Total Depravity Is Key to Social Justice!

on July 12, 2014

Recently a friend who’s taught political science at a distinguished Evangelical school for decades told me that when he mentions Christian doctrines about Original Sin or depravity to students their response typically is blank stares. These teachings are not widely circulated any more in the Protestant and Evangelical worlds, much of which are now more prone to worldviews premised on niceness, good people, and idealistic aspirations for societal perfection.

These soothing, deceptive notions are dangerous! Humanity’s worse crimes were committed on the assumption of and in pursuit of social perfection. Commissars and Gauleiters of the last century murdered millions with confidence that they were completing an earthly city of God. In contrast, the pursuit of authentic social good rejects confusing the city of man with the city of God. True justice, compassion and liberty in society, to the extent attainable, depend on the realistic acknowledgement that our world is fallen and human nature corrupted. Christians of nearly all traditions traditionally acknowledge the reality and power of Original Sin. Magisterial Protestantism explicitly affirms the total depravity of human nature, which is completely in need of God’s grace for redemption.

Secularism typically rejects the reality of human wickedness, despite the universality of the empirical evidence. So it strives to construct societal castles that assume an unavailable perfection, often destroying liberty and human life in manic pursuit of an abstract ideal. In its extreme, totalitarian forms, it fills concentration camps with the dissidents who don’t conform to its utopian vision of the New Man.

Liberal Protestantism is also discomfited by admitting humanity’s intrinsic bent towards evil, instead locating evil in abstract forces, like racism, greed, or exploitation, that can be vanquished through intense political action and ultimately state coercion. The Social Gospel sought the Kingdom of God through displacing capitalism with state regulation and ownership, through which the people, rather than sinister interests, would rule. It couldn’t admit that the people themselves have their own varied sinister interests.

The Evangelical Left is largely on this same road, believing the state regulatory social welfare state can achieve social justice through more spending and centralized control. Somehow it equates Jesus with expanding, impersonal secular bureaucracies that are usually hostile to faith and mediating institutions in civil society.

Whether religious or secular, these statists typically don’t admit that humanity is by nature selfish and prone to exploit and abuse laws loftily intended to combat poverty, discrimination, and ecological degradation. Instead, for them, good intent equals reality.

In contrast, traditionalists who see the world as it is robustly acknowledge human depravity and seek human structures that restrain it and channel it without pretending it will disappear. Society needs law enforcement, criminal justice systems, prisons, militaries, and intelligence agencies to guard against criminal and global predation. Government’s chief purpose is to protect against violence and disorder. But the government itself cannot be trusted with inordinate power and so must be carefully restrained. Non government actors, especially religious institutions, should have wide social space to address social ills like poverty, whose root causes are often spiritual. And economic life can only prosper if it motivates self-interest.

Believers in the power of human sin also believe in the greater power of God’s grace, which is redeeming the world. But that redemption is both now and not yet. God’s Kingdom is expanding but won’t reach completion until He wills it. So the Christian life is one of patience and perseverance, full of hope but not false idealism about this world. We are commanded to help and serve others without romanticizing them. They are fellow sinners.

Admitting the total depravity of human nature, and the wondrous power of divine grace, permits societies that seek approximate order, liberty and justice without overweening, dictatorial ambition. Such societies respect conscience and human dignity, which sees each person as sacred not because we’re good but because we’re created in the image of and loved by someone Who is good.

The doctrine of total depravity, as refined by the Protestant reformers and perpetuated by later followers, including John Wesley, is a liberating, ennobling, democratizing tenet that rejects human pretension and insists that we are all equal in our unworthiness before the Almighty.

Remembering total depravity is key to social justice and harmony. It rejects the idol of human perfection and instead sees God alone on the throne. Any Christian social witness that ignores intrinsic human depravity will instead only contribute to it and ultimately further give evidence of it.

  1. Comment by Tobin Nieto on July 14, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    actually if you follow the philosophy of total depravity from luther’s time to now you see that what is happening in evangelical communities is the logical progression of this doctrine.

  2. Comment by Byrom on July 16, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I am reminded of the words of Saint Paul, though redeemed by Jesus Christ, when he said he still struggled with his old sinful nature. Today, we still live in an imperfect world where evil still flourishes. Come, Lord Jesus!

  3. Comment by Cynthia Djuita Lanning on July 16, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    My Dad said when he entered Asbury Seminary he was taught but did not believe the doctrine of original sin because he thought people were born good and became corrupt only by negative influences in their lives such as poverty or abuse. But when he had children (me being one of them), he observed that it took great parental energy to teach them to share, to be grateful, to keep promises, to do their chores, etc., but no one had to teach his children how to be selfish, tell lies, hit a sibling in anger, pout ungratefully, or break even the rules that were designed to keep them safe. Total depravity became part of Dad’s theological belief set after that.

  4. Comment by Alan on July 16, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    We may take John Rawls’s work as the pinnacle of 20th century liberalism. It bears no resemblance to Tooley’s caricatures of liberalism. Is Tooley’s brand of conservatism so impotent that it fears to debate any but straw men?

  5. Comment by Jeffrey Rickman on July 17, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    I’m no advocate for Tooley, but I don’t think he’s off base here. He’s responding to pop cultural liberalism; not the paragon of liberal thought. This article seeks to promote a practical theology in dialogue with the zeitgeist theology of our time. And this is a topic worthy of thinking around. Tooley is known for making the straw man fallacy a lot, but here he is responding to a legitimate social phenomenon that is causing much harm. And while I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, it would be good for us to consider this critique.

  6. Comment by John S. on July 17, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Liberalism is no more monolithic or static than Evangelicalism. You make an assumption, present it as fact, so thus you need not defend it. But it is the Internet.

  7. Comment by Bob E. on July 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    In what way do you see Rawls’ thought as the height of 20th-century liberalism? Isn’t his choice theory a bit restricted, applicable only to a subset of the population of people? Would all choose as he and his admirers would choose when behind the veil? If not, how is this the peak of liberty and justice for all?

  8. Comment by Alan on July 19, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I suppose you have not read his work, which goes to great lengths to answer your question.

  9. Comment by Bob E. on July 21, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Which work do you want me to read: the original 1971 edition of A Theory of Justice, to which most reply? Or the amended 1999 version? Or perhaps Justice as Fairness: A Restatement? Apparently, even Rawls did not find his mid-20th-century work complete or sufficiently clear to be free from cogent criticism.

  10. Comment by Alan on July 21, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Actually, any of those will do.

  11. Comment by chrichas on July 19, 2014 at 2:26 am

    Tooley’s blog and Cynthia’s real-life story of a non-straw man, her father, provide a great example of theory and praxis. Tooley provides an accurate picture of the theory of total depravity – founded on Biblical principles (e.g. nobody is without sin and everybody has fallen short of the glory of God – Romans 3:23) and Cynthia provides the practical witness in her dad’s story as he objectively observed the theory, with which he at first disagreed, being lived out by his own children. Would that all loving fathers could be as objective as hers, and would that all caring ministers of Christ could report the truth as Tooley has. How fortunate for all readers that his article and her response are all right here on the same page.

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