Sunday, June 13, 2010

Does the doctrine of total depravity encourage abuse?

One of my favorite bloggers, Elizabeth Esther, has written two super interesting posts recently about total depravity. In the first one she wrestled with whether or not it's possible that man could be basically good. In the second post, she wrote about how  the doctrine of total depravity could encourage abusive discipline and parenting.

I have been fascinated by Elizabeth Esther's posts and the discussion, partly because you see each person's history and family making their way into how they look at the doctrine. Total depravity is almost incomprehensible in today's culture, and honestly I'm not sure where I stand on it either. At one point a commenter said this in a comment, "Total depravity illustrates that a person is totally rebellious against God, everything he does is sin, man is unable to do good or submit to God." Elizabeth Esther (who admits she can't stand Calvinism) reacted very strongly to this statement. How is it possible that we can't do anything good? If we are unable to do good, how can we be deserving of judgement when we are incapable of doing otherwise? 

It's been fascinating to read these posts and the ensuing discussion while I'm reading Luther The Reformer by Kittleson. I picked up this book (one of Isaac's old textbooks) when I was really wrestling with the Catholic church, and only started reading it recently. We usually associate total depravity with Calvinism, and that is indeed where it is most clearly defined. However, the depth of the depravity of man is addressed by big names throughout church history, beginning with Paul, moving through Augustine, and I was surprised to find Luther clearly expressing what I see as total depravity. I didn't expect to see this till Calvin. Everyone defines and interprets things differently, though.

I was fascinated to read Luther's process because whereas Elizabeth Esther has found strong judgement and cylical guilt within a world that ascribes to total depravity, for Luther he wrestled with cyclical guilt and feeling unable to escape the judgement of God as a Catholic, and is unable to escape this until he comes to an understanding of the depravity of man. As long as he thinks he and mankind as a whole can do good works to earn merit before God, as long as he believes there is good in man, he sees himself as a failure, unable to do the good he wants to do or ever reach the lofty righteousness of God.

Only when he comes to believe that man is utterly incapable of doing good or being righteous in any way is he relieved. When he comes to believe that all good in man is only the mercy of God and all righteousness is only imputed righteousness through faith in Christ... and that is all it takes.... then suddenly he is freed.

Fascinating. Elizabeth Esther finds the total depravity taught in her childhood to be oppressive. Luther finds total depravity to free him from the guilt of his childhood. Opposite journeys. I have no conclusions with that thought, only that I find it really interesting. :)

Like I said, I don't know exactly where I stand on total depravity, but I did take strong issue with associating total depravity with harming children. I wrote this in the comments:

I do not think that this belief is, as you say, the root of awful things like the Pearl's philosophy.  I'm not sure where I stand on this issue but what I do know is that believing in total depravity doesn't naturally lead to beating out evil in man....

It's not... "while we were yet sinners.... we had to be beaten into finally giving up our evil nature". No... that mentality goes AGAINST total depravity. Total depravity says that no amount of control or discipline or (on the other side) positive parenting or self-development can save a soul. The idea of total depravity is, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

And thus, the natural conclusion is not to say that we are evil and thus deserve to be treated as evil. The conclusion of total depravity is that we are hopeless when left alone, but oh! the grace of God that shows love EVEN while we sin and do not deserve it....and thus we should love and show grace to all others, even if they also are sinners and don't deserve it. We should love all men as Christ loves them.


Jaimie said...

I tend to agree with Donald Miller's thoughts on this:

Young Mom said...

I found this very interesting too, maybe since I have come too many of the same conclusions. :)

Kacie said...

Yeah, Donald Miller is right on in his corrected understanding of what total depravity is. It's not that we have no value, it's that there is nothing we can do - nothing - to reach God.

We're all wrong if we perceive total depravity as leaving human beings as valueless. Total depravity is still combined with the fact that we are made in the image of God, and even after we are sinners, Christ dies for us. Oh the value of a human being when the Son of God dies for them! It's just that the value isn't inherent, it's imputed - his grace GIVES us value, whether we accept it or not.

Sort of like the difference between someone who is rich from old money or rich from new money, I suppose. We're the new money people - sorta won the lottery. But still, we are no less rich.

Jaimie said...

Mmm, yeah. That's good.

I think people don't like the total depravity doctrine because they don't correctly understand it or are mis-applying it. It's not so much prescriptive as descriptive.

Togenberg said...

It has been an abused construct, no doubt of that. I have experienced it.

I suppose the opposite extreme could take place, a context of license and lack of structure.

The Christian position on humanity has a powerful element of ambi-valence; children and rebels, both cherished and fallen. For many people and groups, for reasons of psychological development or spiritual blindness, there is an inability to hold such a position and so in effect humanity becomes depraved and loath-able.

Rae said...

I'm not sure that one's doctrine of sin has to lead to child abuse, but it *does* seem that total depravity leads directly to a really, really, negative view of child raising. How would you (and I realize that you aren't holding to this, just wondering how you would, were you to try) maintain total depravity without also seeing your well-fed, clean babies cries as something other than a sign of sin? Or your 6 month-old's grabbing a toy from another baby as anything other than evidence of the child's roots in evil?

I'm not sure that it works to take a 16th century monk's experience and expect it to match up with how people live with a certain doctrine today.

Kacie said...

Well Rae, I can tell you what it looks like to have people that believe in it raise kids, because probably half of my family and friends believe in it, my husband included. And indeed, you're right, you would see a child's bad behavior as roots of evil, and you'd see ANY bad behavior in the world as evidence of roots of evil.

That doesn't, however, lead someone to think that they should beat or abuse their child in order to put down the evil. As I said, a consistent view of total depravity would conclude that beating wouldn't help the situation. The only thing that "helps" is the grace of God, given by God..... and it HAS been given.

Claire said...

re: Rae's comment. Yes, and yes. Also: you might consider that unplanned children are also a just "punishment" for sin, rather than a gift.


"The only thing that 'helps' is the grace of God, given by God..." wrote Kacie. That is a mantra I have heard from my own (calvinist) mother. It was meant to remind me and my siblings of our utter worthlessness (and keep us from pride).
I hate to say it, but that's kind of abusive, isn't it? You don't need to be beaten to be scarred by stuff like that.

FTR: I am not angry about anymore, but I will NOT allow that sort of talk around my children from their grandmother. (double ugh)

Kacie said...

Claire, interesting that people would associate unplanned pregnancies with a punishment for sin. Strange - to me I don't understand that logical connection to total depravity. Total depravity doesn't have anything to do with God's punishment for our sin - it just defines us all as so mired in our own sin that we cannot reach God before He first reaches us.

See, here's the thing, I can see how someone would use total depravity and twist it to be abusive and to make children constantly be reminded of their sin and tell them they are worthless. I can see it because people have done it. Thing is, I think it is NOT total depravity - I think that to get there, people have to twist the doctrine of total depravity, because that is NOT the point of the doctrine at all.

When I said that the only thing that helps our condition is the grace of God, the natural conclusion is not to say that we are worthless... or to allow that to be said to children. How could someone who truly believed the doctrine possibly say that, when you have the grace of God that is extended to us? The love and willingness of God to reach out and offer us life and salvation gives us inestimable value.... it shows just how much we are worth in His eyes, to what great lengths He will go to.

Just because we have fallen far doesn't mean we aren't worth anything.

Rae said...

"As I said, a consistent view of total depravity would conclude that beating wouldn't help the situation. The only thing that "helps" is the grace of God, given by God..... and it HAS been given."
I guess it must be a combination of total depravity and understanding of a parents role in the family/life? Most of the people that I know who hold a strict understanding of total depravity also believe that it is the parents' role to mirror God in their children's life. So, even though "firm" punishment won't cure the child, it is necessary as a measure of justice, or something like that.

I don't think that believing in total depravity automatically translates to child abuse, but it *does* seem to strongly correspond with encouraging a very pessimistic view of children. In the case of those I've known best, it also encourages an insanely high standard of accountability which is inappropriate for a child's level of development.

Again, I am not saying that holding this theological belief necessitates child abuse, just that it fosters abuse (or at the least harsh parenting tactics) for people who already tend that way.

One can be a beautiful theologian and a bad parent. I wouldn't leave my toddler with Saint Augustine for the day. :-)