Review: Paul Helm, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards

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Paul Helm Human Nature Calvin Edwards

If all Paul Helm had done were to marshal quotes showing the Reformed commitment to substance dualism, he would have done the church an inestimable service. He has done more. He has analyzed these thinkers as they were in conversation with the oncoming modern ontologies represented by Descartes, Locke, and Hobbes. This book is one of a kind and will repay constant readings. In fact, I think you could teach an entire ethics course from his chapter “Morality and Agency.” A key part of this book (and this review) examines the minor in-print debate between Paul Helm and Richard Muller on whether Jonathan Edwards departed from the Reformed tradition on free agency. I do have some criticisms of Helm that I will offer towards the end, but they do not detract from the value of this book.

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Most Christians agree that body and soul aren’t the same thing. Christian reflection in general, and Reformed in particular, however, went a step further. The soul has faculties and powers. This modified Aristotelianism (and only in a modified form) allowed post-Reformation theologians to maintain individual responsibility while being faithful to the Scripture’s teachings on man’s fallenness.

Helm begins with a brief survey on the Patristic and medieval periods. By Patristic he means Tertullian and Augustine. I suppose that is inevitable. Other Western fathers don’t have Augustine’s depth of thought and the East had minimal impact. It is strange that Helm doesn’t mention the role of traducianism. It’s also strange that for all their Augustinianism, the Reformed didn’t really hold to traducianism. Of course, for that reason Helm doesn’t have to mention it. Nonetheless, traducianism allows the substance dualist to address challenges from neuroscience in ways that the creationist view of the soul does not.

Thomas Aquinas

The soul informs the body. When the body dies, many of the soul’s powers “hibernate.” While the soul is not the person, in this state it carries the identity of the person until the resurrection (15).

The intellect is “a possessor of collective powers related in incredibly complex ways between itself and the memory, will, and affections” (16). Specific to Thomas’s claim, and a claim the Reformed (and Roman Catholics) would generally maintain until recent times, was that the “soul itself acts via these various powers” (20).

Free Will Controversy, Part One

In his debate with Pighius, Calvin uses “voluntas” to mean both the Augustinian “heart” and the choice a man makes (34). In order to clear this confusion, Helm focuses on Calvin’s happy phrase that the fall is “adventitious” on human nature, not essential to it.

Body and Soul

Helm breaks new ground in this section. Despite the differences and nuances of the various Platonisms and Aristotelianism of the post-Reformation period, all thinkers to a man held that the soul is not reducible to the body. They would have heartily rejected the Christian physicalism of some thinkers today.

The Faculties and Powers of the Soul

Key idea: “The soul has a range or array of powers which the mind groups as certain activities of the understanding, and others as certain activities of the will” (81).

Flavel: the will is sovereign over the body but not over other faculties of the soul. In regeneration the will does not disturb conversion but is also changed by divine power (87).

Free Will Controversy, Part Two

Man’s free will is indexed to different states of man (e.g., fourfold state). According to the post-Reformation thinkers, man’s “Freedom” relates to spiritual activity. Man’s liberty relates to the capacities of our faculties.

Faculty Psychology

Powers of the soul are intrinsic to one faculty or another and they may be shared. Habits are acquired by nature or grace (105). As Flavel notes these are properties of faculties, not further faculties. When we die, certain habits are reduced to mere dispositions.

Morality and Agency

Aristotle didn’t have a concept of the conscience. This is a distinctly Jewish or Christian phenomenon. For the Reformed scholastics the conscience is a kind of “second-order reflex, telling us what we know about ourselves.” Further, it “binds” the understanding (112).

Free Will Controversy, Part Three

The fall had a “modal effect” on man, “establishing what it was possible and impossible to do hereafter” (134). We sin because we do not have the sufficient will not to sin. We have a natural liberty that “is essential to the will and all its acts.” Our moral ability to do the good, unfortunately, “is only accidental and separable” (136).

Did Edwards’ use of John Locke change how later Reformed discussed the soul and its faculties? There were some changes along the lines of personal identity, but Edwards himself seemed familiar with the subject and didn’t change too much. He leaned more towards Platonism than hylomorphism, but still remained a substance dualist.

Even Edwards’ distinction on natural and moral ability isn’t that novel. He merely sharpened some observations made by Owen and others. Edwards sees our inability along a spectrum (216). As Helm notes, “A natural ability is ability in its proper sense and the moral abilities are secondary” (217).

There are some changes, though. Scholastic faculties become “powers of the heart.” Does this change anything? Richard Muller seems to think it does. Helm disagrees. I think I side with Helm. It’s not immediately clear, either way.

*Reformation Heritage kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Paul Helm and Faculty Psychology

I was recently given a copy of Paul Helm’s Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards in exchange for an Amazon review.  I plan to have the review up this weekend.  I do want to post the notes and analysis of parts which wouldn’t make it into the review for length reasons.

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Augustine

The Soul comprises three sets of powers (On the Trinity X.11).

  • Memory
  • Understanding
  • Will

Augustine has a complex understanding of will.  Sometimes it means “choice” between alternatives or the power of God in regeneration (Helm 12).

Thomas Aquinas

The soul informs the body.  When the body dies, many of the soul’s powers “hibernate.”  While the soul is not the person, in this state it carries the identity of the person until the resurrection (15).

The intellect is “a possessor of collective powers related in incredibly complex ways between itself and the memory, will, and affections” (16).

Specific to Thomas’s claim, and a claim the Reformed (and Roman Catholics) would generally maintain until recent times, was that the “soul itself acts via these various powers” (20).

The Anthropology of Calvin and Vermigli

The short of it is that Calvin took his cue from Plato, Vermigli from Aristotle.  There might be more to it, though. Calvin probably didn’t even intend that. It seems Calvin wanted a model of the soul that could account for life after death and a division of the capacities (33).

Free Will Controversy, Part One

In his debate with Pighius, Calvin uses “voluntas” to mean both the Augustinian “heart” and the choice a man makes (34).  In order to clear this confusion, Helm focuses on Calvin’s happy phrase that the fall is “adventitious” on human nature, not essential to it.

Body and Soul

Helm breaks new ground in this section.  Despite the differences and nuances of the various Platonisms and Aristotelianism of the post-Reformation period, all thinkers to a man held that the soul is not reducible to the body. They would have heartily rejected the Christian physicalism of some thinkers today.

The Soul as a Whole

  • The soul is nonspatial but nevertheless located in the body.
  • Animals have souls but only vegetative powers.

John Flavel:

  • A substance is a subject with properties.

Key shift: Cartesianism reassigned the various powers of the soul (74).

Voetius:

  • The soul has the power of indefinite self-persistence (76).
  • It is immortal by necessity of the consequence.

The Faculties and Powers of the Soul

Key idea: “The soul has a range or array of powers which the mind groups as certain activities of the understanding, and others as certain activities of the will” (81).

Flavel: the will is sovereign over the body but not over other faculties of the soul.  In regeneration the will does not disturb conversion but is also changed by divine power (87).

Free Will Controversy, Part Two

Man’s free will is indexed to different states of man (e.g., fourfold state).  According to the post-Reformation thinkers, man’s “Freedom” relates to spiritual activity.  Man’s liberty relates to the capacities of our faculties.

Faculty Psychology

Powers of the soul are intrinsic to one faculty or another and they may be shared.  Habits are acquired by nature or grace (105).

 

Paul Helm: Eternal God

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Helm, Paul.  Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time.  New York: Oxford University Press, Second Edition 2010.

Paul Helm is painstakingly thorough in examining the challenges to God’s being outside of time.  Almost too thorough. In any case, this book will likely be remembered as one of the classics in analytic theology.

Flow of the book: If God is outside of time, then a number of challenges and (perceived) difficulties arise.  The traditional view is the Boethian view: all of past, present, and future is present to God. This view is correct in maintaining that God is outside of time. It is open, however, to a number of devastating defeaters.  Helm’s goal is to reformulate the Boethian view in light of these defeaters.

The most challenging section of the book deals with indexicals: I am here at this place at this hour. The problem is that many of these indexicals can’t apply to God’s being timeless.  God can affirm the following proposition?

(1) I know that it is raining today.

The critic says he can’t because this would place God in a time-bound relation.  It’s not clear, though, why God can’t timelessly affirm this proposition. The only force indexicals would have is that God can’t affirm the following proposition:

(2) I know what it is to be married.

This deals more with omniscience than eternality.  In any case, it doesn’t seem like anything is lost.

Can God know future events?  Presumably, he can. This has been a given in almost every form of theistic belief.  Some philosophers like Swinburne say God can’t know the future if he has also given libertarian freedom to his creatures.  The future actions haven’t yet happened; therefore, God can’t know them. Helm offers something along the lines of a rebuttal:

(3) There is no logical connection between the view that the future does not already exist and the view that the future is indeterminate (121).

I think there is an easier rebuttal, though.  Christianity and Judaism (and I presume Islam) believe that some humans can prophesy (with varying degrees of accuracy) about the future.  If they can know the future actions of free creatures, then it stands to reason that God could, too.

Possibilities of Fatalism

Not all fatalisms are the same.  One can mean:

(4) Everything that happens was bound to happen.

It can mean something weaker:

(5) Everything that happens does so because of a logical necessity.

Timelessness and Human Responsibility

(6) God timelessly decreed that B occur at t₂ and this cannot be isolated from his timeless decree of A at t

(7) God timelessly decrees a complete causal matrix of events and actions (170).

Whenever we speak of God’s being and actions, we must realize that God’s being is logically prior to what he does.

Kripkean Terms

Rigid designator: a proper name which has x property in every possible world.

Accidental designator: property in some world.

Using these terms Helm suggests that “God” expresses the individual essence of God (208). A general essence isn’t a particular essence. God has a set of properties unique to himself. These are “God-making” properties.  This is important because “Being the creator of the world’ is not a part of his nature whereas ‘being infinitely good is’” (209).

Eternal Generation of the Son:  “There is no state of the Father that is not a begetting of the Son, and no state of the Son which is not a being begotten by the Father and necessarily there is no time when the Father had not begotten the Son” (285).

Corollary: If God is in time, then it does make sense to speak of a time when the Son was not.  When did the Father beget the Son? Even asking that question illustrates the problem. You can’t say in eternity past, for that is the thing the temporalist denies.

Paul Helm: Providence of God

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Thesis: “In summary, the essential elements of divine providence are these.  God preserves his creation and all that it sustains” (Helm 22).

Providence: Risky or Risk-Free?

Is God’s knowledge limited by man’s free actions?   

Risky: Open theist view.  God can’t be omniscience on this view, per Richard Swinburne.  Or rather, his omniscience is only to actions in time

God’s Knowledge

If the “risky” view obtains, then it appears that God has a number of beliefs which are false (given the free actions of humans).

God’s will.  We have to make a distinction between God’s will of command and will of decree (47).  On the ‘risk’ view God’s decreeing any human action is inconsistent with that actions being indeterminately free (49).

There is even a problem with God’s goodness:  given that God wishes to be good to people, how intense can this goodness be, given the free actions of humans?  I don’t think this objection is particularly strong. Part of the battle in our spiritual life is that we often resist God’s blessings.

Solution of divine accommodation.  Per Calvin, the movement of direction is from God to mankind, and not vice-versa (52ff).  It’s not simply that we are choosing the “sovereignty” passages at the expense of the risky ones.  Rather, it “is a logically necessary condition of dialogue between people that those people should act and react in time” (53).  However, omnipotence and omniscience are essential properties in God; therefore, they have priority.

Middle Knowledge

Necessary truths: logic, mathematics, stuff related to God’s essence.  

Free knowledge: things as a result of God’s freely willing them.

Middle knowledge: among the conditional propositions that God knows “are those which indicate what would happen if an individual performed a free (ie. non-deterministic) action (57).  God only actualizes the outcomes necessary to his plan. The rest are human possibilities (which God knows).

Difficulties:  it looks like on the MK account that the universe has a “shadow picture.”  Another problem is that God seems to only have knowledge of a mirror account of the universe, and never an actualized account (59).

His argument against MK seems to be that on MK’s own admission, people have indeterminist freedom.  Therefore, God can’t know what they would do because what they would do is precisely what isn’t known.  There seems to be something to that charge.

God-World Relationship

When we say God existed “before” the universe, we are using “before” in a hierarchical, not temporal sense.

Pantheism:  if the universe is God, and an individual performed a certain action, then logically God performed that action.

Deism: few today would hold to Deist temptations, and it is a diabolical worldview, but it is a much tougher opponent than pantheism.   If the universe was created good, then why does it need miracles?  Indeed, in a nice phrase, miracles are “a metaphysical first aid kit.”  There are some obvious problems with Deism.  Helm lists a few:

a) it is an obvious dogmatism (76).  Why don’t miracles exist?  Because they don’t.
b) it is not obvious why the Spirit-filled believer must define miracles as “violations” or “interventions” of nature.  Indeed, in an open-universe why wouldn’t we expect miracles?

Prayer and Providence

This is the familiar problem if God knows all things, then why pray? Helm doesn’t really solve it, but he does provide a number of clarifying insights that allow us to better approach the issue. Our praying to God exists within a personal matrix within which are a number of smaller issues.  If I take out one of those issues, then the matrix changes.

Further, there can be legitimate inter-personal interaction yet there be pressures, limitations, and givens, even in human-human relationships.  Why not so in God-man relationships?  Therefore, I can pray, and it be real prayer, and God answereth it, yet it still be ordained.

Conclusion

This is more of a philosophical than a theological text.  As such, there isn’t much exegesis of key passages.  To be fair, though, that would have made the text unwieldy.  Nonetheless, Helm nicely covers the issues and provides a number of clarifications.

 

Paul Helm: Faith and Understanding

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This book isn’t a smooth narrative, as I am not always sure how each chapter connected with the others.  With that said, Helm anticipates some of the “Narrative ethics” fads and communal epistemology, and brings several pointed rejoinders to them.  And the chapter on Jonathan Edwards is an analytical feast.

Understanding and Believing

Helm’s interlocutor is D.Z. Phillips.  The main is relatively unfamiliar, but Phillips anticipated the current craze about communal epistemologies.  As Helm puts it, “For Phillips religion is essentially a practice or set of practices, a way of life, and the beliefs that are religious are identified by such practices, and can only be understood in relation to, this form of life” (Helm 65). This is almost word for word the theology of James K. A. Smith.  

So what is the problem with it? We can try to list several:

1) It is impossible to critique any other position, as one would necessarily be outside that position and not sharing in its liturgical practices.
2) We do not have so much a religion, but a set of religious practices.
2.1) What about prayer?  This is the most basic of religious practices.  Yet, as Helm notes, could we even expect an answer to prayer, since that would involve empirical issues (69ff)?  Indeed, petitionary prayer “connects the activity and value of religion with how things go.” 

Edwards on Original Sin

Edwards raises the problem of identity through time.

  1. Temporal part: an individual thing which exists only for a moment.
  2. Personal identity for Locke: principle of consciousness.

JE, however, will advance several radical claims: “nothing exists for more than a moment” (Helm 157).  Edwards writes, “The existence of created substances, in each successive moment, must be the effect of the immediate agency, will, and power of God” (Edwards, Original Sin, 400).

Original Sin

  1. “A series of momentary parts, qualitatively similar in important respects, is treated by ourselves and God as if it were numerically one thing” (Helm 163).

The payoff, if at a steep price, is obvious:  God can count us guilty for Adam’s sin because in some way (??) we are identical with Adam.  As it stands, though, this argument won’t work. JE needs to posit an identity without collapsing me into Adam. But before we prove that, JE will make another claim:

  1. God recreated x each moment. JE might not be saying this.  It is a stronger version of (2) above, as he says an “antecedent existence is nothing,” which means my continuing existence isn’t because of my prior moment’s existence.

3*. Adam is constituted the root of the human race by virtue of a real union with the world of mankind (Helm 169). JE can now say that there is a real union, a real imputation which isn’t a legal fiction, yet we aren’t pantheistically connected.

Unfortunately, I think JE paid too high a price.  He must surrender either his view of Original Sin or his view of the Will.  In the latter he said that each moment’s prior state was the cause of the next state.  But here he seems to say that the antecedent cause has no real existence. If it doesn’t, then it can’t cause the next state, pace Freedom of the Will.

Oliver Crisp has raised yet a bigger problem: if God is recreating me each moment, and I am a sinful human, then is God creating evil and sin each moment?  (I got in a Facebook debate with some Clarkian Reconstructionists who held to this view.  They denied that JE taught it.  JE did.)

But even with these problems, this was a fine chapter and a fine book.

Review: Calvin and the Calvinists (Paul Helm)

Overview:  early summary of the Calvin vs the Calvinists debate but excluding the Barth factor.

Application for today:  Good early rebuttal against some Federal Visionists who sometimes tend to pit Calvin against Calvinists.

This is an early response to the line of argument that said Calvin taught the sweet doctrines of the Reformation until the Puritans came along and ruined it. Paul Helm responds to RT Kendall’s book on Calvinism. While Helm vindicates Calvin, that is secondary in my opinion. The book is a fine, short read and gives helpful ways of thinking about Christ’s work.

Unity of Christ’s work of intercession and death. 

The question of the hour: Did Calvin teach Limited Atonement? Kendall takes Calvin’s silence as a “no.” Helm rebuts by showing what the atonement actually means for Calvin. It produces actual remission (Helm 13).

We are going to jump ahead and examine a claim by Kendall: Christ died for all but intercedes for the elect. Helm points out that such a view means Christ’s death wasn’t enough. The efficacy had to be completed by his intercession. But this is not what Calvin said: Christ discharged all satisfaction by his death (Inst. II.xvi.6). If that’s true, then what remains to be accomplished by his intercession (Helm 43)?

The Christian and Conversion

Kendall said that Calvin saw faith as God’s act; it is passive. The Puritans saw faith as man’s act, and Kendall quotes Inst. III.13.5 for proof of the former. Helm, however, shows that Kendall moves too quickly. Calvin said in that passage that faith as regards justification is passive, but not faith simpliciter.

The final problem Kendall has with the Puritans is their emphasis on “preparationism.” He sees them as proto-Arminians, as though man can prepare himself to be saved. But this isn’t what the Puritans meant. They denied man could prepare himself, but they affirmed that man could find himself in a state of being prepared (that is, by using means such as hearing the Word, etc.).

Conclusion

I read this book in about an hour. It is short and clear. Highly recommended