Christians often talk about the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ, but for many who do not completely grasp the basic principles of human nature, the nature of this transformation may seem a complete mystery. And, when the inner struggles of faith are met with the ignorance of these basic principles – or if one’s knowledge of what a “nature” is, what a human being is, and how its soul works is not fully formed – theological confusion likely results. This sort of confusion of natural principles is usually experienced as a crisis of faith. We may be led to believe, for example, that something naturally good within us is in fact causing doubt to arise within us. Do we know how to distinguish between natural desire and evil desire? Does the transformation that Christ brings about within the believer happen immediately? Does sin undo the transformation, leaving us with the sole obligation to repair the damage done? Or, does regeneration infallibly redeem us, so that we are freed from being overly concerned with living a morally upright life?
Reformed theologians of the past understood the potential damage that ignorance of basic natural principles could do, not only to the individual believer but to the structure of the church itself. Philip Melanchthon, for example, argued repeatedly throughout his life that if the church did not have the liberal arts it would be in dire straits, because God’s grace presupposes the natural world that he created. When the natural world – including the human person – is destroyed or neglected, the grace of God that comes through those ordinary means will also be neglected. To be sure, the Gospel will never return void, and God’s will is never thwarted by human ignorance, but miracles are rare, and a miracle is what it would take to rejuvenate a church or a society that has lost the skill of thinking and acting rightly and consistently, skills that are planted, formed, and nourished by the liberal arts.
Bartholomäus Keckermann, the 17th century Reformed theologian, polymath, teacher and philosopher from Danzig, Germany brings the full brunt of the liberal arts to bear for the craft of writing and speaking about theology. In the passage below Keckermann speaks to the nature of the human soul in order to explain the nature of the regeneration of the soul. He attempts to clarify what Paul refers to as the inner struggle between the “flesh” and the “spirit.” In doing so, Keckermann explains that the regeneration of the soul does not end as soon as it begins. Rather, the powers that regeneration restores in the soul are restored gradually. Keckermann refers to the renewed powers of the regenerate soul as “spiritual wisdom” and “spiritual prudence.” These virtues that come about through the power of regeneration are the sort of virtues that require experience, time, patience, and struggle in order to come to complete fruition. So, looking to the way in which the soul naturally comes to completion – that is to say, through struggles with desire as well as intellect – Keckermann finds the words to clarify the nature of the internal battle of the Christian person.
The following is my translation of Keckermann’s rules regarding the “Restoration of the Image of God in Man” found in his Systema S.S. Theologiæ. 1
1, Two opposites ever remain within us in this life: an inclination to evil by nature, & a disposition to good by the Holy Spirit.
2, Because the opposites fight with one another, it is necessary for there to be within us a perpetual resistance and wrestling match, yet [one] in which we are the winners in the end.[…] 3
3, Regeneration has its own power in the Christian man, which is of such a nature that sometimes it increases, at other times it decreases, sometimes it is greater, at other times lesser; it is at once more intense, and at once again more remiss, until at last, near the end of his life, it keeps up at a constant pace.
The subject of regeneration should first be observed, then the effect.
The subject of regeneration is the justified man, who is regenerated first according to the intellect, then the will, & finally the affections.
Regeneration according to the intellect is that in which the illumination of the mind – consisting in the fullness, rightness, clearness, & orderliness of thought – is put in the place of the ignorance of depravity & of a deformed disposition, which has been gradually abolished, and so it sets down two habits: spiritual wisdom & prudence.
Spiritual wisdom is a habit through which the justified man day by day more fully and clearly understands and knows the things that pertain to salvation, in such a way that he is able also to more firmly and clearly teach others about the mysteries of faith & salvation.
This habit differs from justifying faith because faith is a virtue mixed from knowledge [notitia] and affection, or trust [fiducia]. Spiritual wisdom, however, only pertains to knowledge & intellect, in view of the fact that faith primarily looks only at the promise of grace. Spiritual wisdom, moreover, is extended more widely to everything that is revealed in the word of God & so is for the sake of meditating on & declaring the very word of God itself. The Apostle also speaks about this wisdom in Ephesians 1:17 & 18.
Spiritual prudence is a habit by which the regenerate man is fitted to the practice of spiritual things, with the result that he also surely accepts the precepts of God with discernment, & at the same time that he studiously chooses & pursues what pertains to eternal salvation, he flees from what is alien to the mandates of God & salvation.
Our savior admonishes his disciples about this prudence in Matt. 10:16: “Be prudent as serpents & simple as doves.”
The regeneration of the will is two-fold: Rectitude and promptitude.
Rectitude is that by which the will of the regenerate man is brought to the good rightly thought by means of an upright [inner] command.
Promptitude is a power and faculty for pursuing & perfecting the good apprehended, & for fleeing from evil. Otherwise it is called “freewill.”
Theologians are accustomed to establishing four levels of freewill. The first was before the fall when man was indeed led to the good & was maintaining his power [facultas] of perfecting as well, so that he was also able to turn aside from the present enticements to evil. Secondly, after the fall, before regeneration, when he only held himself passively with regard to particular good, so that he did not have any power [facultatem] for desiring and perfecting it. Thirdly, after the fall and together with regeneration, when the justified man desires a particular good & at the same time has the power, given by the Holy Spirit, for perfecting it, yet the more sluggish & debilitated [powers] are still conjoined with resistance & struggle. Fourthly, will be in eternity, certainly most pure & perfect, when man is able to do nothing other than desire the good, not even will he sense in himself any inclination to evil.
The regeneration of the affections or sensitive appetite is considered in itself first with respect to desire [cupiditatum], then with respect to the affections.
Regeneration with respect to desire is, that by which the justified man, in desiring food & other things pertaining to desire [ἐπιθυμίαν], maintains conformity to right reason & the law of God.
Regeneration of the affections is that by which the justified man commands joy, sadness, anger, & other affections of this sort by the judgment of right reason & the government of the divine law, in such a way that they stand still salubriously in the mean between excess and defect, which in this life happens with great resistance and battle.
So much with respect to regeneration, only its effects remain, which are good works, producing actions and works, no doubt, from a regenerate intellect, will, and appetite. 4
Eric Parker is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, where he is writing his dissertation on the Cambridge Platonist, Peter Sterry. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children.
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