Carne Levare

Know Other People

Marilynne Robinson on Total Depravity

Posted by Remy on September 16, 2010

CT : Over against the popular science writers, you write, “I believe it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.” How do you reconcile this belief with what Calvin’s followers have called total depravity (“No one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God,” Ps. 14)?

MR : I am happy to welcome the psalmist to the ranks of Calvinism. “Total depravity” means that the effects of the Fall are felt through the whole person and that this is always true. It is a rejection of the pre-Reformation teaching that after baptism, sin is localized in the lower functions of the body, in “concupiscence.” The effects of Calvin’s teaching are to remove the special opprobrium that attached to the flesh and to draw attention to the complexities and fallibilities of consciousness.

Calvin celebrates the brilliance of mind and body, as any reader of The Institutes is aware. Over against this is his insistence on our tendency toward error, toward sin. So human life is full of the potential manifest in the gifts God has given us, and full of our inevitable falling short. This is a very dynamic understanding of the self. I find no difficulty in accepting both of its terms as true. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the history of civilization and the present state of the world. Calvin offered human brilliance as proof of divinity in humankind. If we accepted this, there would be a great enhancement of respect for ourselves, and, crucially, respect for others, that could only make us better citizens of earth.

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