The doctrine of human depravity has been described variously ranging from the “most cheerful doctrine” (Chesterton) to a morbid insult about God’s creation to “man’s wickedness constantly overflowing with evil” (Calvin), which logically requires certain governmental correlates. Augustine saw the necessity of government as a restraining mechanism for society’s good. Accordingly, his anthropology implied certain political dynamics and provided a true paradigm shift in Christian theologizing.
Thus, it should not be surprising that Augustinian formulations rendezvoused with Calvinistic formulations on matters of civil government. This paper explores that link, which was separated by a millennium and differing traditions. A comparison of the anthropology of Augustine with that of Calvin, however, explains the homology both in church and state constructs.
Augustine, the ‘theologian of low expectations,’ set forth a pessimistic (actually, realistic) view of human nature. As such, he (and Calvin later) also expected less from civil regimes, viewing civil government as a correlate of the Fall and necessarily to be limited in scope. Later, when Calvin and his disciples began to explicate a less culturally-accommodating polity, one result was curbed government.
This first part of this paper seeks to review Augustine’s anthropology, with special attention to his Civitatis Dei, and bracket that as a driving force for his subsequent political formulation. The latter half of the paper seeks to demonstrate how Calvin adheres to a similar anthropology, leading to progress in political theory.
An important intellectual fulcrum is discovered by comparing how polity is affected by a common anthropology asserted by Augustine and Calvin. Seeing the Fall as the origination of delimited human governments necessarily de-emphasizes the political, restoring it to its proper perspective. In both the fourth century and in all centuries, too close identification of any earthly polis with the heavenly polis is a danger to avoid.
Augustine’s anthropology, factoring in the noetic effects of the Fall, logically required certain polity limits, whether in church or state. The optimistic Pelagian anthropology, in contrast, could not provide a reasonable bulwark to limit civil power. Radical for its time, Augustine was pre-modern, realizing that due to the inherent sinfulness of political agents, state utopianism was impossible; thus, his theory exhibited a realism that would also characterize later Calvinists.
Original sin, or privative anthropology, served as a lever in the development of other political variables. If human agents were fundamentally fallen, then trust for any human structures would necessarily be limited, curtailed, non-utopian, or circumscribed. Augustinian Calvinists, however, would be the developers of this theory a millennium later.
Presaging Calvin, Augustine’s views on depravity affected his expectations and resulting restraints on human governors. As the apex of the patristic period, Augustine (and Calvin later) charted advances in human government, acknowledging that if men were perfect, government would not be needed. Their anthropology may have been an unappreciated key to their similar thought.