Christ’s Assumption of Fallen Nature: Calvinism’s Pelagianism

By: Jay Dyer

One of the best ways to distinguish the Protestant, and particularly the Calvinist,view of anthropology and soteriology is to consider the way both systems view pre-lapsarian man (or, man before the Fall). In classical Calvinist theology, man in the garden was not in need of any grace, but was placed by God under a so-called “covenant of works,” whereby he and his posterity could attain eternal life contingent “upon perfect and personal obedience to the law of God” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 7:2). It goes on to state that man failed in this covenant and was later given another, the covenant of grace.

The flaws in this view are manifold, not the least of which pertain to christology and soteriology as a whole. This will be fleshed out later, but remember: the Logos assumed human nature. In fact, as I will argue, and as many Catholic theologians since the time of the reformation have observed, the reformed Calvinistic view is actually a Pelagian view of pre-lapsarian man, the Calvinist and the Pelagian differing only in how they see the results of the fall. For Pelagius, as well as for the Calvinist, man did not need grace in the garden. In fact, as one well-read Calvinist recently told me, it all goes back to the garden, and “man did not need grace before the fall.”

For the Calvinist and the Pelagian, grace is nature for pre-lapsarian man (and beyond the fall to men still). When man fell, in this view, he became totally depraved, his entire nature being destroyed (as with Luther), or becoming entirely enslaved to the passions (as with Calvin). Thus, nature was lost because it was identified with grace and placed man in a “naturally evil state,” as many a Calvinist has argued. This means that Jesus could not have assumed fallen nature (since its inherently evil). Instead of the Son of God raising human nature by His assumption of it in the Incarnation, we have in this view ultimately a human Jesus who fulfills the covenant of works, whereupon because of His obedience, he is able to impute perfect righteousness to the theoretical bank accounts of the elect, while himself accepting the wrath of the Father against him.

So, let me be clear, I am not saying they are Pelagian following the Fall: only prior to. Certainly the Calvinist departs from Pelagius concerning the effects of the Fall, wherePelagius made the consequences thereof merely a natural phenomenon: death. For the Calvinist, human nature was lost because, again, in their view, nature is identified with grace in the garden. Myriads of Calvinist will reply, “we were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). I will return to that text in a bit.

The problems with this view are as follows. First, how is it that Calvinists reject merit, and yet hold to the very concept of a gracious merit in the covenant of works with Adam? Surely we agree that God was under no constraints to give man any benefits in the garden, and even still in the Catholic view, its normative dogma that merit is not, in our view, strict merit as if between two equal legal parties. On the contrary, all our works are your gifts, as St. Augustine says.

Second, what did man lose when he fell, if nature is grace? Was God under obligation to give man anything? Not in the Calvinist view, since God is sovereign. So what was lost? Prior to the fall, it has to be admitted that what man had was communion with God, which is nothing other than the life of God, the Holy Spirit. Expulsion from the garden meant loss of communion with the Triune God. Communion with God is a grace! Who can deny this? Nothing was owed. God freely, out of His bountiful goodness granted man life and light and communion with Him in the garden and the sin of Adam cut them off from that grace. Once this is admitted, then obviously the nonsense of a covenant of works is made manifest. Spiritual death ensued, but man did not cease to be just that: man. He could not lose his nature anymore than an angel who fell could lose his angelic nature.

Why do I say this? Because in our view, nature as nature, is determined, and is made good. Matter and human nature can never lose their natural goodness. When God created the world, including man and the angels, He said, “it is good.” It cannot and will never be inherently evil. Its precisely the heresy of Manichaeanism that is revived in Calvinism when it is said that nature became inherently evil after the Fall. Manichaeanism was a dualistic view that said matter was crude, and inherently evil. There were, then, two eternal principles locked in ageless conflict: matter and darkness opposed to light and thought. For the Manichee, man is, by birth, a filthy bag of depraved garbage Likewise, for the Calvinist, man is totally depraved “by nature,” to the effect that he can never do a pleasing act before God that is not tainted with some sin.

For the Catholic, evil is a loss of goodness by an act of will. When Lucifer rebelled, he lost the grace and deifying power of God that was his source of true goodness, elevating his angelic nature to untold heights. When he fell, he retained his nature (angelic), but it became corrupted due to an evil-turned will. Let’s be clear–will is not evil inherently, but becomes a source of evil when it turns from the greatest good, God, and retreats into the non-being of losing God’s deifying light. Likewise, when man fell, he lost the light, life, love and communion of God through the Holy Spirit. The grace of God’s very own life was lost, the thing we call the donum superadditum, or the super-added gift, and what remained was a fallen, corrupted nature. That fallen nature now tended towards sin, its passions out of whack and no longer subject to the rule of the law of God and reason, but that nature could not be entirely lost or destroyed, since man still retained the image of God, even after the fall. This point is key, and we know this is the case because Noah is told following the Flood that murder would from then on be punished with death because murder is an attack on the image of God in man (Gen. 9:6). Therefore, the image of God still remained, but what had been lost was the likeness of God: the life and glory of God Himself.

Man left the garden and retained his nature, but it was just that-only nature. It no longer had the life of God and the enemy, death and sin reigned. It still had its natural life, and if Calvinist thought about it, they would admit this principle, since they are opposed to abortion. Clearly the man in the womb is ‘alive’ and derives his dignity from being the image of God. Sin and death, however, reign through original sin (Rom. 5:17) and in our actual sins (James 1:15) when we consent to concupiscence, the tendency we have inherited to rebel against God by loving naturally good passions, such as sex or food, in an undue measure, and not for God’s sake. But notice what St. James had said: sin is not the desire, it is the consent of the will to that desire, which constitutes the evil. Thus St. James is teaching concupiscence as the bodies’ passions out of accord with reason, not the Calvinist view of the desires themselves being evil.

Thus, as many father say, sin consists simply in an inordinate love of creatures. Rather than ruling the passions of, say, the stomach, the gluttonous man puts his belly above his health and God. He seeks the pleasures of the palate and, as one priest said, all of us fallen creatures are addicts of pleasure. This is precisely how St. John speaks in 1 John 2: 15-16. None of these pleasures are necessarily evil in themselves, except when they are indulged in in an inordinate manner or taken out of their proper context, such as sex outside of marriage. And so sin is an act of the will whereby we transgress the command of God (1 John 3:4): it is not an active state of being and it is not natural: it is the opposite, unnatural. St. Paul did not say in Ephesians 2:3 that nature itself was evil, but that by the means of natural birth we are under the curse of original sin. St. Paul was no Manichaean.

And so we come to the best part: the christological and soterilogical flaws of the Calvinist position. The Calvinist professes to believe in the definitions of the first several councils as they relate to the Trinity and the Incarnation. He will profess to believe what Ss. Athanasius, Cyril, Leo, Augustine and the Cappadocians believed, but often finds himself surprised at the actual teaching of those fathers and the Catholic councils, and especially the devastating problems that are created by Calvinist anthropology, especially as it relates to pre-lapsarian man.

If man lost human nature and nature and nature itself was corrupted, then what did Christ assume? Christ assumed a fallen nature, with all of its weaknesses, except for sin. If Christ did not assume a fallen human nature, then our nature is not rescued. Death still reigns and we are in our sins. No, its precisely because He was God and united Himself to our lowly, fallen bodies that we can rejoice that we are raised with Him and united to His transfigured, deified humanity. Surely the Calvinist will, as I have seen on many occasions, reply that Christ could not have assumed a fallen nature, since, for the Calvinist, that would mean Christ assumed a sin-nature. There is no such thing as a sin-nature. The will is a constituent property of human nature, and it is determined that all humans will have the faculty of a will, but the will is not and cannot be determined. It is free. We know this is true because its standard, historic Trinitarian orthodoxy that there is only one will in the Trinity, because there is only one nature. Thus, will is not an aspect of Person, hypostasis. This is clearly seen in the fact that we profess two wills in Christ because of two natures, human and divine. The simplest way to show that He assumed a fallen nature is to ask a Calvinist if death is a result of the fall. Since it obviously is, Jesus’ death on the Cross with His attendant sufferings shows He assumed our fallen state, yet death could not hold Him (Ps. 16), because He is the Lord of life.

The crux of the argument, then, is this: if Christ as the divine Son assumed a human nature, and that nature is consubstantial with us, it cannot be inherently evil. If it is, Christ is evil, and that is blasphemy. God cannot dwell with sin. Rather, Christ assumed our weakness; He bore our stripes in His own body, humbling Himself to accept our own weak, lowly bodies, in order that they might be raised to light, life and immortality, yet without ever sinning (Phil. 2:6-7, 3:21). Who deliver us from these bodies of death? Christ Jesus will, because He assumed our weakness and made it eternal and godlike-He had deified us! (2 Peter 1:4). Therefore, because there is one will in the Trinity, there cannot be any division as imagined by the Protestant, in Nestorian fashion, where the Father hates the Son and damns Him (in the crucifixion) for the sins of the elect. This is an absolute Trinitarian impossibility. If they share the same will, always united, there can never be a division between the Son and the Father, and its just because Christ is a divine Person and not a human person that we cannot ascribe any actions of the Incarnate Son to some dude receiving God’s hatred and wrath. That is complete heresy. We see, then, that the reformed view of man in the garden actually ends up denying the Incarnation and gives us a Nestorian “Jesus-dude” (not a divine Person) who is hated by the Father, if carried to its logical conclusions. It does this because it starts with a Pelagian view of man in the garden, but carries the results of this view to the opposite extreme.

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2 thoughts on “Christ’s Assumption of Fallen Nature: Calvinism’s Pelagianism

  1. Hey there,

    I have to be honest, that I am not sure I understand your argument. One thing did come to mind tho, Calvin and the original Reformers had no knowledge of a Covenant of Works. The earliest date to the Covenant of Works in Reformed theology was about the 1670s’ish. And then, too, which makes this interesting, it didn’t function for folk like Ursinus and Olevianus as a set works-contract that it later came to denote.

    All this can be documented by a few Journal Articles I could dig up if you like.

    You mind keep in mind that Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy was, is some respects, a very different animal to Reformation orthodoxy itself.

    Thanks,
    David

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