Further Reflections on Total Depravity


In my previous post, Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity, I addressed some of the primary reasons I refuse to accept the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  This article generated a lot of interesting discussion, both on The Christian Watershed and on Facebook.  Sadly, due to time constraints, I was unable to interact, deeply, with many of the insightful comments that were made.  Hopefully, this article will make up for my lack of response.

Interestingly, virtually everyone who commented on my previous article focused, almost exclusively, on my first objection, which argued that if man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.  Hardly anyone addressed my second two objections: that Total Depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, and that, for a totally depraved creature, sin would be a virtue.  Accordingly, I would like to focus on the first objection (for the sake of clarification) and from there build several more arguments against Total Depravity.

Most of the questions or objections to my first argument seemed to flow from a basic misunderstanding of the term “nature.”  In light of this, let me take a moment to define this technical philosophical term.

When we speak of a things nature we are commenting about that which makes it what it is.  In other words, the nature of a thing is the essential quality which makes it what it is.      So, for example, if we said that man (in the universal sense: all “men”, both male and female) is made in the image of God we are making a statement about man’s  nature.  We are saying that being made in the image of God is an essential/universal quality of what it is to be a man.  If being made in the image of God is a part of the nature of man then any creature which is not made in the image of God is not a man.  Hence, we see that by changing the nature of thing we are changing what that thing is.

With this fresh in our minds, allow me to restate one of the basic conclusions of Total Depravity; namely, that due to the fall there was an ontological shift (i.e. a change in man’s nature) in man.  According to this view, sin is now a part of man’s nature; in other words, sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be a man (hence, the term totally depraved).  If this is true, then any creature who is without sin is not a man because sin is a necessary part of what it means to be man.

With these definitions in place, let’s revisit my first contention:

(1) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man is absolutely unlovable.

Put simply, a totally depraved creature would be unlovable because its very nature would be counter to God, who is the only being truly and perfectly lovable in and of Himself.

Several commentators actually accepted this point and argued that God loves what is unlovable; maintaining that this was simply a mystery.  However, to claim that God loves what is by nature unlovable is not “mysterious” . . . it is simply illogical.  Does it really make sense to claim that God loves a creature that we have established to be fundamentally unlovable?  Just think about this for a moment.  Saying that a creature is unlovable is claiming that there is nothing intrinsically lovable about said creature; can we then claim, with any consistency, that God loves something unlovable?

Furthermore, too say that a creature is unlovable is to say that that creature’s very nature is counter to THE GOOD (i.e. God).  But, how could God love what is necessarily counter to Himself?  Sin is not a substance it is a degradation of something good.  If, then, we accept that God is the Good, and that God has nothing to do with darkness, and that only good things come from God, and that God will never do anything which goes against Himself (i.e. the Good), then we cannot believe, coherently, that God could love a creature which is totally depraved.

Now that I’ve clarified this argument (I hope) allow me to address several other problems with total depravity which stem from this one.  In so doing, I also hope to address several other objections brought up by commentators.

(2) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then the image of God in man has been totally erased.  

Some commentators insisted, as most Reformed thinkers do, that man still maintains the image of God in spite of the fact that he is totally depraved.  However, like those who argue that God can love something which is by nature unlovable, this assertion is illogical.  It is simply incoherent to maintain that a creature is by nature a sinner and, hence, not good, while also maintaining that he is made in the image and likeness of Goodness Himself.  This is tantamount to claiming that you are by nature good and by nature not good which, of course, violates the law of noncontradiction.

To claim that a creature is made in the image of God is to claim that he is made in the image of Goodness.  There is no getting around the fact that such a creature, itself, would be good.  So understood, it is a matter of  necessity that any creature made in the image of God must lose this aspect of his nature in order to become totally depraved.  In other words, in order to accept the premise that man is by nature a sinner and unlovable  we must also accept that he is no longer made in the image and likeness of God.

However, as I clarified earlier, to alter the nature of a thing is to change the thing itself.  Thus, a man who was no longer made in the image of God would be no man at all.  If the image of God has been erased in a creature then so has that creatures humanity.

So, in order to be logically consistent with their beliefs, those who embrace total depravity must also admit that man no longer bears the image and likeness of God.  If this is true, however, we are no longer men but some freakish, unlovable, being which does not deserve its existence and, in fact, is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

(3) If sin was an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man could not exist.  

This assertion ties in directly to the previous one.  It stands to reason that our existence, as creatures, stems directly from God who has revealed Himself to us as The Existent One (Exodus 3:14).  It is God alone whose existence is necessary and who exists in and of Himself; everything else, all of creation, is contingent; that is to say, its existence is dependent upon God.  To say that a creature is totally depraved is to say that it is, by nature, counter to the Good (i.e. God); which is also to say that it is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

For it is God who gives all things existence.  How, therefore, can we consistently maintain that a creature whose nature is totally corrupted, evil, and counter to God, maintain its existence without also accepting that God creates and sustains pure substantiated evil.  Christians, however, have never accepted the premise that God creates and sustains evil; for this would put God in league with evil and make him the source and direct cause of all evil.  Most Christians have also, in line with the early church Fathers and especially St. Augustine, rejected the notion that sin is a substance at all.

The problem is, if we believe that God is the source of all existence and accept total depravity then we are accepting that sin is substantiated, that sin is a substance–being a part of the fundamental nature of man–and that God creates and sustains the existence of pure evil.  Clearly, this is at odds with everything we know about God from the scriptures!  A good and loving God who is light and who has no darkness in Him at all could not give existence to pure substantiated evil.  Hence, if sin was an essential/universal quality of what it is to be man then man could not exist; for God would not bring such a being into existence.

Actually, it stands to reason that God could not bring into existence something which is counter to Himself–sense He is the source of all existence.  Therefore, something which is by nature counter to Him could not exist.

Click here for the next article of this series.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Further Reflections on Total Depravity

  1. Still chewing on this…

    For me, the biggest theological implication of saying that man is “by nature” a sinner is that either Christ was a sinner or not really a man.

    On another note, I agree with your rejection of total depravity, but I find this to be an increasingly infuriating topic to discuss because of the multiplicity of definitions. Do we follow Augustine, Calvin, Beza, Dort, Edwards, Piper, or Driscoll in their understanding and characterization of total depravity? All are Reformed, yet each has his own way of articulating the doctrine with significant shifts from Auggie to Cal to Dort to J.Ed.

    Still chewing…

    1. I would say this is why I’ve changed my position from being against Total Depravity and being against any form of Total Depravity that locates said depravity within human nature. If they want to say our wills are totally depraved, while I would still disagree with the use of the word “totally,” it would at least provide some good ground for a discussion.

      But, you and Josh have more experience in this area than I do.

  2. I really like this. Its helped me clear up some of my own thoughts against the reformed positions that I’ve been thinking through.

    It seems like “If this is true, however, we are no longer men but some freakish, unlovable, being which does not deserve its existence and, in fact, is by nature counter to Existence Himself.” is exactly the view of man reformed perspectives put forth. I think its morally abhorrent and factually wrong.

  3. So are you saying that Christ died for people who are NATURALLY good but who just have a virus, and its origin is from outside of man? If that is the case, then we sin because of our social and economic surroundings and should not be held accountable for our actions, for the blame is on the human construct around us, not my own personal choice. And therefore since sin is just a mere byproduct of existence and is not a part of me, then salvation is not needed for I am still naturally good, it’s the world around me that is bad.

    Where did the hostility towards the divine come from if it did not come from the depravity of man’s will and emotion?

    … So I know where you are coming from, what is your definition of “Total Depravity” (which I dislike that term with a fiery passion)?

    If Jesus had, in his manhood, no ability to sin, how could he suffer in temptation to be effectively our high priest if he never experienced the weight of sin on man? Having a sin “nature” I don’t believe automatically makes you a “sinner” but the ability and propensity to do so. Having a sin nature I don’t think eradicates the Imago Dei for we are still crowned with glory and honor as Psalm 8 would say, but not we have the war of natures within us.

    1. Hey Andy, thanks for the comment. I don’t believe sin is a “virus, and its origin is from outside of man.” Sin is the result of man’s choice to worship the creation rather than the Creator; it is mans choice to turn away from God, to reject God’s law, and to act in a way which is not in accordance with his own nature, being made in the image of God. In this sense, sin is a degradation of, a corruption of, or a lack of good.

Comments are closed.