Towards a Reformed Anthropology

I meant to include this in my post on Answering the Anchorites, but time prevented it.  Often one hears that the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” (TD) is completely alien to the early church.  What do we make of this?   Part of the confusion rests on what TD really is.  When we say TD we are not implying that we see the face of Stalin in our newborn child.  We are not implying that man is utterly sinful.  The original phrase had the word radix in it, implying that sin touches the root of our actions.  This is the most important post I have ever written.

Some Propeudatic Points

Some points to consider (taken from Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms):

  1. Thus sin is not a substance, but a stain (macula) or a fault (reatus) [137]
  2. Will is distinct from intellect (intellectus) [330].  The intellect is that which knows objects, and the will is that which has a desire for them.  Will and intellect are the two highest spiritual powers.  The question immediately arises as to which of these faculties stands prior to the other.  The Protestant Orthodox frequently state the problem of priority without really solving it (but also avoiding Thomist and Scotist difficulties, though I personally lean towards the Thomist reading).  The Reformed acknowledge the relationship between intellect and will and focus on the problem of fallen man.
  3. Will, defined as the appetitive faculty of man, must also be distinguished from choice.  Will is the faculty that chooses.  Arbitrium (choice) is the capacity of will to make a choice or decision.  Thus, the will can be described, even post-fall, as “free” and unconstrained but nonetheless limited by its own capacity to choose particular things.
  4. Charles Hodge, in glossing original sin and nature, writes, “Although original sin corrupts our whole nature, yet the essence or susbstance of the soul is one thing, and original sin another…Original sin is said to be an accidens quod non per se subsistit, sed in aliqua substantia est, et ab ea discerni potest (II: 229, 230)
  5. We deny any “gift” or superadded qualities to man in his original state, purus naturalibus (Turretin I: 463).  It is called this pure nature state by a negative, not positive purity.
  6. The pure nature has a relation of negation, the fallen a relation of privation (Turretin, Ibid).
  7. We say “pure nature” to deny superadded gifts, not to suggest man was created completely neutral, for he was created in the image of God.

Rome and the Superadditum

Rome, pace Bellarmine (“De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29, quoted in Turretin, I:471), viewed in natural man a contest between flesh and spirit, and God’s superadded gift is like a “golden bridle” to reign in the flesh. Endnote 1.   By contrast, Turretin notes that if original righteousness were an added gift, then man’s nature would have been inherently lacking.  Rome places concupiscence before the fall; Protestants place it after the fall.  At this point Rome cannot escape the age-old stereotype that matter is “not quite bad.”  If concupiscence is natural to man’s created state before the fall, then ultimately man’s problem isn’t sin but finitude. (Endnote 2)  The inevitable conclusion is that God made man’s very matter one of disorder (472).   Protestants do believe in concupiscence, though.   We see it as an inclination to sin after the fall. Still, we reject a positive principal of sin in the human nature.   This rejection, plain and simple, precludes any possibility of a so-called Manicheanism.

The Image of God and Human Nature

One of the stronger arguments that anchorites use is that if the Reformed deny a superadditum of God’s image to man’s original nature, but rather place the image of God in man’s nature, then any fall in the garden has to result in either a loss of God’s image or a positive principal of sin in that image, thus the imago satanis of the extreme Lutheran Flacius Illyricus.  (It is true, pace Pelikan, that Luther hinted at such a doctrine and some early Lutherans did espouse it.  They were rebutted by Melanchton and their doctrine was never formally accepted, Pelikan, 145). This is not what the Reformed state, though.  We make several distinctions (which in my reading I never see acknowledged).   Drake notes,

The essential attributes to man’s nature is his rational faculty not his morality. Charles Hodge said,

“While, therefore, the Scriptures make the original moral perfection of man the most prominent element of that likeness to God in which he was created, it is no less true that they recognize man as a child of God in virtue of his rational nature. He is the image of God, and bears and reflects the divine likeness among the inhabitants of the earth, because he is a spirit, an intelligent, voluntary agent; and as such he is rightfully invested with universal dominion. This is what the Reformed theologians were accustomed to call the essential image of God, as distinguished from the accidental. The one consisting in the very nature of the soul, the other in its accidental endowments, that is, such as might be lost without the loss of humanity itself.Systematic Theology Vol 2 pg. 99

Towards a Reformed Psychology

The problem with the term “psychology” is that it has a nasty secular baggage today.  Even on a more neutral reading in theology, few people are willing to spend time on it.  Admittedly, talking about grace is much more exciting. But a faulty psychology, or lacking the tools to defend the Reformed view, will leave one open to a number of potentially penetrating criticisms.  When Jay Dyer and the dreadlords (that is a reference to Robert Jordan; it was a joke, please do not read it in a pejorative manner) began to attack Reformed theology, they didn’t so much focus on predestination and soteriology, but constructed a string of reductios based on a perceived faulty anthropology.  Reformed apologists by and larger were unable to resist the onslaught.  I speak as a survivor.  It is imperative, therefore, to construct a Reformed Psychology, without which a Reformed Anthropology fails, using the best of Protestant Scholasticism and seeking roots in its medieval heritage.

Man’s soul can be divided into two parts (rhetorically speaking, not actually, since the soul is simple): will and intellect.  It is debatable which has priority, as noted above.

A Federal Ontology

Pop apologists often accuse the Reformed of being philosophical nominalists, believing that the forms of things are simply names.   This argument is used to set the stage for the claim that Reformed theology leads to secularism.   The truth, however, is much more complex.   There are both realist and nominalist elements in Reformed theology for good reason: a hard core realism is silly and a hard core nominalism is equally false.  Both, however, can make good, subordinate claims which need to be taken seriously.  For example, did the Logos assume the realist form of human nature, or did he assume a human body?

Michael Horton notes that “A covenantal ontology suggests that this [our union and communion with Christ–BH] is more like the relation of a commonwealth and its monarch…than a fusion of essences” (Horton, 202).  The following are key points of a covenantal (or federal) ontology, taken from Horton:

  1. Mediation is not a principle or process, but a person, Jesus (183).  This explicitly denies participationist ontologies, ladders, chain-of-being, etc.
  2. The relationship which God guarantees to his people by means of Covenant is seen in the term echo, “having” (184).
  3. For example, we have “eternal life” (John 5:24), the Spirit of Christ as the deposit of the consummation.
  4. Our union with Christ is by the Spirit and not a fusion of essences.
  5. Eschatology is the locus of a federal ontology.  It is an announcement of the good news from afar off (Isaiah 52:7ff).   Participation (realist?) ontologies, by contrast, struggle with the concept of good news. Horton writes, “It is unclear how the gospel as good news would figure into his [John Milbank, but also any Dionysian construction–BH] account of redemption, since ‘news’ implies an extrinsic annoucnement of something new, something that does not simply derive from the nature of things (169).  What he means is that those who who hold to participationist ontologies–chain of being–see a continuum between God and man.  Any saving that happens to man happens within that continuum.   The announcement of good news, by contrast, comes from without.   To borrow Horton’s delightful phrase, a federal ontology is meeting a stranger, whereas a participationist ontology is overcoming estrangement.

The issue of a Federal ontology is important to the relation of Christ, human nature, and sin.  The anchorite will ask, “How can Christ have a real, representative human nature if he never sinned and transgressed the law?   Drake has helpfully answered,

The passages in the scripture which mention the fall of mankind and the imputation of Adam’s sin never mention Eve as playing any kind of federal role, they always mention Adam. All the Reformed authors that I have read teach that if Adam had obeyed God and not given into temptation he would have secured justifying life in the covenant of works and given access to the tree of life (The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20 speaks of the tree of life as a pledge). Therefore, we can infer from this that the curse of the covenant of works/original sin is through the male line, not the female. Therefore, Mary could not have passed a sinful soul under the curse of the covenant of works to Jesus but she did pass a mortal body. Therefore, the curse being both physical and spiritual; the physical aspect concerns mortality, the spiritual aspect concerns original sin. In this case only the physical aspects of the curse fall to Jesus, in that he dies and suffers hunger and pain etc.

I would like to add one more point:  Christ really does represent us because he federally represents us (Romans 5:12-21).  This is not a legal fiction because, among other things, it is a real proposition in the mind of God (so if folks want a realism, there it is).   People may object that such a view is false and is not true justice.   If they accept that, then they need to scrap Romans 5 from their Bibles and stop voting in Western legal political systems, both of which are predicated on a federal ontology.


1. This is why the Protestant Orthodox deny that the Covenant of Works had a grace-principle in it.  If the Covenant of Works had grace in it, the question immediately arises:  why did it have grace in it?  Was it because man’s nature was defective (not fallen, mind you, but naturally weak) that it needed grace to hold it up?  This is another area where the Federal Vision inadvertently ends in at Rome.

2.  This sheds light on the theosis debate: who was the first being in history to say that man’s finitude could be solved?


One important point that I did not deal with is the charge that the Reformed view is Nestorian because the Father “cuts off” the Son.   The question is in what sense did the Father cut off the Son?  Admittedly, recent Reformed theologians have done an inadequate job of addressing this.  If the Son is “cut off” in the sense of natural communion with the Father, then it is Nestorianism.  I don’t see the Reformed as obligated to accept this for a number of reasons:

  1. “cutting off” is covenantal language (Genesis 15, 17, passim)
  2. Scripture explicitly says the Messiah is “cut off” (Isaiah 53:8)
  3. The Reformed ontology, as noted above, is neither realist or nominalist, but Federalist.   The complaints of “cutting off” and Nestorianism come from those with a strong realist tradition.

Works Cited

Bellarmine, “De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29.
Hodge, Charles.  Systematic Theology vol. 2.
Horton, Michael.  Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Sources.  Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Turretin, Francis.  Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.


10 comments on “Towards a Reformed Anthropology

  1. Justin says:

    Part of the confusion rests on what TD really is. When we say TD we are not implying that we see the face of Stalin in our newborn child. We are not implying that man is utterly sinful. The original phrase had the word radix in it, implying that sin touches the root of our actions.

    I agree with you here. A few conversation with RCs I had showed that they thought TD meant that every person was a depraved as possible.

    You quoted Drake re: Mary and Christ. Is Drake saying that Christ did not inherit a sin nature because He did not have a father according to the flesh? Mary did, however. I understand the male/federal line of thinking, but I am not sure that it is sound to say that a woman has a fallen human nature but cannot pass it down. I would like to explore this more. Do you know of any other people beside Drake who address(ed) this?

    Drake has been helpful to me sometimes here and there, but his recent hard turn into the messianic movement is concerning. BTDT, myself. I know this is baby-and-bathwater/poisoned well reasoning, but one has to wonder sometimes. Anyway. I’m not trying to sidetrack your thread.

    Thanks for this post. I may have to re-read it a few times. You’ve given me ponder-fodder for the day. 😀

    Random FWIW- If you’re interested, TBS is offering 25% off their Westminster Reference (AV) through my site. You’ve helped me along quite a bit; hopefully this might be of some benefit to you.

    • I agree with his answer, though I think it is much easier to develop the thought along federalist lines. As to his Messianic stuff, I am not getting into that right here. Every man stands or falls before his own master. I understand some of his issues, but right now I have enough on my plate ala Reformed Scholasticism to keep me interested.

      • Justin says:

        I understand. There’s enough just in Reformed Scholasticism for a lifetime! I think Turretin, Rutherford, and Muller (and Muller is your fault… 😀 ) are going to keep me occupied for quite some time…

        His answer does seem to make sense; I had not thought of things that way before. Like I said, I have learned a lot from reading his stuff, and I am still learning, even as he explores this new direction.

        Thanks for this post.

  2. Andrew says:

    I’ve noticed that many of the recent books attempting a synthesis between evolution and Christianity have argued (ala Irenaeus) for a form of prelapsarian imperfection. Depending on how this is conceptualised I wonder what this could mean for Reformed anthropology. Gunton says some good things about this in Triune Creator, and then there’s Vosian eschatology.

    Also, the other TE view of a hominid pair endowed with the image seems to sit more comfortably with Roman Catholicism and the donum than it does with Reformed anthropology.

    To be clear I’m not advocating either, just thinking through implications.

  3. Trent says:

    Off topic…as my comments usually are but, I see you’ve said this on your blog “While I like N.T. Wright’s reading that Jesus was the end of Israel’s exile, this makes sense only within Israel. As the apostles moved outside the Levant, this message moves to the background.”
    I was wondering if you have others in mind besides Wright that put it into perspective? I think I may have asked a similar question before.

    • broadly speaking, Herman Ridderbos is a good substitute for Wright. Ridderbos’s book on Paul captures what Wright is trying to say, but does so without jettisoning the entire Reformation. Mike Horton’s book *Covenant and Salvation* is also very good.

  4. […] not realizing is that the Reformed (and their Romanist opponents) were both operating off a loosely Thomist-Aristotelian psychology.  The will is the faculty of choosing and it follows the intellect.   The will as such does not […]

  5. […] Response:  We need to first make a distinction about man’s essential qualities and his accidental qualities.  Pace the essential qualities, man does not have a positive principle of sin in him.  Hodge is very clear on this.  Man can take a “blow to his morality” with regard to original sin and yet his essential human qualities remain in tact (e.g., rational creature, etc).   With regard to our identification in Christ, all that the Reformed need to do is demonstrate that Christ has the same essential human nature as we do (rational faculty, etc) and yet identifies with us in terms of federal representation. […]

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