Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Saturday, October 06, 2012

St. Bernard (of Clairvaux) Bites the Fins Off of Free Willy

I've been on vacation this week and have finally had time to continue reading through Calvin's Institutes. The section on Total Depravity and the bondage of the will is spectacular. Calvin seems to revel in paradoxes in the Second Book, Chapter Two, Part 5, where he approvingly quotes a passage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard, assenting to Augustine, thus writes: "Among animals, man alone is free, and yet sin intervening, he suffers a kind of violence, but a violence proceeding from his will, not from nature, so that it does not even deprive him of innate liberty," (Bernard, Sermo. super Cantica, 81.) For that which is voluntary is also free. A little after he adds, "Thus, by some means strange and wicked, the will itself, being deteriorated by sin, makes a necessity; but so that the necessity, in as much as it is voluntary, cannot excuse the will, and the will, in as much as it is enticed, cannot exclude the necessity." For this necessity is in a manner voluntary. He afterwards says that "we are under a yoke, but no other yoke than that of voluntary servitude; therefore, in respect of servitude, we are miserable, and in respect of will, inexcusable; because the will, when it was free, made itself the slave of sin." At length he concludes, "Thus the soul, in some strange and evil way, is held under this kind of voluntary, yet sadly free necessity, both bond and free; bond in respect of necessity, free in respect of will: and what is still more strange, and still more miserable, it is guilty because free, and enslaved because guilty, and therefore enslaved because free." My readers hence perceive that the doctrine which I deliver is not new, but the doctrine which of old Augustine delivered with the consent of all the godly, and which was afterwards shut up in the cloisters of monks for almost a thousand years. (bolding and underlining added)

There you have it, folks. Calvin (not to mention Bernard and Augustine) is clearly a friend of the paradoxical, and plainly agrees that the will is both "free" and "bound"--though certainly in different senses. That's THEOparadox approved.

Calvin emphasizes two key distinctions:
1. The will of fallen man is bound by sin, but not in such a way that he acts involuntarily. Though he does not have "free will," he is free enough to act voluntarily.
2. Fallen man sins of necessity (he cannot keep himself from sinning), but he does not sin by compulsion (i.e., nothing outside of himself "forces" him to sin). His motivation for sinning lies within himself, thus he is fully responsible.

This section of the Institutes is, of course, merely a subpoint and summary of the larger argument, and is designed to show that Calvin's position has firm historical precedent. Reading through Calvin's thoughts on the subject of human freedom, it is clear that his primary and overarching concern is exactly that of Augustine: to affirm absolutely and unequivocally that every good thing is from God alone, and all evil is only from the creature. It is this driving axiom that leads both to conclude that man cannot of his own "free will" choose what is pleasing to God, and that he cannot even of his own "free will" think right thoughts about the subject. The basic principle, that all good is from God alone, seems to me to be so obvious and foundational in Christian theology that one wonders how any believer can think of challenging it. What value can there possibly be in saying that the good choice of embracing the Gospel somehow originates within the sinner himself? As the saying goes, "you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip."

Surely man's rejection of the Gospel comes from himself. But let all the glory for everything good remain with the only One who is worthy of it.


  1. I always loved how Jesus answered that person, "Why do you call me good?" It was such a example set for us.

    Thanks for writing again Derek. Love you.

  2. Merks,

    Thank you, my friend. I would probably post more if I went on vacation more often.

    I appreciate your thoughts!


  3. Good morning, I'm french, and I wanted to know if I can use the picture of St Bernard to made a banner for a french forum association (Sarthe Animals Defense League - La Ligue de Défense des Animaux de la Sarthe). Thank you for your answer.

  4. Hello Gaetane,

    "Merci beaucoup" for your note. I do not happen to own the rights to this picture. It has been used extensively across the internet, and you can find dozens of copies by pasting this link into your browser:

    I hope you are able to find the owner and put the image to good use.



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