“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [….] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 19). So writes St. Paul, describing a spiritual battle that is at once baffling as it as immediately recognizable. J. Budziszewski ably describes what makes this battle so baffling:
Strangest of all – because perverse – is that although we agree that it is prudent to pursue the highest good, we often fail to do so. We seem capable of pursuing things that even in our own considered estimate are not worthy of pursuit. Nothing like that is even possible among the animals. In view of the fact that the only way to be attracted to something at all is to see it as somehow good, it is hard to see how it is possible even for us.
And yet, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained to Peter Seewald, it’s a bare fact of history and of human experience. We can see the battle that St. Paul and J. Budzizewski are describing by looking at a history book, or within our own hearts. And it’s a battle that Christianity attributes to the Fall:
The Christian faith holds that the creation has been damaged. Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency towards God, the opposite tendency away from God. In this way man is torn between the original impulse of creation and his own historical inheritance. [….]
This paradox points to a certain inner disturbance in man, so that he can no longer simply be the person he wants to be. I see what is good and approve it, said Ovid, a Roman poet, and then still do the other thing. And Paul, in the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans, insisted likewise: The good that I wish to do, I do not do; and the evil that I do not wish to do, that is what I do. In Paul’s case, this gives rise to the cry: Who will release me from this inner contradiction? And that is the point at which Paul truly understood Christ – and the point from which he then carried Christ, as the answer that releases us, out into the contemporary pagan world.
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. St.
John divides these worldly desires into three categories, “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). That temptation trying to convince you that if you just slept with so-and-so, or had a little more money, or were praised a little more, then you’d be happy… that’s concupiscence. What’s most striking (and frustrating!) about this is that these temptations continue, at least occasionally, even amongst those who know Jesus Christ. We know better, and still find ourselves tempted to what we know won’t really satisfy us.
Some Christian heresies, like Pelagianism and Modernism, have gone awry by failing to take concupiscence seriously. They tended (and tend) to treat man as basically undamaged, and advance a theology as dangerous as it is naïve. 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). Both of these errors are found in John Calvin’s theology, and explain how Calvin can fall into the basic Christological heresy of denying Christ’s sinlessness.
I. The Severity of Concupiscence: Infirmity? Or Sin?
The first point at which Calvin diverges from St. Augustine and the other Church Fathers is on this question: is concupiscence sinful? If you have a momentary lustful or hateful or greedy thought that you immediately reject, have you committed any sin?
For Augustine, and for an unbroken chain of Christian theologians from the early Church to the present, the answer is no. For an act to be sinful, it needs to be voluntary, since sin is on the level of the will. An act can be a bad act without being sinful: for example, a shark eating a man, or a tsunami destroying a village, or pretty much anything that a cat does for fun. For these acts to be sinful, you would need a will that is choosing evil, or failing to choose good. That’s not present in the case of a tsunami, or a cat, or a person experiencing involuntary temptation.
A clear, real-life example proves this point. The only difference between fornicating (which is sinful) and being raped (which isn’t) is on the level of the will. The exact same physical actions might be occurring in each case, but in one case, the person isn’t choosing it, and thus, isn’t morally accountable for it. Augustine recognized this, and discusses it in Book I of City of God. The Romans had raped “not only wives and unmarried maidens, but even consecrated virgins,” and the question arose whether the victims were guilty of some sin. Augustine defends the violated women by laying out the clear moral principle that you can’t sin without some assent of the will:
Let this, therefore, in the first place, be laid down as an unassailable position, that the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will; and that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin. But as not only pain may be inflicted, but lust gratified on the body of another, whenever anything of this latter kind takes place, shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed—shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will.
So even if the women experienced some physical pleasure during their rape, they’re not guilty of any sin, since it was unavoidable. Augustine continues:
But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be perilled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, sanctifies even the body, and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved, because the will to use it holily remains, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also. […]
And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact.
The same moral principles are at play in both sets of cases. A man can “control only the consent and refusal of his will,” and so he’s not morally responsible for the temptations that he rejects, whether they be from a seducer, or from the Tempter, or from his own concupiscence.
Contrast this with Calvin’s view. In Book IV, Chapter 4 of Institutes of the Christian Religion, he praises Augustine for perfectly summarizing the ancient Christian tradition on concupiscence, and then admits that he and other Reformed Protestants reject Augustine’s apparent view, that concupiscence is an infirmity rather than a sin)
It is unnecessary to spend much time in investigating the sentiments of ancient writers. Augustine alone may suffice, as he has collected all their opinions with great care and fidelity. Any reader who is desirous to know the sense of antiquity may obtain it from him. There is this difference apparently between him and us, that while he admits that believers, so long as they are in the body, are so liable to concupiscence that they cannot but feel it, he does not venture to give this disease the name of sin. He is contented with giving it the name of infirmity, and says, that it only becomes sin when either external act or consent is added to conception or apprehension; that is, when the will yields to the first desire. 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.
So that’s the first distinction: for Augustine, sin requires an act or omission of the will. Being tempted isn’t a sin, since you’re not choosing it. Now, if you’re putting yourself into a position to be tempted, or you’re indulging in sinful thoughts, then your will is involved: you’re choosing to be tempted in that case, and that’s sinful. But otherwise – if it’s something outside of your control – it’s not sinful. For Calvin, on the other hand, merely being tempted to sin is a sin. After all, any temptation to sin is, by definition, the influence of a desire contrary to the law of God.
There are three major problems with this view. First, it seems to render spiritual combat futile. What’s the point in resisting temptation, if by being tempted you’re already guilty? This point applies all the more if, like many Protestants, you believe that all sins are equally wicked in God’s eyes. Whether you say yes or no to the particular sin to which you’re being tempted, you’re already automatically guilty of an equally-bad sin.
The second problem is that it contradicts what Scripture teaches. In several places, the Bible is clear that temptation isn’t itself a sin. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, we hear
Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Being given the grace to endure temptation is only a good thing if temptation isn’t a sin. If temptation is already sinful, then God’s relief comes too late. Likewise, James 1:12-15 explicitly distinguishes concupiscence from sin:
Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
Here again, if the man enduring trial is sinning by being tempted, he’s hardly “blessed.” And it’s impossible to withstand the test, if you lose by being tested. In describing how concupiscence leads to sin, and sin leads to death, James is expressly showing that concupiscence isn’t itself sinful. Calvin’s contemporaries pointed this out to him, to which he responded:
But this is easily refuted: for unless we understand him as speaking only of wicked works or actual sins, even a wicked inclination will not be accounted sin. But from his calling crimes and wicked deeds the fruits of lust, and also giving them the name of sins, it does not follow that the lust itself is not an evil, and in the sight of God deserving of condemnation.
Despite Calvin’s protestations, there’s no reason that James’ threefold analysis doesn’t apply to wicked inclinations, as well. Some unholy thought comes to mind: that’s concupiscence. You choose to indulge it, rather than turn from it: that’s sin. Your eventual separation from God and man: that’s death. Treating concupiscence as non-sinful doesn’t mean that lust isn’t a sin. Calvin just isn’t making the important distinction between a voluntary and involuntary temptation.
II. Fallen Man: Stained? Or Pure Sin?
The second point upon which Calvin diverges is on the pervasiveness of concupiscence, and the severity of its effects. In technical terms, Calvin treats concupiscence and sin are essential to man, as part of what it is to be man (or even more, as exactly what it is to be man). That’s a break from the pre-Reformation understanding of sin as accidental (in the Aristotelian sense).
Let’s look at Calvin’s view first. 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, and we’re nothing more than our concupiscence:
Hence, even infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb, suffer not for another’s, but for their own defect. For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God. Hence it follows, that it is properly deemed sinful in the sight of God; for there could be no condemnation without guilt. Next comes the other point–viz. that this perversity in us never ceases, but constantly produces new fruits, in other words, those works of the flesh which we formerly described; just as a lighted furnace sends forth sparks and flames, or a fountain without ceasing pours out water. Hence, those who have defined original sin as the want of the original righteousness which we ought to have had, though they substantially comprehend the whole case, do not significantly enough express its power and energy. For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle. Those who term it concupiscence use a word not very inappropriate, provided it were added (this, however, many will by no means concede), that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence.
Calvin acknowledges that this equation of man with concupiscence is a point that “many will by no means concede,” and it’s because he’s again broken from Christian tradition in a heretical way. This point reverberates throughout many Catholic-Protestant questions. If man is stained by sin, it makes sense to speak of Christ cleansing him, as Catholics do; but if man is utterly corrupted by sin, if there’s no underlying good to recover, Christ must instead cover over the sinful man.
On the Catholic side of the question is a powerful reality, the Incarnation. As Fr. Robert Barron explains,
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. […] The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated.
And it’s this reality, the Incarnation, that gets us squarely to the problem with both of these Calvinist views.
III. The Incarnation and Temptation of Christ
If Calvin is right that man is concupiscence, and concupiscence is sin, then we’ve got a problem with the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, Christ becomes man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). So Christ can’t be a sinless man, since that would mean He was a sinless sin, a nonsensical paradox.
All of this comes to the fore in those moments in which we hear that Christ was tempted. For example, Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And the Book of Hebrews presents Christ’s temptations as critical for helping us when we’re tempted (Heb. 2:17-18):
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Or consider Hebrews 4:14-16:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
For Calvin, this claim is doubly nonsense. First, the idea that Christ could be tempted without sinning is impossible, since temptation is sin (recall that he claims it’s to be regarded “as sin whenever man is influenced in any degree by any desire contrary to the law of God”). Second, if Christ is like us in all things but sin, and we’re only sin, then Christ shares no common nature with us. He’s like us in all things but everything. Christ can either be human or sinless, but He can’t be both.
Given this, perhaps it isn’t surprising that Calvin treats Christ as having erred in the Garden of Gethsemane. You can find this in his commentary on the Synoptics. In fairness to Calvin, he tries to distinguish between Christ’s Passions and ours, claiming that His were sinless and ours are always sinful:
Certainly those who imagine that the Son of God was exempt from human passions do not truly and sincerely acknowledge him to be a man. [….] Still the weakness which Christ took upon himself must be distinguished from ours, for there is a great difference. In us there is no affection unaccompanied by sin, because they all exceed due bounds and proper restraint; but when Christ was distressed by grief and fear, he did not rise against God, but continued to be regulated by the true rule of moderation. We need not wonder that, since he was innocent, and pure from every stain, the affections which flowed from him were pure and stainless; but that nothing proceeds from the corrupt nature of men which is not impure and filthy. Let us, therefore, attend to this distinction, that Christ, amidst fear and sadness, was weak without any taint of sin; but that all our affections are sinful, because they rise to an extravagant height.
And yet, when he tries to explain Christ’s prayer 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 answer, There would be no absurdity in supposing that Christ, agreeably to the custom of the godly, leaving out of view the divine purpose, committed to the bosom of the Father his desire which troubled him. For believers, in pouring out their prayers, do not always ascend to the contemplation of the secrets of God, or deliberately inquire what is possible to be done, but are sometimes carried away hastily by the earnestness of their wishes. Thus Moses prays that he may be blotted out of the book of life, (Exodus 32:33) thus Paul wished to be made an anathema (Romans 9:3). This, therefore, was not a premeditated prayer of Christ; but the strength and violence of grief suddenly drew this word from his mouth, to which he immediately added a correction. The same vehemence of desire took away from him the immediate recollection of the heavenly decree, so that he did not at that moment reflect, that it was on this condition, that he was sent to be the Redeemer of mankind; as distressing anxiety often brings darkness over our eyes, so that we do not at once remember the whole state of the matter.
So in Calvin’s reading, Christ briefly forgot that He was sent to be the Redeemer of mankind, and so He prayed a pray that 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.”
But the idea that the Son could ever leave a state of obedience, be it briefly or for an extended period of time, is a Christological heresy. The idea that He needed correction and Divine rebuke, whether from Himself or from His Father, is heretical. Calvin’s words here simply can’t be harmonized with Christ being perfect God and perfect Man. Calvin attempts to reconcile his professed belief in Christ’s sinlessness with this exegesis:
But the question has not yet been fully answered: for since we have just now said that all the feelings of Christ were properly regulated, how does he now correct himself? For he brings his feelings into obedience to God in such a manner as if he had exceeded what was proper. Certainly in the first prayer we do not perceive that calm moderation which I have described; for, as far as lies in his power, he refuses and shrinks from discharging the office of Mediator. I reply: 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.
In other words, Calvin acknowledges that his two claims — that Christ’s prayer was rash, and that it was made in momentary ignorance of His role as Mediator — would certainly seem to contradict His sinlessness, and (in the case of the second one) be impossible. He just waves away the first problem by saying it wasn’t a sin, and waves away the second problem by saying he doesn’t want to enter into “any subtle controversy” over whether his theory is even possible or not. In other words, Calvin has painted a picture of Christ sinning, while he hastens to add the equivalent of “but it’s not a sin, because Christ is doing it.”
I’ll add that it’s also poor exegesis to think that these words just slipped from the mouth of Christ: as there were no Apostles awake and present at this moment, our record of this must come from Christ Himself. If Calvin’s account were right, why wouldn’t Christ simply skip over the time He made a mistake? Why preserve it in Scripture? But of course, the problem is more severe than that. This isn’t just bad Christology, it’s heretical Christology. Jesus Christ can’t momentarily forget that He’s our Redeemer, or temporarily refuse to discharge His office of Mediator, or say or do something that requires correction, or act in such a way that He needs to be brought back into obedience.
IV. Calvin? Or Calvinism?
My point here isn’t that Calvin was a bad exegete or a heretic. Whatever good or bad may be said of the man, it’s too late to do anything about his eternal destination. Instead, the bigger question is: did Calvin functionally deny Christ’s sinlessness despite his Reformed theology, or because of it? Here, it seems to be the latter. His heretical conclusions seem to flow logically from certain Reformed premises.
That is, if you view sin as an inherent part of what it is to be man, then Christ can’t be both sinless and man, any more than He can be a four-sided triangle. You’ll always end up minimizing or destroying His sinlessness, His humanity, or both. Likewise, if you claim that actual sin isn’t dependent upon the will, and that mere temptation to sin is itself sinful, then it’s hard to see how you can admit that Christ was tempted without also concluding that He sinned.
There is a way out. Namely: don’t base your theology on the shaky ground, on the areas that even Calvin acknowledged were controversial, like concupiscence being sinful, or man being only his concupiscence. Instead, start with the solid ground, the radical reality of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully man, and yet without sin. Therefore, man can’t be reduced to his sin, sin can’t be an essential property of man. It can be an accidental property found in every other man besides One, but it can’t be part of what it is to be man. Jesus Christ is tempted, and yet without sin; through His temptations, He serves as an aid for us when we’re tempted. Given this, we can know that temptation of itself isn’t (or at least, isn’t always) sinful. In other words, build on the foundation of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation, rather than on John Calvin and his peculiar views regarding sin and the Fall, and you’ll end up with a stronger and more orthodox Christology.