Is Man Great, Or Is He Vile? – Pascal and the Puritans and the Nature of Man

My current reading has brought together two perspectives on an important question about the nature of man. I am reading, on the one hand, a bit about the history of colonial America and some of the leaders of that time. One of the important groups during that time, of course, was the the Puritans. I have much sympathy with them and much respect for them. There is one point about them that might call for a good examination, though. I might ask, how ought we to view ourselves as men? How ought we to view mankind?

My experience with the Puritans firsthand is not extensive enough to claim any authority as an expert, but the little experience I do have gives me the indication that they are rather self-deprecating in their language about themselves. Reading, for instance, in a biography about John Winthrop some correspondence between him and his wife, you will find that each of them sees themselves as about the worst sinner in the world. Here are some excerpts:

I thanke thee for thy kinde lettres ; But I knowe not what to saye for myselfe ; I should mende & growe a better husband, havinge the helpe & example of so good a wife, but I growe still worse.

I am ashamed and greved with my selfe that I have no thinge within or without worthy of thee, and yet it pleaseth thee to except of both and to rest contented. I had need to amend my life and pray to God for more grace that I may not deceve you of those good hopes which you have of me, — a sinfull woman, full of infirmyties, continually fayleinge of what I desire and what 1 ought to perlorme to the Lorde and thy selfe.

Now, we know that there is certainly the important truth to be seen that man is full of sin and vile. We each know this about ourselves in our hearts. The Puritans certainly understood this fact and exposed it to men very plainly in their preaching and in their lives. It is a good thing.

But could it perhaps have gone a bit too far? Is there not another side of things that should moderate our language about ourselves?

What about the truth that man was made in the very image of God? What about the truth that man was given authority and dominion over all this earth, that man is the most noble of all creatures that God has placed here? What about the true value of so many good things that can be said of man: Intellect, sympathy, wisdom, etc.

There are some seeds of this that remain throughout the world in spite of the fall of man, it seems to me, but we can certainly at least see these inherent virtues as found in Christians, redeemed men who have been delivered from the bondage to corruption. As Christians, we are no longer slaves of sin and corrupt in all our ways, are we? Ought Christians to disparage themselves at all times?

This is not to deny that we indeed must be fully aware of our inherent sinfulness. But it is to say that that is not the whole of the story. Man is vile, it is true. But is he not also great? As strange as it might seem at first, the humanism that celebrates the greatness of mankind is not all wrong. Certainly, it errs in isolating this truth and seeing it alone as if there was not the vileness of man as well. It fails to see man in relation to the greatness of God Himself. This imbalance is a common way for truth to be converted to error, it seems to me. But nonetheless, I don’t think that the answer is to deny that man was created with glorious blessings from God.

And I think that the Puritans would also acknowledge this, but sometimes perhaps their language is a bit one-sided, mainly when speaking about themselves rather than about others.

I see another message in my other reading. I think that Pascal, in his Pensees, hits well on the truth in many ways, that man is a combination of both greatness and vileness, and if we forget either one of the two, we will err. He is often observing things this way. Here are a couple of contrasting and yet complementary quotes that demonstrate this:

No other religion has proposed to men to hate themselves. No other religion then can please those who hate themselves, and who seek a Being truly lovable. (2352-53)

No other religion has recognised that man is the most excellent creature. Some, which have quite recognised the reality of his excellence, have considered as mean and ungrateful the low opinions which men naturally have of themselves; and others, which have thoroughly recognised how real is this vileness, have treated with proud ridicule those feelings of greatness, which are equally natural to man. (2145-48)

Thus, Christianity is a religion that recognizes both the vileness of man, who is to be hated, as well as the excellence of man.

Pascal sees in man the potential for both vileness and greatness:

What, then, will man become? Will he be equal to God or the brutes? What a frightful difference! What, then, shall we be? Who does not see from all this that man has gone astray, that he has fallen from his place, that he anxiously seeks it, that he cannot find it again? And who shall then direct him to it? The greatest men have failed. (2151-53)

Notice, though, how he recognizes plainly that all men have entered into the path of failure that leads to vileness. One thing that Pascal repeatedly emphasizes, though, is that even fallen man “feels” something of his innate greatness, that is, that he was not created to be such as he is, vile. He knows that he is meant to be so very different. This creates an inward struggle and contradiction within the heart of man.

Pascal recognizes plainly that only by the grace of God can a man be transformed into greatness and saved from vileness:

Whence it clearly seems that man by grace is made like unto God, and a partaker in His divinity, and that without grace he is like unto the brute beasts. (2214-15)

It is important, I think, to see the positive side, here, without losing the negative. He urges us not to fall into the error of so seeing the vileness of fallen man that we despair of any hope. He insists that the power of God is sufficient to grant us hope:

Man is not worthy of God, but he is not incapable of being made worthy. It is unworthy of God to unite Himself to wretched man; but it is not unworthy of God to pull him out of his misery. (2501-3)

Pascal rightly notes, in my opinion, the danger of not having both sides present:

The knowledge of God without that of man’s misery causes pride. The knowledge of man’s misery without that of God causes despair. The knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our misery. (2555-56)

Christianity is strange. It bids man recognise that he is vile, even abominable, and bids him desire to be like God. Without such a counterpoise, this dignity would make him horribly vain, or this humiliation would make him terribly abject. (2578-80)

For the redeemed Christian, both of these sides are held together in beautiful harmony:

With how little pride does a Christian believe himself united to God! With how little humiliation does he place himself on a level with the worms of earth! A glorious manner to welcome life and death, good and evil! (2580-82)

At times, one side or the other may find an imbalanced prominence, and then Pascal would remind us of the need for the combination and balance between the two sides:

A person told me one day that on coming from confession he felt great joy and confidence. Another told me that he remained in fear. Whereupon I thought that these two together would make one good man, and that each was wanting in that he had not the feeling of the other. (2559-61)

The final point, the culmination of Pascal’s proper grasp of these truths is his emphasis upon the fact that these two great principles of greatness and humiliation are brought together perfectly in the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ:

Men before Jesus Christ did not know where they were, nor whether they were great or small. (2154-55)

Pascal sees that the truth is summed up in the person of Jesus Christ, where the God of all greatness united Himself to this infinitely small and vile creature, man. Thus, man is exalted to a dignity and greatness for which he was made, but of which he is himself so unworthy. This great mystery of mysteries has so much to teach us!


About amspencer1984

I am a Christian who desires to serve in God's kingdom in the best way possible. I have served as a foreign missionary in southern Mexico. I have worked as a youth minister at my local church of Grace Baptist in Dickson, TN. I have also recently begun to write books with a desire to help others grow in life. I hope that they are helpful and effective in doing that. I have been married to Alicia Spencer since 2003. We have six children and give thanks to God for all of them.
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