rather, he would be asked to “repent and believe.” This means he would have to turn from seeking after his own desires and the idea that his natural knowledge is sufficient for his own perfection.

Thus, those Reformed folks who denigrate natural knowledge implicitly adhere to a radical separation between nature and grace, faith and reason. This is often couched in terms of worldview. Nevertheless, this solid wall that many have erected between natural knowledge and religious knowledge often leaves the latter lacking in emotion – since desire itself is natural. Theology devoid of the insight of the natural mind becomes a list of propositions tightly organized into columns of rules that one must either adhere to or relinquish the faith. Confessions are also “reanimated” into a modern and robotic system of belief that is simple and practical for the new convert to the Reformed world. It does not come with all of the hang-ups of organs and tissue that one finds in the writings of Luther and Calvin. It does not move on its own or go places that we cannot predict. No, our confessions have no real value apart from the authority of the institutional church. It goes where we want it to go and jumps when we push its buttons. We are the Reformed faith, and it is what we say it is.

Within the Reformed world (in the South at least) there seems to be two main types of student: the first type is loyal to the denomination and presbytery and will never consider objecting to the confession at any point, and the second type reacts to what they perceive to be a strict intellectualism  by seeking to make everything practical – these are the ones who are evangelizing in the community every weekend. Sometimes the groups overlap, but not usually. What I have seen is a genuine lack of theological aesthetic that comes from a wise soul who takes the time, or perhaps can’t avoid gazing in wonder at things natural and divine and marvels at the deep mysteries waiting to be discovered in both realms. Instead, you find faculties warring between the Biblical Studies department and the Systematic Theology department. The former is usually a reaction against the Reformed Robotics mentality of the latter, yet to the opposite extreme. 

This type of Reformed theology that I call Reformed Robotics is not confined to a single camp but comes from the generally Puritan mentality of “Church vs. world.” The distinction between philosophy and theology is not even a tertiary issue for most of us, but what really matters is the battle against “the liberals.” Lectures in the biblical studies department are centered upon textual issues contra Liberali, with almost no time devoted to the discussion of theological issues that practically leap out of the text. In fact, certain professors are masters at skipping every “difficult” text – theologically “difficult” not textually “difficult.” But, when your team only plays defense, the whole game is played by the movements and progressions of the other team. 

When the beauty of natural knowledge and its contribution to theology are disdained out of fear, either that the faith will lose its value or that the liberals will take over the church, theology becomes a Robot devoid of desire-provoking beauty and mystery, and is then used as a defensive tool for the Reformed Magesterium. Unfortunately, when this happens most of the truly intellectual types within the church find residence elsewhere (Anglicanism, Methodism, Catholicism, etc.) and those intellects that remain tend to be mere intellects, preaching a theology that lacks real substance. A Quodlibetal of difficult issues would be counterproductive to the agenda. 

Fortunately, this is not true of every Reformed person, though the exceptional sorts may be difficult to find; and it was not true for earlier generations, as I have attempted to demonstrate with this blog. The issue of the proper role of faith and reason is difficult and requires meditation for sure, but we should thrive on the difficult issues because extraordinary challenges generate extraordinary solutions. And, if grace perfects nature, then faith will supply answers for some of the errors and weaknesses of reason. But, when nature is seen as inherently evil, faith tends to take the place of reason and becomes a purely intellectual duty, and the science of Reformed Robotics is born.

The Paradox of Nature

Adam and Eve

Hall she be guide to all Creatures, which is her selfe one? Or if she also haue a guide, shall any Creature haue a better guide than wee? The affections of lust and anger, yea euen to erre is Naturall; shall we follow these? Can she be a good guide to vs, which hath corrupted not vs but only herselfe? Was not the first man by the desire of knowledge corrupted euen in the whitest integrity of Nature? And did not Nature (if Nature did any thing) infuse into him this desire of knowledge, & so this Corruption in him, into vs? If by Nature we shall vnderstand our essence, our definition, or reason, noblenesse, then this being alike common to all (the Idiot and the wizard being equally reasonable) why should not all men hauing equally all one nature, follow one course? Or if wee shall vnderstand our inclinations; alas! how vnable a guide is that which followes the temperature of our slimie bodies? for we cannot say that we deriue our inclinations, our mindes, or soules from our Parents by any way: to say that it is all, from all, is errour in reason, for then with the first nothing remaines; or is a part from all, is errour in experience, for then this part equally imparted to many children, would like Gauell-kind lands, in few generations become nothing; or say it by Communication, is errour in Diuinity, for to communicate the ability of communicating whole essence with any but God, is vtterly blasphemy. And if thou hit thy Fathers nature and inclination, hee also had his Fathers, and so climbing vp, all comes of one man, all haue one nature, all shall imbrace one course; but that cannot be, therefore our Complexions and whole Bodies, we inherit from parents; our inclinations and mindes follow that: For our mind is heauy in our bodies afflictions, and reioyceth in our bodies pleasure: how then shall this nature gouerne vs, that is gouerned by the worst part of vs? Nature though oft chased away, it will returne; ’tis true, but those good motions and inspirations which bee our guides must be wooed, Courted,and welcomed, or else they abandon vs. And that old Axiome, nihil inuita, &c. must not be said thou shalt, but thou wilt doe nothing against Nature; so vnwilling he notes vs to curbe our naturall appetites. Wee call our bastards alwayes our naturall issue, and wee define a Foole by nothing so ordinary, as by the name of Naturall. And that poore knowledge whereby we conceiue what raine is, what wind, what Thunder, we call Metaphysickesupernaturall; such small things, such no things doe we allow to our pliant Natures apprehension. Lastly, by following her, wee lose the pleasant, and lawfull Commodities of this life, for we shall drinke water and eate rootes, and those not sweet and delicate, as now by Mans art and industry they are made: wee shall lose all the necessities of societie, lawes, arts, and sciences, which are all the workemanship ofMan: yea, we shall lacke the last best refuge of misery Death; because no death is naturall: for if yee wil not dare to call all death violent (though I see not why sicknessesbe not violences) yet causes of all deaths proceed of the defect of that which nature made perfect, and would preserue, and therefore all against nature. (John Donne, Paradoxes, VIII)

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.