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Q: Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?
A: In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour.
This is stated with specific reference to the previous question in the catechism, so if you’re joining this series just here, then please do take a moment to step back and look at the context.
The point being made in this question lies at the heart of the one of the 5 points of Calvinism, that of “total depravity”. Although it’s very simply stated and here, the answer is also quite short, there is much behind it to consider from a number of viewpoints, though I only have space here to consider the direct biblical basis.
The catechism does provide references to back up the claim. To determine if it’s accurate we must ask whether it is a true and fair understanding of the passages cited. i.e. is this a case of texts being taken out of context or is it a fair exegesis? Then we ask whether it’s a complete picture. i.e. are these the only texts which speak on the subject or are there others which throw a different light on the matter?
The phrase “in no wise” the verses given as backup are Romans 3:10,20,23 and 1 John 1:8,10. If we look at these passages, one fails to see a straight line between what Paul wrote and the catechism’s conclusion. What these verses seem to point at is the fact that humans a) are not righteous (Romans) and b) are in a state of sin and that all sinned (1 John). Here, the link is easier to see between these two, though care must be taken not to equate a) and b). To my understanding, b) comes before a). In other words, we are first of all in a state of sin (how? That may be dealt with later) and as a result of that nature we are those who sin. That was the point I tried to make in the previous part. Because of this we are considered, in the judicial sense, unrighteous.
But does this indicate that we are incapable of fulfilling the two great commandments? I’m not convinced. To leap ahead slightly, if this is a statement about human nature, then if humans were incapable of keeping the commandments, then to state that Jesus was fully human would logically lead to the idea that Jesus could not have kept them. So one would be forced to conclude either than Jesus wasn’t fully human or that he failed to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and failed to love his neighbours as himself.
If, however, we consider that the catechism is incorrect and that these passages are not indicative of an impossibility, then we may allow ourselves more scope when look at the nature of Jesus later on. One might think that I am trying to ‘cheat’ here by anticipating a later answer and rigging this now. However, I am not trying to build this catechism in terms of axioms and intermediary theories. This is simply looking at one aspect at a time, when really the whole thing ought to be kept in mind.
Looking at the second part of the answer, we are given the following scriptures:
If we read through these, is it a true and fair view to say that they can be encapsulated by the statement “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour”?
The first Romans passage doesn’t seem to endorse this. Of course, picking verses out of their context is a risky business, as one can easily misconstrue their meaning, failing to see the overall gist and the particular part the passage in question plays in achieving the author’s goal. The phrase (in the NRSV translation) is “the mind that is set on the flesh”. This does not imply to me “all minds”. The Ephesians passage back this up, referring to a past time, “All of us once lived among…” and “…we were by nature…” These imply a past tense. Titus says, “…were once foolish…”. The Genesis 6 passage is, I believe, a bad citation and not relevant for the discussion. The Genesis 8 passage is, though, more revealing. The key phrase being, “…for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…”
The use of the Hebrew neurim is interesting in itself, as it seems to be correct to interpret is as “from youth”. One might wonder why not “from birth.” That may be worth exploring another time. If we pick verses out of their context then one might be able to sympathise with the expression in the catechism. But if we regard, as I do, Genesis as being the background, the opening salvo in the grand narrative of creation, Israel, exile, law, etc. then we come to see that what is described here is the ‘past sense’ that Paul talks about in the passages already mentioned.
The Jeremiah verse seems to be part of a poem, so while it reflects a kind of truthful insight, one should be cautioned against reading it too literally.
Returning to Romans, I read it as part of a very tricky passage to understand (the whole argument of Romans 7:14-25). I cannot do justice to it here, for which I must apologise, but if we look at the catechism assertion to which it is used as backup, the question that must be asked is ‘Does the passage lend weight to this interpretation?’ – to which I would cautiously say ‘no’. Rather, Romans, though highly pertinent to the idea of the sinful nature, I think that the sinful nature is housed within the human nature.
Here, then the idea of human sinfulness being equated with what it means to be human is a mistake. Rather, the question is the one of the spirit which dwells within the human being. Looked at from this perspective, then Romans 7 comes into better focus as we can see that Paul speaks of a spirit of sin “dwell[ing] in my members”. As opposed to this we have the spirit of holiness (the Holy Spirit) which may dwell within us and which acts as an alternative motivating force.
So then, with that having taken far too long to write, we have a tentative alternative of the way of looking at what we might refer to as “human nature”, “the human condition” or such similar terms. Not least because of the later questions that come up over the nature of Jesus, one needs to think carefully about we define “human” if (and this is an if, not an assertion) Jesus is fully God and fully human.
What then, might we give by an alternative answer in distillation of the above?
The “these things” reference denotes the great two commandments to love God with everything that we have and to love one another. In any person, a person can do both, so the crux really lies in the use of the term ‘perfectly’. If this love is to be perfect then it must be born of a spirit of love. To do this, one must be emptied of the sinful nature (a matter of ontology) which is within us, and which exhibits itself in the form of sin (a matter of action), and instead be filled with the Holy Spirit completely. This is the work of sanctification (i.e. making holy) which is begun in us, but which is not yet complete. So I do not think that we can, as yet, love perfectly, but that does make us wholly devoid of love. It is a work which will be completed, but hasn’t been yet.