Ethics, a la Calvin, Augustine and Shane

For the background to this post, please see the comments thread in my most recent edition of Reading Scripture with John Calvin and Shane’s post, The mendacious moral pessimism of John Calvin.

In his post, Shane suggested that I try out the phrase, “You know what I love about you babe? Jesus” on my dear wife. Of course, he anticipates “that her reaction will not be gratitude for his piety.” Of course, I don’t need to merely “anticipate” her reaction; I know what it will be (of course, not in the sense of JTB; see Shane’s two posts and my own) My wife would say: “Um…ok….,” all the while thinking, “What the h*ll is wrong with this guy? Why did I marry him?”

But, all joking aside, my saving grace is that my (and I would argue, Calvin’s) position does not necessitate that I make such a move. But, before I get into that, I just want to be clear about who bears the burden of proof in this discussion. I would argue at length and in great detail that my position is in keeping not only with Calvin but also with Augustine. I’m not saying that these two authorities cannot be overthrown, but it is going to take a bit more work on Shane’s part than merely setting out a few propositions, a haphazard collection of definitions, and then cranking up the logical machinery.

Shane makes two key rejections: first, he rejects the notion that “No one can undertake a moral action for the right reason apart from regenerating grace;” second, he rejects “the idea that the only proper motivation for any moral action is love of God.” These two rejections are inextricably linked, and I would contend that it is Shane’s rejection of the second that is driving his rejection of the first. I suspect that this is so on the basis of the rather central place (central to the affective weight of the argument, not the logic) of his statement, “To love something just means to love it for its own sake.” This is precisely the affirmation that lends force to his flights of fancy concerning conversations between my wife and I, a practice – I might add – that some would consider to be in appropriate in so public a forum.

In any case, this sentiment of loving something for its own sake is correct so far as it goes. But, I’m afraid that Shane is missing a rather big piece of the puzzle, namely, that the intrinsic value of all created reality, and especially of human persons, is grounded in God and God’s act of creation. Shane would like you to believe that loving a woman for who she is in herself, and loving a woman on the basis of her nature as a creature of God, are mutually exclusive. I would argue that you do not love a woman for who she is in herself without also loving her on the basis of her nature as a creature of God, for her nature as a creature of God is what grounds her intrinsic worth (and beauty, and what have you).

I will conclude with a brief lesson from Augustine’s De Trinitate, which I will related back to this conversation. First, DT, 12.14:
“What happens is that the soul, loving its own power, slides away from the whole which is common to all into the part which is its own private property. By following God’s directions and being perfectly governed by his laws it could enjoy the whole universe of creation; but by the apostasy of pride…it strives to grab something more than the whole and to govern it by its own laws.”
Augustine is thinking here in terms of turning to try and possess one’s own body for gratification (which is the part) rather than to seek after God and thereby gain the whole creation (which is the whole). But, for our purposes, it is sufficient to note here that if we wish to live properly ordered lives, we must consider things in relation to God, and not as a discreet object which we can in any way possess (or understand, or love?) apart from its relation to God. We now turn to DT, 14.18:
“The human mind, then, is so constructed that it never does not remember itself, never does not understand itself, never does not love itself. But if you hate someone you are dead set on doing him harm, and so it is not unreasonable to talk about the mind of man hating itself when it does itself harm. It does not know it is wishing itself ill while it imagines that what it wants is not to its disadvantage, but in fact it is wishing itself ill when it wants something that is to its disadvantage…So the man who knows how to love himself loves God; and the man who does not love God, even though he loves himself, which is innate in him by nature, can still be said quite reasonably to hate himself when he does that which is against his own interest, and stalks himself as if he were his own enemy.”
Lost in that tangle of words is the notion that, even though it is of the nature of the human person to love his- or her-self, one does in fact not do so when one acts for one’s own harm, which includes the condition of not loving God. If one does not love God, one does not love oneself. But, why should this logic be confined to the self? In relation to our discussion, if one does not love God, one cannot love a woman. More from Augustine in the same chapter:
“But when the mind loves God, and consequently as has been said remembers and understands him, it can rightly be commanded to love its neighbor as itself. For now it loves itself with a straight, not a twisted love, now that it loves God; for sharing in him results not merely in its being that image, but in its being made new and fresh and happy after being old and worn and miserable.”
It is hard for me to comment on this passage because it seems self-evident. One does not love oneself rightly without first loving God; therefore one does not love another rightly without first loving God. (“Love your neighbor as yourself” is the passage behind all this, if you haven’t already guessed.) Consequently, we aren’t only talking about love here. We are also talking about knowledge and understanding, to wit, we cannot know or understand another thing except we know and understand God. Augustine ties all this up into a nice little bundle. Consequently, Calvin does much of the same when he writes in the opening sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559): “Nearly all the wisdom we posses, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” which are “joined by many bonds.”


Proper relation to God is necessary for proper relation to anything else. This goes for love and knowledge and understanding as well. Thus, what is called “love” between a Muslim or Hindu man and his wife is not “love” in the proper sense. Even Christians, although they have been set on the road toward right love / knowledge / understanding / relation, remain always imperfect in this life and thus are deficient in these things as well. However, because of Christ’s work of mediation, the actions of Christians are counted as righteous before God.


Shane said…
I wish I were a theologian so I could make words mean whatever I wanted them to. For example, if I were a theologian, I could say that a things has an 'intrinsic' value which is nevertheless grounded in something outside itself. However, I am not so lucky and I cannot see how a person only gets their own proper 'intrinsic' value from God.

I'll have more substantial engagements with augustine later.


I know that you will develop a more extensive response, but I figured that I would briefly answer your provisional comment.

It seems to me that you are too tightly bound to your definition of terms. Philosophy may proceed differently, but in theology (at least my brand) we try to use the most appropriate words that we have available but nevertheless always endeavor to let them take on their meaning from the reality that they describe. Thus, the use of the term “intrinsic” gets at a notion of a real value internal to the thing in question, but this in no way rules out the possibility that “intrinsic” value may be dependent upon an external condition.

We are created in the image of God (read: Christ) after all…
Shane said…
So do human beings have 'intrinsic' value (in my sense) or not?
If you mean a kind of “intrinsic value” that begins and ends within the human person without any recourse to God, I would argue that the only kind of value that you are left with would be utilitarian.

If you take God out of the picture, then the be all and end all of our lives is that we are dust and to dust we return. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any moral angst when I dust my desk.

Or, to summon Dickens through an allusion to the indomitable character of Ebenezer Scrooge, I don’t really see why we should care about the poor. IF they are going to die, they should get on with it and decrease the surplus population.

So, in answer to your question: No.
Shane said…
You say that like it's a bad thing.
And you, Shane, say "nihilist" as if that is a bad thing.

The problem is, after the fall, we are all nihil without God. You will accuse me of failing to affirm the goodness of created reality. My response is simply that our created reality, minus God, is simply the reality of the abyss. As the Psalmist says repeatedly, without God, he is simply lost in the "pit."
Shane said…
The trouble here is the lingering manicheanism that Augustine could never quite rid himself of.

I could also accuse the two of you of a kind of hidden philosophical argument for the existence of God.

1. There can be inviolable moral values only if there is a God.
2. We know that there are inviolable moral values by observation and experience.
3. Therefore there is a God.

I don't think you can reject 2, because it is simply contrary to the facts. We do experience an absoluteness in the call of moral value. (Yes atheists feel this too).

I reject 1. I don't think there is a way to show that absolute moral values could only come from God.

Shane said…
Just to be clear, i'm accusing you barthians of doing natural theology.

Also, 'nihilist' is a bad word. It's Nietzsche's characterization of christian theology. I think Nietzsche is wrong about Christianity as such, but is right to say that much of what passes for Christian theology is nihilistic for denying the reality of life in the here and now.

Shane said…
I continue this discussion in my most recent post.

In case you are interested, I recently posted a comment on Shane's blog (Mendacious Calvinism, cont.) that relates to both this discussion and his discussion on Calvin.


It seems as though (1) either my post somehow got lost in cyberspace or (2) or was removed or (3) I forget to press "publish." At any rate, the sum of what I posted was something along these lines:

I disagree with Shane’s assessment of Calvin as a nihilist and find it uncharitable and unreflective of detailed attention to Calvin's work, as well as the current scholarship on Calvin (e.g., Richard A. Muller as one example). I then interact with one of Shane’s comments where he states, “It seems to me that the beautiful would remain beautiful even if God went away. Likewise love would remain good and murder would remain bad, just because the 'integrity' of the created order makes beauty, goodness and so forth intrinsic to certain things, actions, events,” and I attempt to bring in the aspects of Kretman’s account that are appealing to Shane (and for good reasons in my opinion on his part). Basically I point to St. Thomas’ argument in the De Ente where he presents a strictly philosophical argument that there must be one and only one “Being” in whom essence and existence are identical (this involves the corollaries of simplicity and God’s aseity—which is part of Kretzman’s argument). In all other created beings, we have composition, i.e., composition of both form and matter (excepting angels) and composition of essence and existence. Created beings receive (or to use the medieval language, “participate” in ) being from God as the first efficient cause. Moreover, for Thomas being (ens commune) and goodness are coextensive as they are transcendentals. Thus, if per impossibile God were removed, the created order would literally not “be”. This then would be the epitome of nihilism. Neither Calvin, nor Aquinas nor Augustine would ever present such a nihilistic picture. Calvin does not fail into the dichotomous view of either theological subjectivism or objectivism, as he sees God’s Law as an expression of God’s nature, which just IS goodness and of course much more (Thomas would agree). Thus, there is no standard of goodness outside God to which he must submit, nor is his Law arbitrary (contra divine command theory). In fact, Calvin explicitly distances his tradition from a kind of voluntarism that would misuse the potentia absoluta teaching, when he writes that we, “give no countenance to the fiction of absolute power, which, as it is heathenish, so it ought justly to be held in detestation by us. We do not imagine God to be lawless. He is a law to himself; because, as Plato says, men laboring under the influence of concupiscence need law; but the will of God is not only free from all vice, but is the supreme standard of perfection, the law of all laws. But we deny that he is bound to give an account of his procedure; and we moreover deny that we are fit of our own ability to give judgment in such a case” (Institutes III.23.2).



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