Criticisms of the Two-Nature View
Though I have argued that the two-nature view is a theologically accurate way to describe the believer’s struggle with sin and that Scripture itself supports such a view; nevertheless, the two-nature view has been subjected to severe criticism. That criticism has come mainly from within the Reformed camp. One of the most outspoken critics was B. B. Warfield. His views are found in an article entitled, “The Victorious Life,” which was originally written for the Princeton Theological Review in 1918 and later reprinted as part of his two-volume work, Perfectionism, in 1931.1 Equally important is Warfield’s review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s book, He That Is Spiritual, which appeared in the Princeton Theological Review in 1919.2 The significant point to note about Warfield’s opposition to the two-nature view is that his criticism was based on a particular formulation of the two-nature view. Warfield criticized Chafer’s presentation of two natures in the believer, not so much because of his two-nature terminology, but because Warfield believed Chafer’s particular two-nature viewpoint was defective as it related both to regeneration and sanctification. Warfield’s chief objection to Chafer was theological, not semantic. That this is the case can be demonstrated from the fact that Warfield’s own teacher in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Charles Hodge, used two-nature terminology,3 and, as we would expect, Warfield’s views on regeneration and sanctification are in full agreement with those of Hodge.4 A more recent Reformed theologian, Anthony Hoekema, whose views are substantially the same as Warfield’s, also firmly supports the concept of two natures in the believer.5
The two-nature view, as it was understood by Chafer and those who have followed him, is open to a number of criticisms. The Chaferian view6 of the two natures is defective, not because it is a two-nature view, but because of how the two natures are defined. Let us begin with Chafer’s explanation: “Having received the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) while still retaining the old nature, every child of God possesses two natures; one is incapable of sinning, and the other is incapable of holiness.”7 This definition of the two natures is immediately problematic because it moves away from the truth that a nature is a complex of attributes, a set of characteristics, a disposition that characterizes the individual. To say that the new nature cannot sin suggests that it is an autonomous, separate entity, since only an entity can sin. This opens up the Chaferian view to the charge of an additional personality within the believer. Though Chafer naturally denies any suggestion of two personalities;8 nevertheless, it is still a problem, as Warfield illustrates:
At any rate it belongs ineradicably to “the Christian” to turn on the old carnal nature, or the new Spiritual nature, as he may choose, and let it act for him. Who this “Christian” is who possesses this power it is a little puzzling to make out. He cannot be the old carnal nature, for that old carnal nature cannot do anything good—and presumably, therefore, would never turn on the Spirit in control. He cannot be the new Spiritual nature, for this new Spiritual nature cannot do anything evil—and the “Christian” “may choose to walk after the flesh.” Is he possibly some third nature: We hope not, because two absolutely antagonistic and noncommunicating natures seem enough to be in one man.9
The Chaferian view of the natures is also defective because it denies that they are subject to change. The new nature is, according to Chafer, “incapable of sinning” and the old nature is “incapable of holiness.” The new nature “is a regeneration or creation of something wholly new which is possessed in conjunction with the old nature so long as the child of God is in this body.”10 Thus the believer has two equally powerful natures which remain in him as long as he lives and which remain unchanged during that time. This, of course, leads to a continual conflict within the believer and results in a view of sanctification which Ryrie calls the “counteraction of the new nature of the believer against the old.”11 The believer makes progress in sanctification as he yields to the Holy Spirit who is able to counteract the old nature and empower the new. Lawrence explains it well:
The flesh will never change…. This means that the flesh will always and only do what sin, under the control of Satan, directs it to do. All efforts to change the flesh are futile; the only thing that can be done with the flesh is to bring it under the control of a greater power.12
That “greater power” is the Holy Spirit who counteracts the old nature as believers are filled with the Spirit. “The filling of the Spirit,” as Walvoord says, “is the secret to sanctification.”13
The problem with the Chaferian view is that it seems to leave a part of the individual—the old nature—untouched by either regeneration or sanctification. Again, this sounds like the old nature is some sort of autonomous entity. But if the old nature is a part of the individual, which, of course, it must be; then some aspect of the believer would appear to be unaffected by regeneration and resulting sanctification. The same could be said for the new nature. If, as Chafer says, it is incapable of sinning, we are left with another part of man that needs no saving.
The more correct and more “biblical teaching is rather that the Christian’s total self is progressively renewed and restored throughout the sanctifying process.”14 At regeneration a new disposition (new nature) is created within the soul. Sanctification affects both this new disposition as well as the old (old nature). Hoekema defines sanctification “as that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which he delivers us from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to him.”15 By “pollution” Hoekema means the “corruption of our nature which is the result of sin and which, in turn, produces further sin.” He adds: “In sanctification the pollution of sin is in the process of being removed (though it will not be totally removed until the life to come).”16 This was Warfield’s point when he argued that in sanctification God
cures our sinning precisely by curing our sinful nature; He makes the tree good that the fruit may be good. It is, in other words, precisely by eradicating our sinfulness—“the corruption of our hearts”—that He delivers us from sinning…. To imagine that we can be saved from the power of sin without the eradication of the corruption in which the power of sin has its seat, is to imagine that an evil tree can be compelled to bring forth good fruit.17
Warfield’s use of the term eradication may seem somewhat strange to those of us who have been used to using the term in a pejorative sense as it is applied to those types of Christian experience which tend toward perfectionism—the complete eradication of the sinful nature as a present experience for the believer—but, of course, Warfield was violently opposed to any such idea of sanctification. By eradication, Warfield means a progressive and gradual process, not an instantaneous one. Neither does Warfield diminish the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s sanctification. But he argues that the Spirit dwells within us in order to affect us, not merely our acts; in order to eradicate our sinfulness and not merely to counteract its effects. The Scriptures’ way of cleansing the stream is to cleanse the fountain; they are not content to attack the stream of our activities, they attack directly the heart out of which the issues of life flow. But they give us no promise that the fountain will be completely cleansed all at once, and therefore no promise that the stream will flow perfectly purely from the beginning. We are not denying that the Spirit leads us in all our acts, as well as purifies our hearts. But we are denying that His whole work in us, or His whole immediate work in us, or His fundamental work in us, terminates on our activities and can be summed up in the word “counteraction.” Counteraction there is; and suppression there is; but most fundamentally of all there is eradication; and all these work one and the self-same Spirit.18
At regeneration the believer is changed, but it is not a change of substance. Instead, it is a change in direction, a change in disposition. Whereas the unbeliever has only one direction, one disposition—toward sin and away from God—the believer is now a “new creature” (2 Cor 5:17) with a new direction, a new disposition—toward God and holiness. He now has characteristics or attributes which incline him toward holiness—a new nature—what Warfield calls the implantation of holy dispositions.19 Though genuinely new, the believer is not totally new.20
Therefore, he still retains those old characteristics or attributes which incline him toward sin—his old nature—what Warfield calls the “native tendencies to evil.”21 In sanctification the old nature is progressively being eradicated and the new nature is being “nourished”22 so that it will ultimately supplant the old. However, ultimate perfection, final and complete sanctification—the total eradication of the old nature and the complete implantation of the new nature—is not, as Scripture makes clear, the believer’s portion as long as he dwells in this mortal body; but it is the ultimate destiny of every believer, for one day “we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
1 The most important essays from the two-volume set have been reprinted in one volume by Presbyterian and Reformed (1958).
3 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:221–224. Cf. John F. Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective,” in Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 200.
4 Warfield’s textbook in his theology classes was Hodge’s Systematic Theology (David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2 vols. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, 1996, 2:204). Warfield’s immediate predecessor in the chair of theology at Princeton, A. A. Hodge, also used two-nature terminology (A. A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1890, p. 296).
5 “The Struggle Between Old and New Natures in the Converted Man,” pp. 42–50 and Saved by Grace, p. 214.
6 This label has been suggested by Charles C. Ryrie (“Contrasting Views on Sanctification,” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell Chicago: Moody Press, 1982, p.191). As Randall Gleason has pointed out (“B. B. Warfield and Lewis S. Chafer on Sanctification,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 June 1997: 245), Chafer’s view on sanctification and the two natures is exactly the same as his mentor, C. I. Scofield (cf. Scofield’s view in his Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, n.d., pp. 66–74). It is also, according to Charles Ryrie, the view of himself and John F. Walvoord (“Contrasting Views on Sanctification,” p. 199). In his own article on sanctification, Walvoord calls his view “The Augustinian- Dispensational Perspective” (in Five Views on Sanctification, pp. 199–226). Whatever the title, Walvoord’s view is essentially that of Chafer. Gleason observes that “Walvoord’s expression ‘the Augustinian-Dispensational perspective’…appears to be a misnomer, since there is little theological relationship between Chafer’s unique perspective on sanctification and his dispensational distinctives” (“Warfield and Chafer on Sanctification,” p. 241, n. 2).
7 Lewis S. Chafer, Major Bible Themes (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1927), p. 161.
8 Systematic Theology, 2:347.
9 Perfectionism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958), p. 374.
10 Chafer, Systematic Theology, 2:347.
11 “Contrasting Views on Sanctification,” p. 191.
12 William D. Lawrence, “The Traitor in the Gates: The Christian’s Conflict with the Flesh,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, ed. Stanley D. Toussaint and Charles H. Dyer (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), pp. 128–29.
13 Five Views on Sanctification, p. 101.
14 Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, p. 111.
15 Saved by Grace, p. 192.
16 Ibid., pp. 192–93.
17 Perfectionism, p. 368.
18 Ibid., p. 371.
19 “On the Biblical Notion of Renewal,” p. 372.
20 Hoekema, Five Views on Sanctification, p. 231.
21 “On the Biblical Notion of Renewal,” p. 372.
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.