Augustine and Calvin on the Language of Corruption and Incorruption

Mortality, which in general, is the state of being susceptible, or of being subject to death, should be defined precisely, clearly, and unequivocally, if we are to speak on the subject. Not doing so will result in confusion, dissatisfaction, and eventually, error. This also requires us to speak to what this state presupposes, in order to be meaningful, or intelligible. Death, likewise, must be clearly, precisely, and unequivocally defined should we wish to deal with it.

“Now every fault injures the nature, and is consequently contrary to the nature. The creature, therefore, which cleaves to God, differs from those who do not, not by nature, but by fault; and yet by this very fault the nature itself is proved to be very noble and admirable. For that nature is certainly praised, the fault of which is justly blamed. For we justly blame the fault because it mars the praiseworthy nature. As, then, when we say that blindness is a defect of the eyes, we prove that sight belongs to the nature of the eyes; and when we say that deafness is a defect of the ears, hearing is thereby proved to belong to their nature;—so, when we say that it is a fault of the angelic creature that it does not cleave to God, we hereby most plainly declare that it pertained to its nature to cleave to God. And who can worthily conceive or express how great a glory that is, to cleave to God, so as to live to Him, to draw wisdom from Him, to delight in Him, and to enjoy this so great good, without death, error, or grief? And thus, since every vice is an injury of the nature, that very vice of the wicked angels, their departure from God, is sufficient proof that God created their nature so good, that it is an injury to it not to be with God.”[1]

As should be obvious to the Christian, sin is not something natural. Sin is a fault, a lack, a deprivation, or a corruption of that which is suitable, or fit, or perfect. As the LBCF states, “After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, rendering them fit unto that life to God for which they were created; being made after the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness…”[2] “Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honour…”[3] “Our first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.”[4] When we speak of sin, we are speaking of man as being less than fit for that “life to God”, less than upright, less than perfect, less than righteous, less than communion, and defiled in soul and body. Man is at fault, lacking, deprived, corrupted, defiled in all of these senses.

Man, as a covenant being, was created for life in God. That life in God is not eradicated by the Fall, but is defiled, or corrupted. We are separated from God – not absolutely, for “who can flee from His presence?”, but qualitatively and quantitatively separated “from”, in our depraved natures. As Van Til puts it, “[t]here could be no absolute ethical antithesis to God on the part of Satan and fallen man unless they are self-consciously setting their own common notions, derived from the folly of sin, against the common notions that are concreated with them.”[5] Death, as it came through sin, is a corruption of life, not the absence of it. Death presupposes life. You cannot have death apart from life. Death is meaningless apart from it. If not for the blessedness of life in God, death would not have the negative qualities which it possesses – qualities which are lesser, corrupted, defiled copies of their original. If life is in God; if “in Him we live, move, and have our being’; then death has not erased this connection – it has corrupted it. The natural man seeks to erase it, but it is to the image of God that we appeal, when we affirm with Scripture that they know that this cannot be so. As we know, the image of God includes knowledge, holiness, righteousness, and, we hasten to point out, life in God, for which they were created[6]. It is not an accident that Paul reminds the men of Athens that “in Him” they “live, move, and have their being.[7]” They do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.[8]” This image, through sin, is marred, defaced, and corrupted[9]. It is not the case that it is eradicated – in fact, Calvin argues that “no man can survey himself without his forthwith thought turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves.”[10] This image of God never leaves humanity; therefore, life in God never leaves humanity, and humanity cannot avoid looking to Him as the source of that life.

Note that in Romans 1, where we receive clear teaching of the universal knowledge of God in man, we also have men counted as culpable for the exchange of the image of the immortal God for that of mortal man and beast[11]. God gave them up to what? Impurity. Dishonor. Shortly thereafter in Chapter 2, we see Paul contrasting the righteous and unrighteous. We have already seen that God gives the unrighteous over into impurity; we now see the fate of the unrighteous, as contrasted with the righteous. Again, we see that while the righteous seek for glory, honor, and immortality; the self-seekers, the disobedient to the truth, those who obey righteousness; for those, there will be wrath and fury. There will be a) tribulation and b) distress for every human being who does evil. Notice: extinction is not in view. Further, note that there is activity in view – God’s activity.

For those things which are known not by their actuality, but by their want of it, are known, if our expression may be allowed and understood, by not knowing them, that by knowing them they may be not known. For when the eyesight surveys objects that strike the sense, it nowhere sees darkness but where it begins not to see. And so no other sense but the ear can perceive silence, and yet it is only perceived by not hearing. Thus, too, our mind perceives intelligible forms by understanding them; but when they are deficient, it knows them by not knowing them; for “who can understand defects?”[12]

Note: Augustine’s use of “less of being” in the portion of the passage not cited is, perhaps, being used in the qualitative, not the quantitative sense. To be imperfect is to be less than perfect – and the lack is what we are concerned with. However, this is not a “created” lack, as in Aquinas/Romanist theology – this is an abnormal lack. A lack due to the curse instituted after the Fall. It is deficient, not sufficient, as he says. What is in view here is the nature of evil – it is a lack, a deficiency. Not in and of itself, but a lack which presupposes that which is not lacking. As only the ear can “hear” silence, and thus make silence intelligible, silence presupposes sound. It is, in a sense, known by not being known.

For that is more grievous still, and, indeed, of all evils the worst, since it consists not in the separation of soul and body, but in the uniting of both in death eternal. And there, in striking contrast to our present conditions, men will not be before or after death, but always in death; and thus never living, never dead, but endlessly dying. And never can a man be more disastrously in death than when death itself shall be deathless.[13]

This is one of the more interesting chapters in City of God. He notes that we must speak carefully here, back in Chapter 2, when speaking of death, and he is correct. That does not mean that we must not speak of it. It means that we must speak with caution and precision on the subject. There is the differentiation made between the nature of the first and second death, the consequences of separation from God, and that which follows from it. But, however, note what he says about what is the most grievous; the union of corrupted soul and body in eternal death. It will be a ceaseless state, as well as a ceaseless event – the continual, unending death. Most disastrously, indeed. There is a reason that Augustine, as with Calvin, is said to be a master. With them both, as Dr. White says, the “ink still smudges.”

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness; and therefore they took fig-leaves (which were possibly the first that came to hand in their troubled state of mind), and covered their shame; for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where they had none before. They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. For the soul, revelling in its own liberty, and scorning to serve God, was itself deprived of the command it had formerly maintained over the body. And because it had willfully deserted its superior Lord, it no longer held its own inferior servant; neither could it hold the flesh subject, as it would always have been able to do had it remained itself subject to God. Then began the flesh to lust against the Spirit,[14] in which strife we are born, deriving from the first transgression a seed of death, and bearing in our members, and in our vitiated nature, the contest or even victory of the flesh.[15]

Note the intrinsic connection between shame, sin, self-control and abhorrence here pictured. The “freedom” they “revel” in is in truth, a lack of self-control. It is in shame that they have their false freedom, and their will no longer subjects their bodies to them, or the rest of creation, as it ought. It is a revelation of incapacity; of a lack of control over what was originally controlled. The false image of freedom is their shame, and that corruption is shown to be utterly pervasive.

For God, the author of natures, not of vices, created man upright; but man, being of his own will corrupted, and justly condemned, begot corrupted and condemned children. For we all were in that one man, since we all were that one man, who fell into sin by the woman who was made from him before the sin. For not yet was the particular form created and distributed to us, in which we as individuals were to live, but already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated; and this being vitiated by sin, and bound by the chain of death, and justly condemned, man could not be born of man in any other state. And thus, from the bad use of free will, there originated the whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin, as from a corrupt root, on to the destruction of the second death, which has no end, those only being excepted who are freed by the grace of God.[16]

We, as fallen humanity, are in bondage. We are slaves to corruption, and to the father of corruption. It binds us, holds us down, and condemns us in accordance with that noxious root.

When reflecting on what God gave us at our creation, and still continues graciously to give, we perceive how great the excellence of our nature would have been had its integrity remained, and, at the same time, remember that we have nothing of our own, but depend entirely on God, from whom we hold at pleasure whatever he has seen it meet to bestow; secondly, When viewing our miserable condition since Adam’s fall, all confidence and boasting are overthrown, we blush for shame, and feel truly humble. For as God at first formed us in his own image, that he might elevate our minds to the pursuit of virtue, and the contemplation of eternal life, so to prevent us from heartlessly burying those noble qualities which distinguish us from the lower animals, it is of importance to know that we were endued with reason and intelligence, in order that we might cultivate a holy and honourable life, and regard a blessed immortality as our destined aim. At the same time, it is impossible to think of our primeval dignity without being immediately reminded of the sad spectacle of our ignominy and corruption, ever since we fell from our original in the person of our first parent. In this way, we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, and become truly humble, while we are inflamed with new desires to seek after God, in whom each may regain those good qualities of which all are found to be utterly destitute.[17]

The restoration from this corruption is what we look forward to; the confirmation of it is what the unbeliever has to look forward to. The redemption of His people consists of the recreation, the inflammation of the image of God in them; it is the remaking of us in His image once more. That is our end, and thus, our aim. The corruption of this noble state is the primal aspect of the horror and shame of the Fall.

The commencement of this depravity will not be found until we ascend to the first parent of all as the fountain head. We must, therefore, hold it for certain, that, in regard to human nature, Adam was not merely a progenitor, but, as it were, a root, and that, accordingly, by his corruption, the whole human race was deservedly vitiated. This is plain from the contrast which the Apostle draws between Adam and Christ, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned; even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom. 5:19–21). To what quibble will the Pelagians here recur? That the sin of Adam was propagated by imitation! Is the righteousness of Christ then available to us only in so far as it is an example held forth for our imitation? Can any man tolerate such blasphemy? But if, out of all controversy, the righteousness of Christ, and thereby life, is ours by communication, it follows that both of these were lost in Adam that they might be recovered in Christ, whereas sin and death were brought in by Adam, that they might be abolished in Christ. There is no obscurity in the words, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Accordingly, the relation subsisting between the two is this, As Adam, by his ruin, involved and ruined us, so Christ, by his grace, restored us to salvation. In this clear light of truth I cannot see any need of a longer or more laborious proof. Thus, too, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, when Paul would confirm believers in the confident hope of the resurrection, he shows that the life is recovered in Christ which was lost in Adam (1 Cor. 15:22). Having already declared that all died in Adam, he now also openly testifies, that all are imbued with the taint of sin. Condemnation, indeed, could not reach those who are altogether free from blame. But his meaning cannot be made clearer than from the other member of the sentence, in which he shows that the hope of life is restored in Christ.[18]

The corruption of the old man is by communication; so is the life of the new man by communication. The ruin in Adam is restored in the work of Christ. Condemnation is the judicial confirmation of that corruption and ruin, while by imputation, the work of Christ restores us to union from our former ruin. The taint is removed in the believer while it is confirmed, and reprobated in the unbeliever. They are left to their dishonor, shame, abhorrence, and corruption, eternally.

  1. [1]Augustine, City of God, Book XXII, Chap. 1
  2. [2]LBCF Ch. 4.2
  3. [3]Ibid., Ch. 6.1
  4. [4]Ibid., Ch. 6.2
  5. [5]Van Til, Defense of the Faith (4th Ed.), 190
  6. [6]LBCF 4.2
  7. [7]Acts 17:28
  8. [8]Deu 8:3, Mat 4:4
  9. [9]LBCF 6.2-5
  10. [10]Calvin, Institutes, 1.1
  11. [11]
  12. [12]Augustine, City of God, Book XXII, Chap. 7
  13. [13]Augustine, City of God, Bk. XXIII, Chap. 11
  14. [14]Galatians 5:17
  15. [15]Augustine, City of God, Bk. XXIII, Chap. 13
  16. [16]Augustine, City of God, Bk. XXIII, Chap. 14
  17. [17]Calvin, Institutes, Bk II, Chap 1.1
  18. [18]Calvin, Institutes, Bk II, Chap 1.6

One Comment

How does Scripture describe punishment and death?

[…] these ideas in detail in the near future – but I would in the meantime, refer back to a post made previously which discusses the nature of sin, death, and life. Theology determines apologetic – and this […]

Leave a Comment