Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
Joe Heschmeyer of the Shameless Popery blog recently wrote an article which asserts that Reformed Theology is implicitly heretical as it turns Jesus Christ into a sinner. As the resident “Protestant objector” in the comments section of the website, along with having a website with the words “Reformed Theology” right in it, I feel compelled to write a rebuttal to his article.
Before I embark on this, first a note about me: while stereotypically I can be classified as “reformed” or a “Calvinist,” I must admit I have not read a great deal of Calvin. While I enjoy a steady diet of James White and R.C. Sproul via audio and video, I have read none of their books. The vast majority of my reading is simply the Bible. Most of my extra-biblical “joy reading” is the Church Fathers, especially Augustine. I have honestly dabbled much more extensively in Aquinas than anything of Calvin’s. So, I am classified as a Calvinist simply because the doctrines which I argue are consistently found in the Bible, and elucidated in Christian tradition, happen to be called “Calvinist” today. As for Calvin, I really do not understand the man all that well.
That being said, onto Joe’s article. He begins:
In theology, the term for this post-Fall inclination towards sin is “concupiscence.” Man finds in himself simultaneously:
- A wound that can only be healed by Christ, and a hunger that can only be satisfied by Him; and yet
- An inclination towards evil, leading to various temptations to fill that void with some good other than God
We can all agree on this, let’s move on.
Some Christian heresies, like Pelagianism and Modernism, have gone awry by failing to take concupiscence seriously….But there’s an opposite error as well: to exaggerate concupiscence. And it’s this error that Reformed Christianity, commonly called Calvinism, falls into. Calvinism tends to exaggerate the severity of concupiscence (treating it as sin, rather than mere temptation) as well as its pervasiveness (treating man as nothing more than concupiscence).
Here, Joe sets his sights on the doctrine of “total depravity.” Allow me to simply put forward what Paul said in Rom 7:19-20:
For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
So, the inherent presence of a sinful nature, referred to in Paul’s language as “the flesh,” is a persistent and real problem as it causes man to sin. Man’s will is deficient to do anything about it, as Calvinist doctrine dictates. Where is our victory? “Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25)
Augustine, who Joe quotes in support of the correct notion that being tempted is not sin because sin requires assent of the will, elsewhere shows us there is a bit more to the picture (that Joe leaves out.) “For the good is incomplete when one lusts, even although a man does not consent to the evil of lust,” writes Augustine in Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 19. Augustine continues in the next chapter, “[H]e [Paul] had said, ‘
ringing me into captivity’ in the flesh, not in the mind; in emotion, not in consent; and therefore ‘
bringing me into captivity,”‘ because even in the flesh there is not an alien nature, but our own.
For when he says also,
Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Romans 7:24 who can deny that when the apostle said this he was still in the body of this death? And certainly the wicked are not delivered from this, to whom the same bodies are returned for eternal torment. Therefore, to be delivered from the body of this death is to be healed of all the weakness of fleshly lust, and to receive the body, not for penalty, but for glory (Chapter 23).
Hence, in Rom 7 and Augustine’s exegesis, even when Godly men such as the Apostles did not consent to such lusts (Chap 26), simply not consenting is not good enough. Man, in his nature, is flawed and needs deliverance. Those not healed look forward to eternal torment. In Christ, though the flesh is still there the flesh is done away with as “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50). We are resurrected as heavenly, spiritual (yet physical) bodies.
Now, all of this seems like a really long aside, but what I am trying to show is that Joe and Calvin are speaking past each other. The meat of Calvinism is that man, in his very nature is flawed and this is visible in concupiscence which ultimately manifests itself in sin. It is for this reason that Paul literally writes that “sin dwells in me.” It isn’t “mere concupiscence,” so one may say, “So what? Concupiscence hasn’t damned anybody!” Nothing can be farther from the truth! As Augustine recognized reading Paul, concupiscence must be done away with or man will be damned. Jesus Christ brings deliverance from the condition, even from those who have not consented to it’s lusts.
Calvin can fall into the basic Christological heresy of denying Christ’s sinlessness.
Key word is “can.” Let’s see if he does…
For Calvin, on the other hand, merely being tempted to sin is a sin.
In support of this conclusion, Joe quotes Calvin saying, “We again regard it as sin whenever man is influenced in any degree by any desire contrary to the law of God; nay, we maintain that the very gravity which begets in us such desires is sin” (Joe’s emphasis).
Interestingly enough, it is where Joe’s emphasis stops that reveals where Joe does not understand Calvin’s point. “[T]he very gravity which begets in us such desires is sin.” Not being a Calvin expert (but having a decent handle of Rom 7), the term gravity is being used just like we would say, “The problem is at it’s core, X, Y or Z.” Calvin is saying that sin is at the core of concupiscence. This is exactly what Paul says in Rom 7:20. So, it is a true point, a point which Joe misses and then objects to certain imagined ramifications of the idea that mere temptation is supposedly sin to a Calvinist.
In opposition to Joe’s caricature of John Calvin’s Christology and reduction of temptation as sin, it is of particular interest that Calvin explictly denies Joe’s argumentation. As if he anticipated an article on ShamelessPopery.com would be written about him some day, when commenting on Matt 4:2 he writes:
But, at first sight, it appears strange, that Christ was liable to the temptations of the devil: for, when temptation falls on men, it must always be owing to sin and weakness. I reply: First, Christ took upon him our infirmity, but without sin, (Hebrews 4:15.) Secondly, it is justly reckoned a weakness of human nature, that our senses are affected by external objects. But this weakness would not be sinful, were it not for the presence of corruption; in consequence of which Satan never attacks us, without doing some injury, or, at least, without inflicting a slight wound. Christ was separated from us, in this respect, by the perfection of his nature; though we must not imagine him to have existed in that intermediate condition, which belonged to Adam, to whom it was only granted, that it was possible for him not to sin. We know, that Christ was fortified by the Spirit with such power, that the darts of Satan could not pierce him.
So, clearly Calvin did not regard temptation as sin, but he like Paul knew that man’s temptation to sin is not purely from his nature, but also from the flesh. In the flesh dwells sin. The inclinations of the flesh are called concupiscence. That is the necessary connection, the same connection that Joe does not make.
What’s the point in resisting temptation, if by being tempted you’re already guilty?
Because the Spirit compels us to resist temptation. Joe might resist temptation in order to avail himself from judgment. In my view, I resist temptation because by faith in Christ I have His Spirit. In short, I resist temptation because I have been availed from judgement.
Interestingly enough, that is exactly the answer Paul gives in Rom 7:24-25 and Rom 8:1. Paul, the man who admits to sinning (specifically coveting, Rom 7:7), has deliverance not because he can completely stop. He wants to, but he cannot. He has deliverance, because Jesus Christ died for Him and resurrected, thereby delivering him from death!
Joe: In Book II, Chapter I of Institutes, he calmly explains that God hates unborn children, because they (like all of us) are seed-beds of sin, odious and abominable to God…
Yet, the church fathers like Augustine and Prosper of Aquataine taught that all unbaptized infants go to hell. If God is not punishing sin in these infants, then why do they go to hell? Better question: Why baptize infants if their sin was not a serious affront to God? What would they need to be delivered from?
As Augustine details in the first few pages of the Confessions, the inherent sin in a human being is readily apparent early on. Augustine concludes, “The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames, the minds of infants are far from innocent” (Confessions, Chapter 1, Chap 11). The fact that Augustine locates guilt in the mind and teaches that infants will, if not regenerated, go to hell, makes it pretty clear that he is far closer to Calvin on the issue than Joe.
[Calvin] he tries to explain Christ’s prayer [“let this cup pass…”] in the Garden, he can only account for it by assuming that Christ momentarily forgot about our salvation, and had to be rebuked (by Himself) for it…
I underlined the words “forgot” and “rebuked,” because they are loaded and not used by Calvin. Calvin writes that the prayer was not “premeditated” and “leaving out view the divine purpose.” This means Jesus was speaking in accordance with His emotions.
Aquinas concurs in the Summa Theologica: “And, indeed, such was Christ’s obedience, for, although His Passion and death, considered in themselves, were repugnant to the natural will, yet Christ resolved to fulfill God’s will with respect to the same” (Part 3, Question 47, Article 2).
Christ was righteous in all His ways. Though weighed down by temptations and emotions, He did not for a moment yield to them because He is God after all. Calvin calls this an “immediate…correction.”
In short, as Augustine points out, “Christ thus as man shews a certain private human will…[T]hough God’s will is other, this is permitted to human frailty” (Quoted in Aquinas Study Bible).
Joe can just as easily read the word “forgot” and “rebuked” into Augustine’s discussion of Jesus’ “human frailty.” However, we know that is not what Augustine meant and nothing in what Calvin wrote would lead us to conclude the same.
Joe continues his conspiracy theory that Calvin thinks Jesus had a momentary lapse in divinity and said something sinful:
He hadn’t intended to pray, and quickly corrected Himself. Commenting on the next verse, Calvin says that “We see how Christ restrains his feelings at the very outset, and quickly brings himself into a state of obedience.”
Yet, simply read how Calvin explains himself:
When the dread of death was presented to his mind, and brought along with it such darkness, that he left out of view every thing else, and eagerly presented that prayer, there was no fault in this. Nor is it necessary to enter into any subtle controversy whether or not it was possible for him to forget our salvation. We ought to be satisfied with this single consideration, that at the time when he uttered a prayer to be delivered from death, he was not thinking of other things which would have shut the door against such a wish.
Joe takes offense at this, because it appears to entertain the notion that Jesus could have forgotten something. Calvin appears not to think that such an idea is serious, but is insistent in his assertion that Jesus’ human nature and inherent mortal limitations resulted in a guiltless outburst of anguish.
This gets into a whole issue of whether Jesus Christ, in the human flesh, is omniscient. Most Protestants don’t believe He was. I am unsure of the Catholic position, but I would align myself more with Aquinas and say that when Jesus Christ exhibits Kenosis, He is exhibiting His human nature and condescending Himself to man, but not necessarily shedding omnisicience or anything of the sort. Calvin writes, “There would be no impropriety, therefore, in saying that Christ, who knew all things, was ignorant of something in respect to his perception as a man.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I am not even sure if that is considered heretical to Joe.
Joe sums up his discussion with the idea that Jesus being sinful is “an inherent part” of Calvinism. In Calvinism, “Christ can’t be both sinless and man.”
However, did Joe prove any of these points? Not from Calvin, nor other Reformed thinkers. In fact, he had to pain himself to twist Calvin’s interpretations to make it fit this sort of idea that Calvin explicitly rejects. The evidence simply is not there.
In this whole discussion on concupiscence, I think what Joe needs to do is exegete the relevant passages in Rom 7. In my humble view, this is at the very heart of the controversy.