Speculation Station

Pre-Fall Nations, the Sacrament, and the Soul

King Henry V: If you have concocted this plan, half-baked and speculative, merely to prove to me your worth, please say so now.

Falstaff: All plans are speculative. And as I say, I only speak them when I feel them true.

The King (2019)

Recently, Stephen Wolfe, wrote a piece for American Reformer ably defending his claim in The Case for Christian Nationalism, that distinct, diverse nations would have existed even if the fall had not happened. That is, that nations are not in themselves or in principle a product of or concession to sin. Sin has introduced corruption and abuse, but not the thing itself. By consequence, government also would have been present in prelapsarian society, as I have also argued. Its necessity is grounded in the anthropological, not sin; its purpose is compounded, not introduced by the latter. These arguments and conclusions are derided in some evangelical circles as “speculative” because they do not conform to a Biblicist hermeneutic, they do not cite chapter and verse for all premises or conclusions, nor the form of argument itself.

A problem arises for such critics who, invariably, appeal to the Reformed tradition for their own hermeneutical approach, for the epistemological priority of inscripturated revelation—needless to say, they do a poor job at relating the diverse modes of revelation. The problem here is that other doctrines they affirm are, in their Reformed expression, speculative if judged by the same standard applied to the claims above regarding man’s prelapsarian state. Explanations for Calvinist sacramentology and the more general idea of the image of God were both, at least for John Calvin himself, developed from anthropological convictions not dictated by Scripture itself—though agreeable thereto—but found rather in discernment of the nature of the thing itself, viz., man’s nature.

A couple examples will suffice. To begin, Calvin’s defense of a real but spiritual presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper feature heavy reliance on a metaphysical understanding of human nature itself. His conclusions follow therefrom.

“The presence of Christ in the Supper we must hold to be such as neither affixes him to the element of bread, nor encloses him in bread, nor circumscribes him in any way (this would obviously detract from his celestial glory); and it must, moreover, be such as neither divests him of his just dimensions, nor dissevers him by differences of place, nor assigns to him a body of boundless dimensions, diffused through heaven and earth. All these things are clearly repugnant to his true human nature. Let us never allow ourselves to lose sight of the two restrictions. First, let there be nothing derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ. This happens whenever he is brought under the corruptible elements of this world, or is affixed to any earthly creatures. Secondly, Let no property be assigned to his body inconsistent with his human nature. This is done when it is either said to be infinite, or made to occupy a variety of places at the same time.”

[Institutes, 4.17.19]

Again, Calvin’s sacramentology in this regard is dependent on what some would call “speculative” conclusions derived from the spatial limitations of human nature. No scriptural exegesis is mustered in support of this point other than examples attesting to Christ’s true humanity. None of this denied a real presence but only concerned the mode of presence which, for Calvin, had to agree with the two natures of Christ. (For expert treatment of the doctrine of real presence itself, see Brad Littlejohn’s article here.)

Or, for a slightly different example, consider Calvin’s discussion of the “image of God” in man (Institutes, 2.15.3), a relevant inquiry in evangelicalism today for more reasons than immediately occupy us given the ubiquity of the terms use to justify seemingly any ethical-political position. For the latter, admittedly ancillary reason, we will dedicate more space to this topic here.

The question posed by Calvin to himself was whether the moniker, image of God is properly attributed to the whole man, body and soul, or in a more limited sense to the soul (and intellectual faculties) only. Calvin concludes that “though the divine glory is displayed in man’s outward appearance, it cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is in the soul.” It was an error of Osiander to extend the image of God “indiscriminately as well to the body as to the soul,” which, Calvin argues, “confounds heaven with earth.”

If the body too is the image of God, then incarnation of the second person of the Trinity is required regardless of man’s fall. All kinds of other Trinitarian problems are introduced if the image of God is made applicable to the corporeal, e.g., “I should like to know in what respect Christ in the flesh in which he was clothed resembles the Holy Spirit, and by what marks, or lineaments, the likeness is expressed.” Moreover, in what sense is the incarnate Christ an “image of himself—a thing utterly absurd”?

Moving from Trinitarian and Christological reasons to anthropological ones, Calvin distinguishes between body and soul, their natures and ends, in conjunction with man’s attributes:

“For though the whole man is called mortal, the soul is not therefore liable to death, nor when he is called a rational animal is reason or intelligence thereby attributed to the body. Hence, although the soul is not the man, there is no absurdity in holding that he is called the image of God in respect of the soul… Accordingly, by this term [i.e., image of God] is denoted the integrity with which Adam was endued when his intellect was clear, his affections subordinated to reason, all his senses duly regulated, and when he truly ascribed all his excellence to the admirable gifts of his Maker. And though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine.”

Observing that man is set apart from other creatures, Calvin qualifies,

“But it cannot be denied that the angels also were created in the likeness of God, since, as Christ declares (Matthew 22:30), our highest perfection will consist in being like them. But it is not without good cause that Moses commends the favour of God towards us by giving us this peculiar title, the more especially that he was only comparing man with the visible creation.”

Later on (Institutes, 2.15.4), Calvin repeats that “we infer, that at the beginning the image of God was manifested by light of intellect, rectitude of heart, and soundness of every part.” The inference referenced by Calvin is one drawn from certain scriptural passages about the renewal of man in Christ’s image, but the conclusions arrived at by Calvin do not spring from the same passages; indeed, the purpose of their invocation is different than their typical use. Again, Calvin presumes that “the image comprehends everything which has any relation to the spiritual and eternal life,” that which was nearly destroyed by the fall with the loss of Adam’s original righteousness, survived in a meager state, and then is restored by Christ.

Along the way, the speculative Calvin rejects the speculation of Augustine, viz., that “the soul is a mirror of the Trinity, inasmuch as it comprehends within itself, intellect, will, and memory. He treats the “dream of the Manichee’s, which Servetus has attempted in our day to revive,” more forcefully than those of Augustine, for obvious reasons. Yet, he praises Plato for his maintenance of the soul’s immortality and its singular designation as the image of God. Affirmed too by Calvin is Plato’s five senses, “brought into a common sensorium.” In further defining the soul, Calvin includes the phantasia or imagination, “which distinguishes between the objects brought into the sensorium.” Then there is reason or the judging power, and the intellect which contemplates the products of discursive reason. These are the three cognitive faculties. The three appetitive faculties are irascibility, concupiscence, and, of course, the will.

Discussion of the intellectual faculties always contains some variance amongst theologians—for this reason, Calvin says he is unwilling to quarrel over the issue—but the scope and vocabulary of Calvin is standard fare, albeit he is insistent that when engaging such speculation, the two states of lapsarian man cannot be confounded. The larger point is simply to recognize and affirm the operation and relation of the intellect and will. Other theologians were more comfortable waxing eloquent on the topic than Calvin, and this illustrates the point: even Calvin in his pastoral manual is willing to, and sees the necessity of, engaging these things, and he did, in fact, treat them in more detail elsewhere (see Calvin’s Treatise Against Pighius now republished as Bondage and Liberation of the Will).

As Craig Carter as pointed out, there is an assumed metaphysic in Scripture that dictates interpretation and theological-doctrinal construction. Scripture does not lay out in detail, for instance, the nature and metaphysical makeup of a mountain but it nevertheless invokes mountains to communicate higher truths. Knowledge of the thing itself is assumed. Now, the nature of a terrain and geography is not as essential or pressing as that of humans. But the interpretive principle stands, and it is perfectly valid to reason from the nature of man to certain theological conclusions as Calvin and a host of other theologians have. I say again, but now in a different context, let’s be adults about this. In a certain sense, all theology is speculative. Deal with the truth of the matter. An inordinate, ahistorical bifurcation of the two modes of revelation aids and abets our critics, to be sure. That is a different, perhaps deeper, contributory problem for another time.

Image credit: Reformers in conference: John Calvin presiding at the Council of Geneva in the year 1549 – Reformcular konferansta: John Calvin 1549’da Cenevre Konseyinde.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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