Some Comments on Total Depravity

I’ve gotten a number of insightful and thought-provoking comments here on the blog since I started it in April. And honestly, it’s the biggest thing keeping me going on this at times. If I felt like this was just an echo chamber for people who already felt the same way that I do, I’d have a hard time justify devoting any significant amount of time to it; as it is, because I hear so many unique perspectives, it’s constantly enjoyable. This week, I wanted to spotlight some of the recent comments, and respond to them, as appropriate.

Up first, here’s what Christopher had to say about the post about C.S. Lewis on total depravity:

I’m not really sure what your question is! I’m no apologist and am usually hesitant to comment here as I can’t compare to your splendid resourcefulness. But… I have read a lot of C S Lewis and I think that the key to absorbing him as a writer is that he does a lot of thinking out loud, despite his apparent care in his words. I liken him a bit to Pascal where much of his writing is more beautiful in its prose than helpful in its true conclusions. I’m most assuredly no match to his intellect but I think it’s safe to say that he tried to provide sure answers to questions of faith that even he was still unsure of. (After all, all of his “Catholic” ways of thinking never led him to the Church, and yes I understand his Ulster loyalty even as Anglicanism began to crumble but it’s no excuse.) His words are beautiful and poetic and soothing even when they are disturbing.

This is, I think, a very fair criticism of Lewis’ writings in general, particularly (in my opinion) those outside of Mere Christianity, which were intended for people with a bit of background in the area. Since he assumes an educated readership in these works, he isn’t afraid to present some sort of novel interpretations or positions, although certainly, he intends to stay within the confines of orthodoxy. His views on hell, in particular, are somewhat unique, and I know that Joseph Pearce has argued that he basically looked to himself as a final authority on certain questions regarding purgatory (Pearce was a bit nicer, but this was the basic argument).

That said, I find myself very frequently agreeing with Lewis’ positions, except those obviously at odds with the Catholic Church (there are few of these). I prefer him greatly to what little of Pascal I’ve read, but on the whole, I am trying to withhold judgment on Pascal, since I know a lot of much smarter people than myself, like Peter Kreeft, who are fans (at least, Kreeft seems to be). I assume they’re seeing something I haven’t been exposed to yet from reading short segments of his work.

Proof of God’s goodness begins in our very creation and culminates in our salvation. I don’t understand any other way around that except in the possible case that someone is not questioning the goodness of God but rather in the goodness (or even the existence) of ANY God. That’s a different matter. In which case, I refer as last resort again back to Pascal and his “wager”.

I think that Lewis’ point is that for us to say “God is good,” and have ‘good’ mean anything objective, Goodness must be both objective and in some form knowable. That is, we cannot be so wholly depraved as to no longer have a sense of right and wrong. If unregenerate man has no way of knowing right from wrong, he has no way of knowing that God is good, or that good is preferable to evil, etc. There is, in short, no way to evaluate good and evil. In addition to everything that Lewis has argued, this would also seemingly place man beyond (or beneath) judgment, in the same manner that it would be immoral to punish an animal for sin or vice, if they have no concept of right and wrong behavior. Nothing good could come of punishing unwitting violators, and it wouldn’t serve to further any sense of justice, either.

All of that said, I have to agree with DJ AMDG that Lewis’ use of total depravity is different than the way that most Calvinists today use the term, from his comment here:

The problem I have with both Lewis’ and Most’s view is with how they are defining Total Depravity. Both the Augustinian and Reform understanding of Total Depravity had to do with the inability by man to DO anything reaching a degree of perfect good. The definition didn’t have to do with man’s ability to ‘know’ good from evil or recognize God’s goodness. The classical understanding also never meant that a degree of goodness wasn’t attainable…only that the perfect goodness (as represented by God/Christ and required for eternal salvation) was not attainable by man on his own.

This is why Lewis’ argument falls as does Most’s, in my opinion. Just because I have no ability whatsoever to tune a piano doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize when a piano is in tune or when it has recently been tuned.


To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with early Calvinism to know whether (or to what extent) the ability to know good from evil is discussed. However, the Synod of Dordt, as authoritative a statement as Calvinism has ever produced, responding to the “error” that “unregenerate man is not strictly or totally dead in his sins or deprived of all capacity for spiritual good but is able to hunger and thirst for righteousness or life and to offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit which is pleasing to God,” they responded that this error was contrary to Scripture in part because: “The imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all the time (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). Besides, to hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer God the sacrifice of a broken spirit is characteristic only of the regenerate and of those called blessed (Ps. 51:17; Matt. 5:6).”

Although I may be misunderstanding what’s being said here, it seems very strongly like: (1) The canons of Dordt fundamentally misunderstand human nature (to suggest that non-elect don’t mind misery, or at least, don’t desire to be saved from misery, seems cruel and bizarre); (2) that to the extent that the unregenerate desire what they believe is good, it necessarily is not good; and therefore that (3) the unregenerate cannot tell good from evil.

Again, I may be misunderstanding, and even if I’m not, no Calvinist is hidebound to follow everything which Dordt set down. Nevertheless, it’d be helpful to know, because it impacts whether or not what Lewis and Most have written is helpful in this regard. In fairness to Fr. Most, his point was more a positive statement of what Christ’s love is like — that is, that it’s something we can understand. I was the one saying that if Fr. Most is right about that, then it necessarily disqualifies certain premises, like that God’s goodness is what we would call evil; or that God would desire to create some humans only to damn them (I think he does mention that point somewhere in the text). If Jesus has a human heart, even a moderately good human being would never create someone solely to torture them under the guise of “justice,” particularly if the “justice” were triggerred by original sin. By this standard, Christ could have tortured babies during His earthly life. None of us would protest calling that an evil act unfitting to our Divine Lord. He did not cease to have a human heart post-Ascension, and indeed, His divine love exceeds human love, it doesn’t replace it with something strange and cruel.

By the way, thanks for the comments – I really enjoy reading what you have to say and trying to respond. Keep it up!

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