Paul Helm: Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
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.

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).

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).


  • 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). 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).

Faculty Psychology and Reformed Polemics

The reason the Reformed deny indifference is that indifference in willing is sin. If your mind is equally inclined to good and evil, then it is sin. It should be fully inclined to the good (181, quoting Pictet).

Indifference in actu secundo. The power of indifference after it has made a choice. The Reformed want to say that a will is locked into a choice and can’t go back to that state of indifference. The choice is always contingent upon the reason for the choice (185). It is never in pure equilibrium.
Indifference in actu primo. The power of indifference considered in itself.

Rene Descartes

For the scholastics the human being was a unity of body and soul. For Descartes only the soul mattered. He couldn’t be sure he had a body, so body didn’t factor into his discussion of a person. The soul is not the form of the body; it is annexed to the body.

The Earthquake that might not have happened: Edwards, Locke, and Faculty Psychology

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.


Puritan Board Junior
I thought the book was excellent but hard going in some places. I really like the discussion of the connection between the soul and body and the soul as the form of the body. This seemed quite convincing to me (in a modified form). Whilst it's clear from Scripture that the soul and the body are distinct creations and the soul can survive without the body; they are, nevertheless, intrinsically linked: each soul to its respective body. The soul without its body is lacking something. And there could be no other body for each soul than that which it has. So would that be a modified hylopmorphism with some platonism thrown in?

I have a question on his discussion of sin and whether God is the author of sin. I can't remember where in the book he says this but I'm sure he made the following argument (though in a more complex fashion): the substance in which, or by which, sin is performed (i.e. ourself, our bodies/souls) is created by God but the actual performace of sin is a result of our own will. By distinguishing these two aspects Helm seemed to be arguing that the things necessary for sin to be committed are from God (the substance which commits the sin) but the willingness and thus operation of sin comes from us. Thus we are enabled to sin by being what we are, but the actual propensity to sin originates in ourselves. Is that what Helm is saying? If so, what do we think of that?


Puritanboard Amanuensis
By distinguishing these two aspects Helm seemed to be arguing that the things necessary for sin to be committed are from God (the substance which commits the sin) but the willingness and thus operation of sin comes from us. Thus we are enabled to sin by being what we are, but the actual propensity to sin originates in ourselves. Is that what Helm is saying? If so, what do we think of that?
Yes. That is what he is saying. For example, God creates the knife, but he doesn't create the action of my stabbing the knife in somebody.

We have to say that God isn't the author of sin at the end of the day. This is one of the standard lines of argument.
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