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In a recent post at Reformed Reader, Rev. Shane Lems, former United Reformed Churches church planter, and now Orthodox Presbyterian Church minister, reminds his readers of the importance of the proper definition of total depravity: “C. S. Lewis misunderstood this. He got it wrong. He wasn’t really a theologian—much less a Reformed theologian—so we can charitably disagree and use this occasion to remember the right definition of total depravity.”1

Reformed Reader is Rev. Lems’ blog dedicated to commenting on various books that he is reading. In this particular post Rev. Lems responds to popular Christian writer C. S. Lewis’ disavowal of the Calvinist and Reformed doctrine of total depravity in his book The Problem of Pain. Lewis wrote, “I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.”

According to Rev. Lems, C. S. Lewis “got it wrong.” He thought he was rejecting total depravity when in fact he was rejecting an aberrant form of that doctrine called “absolute depravity” ascribed to unnamed “hyper-Calvinists”:

What he is reacting against is not total depravity, but absolute depravity. While hyper-Calvinists may teach some form of absolute depravity, the Reformed creeds and confessions do not teach it. Lewis mixed the two up.

This supposed confusion on the part of C. S. Lewis is the occasion that we must take to remind ourselves of the proper definition of total depravity.

Failing to avail himself of this occasion, Rev. Lems does not give a definition of total depravity, much less a right one. He does take the occasion, however, to bring up again a hackneyed distinction that I—mistakenly— thought had been condemned to the theological sea of forgetfulness. My article, then, takes up Rev. Lems’ call to remember the proper (Reformed) definition of total depravity. In doing so, we will also question his imputation of the teaching of absolute depravity to “hyper-Calvinists.”

Rev. Lems puts the teaching of absolute depravity, or some form of it, into the mouths and presumably the sermons, books, and other writings, of unnamed “hyper-Calvinists.” Real hyper-Calvinists are those who deny that the call of the gospel must be preached promiscuously, calling all men who hear to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ. This article is not interested in defending real hyper-Calvinists.

The problem with the label is that it is repeatedly used as a canard against those who deny the teaching of the well-meant gospel offer that God in the preaching of the gospel expresses His desire—His will—that all who hear the gospel repent and believe. Denying the well-meant gospel offer, they teach that God in the preaching of the gospel sincerely commands all who hear the gospel to repent and believe, and that in that gospel God promises that those who do will certainly be received in mercy, while at the same time willing, through that preaching, the salvation of His elect people and the hardening of the reprobate. For this position many who are truly Reformed according to the creeds are slanderously called hyper-Calvinists.

Unnamed hyper-Calvinists—real or imaginary—are evidently responsible for the invention and subsequent propagation of this doctrine of absolute depravity. Apparently they were so successful at insinuating this deviant doctrine of absolute depravity for the Reformed teaching on total depravity that they threw off so astute a thinker as C. S. Lewis.

Perhaps Rev. Lems is correct—perhaps he knows of a passage—but those historically labeled as hyper-Calvinists did not teach absolute depravity. The Reformers and those who followed them knew nothing of that distinction either. If one peruses the Reformed Dogmatics of Heinrich Heppe, a recognized synthesizer of Reformed theology, the distinction is not so much as mentioned.

One does read Rev. Louis Berkhof suggesting the distinction during the common grace controversy in the Christian Reformed Church in the 1920s. The charge of teaching absolute depravity was leveled against Herman Hoeksema for his rejection of common grace; it was leveled so often that he mentions it and instead of rejecting it out of hand he attempts an explanation in his Reformed Dogmatics. The charge of teaching absolute depravity has also been raised against the Protestant Reformed Churches. The subject of absolute depravity was also mentioned by Christian Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema when he rejected the Reformed doctrine of total depravity in favor of “pervasive depravity.”2

In short, the distinction between total depravity and absolute depravity was an invention by supporters and proponents of common grace to ward off the devastating charge against their doctrine that it denied the Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of the sinner who does not have “much goodness” in him and who is incapable of any good.

The opponents of common grace charged—and still charge—that by teaching an operation of the Holy Spirit restraining sin in the heart of the unregenerate man, common grace teaches that the unregenerate man has “much goodness” in him and consequently denies the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.

To deflect that charge, the theologians of common grace made up the distinction between absolute depravity and total depravity. The effect of the ploy is to make those who teach the creedal doctrine that the natural man is incapable of any good appear radical and outside the bounds of the creeds, and those who deny the creedal doctrine and teach that the natural man has “much goodness” in him appear to teach the creedal doctrine of total depravity.

What is absolute depravity supposed to be? Lems says that it teaches that man is “as sinful as [he] possibly could be.” That is indistinct, but it lines up well with Berkhof ’s definition. It intends to describe a depravity in which there is no room for different levels of wickedness among sinners and no room for development in wickedness by sinners, either individually or as a society.

Such a teaching would be patently false and absurd, and anyone who taught it is likewise foolish, in light of the clear biblical teaching that all men are born dead in sins, and that there is development in wickedness, as well as lesser and greater levels of wickedness between sinners. The Messiah-rejecting inhabitants of Capernaum were more wicked than the homosexuals of Sodom and Gomorrah, the one who delivered Jesus to Pilate had the greater sin, and the covenant-forsaking Reformed youth is far more wicked than the fornicating heathen in a jungle.

Rev. Lems contrasts this absolute depravity with his version of total depravity in the “Reformation tradition” that “sin has spread to the entire person,” so that our “total selves” are “infected with sin” and man “is depraved in all his parts.” Crucial to his understanding of unregenerate man is that he has “not absolutely lost the image of God.” No one could deny that the image of God, whatever of it man has, is a significant good in unregenerate man. Unregenerate man, then, has “much goodness” in him, as Lewis asserts.

In order to demonstrate that the creeds teach as Lewis did that there is “much goodness in human nature,” Rev. Lems appeals to the Canons of Dordrecht III/IV, 4:

There remain…in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior.

I quote it exactly as he did. He quoted the first part of the article. He did not quote the second part. In the second part the article itself condemns such an appeal. Speaking of the unregenerate man and this “light of nature,” the article says:

He is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

Rev. Lems also appeals to Belgic Confession 14, “[Through Adam’s sin man] has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof….” It ought to be obvious that “small remains” is hardly “much goodness” regardless of how one defines the small remains, but the Belgic Confession also bears witness against such a use of its words when it continues that sentence: “which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not: where St. John calleth men darkness.”

The Reformed creeds teach what a Reformed man must confess about total depravity: The creeds teach that the unregenerate man is “wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness,” and that he is incapable of using the light of nature “aright even in things natural and civil,” but “in various ways renders [it] wholly polluted…by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”3 They call men “darkness.” He is born not merely “infected” with sin, but is dead in trespasses and sins. Especially is the unregenerate man’s will bound under sin.

The creeds also make clear that belonging to the total depravity of man is that fallen and unregenerate man does not have the image of God. About the image they say:

He [Adam] forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections (Canons III/IV, 1).

In other words, the creeds teach that man not only lost the image of God, but also that he now bears an image of extreme wickedness, such that he is incapable of any good and inclined to all wickedness.

The creeds do not teach absolute depravity. No one teaches absolute depravity except as a theological invention to deflect criticism of common grace. The creeds do teach total depravity, and as part of that teaching deny over against common grace—and C.S. Lewis—that there is “much goodness” in human nature.

In that extreme wickedness man can also grow and develop. Man’s depravity is his spiritual death. Just as a dead corpse can rot, so can the totally depraved sinner become worse in his sin. As a rebel against God, man assiduously cultivates his life of rebellion and sin, testing his life apart from God in the ways of wickedness, and advancing in it both personally and socially until the cup of iniquity is full.

Rev. Lems and others of his persuasion should take to heart his call to remember the proper definition of total depravity especially in light of the recent developments of the imago Dei campaign. Imago Dei is Latin for the image of God and is the name of a new movement that is an iniquitous advancement of the idea that all men have the image of God. This campaign has been endorsed by many, but significantly Focus on the Family president, Jim Daley, supports it.

Imago Dei says that they stand for “recognizing the image of God in every human being in and out of the womb, without exception.” Its avowed purpose is the toleration of such gross and developed depravity as homosexuality, “for the image of God exists in all human beings…straight and gay.”4

It is also noteworthy that the campaign is not arguing that fallen man has a mere part of the image, but the full image. The argument that fallen man has part of the image is an impoverished doctrinal half-way house. While held by many in the Reformed tradition, it has been developed into the teaching that man has the full image of God and is the source of much error.

Even the texts that theologians use to support the teaching that fallen man has some of the image of God when used in that way support the idea that fallen man has the full image. Rev. Lems writes that man has not “absolutely lost the image of God.” Ignoring for the moment that the creeds teach that man lost the image, if he were pressed for biblical proof would he not invariably turn to Genesis 9:6? That is not what Genesis 9:6 in fact teaches. It says that man was created in the past—in Adam—in God’s image. Man was at one time created in the image of God and thus is not a beast, and for that reason he cannot be killed. But if that passage teaches that man, every man, still has the image, to say that he has only part of the image does a grave injustice to the passage, which does not say “part of the image” but “image”—the whole image. What good man has in him! What is left for Christ to restore?

Rev. Lems is right: it is necessary to keep in mind the proper definition of total depravity. What wickedness comes from the wrong definition!

When keeping that in mind, though, the supposed distinction between total and absolute depravity must be rejected. C. S. Lewis was not “mixed up.” He rejected the Calvinistic and Reformed doctrine of total depravity—as he well knew—which taught that there is no goodness in the natural man. He wanted “much goodness” in human nature. Besides, the distinction between total and absolute depravity has never been the issue between anyone in a controversy over man’s depravity. The distinction was unheard of before the proponents of common grace invented it. That distinction ought to be recognized for what it is—a fiction—and it ought to be rejected once and for all. If some persist in propagating it, they should be honest about its source.

The issue in the ongoing controversy about depravity, as in previous controversy, is not whether man is totally or absolutely depraved, but whether man is totally or partially depraved, whether natural man is “wholly incapable of any good,” or whether he has “much goodness.” Is he totally depraved, as the Reformed creeds teach; or is he partially depraved, as common grace and its legions of supporters teach, a doctrine for which its supporters have in the past unethically appealed to Canons III/IV, 4 and Belgic Confession 14.

It was those articles from the creeds that the Christian Reformed synod that adopted the three points of common grace in 1924 dishonestly quoted, and which dishonest quotations were used in part to condemn as un-Reformed—and later branded as hyper-Calvinist— those who taught the truth of the creeds about man’s total—not partial or absolute—depravity.

1 All quotations of Rev. Lems are from this article.

2 David Engelsma, “Total, Absolute, or Partial Depravity,” Standard Bearer, 77, no. 12 (March 15, 2001): 268–70.

3 Heidelberg Catechism, Q 8; Canons III/IV, 4.