Parsing Calvinism: Give me a T

While I realize my writing here has tended toward a more existential bent of late, I’ve decided to dive back into discussing some doctrinal issues here as well. A good friend of mine has recently decided to work through the five points of Calvinism on his blog and give some reflections on how he understands them. While I have neither the time nor ability to mimic the insightfully literate approach he’s taking here, I figured I’d throw in my two cents.

I often run into shocked expressions and the occasional brandishing of a holy symbol to ward off the demons when people find out that I would describe myself theologically as a Calvinist (or at least Calvin-ish). This is often the result of either misunderstanding or a past encounter with a Krazy Kalvinist ™. I’m hoping to work through the first issue a bit. As to the second, well, the sad truth is I’d be a rich man if I really owned the intellectual property to Christian nutjobs. I pray I’m not one of them, despite the voices in my head and occasional psychotic episode. I should also state up front that while I do willingly wear labels like Reformed, Calvinistic and Presbyterian, they’re not the banners I want to die under. I love Jesus and the gospel. I think the above labels summarize true assessments of some things His Word teaches us. I do my best not to confuse the two categories. I’d appreciate it if you returned the favor.

One of the strange accidents of history is that we’ve been left with an acrostic by which Calvinism is typically explained. This is unfortunate not just because the letters spell TULIP (which makes me feel like a pansy – although that’s actually a type of violet), but also because acrostics tend to have an inverse pithiness-to-clarity ratio. Still, that history is the one I find myself in, so I’m going to try working out the way I understand each of the five points, both in their original intention and their modern application. I don’t have time or space to give an in-depth biblical defense of the five points at the moment, although I’m not unwilling to. I simply think the way a lot of people I know understand them is a bit skewed, and would like to offer my corrective thoughts. As always, if you don’t think I’m a very good theologian, its because I’m not one. I’m a guy with a blog and 2/3 of a seminary degree. I’m not putting on a pointy white hat and speaking infallible truth from on high; I’m just offering my thoughts.

But without further ado: on to the first point.

Total Depravity

T in the typical five-point outline of Calvinism stands for “Total Depravity.” A cheery place to begin. The normal way people hear this is that Calvinism teaches everyone on the earth is an absolute, good-for-nothing wretch who’s never done a nice thing in his or her life and is either a pedophile, a serial killer, or would be if they weren’t just big chickens. Unfortunately, the rhetoric we in the Reformed crowd have brought to bear on this point sometimes accentuates this impression. I’ve heard enough worms-and-maggots talk that I’ve been tempted to cut myself in half and see if I’m able to reproduce that way.

More seriously, the question revolves around what’s “total” about our sinfulness. Anyone reading the bible recognizes that it teaches there is something seriously wrong with human beings – we call that depravity. We hurt people, we rebel against God, we are selfish and idolatrous and don’t give money to the people ringing Salvation Army bells at Christmas. The tension centers around what sense we understand this depravity’s totality (wow, a rhyme). The way it sounds to most people, it seems to imply that people are as rotten as they possibly could be.

The problem, of course, is that doesn’t fit with our experience of the world. Oh sure, in the isolated Fundamentalist communities they can rant against the godless pagans. Problem is, one of those godless pagans helped me get my car out of the snow yesterday, and many of them are people I would consider friends. They volunteer at homeless shelters, invite you over for dinner, and make a remarkably good show of being people who don’t seem any worse than the rest of us. It’s impossible to believe that they never do anything we would recognize as good or admirable (I think St. Paul would agree, as passages like Romans 2:14-15 seem to indicate). So if I can say that, how can I still be a Calvinist?

The simple answer is that I think we’ve misunderstood the “total” part if we take it that way. A good general rule of theology is that theological words almost never mean what we might first take them to be saying (I’m sure it’s not intentional; theologians just tend to have the rare linguistic disease of academiatis). It’s important to see total depravity as arguing against specific errors and understand it in that light. So, in what senses is our depravity as sinful human beings total?

1. Our depravity is total in that it infects every thing we do. That isn’t to say that Joe the Atheist doesn’t do wonderful and admirable things; I’ve never met him, but I hear he’s swell. Rather, it’s to say that since Joe isn’t doing these things out of love for God, they are still tainted with sin. They aren’t actions he can present to God and demand his dues.

It might seem arbitrary for us to say that good acts are still sinful if they’re done for a motive other than love, but it’s exactly the way things work in our lives. If your child gives you a hug out of sheer love for you, you feel great. If you know it’s only so they can have an extra cookie or get out of a punishment, you feel used. It’s no different with the Father. He made everything and all of us, and when we obey His law for reasons other than childlike love and affection, we’re just using Him to get our cosmic cookie.

The first reason we need to believe total depravity is that it’s the answer to the I’m-A-Decent-Bloke approach to salvation. Without our hearts set right with God, we can’t use our actions to bribe Him into giving us eternal life or any other blessing. It’s not that we haven’t done good things, its just that we’ve ultimately done those good things to manipulate and browbeat the One worthy of our humble worship – and that, however you slice it, is depraved.

2. Our depravity is also total in that it affects every part of our being. This is where the historical arguments that created the five points really laid the emphasis. It’s easy for us to blame sin on certain aspects of our humanity. Maybe we blame our physical bodies, or our sex drives, or our appendixes. We see some parts of us as fallen, and other parts as still neutral in the cosmic struggle.

Historically, it was the mind and the will which were the two hot-button issues. Some ancient writers tended to view the intellect as unaffected by sin, able to reason things out and come to a saving knowledge of the truth all on its own (this is hardly surprising, since these people tended to be the ones with the brightest minds, and hence the most to lose if the pristine perfection of the intellect was sullied). Many others, including Jacob Arminius (the guy who started the whole five-point controversy), wanted to make the will neutral, at least in matters of salvation and with some help from a conveniently-invented extra dose of divine grace.

I have to confess up front that the question of human will is a complicated one, and we’re going to talk about it in a future post. However, without diving into that shark tank, I’d still argue that this aspect of total depravity is hugely important today for two reasons. First, it demolishes out idols. The parts of ourselves we get most uptight about acknowledging as fallen are almost always the parts we use to replace God and His law. We want to make our reason, our emotion, our sexuality, our economic relationships, our political systems, or some other part our our beings or societies able to transcend the brokenness that besets creation. It is no accident that we then invest our true significance in these things. But Calvinism reminds all of us that everything we do is affected by Adam’s sin and our own, and we don’t get any exception clauses.

Second, total depravity emphasizes the greatness of God’s grace. When we partition off certain parts as sinful, we minimize the work of redemption which Christ has accomplished. We make the cross about removing a few warts instead of total reconstructive surgery. However, when we see that sin affects every part of our being, we understand that God’s gracious work in our lives is changing every part of us. His blessings are flowing as far as the curse is found.

One final note needs to be made on this point. I firmly believe all of these things are true. However, in their rush to affirm them, many of my fellow Calvinists say things like “we’re all totally depraved.” Nowhere does the bible teach this idea. Instead it tells us that without the grace of Christ we would all be in such a condition, but that by the transforming work of the gospel and the Holy Spirit believers are made into new creations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way saying Christians are better than the aforementioned godless heathens. However, there’s no reason we can’t be. While we’ll discuss some of this more in following posts, we need to be careful not to speak as if sin still has dominion over us. I was totally depraved, I am still a sinner saved by grace, but the power of that grace is at work in me destroying sin’s dominion. I should not indulge in self-loathing theological flagellation; rather, I should embrace the good news that God has set me free.

So much for the first point; hopefully in the next week I’ll put up a post addressing Unconditional Election – and no, that’s not what happens when the Supreme Court decides who gets to be President.


Filed under Theologia

2 responses to “Parsing Calvinism: Give me a T

  1. Good post. 🙂

    When I first discovered Calvinism, I also thought Total Depravity (TD)meant that there was no good in any of us, etc. I think a point that a lot of people miss, however, is that we fall short in our understanding of TD because we have a tendency to compare our deeds in light of ourselves (or humanity). We instead, however, should compare our deeds with those of God and in that light, even our good deeds are that of filthy rags. It’s not so much the wrongs that we do that earn us condemnation but to whom we are committing the offense against. That’s not to say that our sins aren’t intrinsically wrong but that the condemnation that is rightly due to us for our transgression is because we have sinned against a holy righteous God.

    Sinning against a holy righteous God and having a proper understanding of this concept also puts eternity into light. If condemnation (going to hell) was intrinsically linked to deeds then it would stand to reason that an 80 year old man, for example, would deserve 80 years in hell if he died in his sins. This isn’t what happens though. Instead, the 80 year old man will go to hell for eternity because he has sinned against an eternal God.

    May it all be for His glory,

  2. Pingback: Five Points of Calvinism – Unconditional election « Notes from a Small Place

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