Reforming Calvinism, pt. 5: Total Depravity

This is the second post in my effort to recast the first of the five points of Calvinism, ‘Total depravity’ in an Evangelical Calvinist way. If you have not done so already, I would recommend that before proceeding you read the previous entries in this series here: Reforming Calvinism.Totaly-Depravity-AVATAR

In my last post, I suggested that ‘Total depravity’ should be reformulated by beginning with Jesus Christ as the archetypal imago Dei rather than with who we are as fallen human beings. The reason, as we discovered, is that we will never be able to truly discern the depths of our depravity until we are confronted by the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus Christ, just as we can never see clearly in the darkness until the light breaks in and dispels it. Now I would like to describe what I see as the second modification, flowing from and building on the first, that should be made to the traditional doctrine. What I am about to propose may not seem particularly new or radical (or maybe it will?), but it will have significant ramifications when we arrive at later points, especially the atonement.

I would like to begin by quoting Athanasius from his famous treatise On the Incarnation of the Word. Athansius was a fourth century theologian remembered as the foremost champion and exponent of pro-Nicene theology over against the so-called ‘Arians’ who in various ways denied the fully equality of Jesus Christ with God the Father. Here is Athanasius as he begins to explain the reason why it was necessary for God himself in the person of the Son to assume human flesh in order to redeem humanity:

For in speaking of the appearance of the Saviour amongst us, we must needs speak also of the origin of men, that you may know that the reason of His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, that the Lord should both make haste to help us and appear among men. For of His becoming Incarnate we were the object, and for our salvation He dealt so lovingly as to appear and be born even in a human body. Thus, then, God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves (as was said in the former treatise), received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king. For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.

For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption…

Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought? For His it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all. For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father. [1]

Let me highlight a couple of important points. First, Athanasius underscores the ontological effects that sin has on humanity. In contrast to the ways in which Latin or Western Christianity has tended to emphasize the moral/legal aspects of sin (sin as transgression of law that accrues a debt which must be paid in order to satisfy the demands of God’s justice), Greek or Eastern Christianity tended to emphasize, as is evidenced here, the ontological consequences of sin. It is not that Athanasius overlooks the legal element, for he recognizes that sin involves “transgression of the commandment”. But he goes further, stressing that sin corrupts the very being of humanity itself and that it leads ultimately to dissolution and nothingness. Human beings were created from nothing (ex nihilo) and continue to exist only because they are upheld by his Word. Sin, however, entails a turning away from God, the only source of life, and this can only mean a turning back toward nothingness (Gen. 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). For Athanasius, the fall into sin is essentially a fall into ‘de-creation’ and can only be fully reversed and rectified by the Creator himself who takes on human nature and recreates it from within.

Second, Athanasius derives this view not from philosophical speculation but from the concrete fact that the Word became incarnate (John 1:14). According to John Behr’s excellent work The Formation of Christian Theology, vol. 2: The Nicene Faith (pp.181-182), Athanasius arrived at this conclusion not by reflecting on human existence and sin per se so much as by rethinking them in light of the saving work of Christ. In other words, rather than starting with the question: ‘What is the nature of creation and of human sin?’, Athanasius began by inquiring: ‘What must be the nature of creation and of human sin in light of the gospel’s proclamation that none other than God himself had to become man in order to bring about salvation?’ If it was necessary for the Creator to personally unite himself to humanity in order to save it from within, then humanity must have been in danger of returning to the ex nihilo from whence it came. Similar to Paul who in Galatians 2:21 argued that “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose”, we might say that if sin had not thoroughly twisted and corrupted human nature to its ontological roots, then Christ became incarnate for no purpose.

This was Athanasius’ Christocentric view of human beings after the fall, and it is what I propose should be included in a re-formed understanding of total depravity.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 38, 40.