Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
"Some Kind Words for 'Total Depravity'"
Lecturer: DAVID KELSEY
Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology, Yale University Divinity School
Report by Cheryl Hubbard, Ph.D. Candidate, Union-PSCEIRT PUBLIC LECTURE:
With this inaugural year for the Institute for Reformed Theology being devoted to a study of the Reformed understanding of sin, it was most appropriate that the inaugural lecture addressed Calvin’s total depravity and Reinhold Niebuhr’s original sin. Dr. David H. Kelsey’s lecture, “Some Kind Words for ‘Total Depravity,’” set out to revisit total depravity, not to either adopt it or reject it in its entirety, but to discover what of Calvin’s work needs to be rejected and what can be retrieved for today.
Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is radically theocentric and of primary importance for Kelsey. Human beings are depraved in that in us the imago dei, which Kelsey defines as “our relationship to God in doxology,” has been twisted. Whether viewed in reference to the glory of God in creation or redemption, we are depraved. Secondly, Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is holistic. There is no aspect of us in which we are in right relation to God. No portion of us is free of the corruption of sin. This holistic approach prohibits a moral definition of sin, encourages a holistic anthropology, and insists we must rely totally upon God’s grace to regenerate us. Thirdly, Calvin’s doctrine of sin is dynamic. Sin is a contagion that is logically prior to any specific act. Our depravity is such that the varying patterns of relationship are twisted and even the good we try to do is corrupted.
Having highlighted three aspects of Calvin’s total depravity that can be fairly easily retrieved by theologians of our time, Kelsey next suggested a way in which the more troubling piece of our sin making us liable to God’s wrath might also be retrieved. Kelsey dismissed a psychological reading of this since it ties the glory of God to our depravity. However, he suggests that even this aspect of Calvin’s total depravity can be retrieved if we follow another strand of Calvin’s thought in which God’s wrath is an intrinsically embedded consequence of sin.
Then Kelsey turned his attention to Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr rejected Calvin’s total depravity as well as the Catholic understanding of original sin because of the new challenges to theology presented by the modern period. Rather he approached original sin via an existential paradox: sin is inevitable, yet we must bear responsibility for it. For Niebuhr, each piece of this paradox is intelligible. Humans are a combination of the finite and the infinite, which we must strive to keep in balance. Since a balance is theoretically possible, sin remains a free choice; thus, we bear responsibility for it. On the other hand, since every explanation for sin and evil presuppose them, we live in a world where sin is inevitable.
Though both Kelsey and Niebuhr find Calvin’s hereditary origin of sin to be unworkable, Kelsey finds much for today’s Reformed theologians to value in Calvin’s total depravity and in Niebuhr’s original sin. Human depravity is total, affecting the whole, undivided person, and leaving us totally dependent upon grace alone. Sin is dynamic and systemic; thus, sin is our condition rather than a predicament into which we stumble, or a deed that we do. Ultimately, however, Kelsey prefers Calvin because unlike Niebuhr’s original sin, which is defined primarily in terms of self-relating, Calvin’s total depravity is profoundly focused on our relationship with God.
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