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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Two Gregorys and John Calvin: Man by Nature, the Fall, the Results, & the Remedy

Over the years I have discussed “Original Sin” with those from an Eastern Orthodox persuasion. Normally they cringe when they find out I’m a conscientious Calvinist. The first is because they misunderstand what we mean by “Total Depravity” (as do many Calvinists, I might add), and then because they assert that “guilt” is not “legal” passed on in Original Sin, just the curse of death.

So here are a few quotations from 2 heroes of the earlier Church (Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus), and then a couple of quotations from John Calvin (all bold italics mine).

“For seeing that man by the commission of the Divine blessing had been elevated to a lofty pre-eminence (for he was appointed king over the earth and all things on it; he was beautiful in his form, being created an image of the archetypal beauty; he was without passion in his nature, for he was an imitation of the unimpassioned; he was full of frankness, delighting in a face-to-face manifestation of the personal Deity),—all this was to the adversary the fuel to his passion of envy. Yet could he not by any exercise of strength or dint of force accomplish his purpose, for the strength of God’s blessing over-mastered his own force. His plan, therefore, is to withdraw man from this enabling strength, that thus he may be easily captured by him and open to his treachery. As in a lamp when the flame has caught the wick and a person is unable to blow it out, he mixes water with the oil and by this devices will dull the flame, in the same way the enemy, by craftily mixing up badness in man’s will, has produced a kind of extinguishment and dulness in the blessing, on the failure of which that which is opposed necessarily enters. For to life is opposed death, to strength weakness, to blessing curse, to frankness shame, and to all that is good whatever can be conceived as opposite. Thus it is that humanity is in its present evil condition, since that beginning introduced the occasions for such an ending” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, Chpt 6).

The above statement sounds so close to Calvin it makes one take a second look. There’s the extent of defilement and corruption (which is what we mean by Total Depravity), along with the bondage of the human will since the Fall of Adam and Eve.

Now since by a motion of our self-will we contracted a fellowship with evil, and, owing to some sensual gratification, mixed up this evil with our nature like some deleterious ingredient spoiling the taste of honey, and so, falling away from that blessedness which is involved in the thought of passionlessness, we have been viciously transformed….” (Ibid., Chpt 8).
Again, the bondage of the will to it’s corruption, to the point that Gregory uses conversion language, “viciously transformed”.

“…since, I say, man was thus conditioned, and in him the changeable element in his nature had slipped aside to the exact contrary, so that this departure from the good introduced in its train every form of evil to match the good (as, for instance, on the defection of life there was brought in the antagonism of death; on the deprivation of light darkness supervened; in the absence of virtue vice arose in its place, and against every form of good might be reckoned a like number of opposite evils), by whom, I ask, was man, fallen by his recklessness into this and the like evil state (for it was not possible for him to retain even his prudence when he had estranged himself from prudence, or to take any wise counsel when he had severed himself from wisdom),—by whom was man to be recalled to the grace of his original state? To whom belonged the restoration of the fallen one, the recovery of the lost, the leading back the wanderer by the hand? To whom else than **entirely** to Him Who is the Lord of his nature? For Him **only** Who at the first had given the life was it possible, or fitting, to recover it when lost. This is what we are taught and learn from the Revelation of the truth, that God in the beginning made man and saved him when he had fallen" (Ibid.).
The surprising set of points here is that Gregory sounds almost Protestant with his repeated emphasis on the inability of fallen man to save and rescue himself, and the singularly graciousness of Christ (does anyone hear “Christ alone” in Gregory’s statement by chance?).

“For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole (Gregory of Nazianzus, To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius, Epistle 101).
The other Gregory also seems to assume the totality of the fall, the whole person is fallen, therefore Jesus Christ our Lord (alone?!) must have assumed *all* of our human nature (with the exception of sin) so as to save us totally. Now wait! I thought I had heard people say Calvin invented this stuff! Hmmmm, I guess Calvin not only knew his Bible but his Church fathers. Sounds to me as if Calvin had embraced the catholic and apostolic tradition right nicely.

“Concerning the will exactly the same kind of reply should be given: it is indeed free by nature, but by corruption it has been made a slave, & it is held back by this bondage until it is set free by the hand of God” (John Calvin, The Bondage & Liberation of the Will, 97).

“The will is as it were the matter, suited & able to receive form; before it is renewed, it is badly formed through natural depravity. But when it is renewed so as to acquire goodness by the Spirit of God, it as it were puts on another form. To will, therefore, is in man’s possession; but for him to will good, he is preceded by God….the will is both repaired & prepared to make what was evil good” (Ibid., 227).

If you were to take Calvin’s name away from these last 2 statements, you would have thought it was one of the Gregorys. Shocking, isn’t it!

Mike the Meddler

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