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.

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Calvin and Vermigli on Adam’s Original Righteousness, pt. II

“Solummodo hoc inveni quod fecerit Deus hominem rectum et ipse se infinitis miscuerit quaestionibus quis talis ut sapiens est et quis cognovit solutionem verbi.” (Eccl. 7:30)

This verse from the Vulgata was read by the Western church for hundreds of years and interpreted to mean that Adam was created with supernatural gifts that directed him toward his ultimate end in the Heavenly Jerusalem.  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Peter Martyr Vermigli are among the many who implemented the clause, “God made man just,” in their theological writings as proof of Adam’s original righteousness.   

Thomas appealed to this verse in defense of his belief that Adam was not created in a state of mere nature but was created in grace.  He affirms that some believe that Adam was not created in grace but that grace only came after sin.  He responds that if Adam’s original righteousness was produced from nature the effect (supernatural qualities) would be greater than the cause (nature). (ST I, Q. 95, a. 1.)  According to Thomas, the belief that Adam was created in a state of mere nature is contrary to scripture, reason, and St. Augustine, who says:

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness … for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where hey had none before.  They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. (De Civitate Dei, XIII.13) 

This paragraph from Augustine’s City of God provided the foundation for Thomas’s definition of original righteousness (although his definition was not novel). According to Thomas, Adam was created in obedience to God, a status that requires more than just natural gifts.  He explains:

For this rectitude [explained in Eccl. 7:30] consisted in his [Adam’s] reason being subject to God, the lower powers to reason, and the body to the soul:  and the first subjection was the cause of both the second and the third; since while reason was subject to God, the lower powers remained subject to reason, as Augustine says. Now it is clear that such a subjection of the body to the soul and of the lower powers to reason, was not from nature; otherwise it would have remained after sin; since even in the demons the natural gifts remained after sin, as Dionysius declared.  (Ibid.)

This rectitude of the inward parts of man to reason and man to God is a supernatural rectitude that was given to Adam in his created state.  This right ordering is necessary because if man had been created in a state of pure nature he would not have been able to discover divine truths own his own nor acquire divine beatitude merely by natural effort.  His natural inclination toward the common good needed an addition of supernatural charity that directs the entire man toward the Heavenly City.  Thomas explains the different supernatural qualities necessary for man’s beatitude:

[T]o enable us to carry out activities that are ordered toward the end of eternal life, the following are divinely infused in us: first (i’) grace, through which the soul acquires a certain spiritual way of being; then (ii’) faith, hope and charity. Thus by faith, the intelligence may be enlightened concerning the knowledge of supernatural matters, which function at that level just as naturally known principles do at the level of our natural activities. By hope and charity, the will acquires a certain inclination towards that supernatural good; the human will just by its own natural inclination is not sufficiently ordered toward this. (Disputed Questions on the Virtues in General, A. 10, resp.)

This grace and these theological virtues are qualities that were divinely infused within Adam for the purpose of ordering him toward divine things and, should he pass the test, the vision of God. We should remember that when Thomas uses the verb “added” in reference to the grace infused in Adam he is speaking hypothetically, as if Adam existed apart from grace, a concept that Thomas never thought a reality.  Rather, Adam was created in a state of grace, meaning God created him ex nihilo with these virtues naturally engrafted. When it comes to the nature of original sin and Adam’s loss of original righteousness (which is the right order of man to himself and to God) Thomas follows both Anselm and Augustine.  In his Summa theologiae I-II, Q. 82 he asks if original sin is a habit. The first objection replies that original sin is not a habit because Anselm said that it is a privation, which is opposed to habit.  Thomas responds on the authority of Augustine that original sin is not only a privation of original righteousness but is a habit of concupiscence. He affirms:

As bodily sickness is partly a privation, in so far as it denotes the destruction of the equilibrium of health, and partly something positive, viz. the very humors that are inordinately disposed, so too original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this, the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul.  Consequently it is not a pure privation, but a corrupt habit. (ST I-II, Q. 82., a. 1.)

Thus original sin removes the supernatural qualities that ordered the soul toward God and his supernatural end while at the same time causing a habit of concupiscence within the soul.  Further in the Summa Thomas speaks of the “wounding of nature” in which all of the powers of the soul are disordered due to sin. (ST I-II, Q. 85, a. 3.)  The four parts of the soul each receive a wound which inclines man toward evil.  The intellect receives the wound of ignorance, the will receives malice, the irascible receives weakness, and the concupiscible receives concupiscence. The wound of original sin effects the entire person, not only one part of the soul.  Thomas confirms the material and formal elements of original sin:

[T]he privation of original justice, whereby the will was made subject to God, is the formal element in original sin; while every other disorder of the soul’s powers, is a kind of material element in respect of original sin. Now the inordinateness of the other powers of the soul consists chiefly in their turning inordinately to mutable good; which inordinateness may be called by the general name of concupiscence.  Hence original sin is concupiscence, materially, but privation of original justice, formally. (ST I-II, Q. 82, a. 3.)

Therefore, Thomas believed Adam to have been created in grace with supernatural virtues infused for the sake of attaining the ultimate end. When Adam sinned these gifts of grace were removed and his nature was wounded with a habit of concupiscence.  

Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, also uses Ecclesiastes 7:30 as evidence that Adam was created in grace. He refers to that passage while defending Anselm’s position against Pighius.  Vermigli counters Pighius’s argument that the corruption of original sin is not hereditary but was natural to Adam, saying that the defects came when Adam sinned and his original righteousness was removed “for actions or doinges are not taken away from men, but the power to use them well is taken away.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.) Vermigli argues that sin does not naturally corrupt the whole person but the efficient cause of this corruption of original sin is the justice of God:

whereby the grace of the Spirite and heavenly gifts, wherewith man was endewed before hys fall, were removed from hym when he had sinned. And thys wythdrawing of grace, came of the iustice of God, althoughe the blame bee to bee ascribed to the transgression of the fyrst man: least a man shoulde straight way say that God is the cause of sinne. For when he had once withdrawen his giftes, wherewith he had adorned man straight way vices and corruptions followed of their owne accord, which were before farre from the condicion of man. (Ibid., p. 122.)

In this passage Vermigli affirms that Adam was created in a state of grace. He affirms the same notion in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he disagrees with Aristotle’s statement that the virtues are produced and destroyed by and through the same things.  This was one of Aristotle’s arguments against Plato’s concept of innate virtue.  Concerning these things, Vermigli notes:

And whether virtues are present in us by nature is also a question.  If we speak of man as created by God (for all things made by him were supremely good), there can be no doubt that in his created state he was also equipped with virtues.  Just as the heavens did not remain without ornament and the land was immediately covered with plants, so man at his creation did not lack the appropriate virtues. With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason.  Aristotle, however was unable to see this corruption of our nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture … When it comes to the true virtues, such as faith, hope, charity, and the like, we must say that nothing prevents our nature, in spite of corruption, from being adorned with these charisms, provided that God himself deigns to inspire them. It is against human nature, however, to acquire these virtues by ourselves and through our own efforts. Moreover, it is not always true that we must have actions before we acquire virtues. We say this because of the first man and also because of those whom God immediately infuses with virtues from the moment of their conversion. (emphasis added) (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 296, 297.)

Adam was created with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, virtues that cannot be produced by nature but must come from God’s supernatural infusion of these qualities. Vermigli also believed that Adam was given the gifts of the Holy Spirit: fortitude, fear, and the inspirations of God – these are also mentioned by Thomas in ST I-II, Q. 68.  These things “surpass nature.” (Ibid., p. 336) Therefore, Adam did not have them by nature but “even then God himself, of his own benevolence and grace, gave Adam true virtues and adorned him with his beautiful gifts.” (Ibid.) 

Aside from disagreement over the definition of grace and the primacy of charity among the theological virtues Vermigli agrees with Thomas’s doctrine of original righteousness and original sin.  By grace, the lower parts of Adam’s soul were submissive to will and reason and the reason was submissive to God. He affirms, “And these men by Originall iustice understand nothing elles, then the right constitucion of man, when the body obeyeth the soule, and the inferiour partes of the soule obey the superiour partes, and the mind is subiect  unto God and to his law.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.)

Like Thomas, Vermigli combines the opinion of Anselm and Augustine in his definition of original sin: “…we have alleaged Augustines definition, that originall sinne is the concupiscence of the flesh, and Anselmus definition, that it is the want of originall iustice…” (Ibid., p. 129.) Furthermore, Vermigli adds his own definition to these in order to refute Pighius, who misinterpreted Augustine and Anselm, using them to defend his doctrine of pure nature. Therefore, Vermigli adds to, or more precisely, reiterates the classic doctrine of original sin in the following definition:  “Original sinne therefore is the corruption of the whole nature of man, traduced by generation from the fall of our first parent into his posterity, which corruption, were it not for the befefite of Christ, adiudgeth al men borne therein in a maner to infinite evills, and to externall damnation.” (Ibid., p. 125.)

According to John Patrick Donnelly, Vermigli’s definition “gives a new centrality and emphasis to total depravity which is distinctly Reformed.” (Calvinism and Scholasticism, p. 107.) However, Vermigli considered his definition to be a clarification and reiteration of Augustine and Anselm rather than a “distinctively reformed” definition. He affirms this later in his commentary:

With this our definition of originall sinne, wel agreeth the want of originall iustice.  Also with it agreeth the description of Augustine, wherein he saith , that it is the concupiscence of the flesh: so that either of them be rightly understanded. The chiefe of the Scholemen acknowledged this doctrine, as Thomas, Scotus, and in especiall Bonaventure. These appoint for the materiall part in this sinne, the corruption of nature, or concupiscence: and for the formal part, the want of original righteousnes: and so of these two opinions, which we have now rehersed, they make but one. (Ibid., p. 126.)

Here Vermigli confirms that his definition of original sin, and by concomitance original righteousness, is not distinctly Reformed, but in order to refute the Pelagianism of Pighius he emphasizes the essence of the church’s opinion  from Augustine to Scotus: sin does not only affect one part of the soul but the whole person. Neither did Vermigli consider his position terribly different from the Roman Church of his day.

But in this thing he [Pighius] semeth to contmemne the iudgement of his owne Romishe Church, which otherwise he every where maketh equall even, with God himselfe. For, that Church doth in such maner acknowledge originall sinne, that it suffereth not infantes dying without baptisme to be buried… (Ibid., p. 128.)

In conclusion, there is a surprising similarity between the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Church Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli on the nature of Adam’s original state and the corruption of human nature that followed his fall from grace. In this same commentary Vermigli does openly disagree with St. Thomas. However, his charge is not against a wrongheaded nature/grace distinction, rather an unbiblical definition of grace, a mistaking of the effects of grace for the cause (as Calvin also says). As I demonstrated in this post Vermigli believed that God created Adam in a state of grace with infused theological virtues that caused the submission of his passions to his will, his will to reason, and his reason to God. For Vermigli, as for Thomas, this original internal and external order of Adam is original righteousness. When Adam fell the supernatural gifts were removed and concupiscence corrupted or “wounded” his entire nature, thus leaving him utterly dependant on God’s healing grace. I hope to devote another short post to this same topic so that I may revisit Calvin in light of the current post and talk about the elements in both Vermigli’s and Calvin’s thought that are distinctively Reformed. 

Calvin and Vermigli on Adam’s Original Righteousness, pt. I

Within the spirit of the post below concerning snobbery, I suggest that we who rummage through the old dusty pages of theological and philosophical works of days long past adhere to the commonsensical maxim to never create a problem of diverging doctrinal paradigms where an author him/herself did not. For example, I have not read in any Reformer where he disagrees with the “papists” because they view Christ, man, and sin through a dualist nature/grace paradigm.  The anachronistic insertion of such a paradigm would amount to something similar to what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” Therefore, I vow not to insert a problem of dueling “worldviews” where Luther, et al. did not.  Steven has an excellent post for those wanting to know the problems of “worldview thinking.”

Rather than disagree with Rome because of its worldview Calvin and Vermigli opposed what may seem to us as non-essential if not insignificant doctrinal points. It is really easy for us to read the polemics of Luther or Calvin anachronistically, as if they would both be just as militant about some of these points were they living in 21st century Europe or America.  As James Davison Hunter points out, the religious situation in America is no longer divided between Protestant and Catholic, as it was in the 19th and earlier centuries. Rather, we are divided between those who adhere to the authorities of church or Bible and those who value the authority of reason and the freedom to critique supernatural authorities.  Sure, Protestants and Catholics are still divided in terms of doctrine and practice.  However, one can notice the change in rhetorical tone toward a spirit of mutual respect that did not exist for the Reformers.

I am somewhat grieved to bring up a “whipping boy” to accentuate my point, since he is someone who has taught me many things.  Herman Bavinck is that “boy.” First, I must emphasize my respect for Bavinck.  I agree with Richard Gaffin, that Bavinck’s is “Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition.”  With that said, I offer one critique. Bavinck makes the following statement concerning the Reformed understanding of Adam’s original state:

[For the Reformers] grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin.  Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin.  In its real sense, it was not necessary in the case of Adam before the fall but has only become necessary as a result of sin […] Grace does not give us any more than what, if Adam had not fallen, would have been acquired by him in the way of obedience.  The covenant of grace differes from the covenant of works in method, not in its ultimate goal.  It is the same treasure that was primised in the covenant of works and is granted in the covenant of grace.  Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinacle, but it does not add to it any new and heterogeneous constituents. (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3:  Sin and Salvation in Christ, p. 577.)

Now, I must add one caveat to this quote, which I think is a misinterpretation of the Reformers:  Bavinck is critiquing the Catholic doctrine that Adam was created in a state of “pure nature.” According to this doctrine, man was originally created without supernatural gifts, his nature remains constant before receiving grace, while grace is given, and after grace has been removed because of the fall. Throughout the process Adam’s nature remains as it was created.  This was a position held by many Jesuits during the time of Francis Turretin.  Peter Leithart notes here that Turretin attributed this position to Pelagianism, both old and new – as did Vermigli.  Therefore, inasmuch as Bavinck critiques the notion of pure nature he is correct.  The Reformers did not hold to this position.  However, by stating that the Reformers did not believe Adam needed grace before the fall Bavinck misrepresents at least two Reformers:  John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Adam and EveCalvin affirms that Adam was created in the image of God with the “adornments” of wisdom, virtue, and justice, and he calls these the “gifts” which God “willed to be conferred upon human nature.” (Institutes, II.I.4-7.)  But, throughout the Institutes Calvin seems to equate man’s original state with human nature.  He seems to imply that Adam did not have sanctifying grace “superadded” to his nature. Rather, Adam was created with these gifts, and those gifts are natural. At this point I must state clearly that the word “nature” can cause much confussion.  What did Calvin mean by “nature”?  Fortunately, he gives us an idea of his definition when he explains the meaning of “corruption of nature”:  

Therefore we declare that man is corrupted through natural vitiation, but a vitiation that did not flow from nature.  We deny that it has flowed from nature in order to indicate that it is an adventitious quality which comes upon man rather than a substantial property which has been implanted from the beginning.  Yet we call it “natural” in order that no man may think that anyone obtains it through bad conduct, since it holds all men fast by hereditary right. (Ibid., II.I.11.) 

Here Calvin uses the word “nature” to refer both to man’s original state as created by God and his state after the fall. Adam has a nature before the fall and a nature after the fall, but he maintains the same nature/substance throughout.  In other words, his substance remains yet it receives the “adventitious quality” of original sin.  Calvin explains, “in man’s perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam.  These show him to be a rational being, differing from brute beasts, because he is endowed with understanding.” (Ibid., II.II.12.) Therefore, the definition of man as a rational animal, which is his nature, does not change after the fall, and thus original sin is something added to that nature.  We can see something similar with Calvin’s understanding of nature and grace.  He explains that some gifts are natural but others are above nature:

I feel pleased with the well-known saying which has been borrowed from the writings of Augustine, that man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn; meaning by supernatural gifts the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity. Man, when he withdrew his allegiance to God, was deprived of the spiritual gifts by which he had been raised to the hope of eternal salvation. Hence it follows, that he is now an exile from the kingdom of God, so that all things which pertain to the blessed life of the soul are extinguished in him until he recover them by the grace of regeneration. Among these are faith, love to God, charity towards our neighbour, the study of righteousness and holiness. All these, when restored to us by Christ, are to be regarded as adventitious and above nature. If so, we infer that they were previously abolished. (Institutes, Henry Beveridge, trans., II.II.12.)

In this paragraph Calvin affirms both a sin/grace distinction and a nature/grace distinction, or more properly a nature/supernatural distinction.  Adam was created with certain supernatural gifts added to his natural gifts in order that he attain a supernatural end.  After the fall this nature/supernatural distinction in gifts does not disappear but a new category is added, that of sin. Therefore, we can tentatively conclude that Calvin did not consider Adam’s original righteousness to be purely natural, not needing the addition of grace (as Bavinck implies),  nor can we reduce his soteriology to a mere sin/grace distinction.  Because Adam was created with supernatural gifts we can say that these gifts were natural (I think this is what Bavinck means by the term) and in this sense no addition was needed.  However, this does not mean that these gifts were produced from nature, but that Adam had a natural capacity to receive them.  Adam’s faith, hope, and charity were not products of nature but were given supernaturally by God at the time of creation. 

I believe that a nature/grace  distinction (as opposed to a sin/grace distinction) within the writings of Calvin and Vermigli is difficult to find because they considered the removal of original righteousness to be a sin in and of itself, as Calvin mentions in the quote above. Therefore, a post-lapsarian sin/grace distinction is the same as a post-lapsarian nature/grace distinction because  a nature without grace in this world is a corrupt nature.  Because Calvin uses the word “nature” in reference to Adam’s originally righteous state he can say that any removal of grace is a corruption of nature, rather than a return to a state of pure nature. Also, the use of the word “nature” when distinguished from “grace” denotes a metaphysical definition, something that Calvin sought to avoid in order to be perspicuous.  In the next post I will discuss Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of this topic and compare texts from he, Vermigli and Calvin in which they discuss Adam’s original state.       

John Calvin on the Studying of Greek Philosophers de Anima

I, indeed, agree that the things they [the philosophers] teach [about the soul] are true, not only enjoyable, but also profitable to learn, and skillfully assembled by them.  And I do not forbid those who are desirous of learning to study them. Therefore I admit in the first place that there are five senses, which Plato preferred to call organs, by which all objects are presented to common sense, as a sort of receptacle.  There follows fantasy, which distinguishes those things which have been apprehended by common sense; then reason, which embraces universal judgment; finally understanding, which in intent and quiet study contemplates what reason discursively ponders. Similarly, to understanding, reason, and fantasy (the three cognitive faculties of the soul) correspond three appetitive faculties: will, whose functions consist in striving after what understanding and reason present; the capacity for anger, which seizes upon what is offered to it by reason and fantasy; the capacity to desire inordinately, which apprehends what is set before it by fantasy and sense. (Institutes, I.XV.6.)

The Areopagus Address: John Calvin on Paul’s Modus Demonstrationum

Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited testimonies of Scripture. I said that this was the holy man’s purpose, to bring the men of Athens unto the true God. For they were persuaded that there was some divinity; only their preposterous religion was to be reformed. Whence we gather, that the world doth go astray through bending crooks and boughts, yea, that it is in a mere labyrinth, so long as there remaineth a confused opinion concerning the nature of God. For this is the true rule of godliness, distinctly and plainly to know who that God whom we worship is. If any man will intreat generally of religion, this must be the first point, that there is some divine power or godhead which men ought to worship. But because that was out of question, Paul descendeth unto the second point, that true God must be distinguished from all vain inventions. So that he beginneth with the definition of God, that he may thence prove how he ought to be worshipped; because the one dependeth upon the other. (John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles; emphasis added)

Richard Muller points out (in PRRD Vol. 3, p. 174) that Calvin considered it proper for Paul to begin his Areopagus address with proofs drawn from nature – even citing the pagan Aratus as an authority. I find it interesting that both Calvin and Aquinas seem to adhere to a similar notion of demonstration:  pagans do not respect the Scriptures, so we must use reason.  Aquinas says: 

But on two accounts it is difficult to proceed against individual errors: first, because the sacrilegious utterances of our various erring opponents are not so well known to us as to enable us to find reasons, drawn from their own words, for the confutation of their errors: for such was the method of the ancient doctors in confuting the errors of the Gentiles, whose tenets they were readily able to know, having either been Gentiles themselves, or at least having lived among Gentiles and been instructed in their doctrines. Secondly, because some of them, as Mohammedans and Pagans, do not agree with us in recognising the authority of any scripture, available for their conviction, as we can argue against the Jews from the Old Testament, and against heretics from the New. But these receive neither: hence it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, which all are obliged to assent to. But in the things of God natural reason is often at a loss. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I.II, a.3, 4)

Notice also that Calvin did not consider the pagans to need demonstration of God’s existence but they needed their religion to be reformed.  The demonstration of the true God was Paul’s starting point not for the purpose of exposing the quiddity of God in a way that could be grasped apart from faith but “that he may thence prove how He ought to be worshipped” since the one depends on the other.  Thus, there still remained in Calvin a tinge of the Schoolmen’s high view of reason.  And, with a bit of negative theology, perhaps inherited from St. Augustine or St. Bernard, Paul’s purpose is seen to teach what God is.  Paul taught what God is precisely by teaching what he is not:  a man-made image.

Exodus 3:14 and God as Being

**The purpose of this post is not to give a grammatical historical interpretation of the above mentioned text nor to set up the opinion of the Reformers et al as the bastion of Truth.  The purpose is to demonstrate that certain traditions of interpretation were carried on by the Reformers et al, thus marking a plane of continuity between them and the Scholastics.  Secondly, although I disagree with particular methods and opinions of John Frame I must admit my indebtedness to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  If it were not for Van Til and Van Tillians such as Frame I probably would not even be reading books. They definitely awakened me out of a fundamentalist lethargy and anti-intellectualism. Ironic, aye?

John Frame thinks Aquinas’s (and other “Scholastics”) interpretation of Exodus 3:14 (God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”) is way too old-timey (i.e. Medieval). For those who don’t know Aquinas interpreted the sum qui sum (greek: ho on) of this passage to mean that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent Being). He says in his Summa:

This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God … because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other, it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form. (ST I. Q.13, a.11)  

Therefore, because God does not receive existence from a different source than himself his existence is his essence, and it is he who gives existence (i.e. being) to all of creation.  Also, “Existence” is not a univocal term, as if God exists in the same way the Statue of Liberty does.  Aquinas explains:

As we read in the book of Causes, God’s existing is individually distinguished from all other existing by the very fact that it is an existing subsistent in itself, and not one supervening on a nature other than existing itself. (Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia, Q. 7, a.2)

One could and should ask why Aquinas interprets God’s revelation of himself in this passage as ipsum esse subsistens.  Fran O’Rourke says that he does this for two reasons.  First, because God refers to himself as sum qui sum (Vulgate).  Second, because Dionysius interprets it ontologically as well.  He says, “Aquinas discovered in reliance upon Dionysius both the theological and ontological signification of this passage.” (O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 131) Of course Aquinas was just as much an Augustinian as he was a follower of Dionysius and Aristotle.  For example, compare Aquinas’s interpretation of sum qui sum from his Summa with St. Augustine’s statement in the City of God:

… understand that which God spoke by the angel when He sent Moses to the children of Israel:  “I am that I am.”  For since God is the supreme existence, that is to say, supremely is, and is therefore unchangeable, the things that He made He empowered to be, but not to be supremely like Himself. (XII.2)

Therefore, the interpretation of the sum qui sum of Exodus 3:14 as Subsistent Being in Aquinas is just as much Augustinian as Neo-Platonic.  And guess what else.  It’s Calvinistic.  Here’s how Calvin interprets this same passage in Exodus:

The verb in the Hebrew is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be:” but it is of the same force as the present, except that it designates the perpetual duration of time.  This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature. (Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses)

This interpretation of Calvin’s is almost identical with that of Augustine and Aquinas.  In fact Richard Muller points out that this position was also held by many of the later orthodox reformed theologians.  He states:

Following out the medieval tradition, Mastricht rests the doctrine of the essence and independence of God on Exodus 3:13-14, specifically on God’s answer to Moses’ question concerning his name:  Mastricht renders the answer, “ero qui ero,” “I will be who I will be,” noting that the Hebrew might also be rendered “sum qui sum.” His sensitivity to the implications of the Hebrew verb reflects the arguments of Reformers like Bullinger and Musculus and of early orthodox writers like Zanchi and Polanus, just as his doctrinal conclusions echo the results of exegesis in his time:  Diodati, for example, interpreted the text as saying “I am the only true God, truly subsisting, & not only through the opinion of men as Idols are; I am he that have an everlasting beeing, unchangeable, substisting of its self, not depending from others, infinite, most simple, the author and cause of the beeing of all things:  not a borrowed, changeable, finite, dependent, and compounded being, etc. as all other creatures have.” (Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 233)

Muller notes that this Reformed interpretation is not a proof-texting for certain metaphysical and rationalist presuppositions.  He notes, “Here too, we are not encountering a rank proof-texting, but rather an application of the older hermeneutic whereby either direct declarations of Scripture or conclusions capable of being drawn from the text are understood as the basis of vaild [sic] teaching.” (Ibid., p. 237) John Frame, in critiquing Aquinas’s interpretation is also critiquing an Augustinian and Reformed interpretation.  Furthermore, he is not quite clear about why he believes it to be erroneous.  He says:

This text, plus a number of premises from Platonic (especially Neoplatonic) and Aristotelean philosophy, forms the basis for a rather complicated metaphysical theory of the divine being that has influenced many theological discussions of the doctrine of God.  The relationship of this theory to Scripture is rather tenuous, especially if we reject, as I think we should, Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14. (The Doctrine of God, p. 220)

Frame then goes on to state charitably that Aquinas had a deep desire to maintain a Creator/creature distinction.  He even catalogues certain Scholastic definitions such as essence, substance, being, form, etc. in order to give his readership a greater contextual knowledge.  However, despite Frame’s statement of his opinion that Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14 should be trashed he never offers a more thorough critique than:

… we should remember that Aquinas and his followers distinguished quite sharply between divine and human being, between Being and beings.  All the same, the structure seems rather univocal for a thinker, Aquinas, who elsewhere insists that all, or at least most of our language about God is analogical. (Ibid., p. 223)

This critique, Frame informs the reader, is based on the fact that Aquinas does not discuss the anologia entis in his De ente et essentia. (Ibid., p. 224) Firstly, I almost can’t make sense of that argument (is that even an argument?).  Secondly, the De ente et essentia, according to Jean-Pierre Torrell, was one of Aquinas’s early works in which he makes certain statements in agreement with Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina that he would later be more cautious about (due to certain controversies).  Thirdly, Aquinas is very clear in his Summa and in the passage quoted above from Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia that God’s Being is hyperousion (beyond being). Frame’s opinion here stated is simply wrong. 

Frame continues stating, “I have no problem affirming that God is a necessary being, but on the basis of Scripture … rather than on specifically Thomistic premises.” (Ibid., p. 224) With this statement one can sense Frame’s presuppositions regarding Medieval Scholasticism – he also says that the scholastic concepts are “an unnecessary complication.”  As I shall discuss in a following post Frame presupposes that the Scholastics used terms based on autonomous reasoning to subvert the Biblical text and distort the original meaning, accepting instead the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.  I shall deal with this contention later.  For now it has been my point to demonstrate at least two points in regard to John Frame’s critique of Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14: (1) Because Frame fails to realize and note the fact that his critique of Aquinas is also a critique of a traditionally Christian and Reformed hermeneutic his presentation of the problem as “Scholasticism” cannot be more than a caricature. (2) Because Frame’s disagreements with Aquinas on this point are never substantiated beyond mere conjecture and opinion he leaves the reader suspicious at best of a straw man fallacy.  This also makes the reader suspicious of Frame’s motive in attacking Aquinas.  Is his motive based on scholarship or a bias toward a particular apologetic method?  Stay tuned…

St. Thomas in Protestant Thought

The Protestant Reformation was, among other things, a reaction to the late Medieval church and a return to the Church Fathers.  The sixteenth-century Reformers were highly critical of the doctrine of faith espoused by their Catholic contemporaries, the Schoolmen (the Catholic theologians at the various universities). By and large, later generations of Protestants seem simply to have taken the criticisms of the Reformers as the final word and assumed that they would not be likely to find anything of permanent worth in the Schoolmen’s teaching on faith – including the teaching of Aquinas.  And so today Aquinas’s views on faith are practically unknown among Protestants. (Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought, pp. 1, 2)

I would add to this that many Protestants assume that the arguments of the Reformers, John Calvin specifically, against the Schoolmen were arguments against the entire Medieval scholastic tradition. McGrath in his monograph on Calvin points out that these Schoolmen were teachers in the French Sorbonne who were not espousing a pure scholasticism.