Sin Disproves Total Depravity?

I recently picked up a Stanley Hauerwas anthology (click here to view).

 As i was thumbing through its pages, a footnote at the end of an entry caught my eye.  I thought i would post it to see what everyone thought about it.

The footnote (on page 220) is a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s (anyone know much about him?  Haven’t read up on him yet.) book entitled The nature and Destiny of Man:

“Man loves himself inordinately.  Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion.  While such deception is constantly directed against competing wills,seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, its primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but the self.  The self must at any rate deceive itself first.  Its deception of others is partly an effort to convince itself against itself.  The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act.  The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity (emphasis mine).”

 Niebuhr’s point is basically that man’s attempt to deceive himself of being sinful presupposes that somewhere in his soul he knows that he isn’t living out who he was created to be and that he disobeying God.  Such an understanding, even it if is subconscious/intuitive shows that he is not totally depraved in the Calvinistic sense.

 I think that Niebuhr is on to something, especially if one considers this to be the way a person operates who never receives Christ, as this would require that either God’s call isn’t irresistible.  However, having a natural inclination to strongly resist deterministic theology, i freely admit that i might be jumping the gun here.

 Any thoughts on this?  Hopefully the more philosophically precise can help me out here.


5 responses to “Sin Disproves Total Depravity?

  1. Derek,

    I think you are on the right track. Granted, I have a theological bias as well, but that does not necessarily preclude our interactions as invalid, as I’m sure you well know. As I understand the Calvinist’s understanding of depravity, it would entail that we are indeed too wicked, too depraved to even have the knowledge to know. The only way one can be “enlightened” to this fact is for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to our depravity.

    Therefore, I wonder if one could then argue from the Calvinistic stance that the knowledge of one’s self not being the person he was created to be is simply the result of the HS enabling him to have such knowledge. Hmmmm…


  2. Hey aaron, thanks for the thoughts. I just posted this 15 minutes ago; you are quick!

    I agree that bias doesn’t equal TOTAL inability to figure things out. Just trying, however awkwardly, to be charitable.

    I agree with you that the HS would be the reformed response. The problem there to me would be that now the spirit does illumine all people (not just the “elect”), but not all for salvation. This seems to be problematic to me if for no other reason other than the spirit would be constantly holding this before the man, while being unwilling to take him to the “next level.”

    I guess it would fit in their system, but i still take issue with it on the grounds that while the role of the HS is to convict the world of sin (Jn 16), it also does much more. I guess i don’t see any reason from the Scripture why the Spirit picks and chooses. It seems to me that at this point Calvinists import other doctrinal and presuppositional considerations to remake the doctrine of the HS.

  3. Derek,

    We should go shoot some pool one of these days.

    There is no reason in the world we should not be hanging out, brother.


  4. hmmm … ok. I see what you’re saying. It was good seeing you and Beth on Sunday. We should get together this week. Just let me know when.


  5. I don’t think the author of that quote read his Calvin.

    Sin would disprove total depravity IF total depravity meant that humans were as depraved as they possibly could be and had no remnants of pre-fall image of God left.

    BUT proponents of the theological position of total depravity have never said that. Calvin didn’t and neither do the people that came after him. They’ve always maintained that while severely corrupted, some of the original image of God still remains.

    When it comes to the fall’s effect on human reason in discerning between good and evil, John Calvin himself said that it was something that was tainted but not destroyed by “total depravity”. He says: “Therefore, since reason, by which man discerns between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be entirely destroyed; but being partly weakened and partly corrupted” (Institutes: Book 2 Chapter 2)

    So, I would contend that total depravity teaches that man’s ability to recognize sin as such is “partly weakened and partly corrupted”, and hence the recognition of sin does not deflate the concept of total depravity. Niebuhr, probably not for the first time, has misread the reformed tradition.

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