Implications of total depravity
Religion & Liberty Online

Implications of total depravity

From Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Black Cat, first published in 1843:

And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness…this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only…

This is one of the better prosaic descriptions of the theological doctrine of total depravity, commonly identified as one of the five characteristic teachings of Reformed theology.

The label “total depravity” can be somewhat misleading, however. For as Poe’s narrators tend to embody the worst possible traits to the greatest possible degree, the doctrine is more about the comprehensive effects of sin than it is about the qualitative corruption. That is, the doctrine of total depravity means most properly that no area of the human person or human life is unaffected by sin. It does not mean that every area of human life is as bad as it could possibly be. This latter misunderstanding of the doctrine of total depravity is apparently the one which C. S. Lewis works with, when he states in his The Problem of Pain,

I disbelieve that doctrine [Total Depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.

To read the classic Reformed statement on this doctrine from the Canons of Dort is to see that Lewis argues against a straw man. The Canons affirm that man,

rebelling against God at the devil’s instigation and by his own free will…he brought upon himself blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in his mind; perversity, defiance, and hardness in his heart and will; and finally impurity in all his emotions (Head III/IV, Article I).

The result?

All people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform (Head III/IV, Article III).

The key to note here is that the distinction is made between “saving good” or what is called later “spiritual good,” and common or public good. For the Canons go on to assert, in agreement with Lewis, that,

there is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior (Head III/IV, Article 4).

Such public virtue and common grace are completely unable to rise to the level of Christian good, and fall especially short of saving or meritorious good.

The implications for all this with respect to political engagement by Christians is a certain amount of trepidation and healthy skepticism about the effectiveness of any public reforms. Since the taint of sin is so widespread and so corrupting, no area of human life, no human institution, no human person is immune to the degenerative effects of sin and evil.

We are called to be faithful, not necessarily effective. This results in a certain amount of humility and willingness to suffer for what is right and good in this world, knowing that the consummation of human history will only finally be accomplished with Christ’s second coming as triumphant Lord.

Indeed, much of what Christians are called to do in public life is to simply act in favor of and be the voice of restraint and preservation, and to promote public virtue. The greater mission of the Church is, of course, to evangelize the people of the world, and thereby act as the occasion for the renewal of the human person. This renewed human person is the basis of a society characterized not merely by public or civic good, but by Christian or spiritual good.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.