Reforming Calvinism: Total Depravity (Addendum)

Before moving forward in my series Reforming Calvinism to the atonement, I would like to briefly revisit my Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘total depravity’ to add a few important Totaly-Depravity-AVATARthoughts. I am doing this because I always aim to learn new things and refine my thinking, and so I never expect to say all that needs to be said about something the first time that I say it! As I continue learning, I hope to be always reforming, and my own recent studies have led me to a greater awareness of some of the issues involved in reconstructing the doctrine of ‘total depravity’. For this reason, I want to add a few thoughts here to flesh out a bit more what I wrote previously on this topic (which can be accessed here and here).

Inspiring this addendum is the historical authority Richard Muller who discusses the Reformedorthodox view of the natural knowledge of God that fallen human beings can acquire through their contemplation of creation vis-à-vis the saving knowledge of God available only through special revelation in Scripture. Muller explains:

[I]n his discussion of the role of reason in matters of faith, [Francis] Turretin can also acknowledge a few “rays of natural light and certain first principles, the truth of which is unquestionable” that remain in the sin-darkened human understanding. These truths, Turretin continues, are not only true in the context of nature, but also in the context of grace and the “mysteries of the faith.” In very much the same vein, [John] Owen can indicate that “the inbred principles of natural light, or first necessary dictates of our intellectual, rational nature” provide a “rule unto our apprehension” of all things, even of divine revelation. Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology.

Despite Turretin’s intimation that one can “build” on natural revelation and Witsius’ use of the term “foundation” it is clear that they do not intend to undermine their prior assumption that “supernatural theology” is “strictly called revealed, because its first principle is divine revelation strictly understood, and [because] it is grounded on the word, not on creatures.” Rather Turretin’s intention is to elaborate his other claim that theology drawn on other forms of knowing “as a superior from inferiors” in the very specific sense that it “presupposes certain previously known things upon which it builds revelation.” Thus, despite the fact that reason and faith “are of different classes, the former natural, the latter supernatural,” they are not “opposed”: rather “reason is perfected by faith and faith supposes reason.” Not corrupted reason, but reason “as sound and in the abstract” concurs with and supports theology.[1]

What Muller articulates here is extremely important for understanding one of the ways in which the traditional view of ‘total depravity’, in my opinion, is actually not ‘total’ enough. Although clearly giving primacy to the salvific knowledge available only through the gospel, the Reformed theologians that Muller cites nevertheless espoused the notion that God can truly be known through natural human reason even after the fall on the basis of that which exists in creation. They spoke of the ‘inbred principles’ or ‘glimmerings’ of natural light that still reside in fallen human beings and that constitute a ‘foundation’ upon which the gospel can build. This means that for the Reformed orthodox, the noetic effects of sin certainly did have a dramatic impact on human ability to know God, but not to the extent to which human beings are totally unable to arrive at a true, albeit limited and imperfect, knowledge of God through the remaining light of their own reason.

As becomes clear in these paragraphs, the Reformed theologians grounded this conviction in the famous maxim of Thomas Aquinas that ‘grace does not destroy but rather perfects nature’. In my view, however, this represents a significant problem. As many have noted, Thomas’ dictum bespeaks an optimistic view of fallen humanity that stands in contrast with the Augustinian concept to which the Reformed orthodoxy purportedly ascribed. As A.M. Fairweather states:

The teaching of Aquinas contrasts with that of Augustine on every point which we have mentioned, representing a kindlier view both of man and of nature. The will is free, and the natural desire for the good persists despite sin. Aquinas is more definite than Augustine that reason itself is impaired by sin. But he holds that it can be used, and that we must follow our reason as far as it will take us. Grace and revelation are aids which do not negate reason. Here as everywhere nature itself demands supernature for its completion, and the provision of divine grace meets the striving of human nature in its search for the ultimate good, this quest being itself due to the gracious moving of God.[2]

Although this summation of Thomas’ view is probably not identical to that of the Reformed orthodox, the resemblance is certainly striking. Both evidence a certain optimism in terms of the natural light of human reason that still exists despite the fall. Both define ‘nature’ in terms of that which only needs to be elevated and perfected by grace. Lest we think that this only reflects the thinking of the Reformed orthodox from long ago, R.C. Sproul likewise expresses his great respect and gratitude to Aquinas precisely for the fact that he defended the legitimacy of natural theology, the continuity between fallen human reason and revelation, and the optimistic view of nature’s capacity for grace inasmuch as the former needs only to be perfected by the latter (original article here).

This, to me, is remarkable. The Thomistic view of the grace-nature relationship that the Reformed orthodox, Muller, and Sproul endorse has been convincingly shown by Gregg Allison (following Leonardo De Chirico) to be one of the fundamental principles undergirding all of Roman Catholic theology and practice, giving rise to its formal structure and material content.[3] However, Allison argues that “[b]ecause of the devastatingly deep impact of sin on creation, the notion of nature as possessing some capacity for grace is nonsensical in the evangelical system”.[4] In other words, the very view of nature and grace that is so foundational to Roman Catholicism and so antithetical to Protestantism is that which Sproul and the Reformed orthodox endorse!

It is arguably the Thomistic view of nature and grace that gives rise, for example, to Catholicism’s concept of justification as a grace-empowered cooperative effort between God and human beings. While Sproul would assuredly oppose this understanding of justification, it ironically stems from a deep conviction that he himself shares. It would therefore seem self-contradictory for Sproul and other Reformed theologians to both oppose Roman Catholicism for its optimistic belief in human capacity vis-à-vis justification and yet hold the very same view with respect to knowledge of God. Indeed, as Muller notes, it is this concept of the grace-nature relationship on which “the entire anthropological and soteriological structure of Reformed theology must be brought to bear”. [5]

For this reason, I would suggest that the view of ‘total depravity’ articulated by Reformed theologians such as Sproul is not actually ‘total’ enough. Due to their underlying Thomism, they want to attribute to human nature, even in its fallen state, a measure of ‘natural light’ that needs only to be further illuminated by the gospel. Is this, however, the biblical view? The Gospel of John, for instance, indicates that the entire world is enshrouded in darkness, and it is only the Light that is Christ himself that can overcome it (John 1:5). Paul, similarly, states that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Paul, in other words, compares the human heart to the primordial darkness prior to creation, a darkness so deep and pervasive that only the creative power of the Word of God is able to call the light the gospel into being ex nihilo. This is not a gospel that merely illumines whatever faint glimmerings may already exist. It is a gospel that breaks through total darkness not only by shining forth the light but also by creating the very capacity to see it. Stated differently in the language of Ephesians 2:1-6, we are not merely wounded by sin and in need of healing; we are dead in sin and in need of resurrection.

This is why Karl Barth described the human encounter with God’s Word in the following way:

God and His Word are not given to us in the same way as natural and historical entities. What God and His Word are, we can never establish by looking back and therewith by anticipating. This is something God Himself must constantly tell us afresh. But there is no human knowing that corresponds to this divine telling. In this divine telling there is an encounter and fellowship between His nature and man but not an assuming of God’s nature into man’s knowing, only a fresh divine telling. […] God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[6]

Reacting negatively to Barth’s view, Michael Horton responds:

The utterly surprising content of the gospel that sinful humanity could not have predicted, prepared for or mastered leads Barth to the further, more radical, claim that the form in which it comes is incommensurable with our ordinary natural capacities. Thus, the event of revelation, beyond opening eyes blinded by sin and ears deaf to God’s voice, creates its own eyes and ears in the event of its occurrence. Grace does not so much restore nature as replace it.[7]

In comparing Barth and Horton, I think it is clear which is the more ‘total’ of the two views regarding human depravity. Horton thinks that Barth goes too far in that he dispenses with the Thomistic view of grace and nature and its stubborn hold on humanity’s intrinsic capacities for God. According to Horton, the gospel must surely open blind eyes and deaf ears, but to say anything more would denigrate humanity’s ability to cooperate with grace. Barth, on the other hand, believes that the fall has so affected us as human beings that we do not even have the eyes and ears anymore with which to see and hear. The work of salvation, therefore, must be all of grace from top to bottom, not by activating latent or wounded human capacities, but rather by recreating human beings ex nihilo and raising them to new life from their deadness in sin. This latter view, I would contend, is actually more in line with the teaching of John and Paul, not to mention the rest of the New Testament writers. It is a view of human depravity that is truly ‘total’ and that results in a view of grace that is correspondingly ‘radical’. Insofar as the Reformed orthodox want to maintain their hold on the Thomistic/Catholic notion of nature’s inherent capacity for grace, their view of human depravity can never be truly ‘total’, and consequently neither can their understanding of what God accomplishes in us by his grace and through his gospel be as amazing as it truly is.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.301-302.

[2] A.M. Fairweather, ‘General Introduction’ to Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, p.22.

[3] Allison, G., 2014. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Wheaton: Crossway.

[4] Ibid., p.48

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.299.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. p.132, 194.

[7] Horton, M., 2008. ‘A stony jar: the legacy of Karl Barth for evangelical theology’, in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques. New York; London: Continuum. p.354.