Briefly: Why The Reformed Approach To Nature And Grace Is Superior To The Anabaptist Approach

“People don’t need therapists. People need Christ. The last thing any of us needs is more human wisdom.” This was the claim made by an anonymous writer (“Magnolia”) on social media. This sentiment is worth addressing briefly because it represents the thinking of many Christians. To the degree that we live in a therapeutic culture, where the assumption is that one needs only to feel better emotionally about one’s self and perhaps one’s sins, Magnolia may be partly right. The conclusion however, that Christians cannot benefit from human wisdom or even from the counsel of unbelievers reflects a seriously flawed view of the nature (creation) and grace (redemption) relate.

There are essentially three ways to relate nature to grace:

  1. Grace perfects nature (Thomas)
  2. Grace renews nature in salvation (Reformed)
  3. Grace obliterates nature (Anabaptist)

The latter is a predominating view among American evangelical Christians who, even though they are not formally Anabaptist, are more influenced by Anabaptist ways of thinking than they or we realize. Magnolia’s post is a great example of the Anabaptist (and Pietist) view that grace destroys nature. As in Thomas (Aquinas), the assumption of the Anabaptist view is that nature per se (in itself) is flawed and needs to be painted over. For my current writing project I have checked a large number of classic Reformed writers on nature and grace and I found many of them responding to the Anabaptists on this very point. To be sure, I also found them using Thomas’ phrase, “grace perfects nature,” but by it I do not think that they were assuming what Thomas assumed and thus I do not think they meant by it what Thomas meant.

Grace (salvation) does not wipe out creation. It does not deify it, which is closer to what Thomas meant, but it does renew it in those to whom the Spirit freely regenerates. The Anabaptist view has no place for the Reformed doctrine of common grace, i.e., by the general benevolence of God, humans, even unregenerate humans (pagans) have genuinely true insights from whom we may and should learn. Traditionally our theologians and writers read the pagan philosophers and poets and learned a great deal from them. They did not shun them because they were pagans. The believed that they could learn from them and they did learn from them. That might even be true of a psychologist. Now, a non-Christian psychologist is working with a set of assumptions (presuppositions), convictions about the nature of the world, God, humans, sin, etc. These are all very important and they form the filter through which she interprets the world. All of that is true but it does not mean that when she tells us that the traffic light is green that we may ignore her because, well, she is a pagan and what does she know anyway? She may have specialized knowledge and skills from which we can and should benefit.

Reformed Christians are not Christian Scientists, i.e., practitioners of Mary Baker Eddy’s quasi-Gnostic, docetic theory that the physical world is an illusion. Nature, the created world is real. Because it is real, because God orders it, we go to non-Christian physicians and mechanics to get help. The denial of the reality of creation is a serious error. In the doctrine of Christ, the denial of his true humanity (docetism, i.e., he only seemed to be human) is heresy but it is what happens when grace (divinity) wipes out nature.

Christians should not be naive about the psychologists and therapists whom they consult but because nature is real, because God, by his common grace, endows pagans with true insights, we can and should learn from them.  Even if we disagree about the usefulness of consulting non-Christian psychologists we should agree that grace does not obliterate nature. Our personality remains after conversion. Our intellect, will, and affections are being graciously and gradually renewed and so our interests and priorities may change but we remain the same human creatures we were before we were regenerated. Augustine loved to read, think, and teach before he was converted but after his conversion he retained his love of those things. His interests were re-directed but they remained.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I have a question concerning the specific things that are less neutral or benign than loves of thinking, reading, and teaching that Augustine retained across conversion: are our sins, pattern-wise, configuration-wise, recognizable in ourselves by those knowing us across the tremendous act of our justification by God? Some people are never grumpy with family, but grumpy with the public, so that an observer of us before our conversion, watching our irritation with the public’s sins, or our seemingly infinite patience with family, be able to say “oh, I recognize his personality here”?

    • Larry,

      Sins are sins. They are violations of God’s law. I think we agree on this.

      Neutrality is a problematic category. We should distinguish between common and neutral.

      “Common” is Not “Neutral”

      Nature is not neutral either:

      Natural is Not Neutral

      Another question is how to ascertain what are the core attributes of a personality. If we look at Paul, there were things that belonged to his past that he left there but his personality remained. Sin is not essential to nature. It corrupts nature in and after the fall but the sins that persisted after regeneration (Rom 7) aren’t properly a part of his personality. Interests, ways of looking at things, a sense of humor, even family characteristics. What is it, as a matter of nature, that distinguishes one person from another?

  2. I hope this doesn’t irritate the management, but have you ever considered using grammarly (free version) to catch those little errors like duplicate “the” (yesterday’s post) or “relate” instead of relation (first use)?

  3. Thank you for this. There is another angle, too. Some in the home church/hyper-family oriented church practice “Nature destroys grace.” In their view, the church is just a family of families.

  4. Thank you for this. I am a therapist and have seen people in my church benefit from therapy and medication. Yes, there are sometimes presuppositions that are unbiblical in some theories but some (and some of the most effective modalities) have to do with dealing with belief systems, including beliefs about self and the world. I often find so-called “biblical counselors” to have a less helpful view of human nature and human problems (it’s all about personal sin and the answer is always more prayer and Bible reading) and a view of mental health that suggests a belief that the mind and brain were not impacted by the fall.

    • Adam,

      There are great lots of Christian counselors/therapists who operate with sub-biblical presuppositions but, as I wrote, we should not be naive about the web of assumptions that form the interpretation of the world that inform non-Christian counselors/therapists. Medical issues are real and those Christians who don’t account for them usually fail because they have a faulty view of nature and grace.

    • The proponents of Biblical counseling that I have encountered do not deny the appropriate use of psychiatric drugs. They even recommended that people undergo medical examination for hormonal imbalance and other such issues before seeking Biblical counseling. They did suggest that Biblical discipleship was an appropriate outlet for dealing with anger, non-clinical depression, addiction, ect. Crisis discipleship was even suggested as an alternative name for Biblical counseling.

      • Benjamin,

        Part of the difficulty here is that there are probably at least two distinct movements within the broader Christian counseling movement that work under that label.

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thank you for your response. Have you dealt with the subject of Biblical counseling here on the Heidelblog or on the the Heidelcast? Also are there any resources on the subject that you would recommend?

      • Hi Benjamin,

        I haven’t written a lot about counseling here. As a pastor I have been a practitioner but I’m not a scholar in that field. I learned counseling in the Jay Adams/Neuthetic school. Over the years I came to see some weaknesses in that approach, among them a failure to appreciate and apply some Reformation basics, e.g., the law/gospel distinction and perhaps a legal orientation. I’ve appreciated David Powlinson’s revisions to Jay’s approach. I noticed, however, years ago that organizations like NANC and others seemed to be dominated by non-Reformed fundamentalists and that troubled me then and continues to be a source of concern.

        Still, Jay’s critique of the synthetic model (e.g., the Rosemead approach at Fuller) and what I saw in the psych dept at Wheaton, where students openly identified as Pelagians, were bracing reminders of the need to keep pressing on to find a better model.

        Jay Adams Has a Blog

        Audio: Hywel Jones on Counseling from Job

        Audio: Powlison on “The Puritans” and Biblical Counseling

    • I appreciate your responses Dr. Clark. I’ve read some of Jay Adam’s short booklets on counseling. I’ll be sure to take a look at the links you posted.


    • Dr. Clark wrote: “what I saw in the psych dept at Wheaton, where students openly identified as Pelagians,”

      I knew there were problems but that’s worse than I realized.

      FWIW. my wife’s doctoral degree is in clinical psychology from Wheaton, with two prior masters, one in marriage and family counseling from Southwestern Baptist and one in Christian education from Calvin. There were no doctoral-level programs in counseling from a confessionally Reformed perspective back in the 1980s and 1990s, and Wheaton’s, which back then was quite new, appeared to be the least bad.

      I can’t speak to what is available today but nothing was available thirty years ago, at least nothing at the doctoral level that was accredited.

  5. Hi Dr Clark: I appreciate your post and is a helpful corrective to my own thinking. I hope I don’t come across as baiting when I ask, how might this apply to critical race theory? I see some advocating for a cautious use of it (chew the meat and spit out the bones), over and against most objections advise wholesale rejection.

  6. Do you have blog posts on the distinction between “Grace perfects nature (Thomas)” and “Grace renews nature in salvation (Reformed)”? The way this is worded, it suggests Adam did not originally need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to live in the manner God intended. I don’t think it’s so much that human nature is “flawed” as it is limited, and can go beyond limited by grace. We don’t say man is flawed because he can’t fly or live under water. Man needs divine revelation, and if it came by default with Adam, he would have known everything rather than be limited in his original knowledge. If Adam had perfect decision making, it would have been impossible for him to sin. Yet it isn’t a flaw but merely a limitation that Adam only knew a finite amount and had finite decision capability.

    • Nick,

      See Resources On The Nature/Grace And Sacred/Secular Distinctions

      I’ve got more coming on this in the forthcoming commentary on the Heidelberg.

      In Heidelberg 6 we confess that Adam was made “in righteousness and true holiness.” Some of our theologians have speculated about his need for “grace” before the fall but 1. we don’t confess that; 2. it is speculative. It starts from a premise and reasons to a conclusion that is not implied by Scripture nor required by our theology. It’s a bad premise. Finitude is not fallenness nor a flaw. Adam needed grace after the fall, not before. Here I agree with Robert Rollock, who was quite forceful about this. Other of our theologians have been equally emphatic on this point.

      Adam had, by nature, before the fall, all that he needed to obey and to enter into a state of blessedness. His was not, in that sense, a fall from grace but a mysterious transgression of the law of God.

      Your formulation tends to minimize the mystery of the fall, which, in my view, is a mistake.

    • Dr. Clark,

      How would you respond to the objection that what you’ve just articulated (i.e., no grace before the fall) is Pelagian according to historic Augustinianism. See Council of Orange Canon 19:

      “CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could be no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safeguard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?”

      • David,

        I reply by saying that it’s Pelagian to impute grace to the prelapsarian because like Pelagius it conflates the pre- and postlapsarian worlds, which was one of Pelagius’ most fundamental errors.

        Orange 2 was addressing the post lasparian world not the world before the fall.

        Further, I would say: take it up with Heidelberg Catechism 6 and Robert Rollock,et al., who argued strenuously against prelapsarian grace on this very ground.

    • Dr. Clark,

      For clarification, should I understand you to be suggesting that the Canons of the Council of Orange are themselves Pelagian on this particular point?

      Regarding Rollock, he says in Q&A 6 of his catechism that the basis of the covenant of works is “[a] good, holy, and upright nature, of the kind which was in man at creation. For if God had not made man, in the beginning, according to his own image—that is, wise, holy, and just by nature—then he could not, surely, have established with man this covenant, which has for its condition holy, just, and perfect works proceeding from [man’s] nature (Gen. 1:26, 27; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:9).”

      I want to point out that the question is not whether “works proceeding from the virtues of [man’s] nature” are the condition of the covenant of works (which Rollock affirms in Q&A 3, in keeping with standard Reformed theology). Rather, the question concerns the nature of original righteousness itself, which in Reformed theology, as you know far better than I, is understood as a “concreated gift” (hence, gracious). This in no way implies that finitude is fallenness or a flaw, because grace prior to the fall was required for different reasons than grace after the fall. Before the fall, grace was required because human nature in and of itself, while possessing the capacity to direct itself to fulfill natural ends, had no natural capacity to subject itself to God as its chief and highest end.

      As Muller writes:

      “As Kevan has shown, there was not only considerable agreement among Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century concerning the identity of the prelapsarian relationship between God and Adam as a covenant, virtually all of the Reformed theologians of the era recognized, albeit in varying degrees, that there could be no relationship between God and the finite, mutable creature apart from grace. This was also the burden of the medieval doctrine of the donum superadditum, particularly in its fully Augustinian form, a doctrine most probably at the root of the idea of the covenant of works.” (“The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy”)

      I would certainly be interested in any additional thoughts you have in response.

      • No, David, I am suggesting that you do not understand either Pelagianism or the Second Council of Orange correctly.

        There were early Reformed theologians who posited a sort of donum (e.g., Ursinus does this in the Corpus but we should also note that we do not confess the Corpus Doctrinae. We confess the catechism.

        Here is the bit in Rollock to which I was alluding.

        It is one thing to say that God graciously made the covenant with Adam it is another to turn that covenant into a covenant of grace, which vitiates the substantial difference between the covenants of works and grace. The Reformed churches didn’t do this. They were at pains to distinguish them, as Ursinus himself did in his Summa. The Westminster Divines did not say that God graciously made the covenant of works, though it would have been fine had they done. They said, “God, by voluntary condescension…”. The divines pointed to the freedom of the divine will. They did not make the covenant of works in to a covenant of grace nor did they make the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

        I submit that you’ve not really understood Muller’s point either.

        David, you’re about 20 years behind. I had these arguments with the Federal Visionists a long time ago.

    • This is a fascinating topic. I will look forward to your commentary on Heidelberg Q6. I need to understand whether Adam originally needed faith, had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and naturally had immortality (Jesus was without sin and yet not immortal).
      Texts like 1 Cor 2:14 speak of the “natural” man being unable to discern spiritual truths without the Holy Spirit.

      I looked up what Q6 says and two things stood out: “God created them good (Gen. 1:31) and in his own image, (Gen. 1:26-27) that is, in true righteousness and holiness, (Eph. 4:24) so that they might truly know God their creator (Col. 3:10)…”

      These references to Eph 4:24 and Col 3:10 say: “clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator”. The language of “clothing” and “putting on” suggests a building on top of nature, as clothing adds onto our natural nakedness. I assume this takes place at Regeneration / Effectual Calling.

      • Nick,

        To avoid the Pelagian error, we need to draw a bright line between the world before the fall and the world after. Historically, the church has struggled to do this.

        Adam may be said to have had a general faith before the fall but not a special or saving faith. He was not a sinner. Special or saving faith looks to Christ the Mediator but Adam was not a sinner before the fall. He was finite but he was corrupt. He was made in righteousness and true holiness. He had within himself (ante lapsum) what he needed to obey. Hence the mystery of the fall.

        Adam was created to be immortal, should he sustain the probation, by obeying the moral law as the federal head of humanity, but he was not yet immortal. He was created with the potential to enter into eternal blessedness but he had yet to achieve it. Because he disobeyed, he transgressed, and brought sin and death upon himself and all of us in him.

        The appeal in HC 6 is to the analogy. We are being re-created, in Christ, in the image of God because we were made originally in the image and we fell and the image was corrupted.

        I wouldn’t read too much into “clothe” etc. It’s a metaphor, a figure of speech to illustrate what’s happening. It is true that our nature, which was corrupted in the fall, is being renewed. Nature per se, before the fall, however, was not corrupted and was not in need of renewal. It was not in its consummate state, i.e., it was still under the probation but it was not fallen nor was it corrupted.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    First, thanks for the response, and for the Rollock material. I confess I have no idea how to reconcile your response with your previous reply to Nick above, in which you said that positing grace before the fall is “speculative” and flows from a “bad premise,” namely that finitude is a flaw. However, I am in complete agreement with you that the Reformed did not turn the covenant of works into a covenant of grace.

    • David,

      1. I was referring, in essence, to the donum super additum. It is nothing but speculation. There is, as I say, a distinction between saying (if one must) that God was gracious in establishing the covenant of works and saying that the covenant of works was, in essence, gracious.

      2. The donum does flow from a bad premise, i.e., that finitude = fallenness. They are not the same things but, for Thomas, they became equivalent. That comes of the bad influence of neo-Platonism via Ps-Dionysius via Albert. Unplug Platonism from Thomas and it’s a very different story.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I am not sure we substantially disagree. However, I don’t understand how your criticism of the donum (which I would agree is on the mark with respect to Roman Catholic doctrine) applies to Thomas, since he held that original righteousness was concreated (not merited during an initial probation while in a state of “pure nature”).

    • David,

      I think you are assuming things that I do not in re the donum in Thomas and in those Reformed who picked it up. There is a reason it largely went away. It was in tension with the covenant of works. More than a few of the early Reformed were well read in Thomas and, I think, did not read as a “Roman Catholic.” That’s an anachronism. They read him as a medieval forebear. Thomas did not become a “Roman Catholic” until he was appropriated by Rome in their defense of Trent contra the Reformation. Peter Martyr was deeply influenced by Thomas and openly so as was Zanchi. The latter argued, implausibly to my mind, that were Thomas alive during the Reformation he would have sided with them.

      Concreated? Not according to Summa 1a2ae 95.

      Remember, for Thomas, nature is not capable of the supernatural, which the state of blessedness is. Thus, Adam, by virtue of his created finitude was in need of the donum to supplement nature. I think some (not that many that I’ve seen) early Reformed were influenced by this conception. As I say, I don’t see that idea persisting in the Reformed. Rollock is interesting because he was deeply influenced by Olevianus (and, I suppose, Ursinus) and I suspect that he was reacting to Ursinus by putting his view so strongly.

    • Dr. Clark,

      You’ve been patient with me—forgive me for prodding a bit further. A friend of mine and former OPC elder, while in the process of teaching a class on the Larger Catechism, compiled the following quotes demonstrating that the Reformed (many of them) resorted to the same nature-grace distinction found in Thomas. Would you say these represent a minority view among the Reformed?

      Calvin (Institutes, II.ii.12):
      “I feel pleased with the well-known saying which has been borrowed from the writings of Augustine, that man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn; meaning by supernatural gifts the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity.”
      Wollebius (Compendium theologiae christianae, VIII.vii-x):
      “The image of God consists partly in natural gifts, partly in supernatural. The natural gifts were the simple and invisible substance of the soul, with its faculties the intellect and will. The supernatural gifts were the clearness of understanding, the liberty and rectitude of the will, the conformity of the appetites and affections, the immortality of the whole man, and dominion over inferior creatures.”
      Junius (A Treatise on True Theology, X):
      “Moreover, what the orthodox fathers and the scholastics who followed their steps handed down very well is commonly known: namely that the natural gifts have been corrupted and the supernatural ones lost. So from this statement we establish that supernatural theology, which by the sin of man had been, as it were, rejected and most undeservedly spurned, retreated from here to the heavens; and natural theology, as all other things which arise from nature, was corrupted.”
      Gomarus (Disputationum theologicarum decima-quarta de libero aritrio, xi-xiv):
      “Human beings before the Fall were made perfectly, without any stain or lack of either soul or body. For human beings did not only consist of soul and body as essential parts, but also of these added (superadditis ornaments: namely being endowed with original justice and holiness…This original righteousness however has been natural in so far as it not only perfected nature, and elevated nature to its supernatural goal, but also in so far as it was given to man from the very beginning. In this sense others call it supernatural, since it did not flow from the essence of the human being.”

      • David,

        I am aware of these passages (I teach Wollebius every spring; I’ve been publishing on Calvin for years and I teach Junius annually), which is why I acknowledged that this rhetoric did exist in the tradition. That said, Augustine and Calvin are not Thomas and it’s a mistake to assume a substantial identity on the basis of verbal identity. Calvin was not a student of Albert the Great nor was he deeply influenced by Ps-Dionysius, i.e., neo-Platonism. The extent of Calvin’s debt to Platonism is debated by Calvin scholars. He did use some classic Platonist language and I suspect that his classics studies influenced him formally and theologically. Yes, Calvin distinguishes between natural and supernatural dona but he did not assume the same sort of ontological continuum that Thomas did. For Thomas, salvation is literally deification. That’s not so, at least not in the same sense, as for Thomas. Our fundamental problem, for Calvin, is not our humanity or our finitude but our sin. We didn’t sin because of our finitude. For Thomas, we are created with “vires inferiores” which must be controlled by the donum. That’s not Calvin’s scheme at all. For Calvin there are higher and lower gifts, some of which remain after the fall and some of which are stripped.

        The same is true of Wollebius, Junius, and Gomarus.

        As a matter of history I recognize the existence of the rhetorical pattern. The Reformed were not radicals. We were (and remain) a part of the older, broader, medieval and patristic traditions but we also tended to re-contextualize some of that heritage at key points. E.g., there was a doctrine of imputation long before the Reformation but our use of it was rather different that Ockham’s or Biel’s. There was a doctrine of prelapsarian probation going back to the Fathers and a doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant going back at least to Augustine but we re-contextualized it. The church had spoken of law and gospel in historical ways (law = OT and gospel = NT) since Irenaeus at least and the WCF preserved that way of speaking. We can find many examples of a shared rhetoric but that commonality doesn’t always entail complete theological agreement.

        You’re welcome to register for the MA in Historical Theology or the MDiv, where we work through these things. Obviously I can’t conduct class in the HB combox.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate getting your perspective on these things; thanks much for taking the time to respond. As you know, there’s a Protestant version of the doctrine of deification, but I won’t weary you further. I’ll just say that I get the impression that at least one reason why some areas of continuity between the medievals and the Reformed scholastics “largely went away,” as you say, is that both were working with essentially the same classical Christian metaphysics that was largely abandoned in the modern era.

    • David,

      There was a significant degree of continuity between the medieval church and the Reformation. Heiko Oberman, among others, helped us to see it but as some Reformation scholars have noted, one of the great breakthroughs of the Reformation was the critique of realism (though not in favor of nominalism, as too many have alleged or assumed) and the recovery of the Creator/creature distinction. I worry that at least some of what people mean by “Christian metaphysics” is a return to “Christian Platonism.” Let me be blunt: Plato is the antichrist here. We do not need to recover it. Finally, the Reformation was not a Modern movement. It was a late medieval and pre-modern movement. One of my interests in learning from the Reformed orthodox is to benefit from their early critique of the Enlightenment.

      The Reformed doctrine of deification, as I understand it, was not Thomas’s, i.e., it was not Platonic. It was simply a doctrine of sanctification. I confess I struggle to understand what the various Eastern traditions mean by theosis. When I read the Finnish school’s attempt to appropriate Luther, it seems as if they mean something like what Thomas meant, a participation in the being of God, which compromises the biblical and Patristic doctrine of the Creator/creature distinction. Others seem to mean something more like sanctification. Near as I can tell, the Radical Orthodox are also Platonists and I see that Craig Carter, whose work I have enjoyed, also seems to be arguing for some Protestant recovery of Plato. This will be a grave mistake.

      It is true that under the (indirect) influence Socinianism too many evangelicals flattened out the ontology of Scripture. John 1 means much more by “only begotten” than I was seeing evangelical lit in the 80s. That’s a loaded idea/concept/word for John. The Reformed are catholic in their affirmation of Nicea etc. but that doesn’t entail getting back on the ontological ladder.

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