That Time C.S. Lewis Got ‘Total Depravity’ Wrong (Like Everybody Else)

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don't care.

Yes, Gollum is a Tolkien character, not Lewis. I don’t care.

Cliché Evangelical confession: I love C.S. Lewis. Probably too much. His influence on my life and intellectual development as a disciple is hard to gauge. For a while there in seminary, next to the Bible, you were apt to hear me quoting “St. Clive” (as one of my professors dubbed him) more than any other thinker. This is why it pains me to admit that he was slightly misleading about something in his writings, namely Calvinism.

Actually, let’s make that more specific. He got one letter wrong of the Anglo-American acronym that has come to represent ‘Calvinism’ in the minds of most people who have heard the term: the ‘T’ in T.U.L.I.P. , standing for ‘total depravity.’

In his work The Problem of Pain, Lewis discusses the nature of our moral knowledge, and the distance between our judgments and God’s. After making the case that the term ‘good’, when applied to God, is apt to mean something a bit different than we usually think of, he doubles back to say that it can’t be completely different:

On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good,” while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship. –The Problem of Pain, pg. 29

While Lewis is making a very a good point about our analogical knowledge of good and evil, he happens to do so by trading on a widely-popular caricature of the doctrine of total depravity.

Most people are introduced to the teaching by hearing something along the lines of, “That John Calvin, he was such a pessimist. Did you know that he taught that we were totally depraved? That all of us are about as awful as it gets, none of us knows right from wrong, and we’re born simply and utterly wicked? No wonder he was a downer.” Or something like that.

The problem is that is neither what total depravity, properly understood, nor John Calvin teach with respect to human nature. (Although, I do grant that Calvin probably was kind of prickly.) Actually, as a matter of history, Calvin nowhere mentioned the acronym ‘TULIP’. Being dead at this point, he didn’t even know about the Canons of Dordt, the 17th century document that the 19th century acronym is trying to summarize.

So what do Calvin and total depravity teach? Richard Muller sheds some light for us:

Calvin’s references to the utter deformity or depravity of the human will and human abilities were directed against forms of synergism or Semi-Pelagianism and refer to the pervasiveness of sin — reducing this language to the slogan “total depravity” endangers the argument…“Total depravity,” at least as understood in colloquial English, is so utterly grizzly a concept as to apply only to the theology of the Lutheran, Matthias Flacius Illyricus who an almost dualistic understanding of human nature before and after the fall, arguing the utter replacement of the imago Dei with the imago Satanae and indicating that the very substance of fallen humanity was sin. Neither Calvin not later Reformed thinkers went in this direction and, to the credit of the Lutherans, they repudiated this kind of language in the Formula of Concord. What is actually at issue, hidden under the term “total depravity” is not the utter absence of any sort of goodness but the inability to save one’s self from sin.

-Richard Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”?, pp. 8-9 (HT: Alastair Roberts)

As you can see, Muller isn’t much of a fan of TULIP, mostly because of the easy tendency towards caricature (I mean, even Lewis didn’t explain it properly.) Still, his explication of Calvin’s thought on the subject also serves for the better articulations of total depravity taken up by current Reformed theologians.

To be clear, the doctrine does not teach that all humanity is as “depraved” as possible. “Total” refers to the scope, not depth, of the problem of sin. It affirms that there is not a single area or part of our nature that has not been subject to sin’s corrupting influence; though created good, not our mind, will, reason, bodily instincts, or anything else that could be singled out, remains untouched by the Fall. As such, there is no leverage or foothold in human nature whereby it might reach up to God, or present any merit, without having first been enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s power. As Michael Horton says, “there is no Archimedean point within us that is left unfallen, from which we might begin to bargain or restore our condition” (The Christian Faith, pg. 433). Nor is there any impulse or instinct that is not subject to correction from God’s Word.

This is true of the vilest criminal, or the sweetest, kindest neighbor that most of us would describe as a “good guy.” None has a chance of saving themselves by drawing on their own inner, moral resources. But, as we said, that doesn’t mean that they’re as bad as they can be. We are “not incapable of any justice or good before fellow humans” (Horton, ibid, pg. 433). No, in fact, we do have an active, if defective, conscience that points to right and wrong, as well as accuses and defends us before God (Rom. 2). Calvin himself quoted pagan philosophers approvingly, at times, when they concurred with Scripture’s moral judgment. We are able to do relatively good, yet not saving, acts through common grace and common virtue. Good of this sort is nothing to be sneered at and is a testimony to the permanence of the Image of God as well as the gracious, restraining work of the Holy Spirit.

Where does this little crash course in one, highly-misunderstood, aspect of Reformed anthropology, leave us? Well, for one thing, you can say you know something that C.S. Lewis didn’t about the history of Christian doctrine. But seriously, it serves as an important lesson against making any theologian, pastor, or author, even someone as wonderful as Lewis too authoritative in your intellectual life. As great as someone might be, if you’ve never disagreed with them, you’re probably not reading them critically enough.

Most of all though, it serves as a reminder of God’s redeeming, regenerative grace. For every inch of you that’s been ‘depraved’ or, rather, bent through sin, is being restored and resurrected whole and new in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

43 thoughts on “That Time C.S. Lewis Got ‘Total Depravity’ Wrong (Like Everybody Else)

  1. This reminds me of a recorded talk by Roger Nicole. As I remember, he said that TULIP was created by the opponents of Calvinism. Nicole said he preferred GRAPE. Instead of total depravity, he preferred Rotten at the core. I think of God’s common grace which all receive.

  2. The P appears to be the same, but represents Perseverance of God with the saints instead of the Perseverance of the saints.

  3. One question I’ve always had, is why Calvinism doesn’t adopt the term “corruption” instead of “depravity.” I am aware that modern terminology often warps theology, but here this seems just the best way to avoid the problem of linguistic drift (where English words change meaning.)

    I recently had a hard drive become corrupted. That means that it contained very good data (well, maybe not *very* good data–Star Wars: The Old Republic), but the data and the systems for handling it no longer functioned properly. It either needed to be repaired or fixed; because it was corrupted I could no longer trust it, un-amended, to fulfill its purpose (even if that purpose would be obvious to anyone looking at its file structure.) This seems to me rather theologically suggestive, to say the least.

    As late as 1758 (one year after Jonathan Edwards established the term “total depravity” according to the Oxford English Dictionary), the term “depravity” seemed to have this sense of “not functioning properly.” A surgeon diagnoses his patient with “a depravity in the Fluids” of his patient, meaning that the four humors were out of whack, not functioning properly, and in need of re-balancing if he were to restore his patient to health. This co-existed, however, with the use of “depravity” more common today–as a category of more general “corruption, viciousness, abandoned wickedness.” In that sense, the word means pretty much exactly what Lewis takes it to mean, I think.

    • Excellent comments. I myself am not married to the language but for simplicity’s sake I try to stick to clarifying common terms instead of introducing new ones/old ones. Again, thanks for the informative comment.

    • I think both Sproul and Wilson use the term “total inability” referring to mankind’s corruption by sin and present inability to either seek or please God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit ala. Rom. 8:7,8. I think this is a helpful revision.

    • Scott, it seems that “depravity” has a “moral” aspect tied to its definition and “corruption” is not “required” to have morality attached to it (as in your excellent computer example). Also, “corruption” seems to imply that something was in its original state ( .. i.e. new hard drive was clean/pure) perfectly clean and became “corrupted” by something else (i.e. virus). With “depravity” it seems in its usage to not imply a change of status (i.e. from “pure/clean” to “impure/unclean”) .. but assumes a steady state (already being in a “state of depravity”). Therefore the Reformed community would see “depravity” as the better choice of wording (between these two options) to represent the Biblical picture of humanity after Adam. The Semi-Pelagian would opt for “corruption” instead of “depravity” (as we are defining and using it here and in the traditional Reformed sense). Does that make sense? Sincerely, David

  4. In MERE CHRISTIANITY Lewis affirms that we actually get our universal concept of “good” & “fair” from God, & even uses our belief in such a standard (the Tao) as proof of God’s existence.

    I’ve been repulsed by the illogical argument that God’s definition of good may differ fundamentally from our own. I believe some become atheists due to the hot defense of that claim. To worship a God who delights in whay humans generally perceive as evil is perversion.
    True… how we view specific circumstances as good or evil may be skewed by our self interest or propaganda, but we still have a GENERAL agreement, as humans, concerning what we would hate for someone to do to us or our loved ones.

    Whenever I hear that awful argument, I think, “Define IS.” If we can’t even assign a definition to good, our languae itself is worthless.

    I’m glad I know & love a good God. Like Abraham, when he bound Isaac on the altar…. I know Godbetter than that. Maybe that’s the problem with so many who believe themselves to be Calvinsts. They don’t alliw the Holy Spirit to make God known to them.

    • Robyn,

      I’m sorry, but I’m not sure you caught the actual drift of my post, or maybe I’m just misreading your comment:

      1. I said C.S. Lewis was making a good point about our moral knowledge. He was doing so by making a confused point about what total depravity teaches.
      2. I then tried to explain what total depravity teaches.
      3. It does not affirm that we have no knowledge of right and wrong written on our hearts.
      4. I really don’t know what to make about that last comment about Calvinists. I’m sure it’s probably true of some, just in the way it is of Methodists, Catholics, and other varieties of Christians. I don’t think its particularly true of Calvinists, nor do I think you could possibly know that. In any case, it’s a very uncharitable thing to say.

      Well, hope that clarifies the point of my article a bit. Hope I haven’t misread you.


      • I “get” you & agree, actually. My passion concerning this issue is not easily expressed without sounding aggressive, I fear. I should have begun my comment with the words, “I agree….”

      • My last bit about self proclaimed Calvinsts means those that misrepresent Calvin by their interpretation of his teachings. At least, reading theologians who say Calvin was not as extreme as many represent him to be, I gather these extremists misrepresent Calvin. I’ve not studied Calvin deeply myself, but their arguments defend a devilish God. Those same people who portray and defend an amoral God often don’t believe the Holy Spirit still aides our understanding or application of scripture. Their own interpretation of scripture is their only foundation. The fruit their doctrine produces is hate & division. Sadly, they are convinced they are the guardians of truth & have done much to shape the modern church & even American politics.

        Please understand… I do not count you among them. I read your blog for a better understanding of Calvinism.

  5. I also meant to say Lewis seems to be contradicting himself, when comparing the quote you addressed to his other arguments comcerning the Tao. He’s usually so consistently logical! 😀

  6. Hi, Derek. This was a very interesting, thought-provoking read. When I was in college, I went to an SGM church which was Calvinist and very sin-focused and really obsessed with the idea that we are all really horrible people. It felt like we couldn’t talk about God’s love without mentioning in the same breath how much we didn’t deserve it. This church kind of left a bad taste in my mouth regarding Calvinism. I’m still trying to unpack everything I picked up there, and figure out which things I consider biblical and worth keeping, and which I don’t. So it’s really interesting to read this and see that total depravity maybe doesn’t mean what I thought it meant–or at least that not everyone interprets it that way. As it is, I agree with some parts of “TULIP” but not others. At any rate, I really appreciate this piece and you taking the time to explain this doctrine in a light that probably a lot of people have not seen before.

    • Hey Olivia,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry to hear about your experience at the SGM church. I think it’s wise that you’re trying to piece through the good and the bad from your time there, listening to Scripture and the Spirit for guidance. I’m glad to think this might have helped a bit. Yeah, not everybody who teaches ‘Calvinism’ hits the right notes. Unfortunately, preachers are fallen too, which means we don’t always preach as hard when we have to, or as gently as we should, depending on our typical bent. Well, again, I’m glad this helped. I hope you find a good solid church that you can question and study well in. If you ever need any book recommendations and such, I’d be happy to oblige.

      Actually, one book that I’d recommend when it comes to Reformed doctrine and introducing you to the warmer, gracious, more ecuminical calvinism that I’ve come to appreciate is J. Todd Billings’ “Union with Christ.” It’s thoroughly biblical, irenic, deep, and yet, accessible.



  7. Thank you for your post – it is so exhausting trying to defend “Calvinism” in an argument, when what people are arguing against is nearly always a caricature – not a characterization – of the doctrine of “Total Depravity.” It may be, however, that the doctrine bites a bit deeper than the twin beliefs that sin affects absolutely every area of life, and that it has so deadened our hearts to God that we are unable to initiate our own salvation.

    Like Paul, Dostoevsky called himself the “foremost of sinners.” His writings hit on another aspect of “total depravity” – we are not guilty of every sin…we are not as corrupt or depraved as we could possibly be…. But each of us is CAPABLE of any sin. In the short story, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the main character – shortly before he intends to kill himself – falls asleep and dreams that he is transported to another galaxy and a duplicate earth, untainted by sin, where no Fall ever occured. He is ecstatic…but, eventually, though he doesn’t intend to do it, he corrupts them all! In other words, each of us is a potential demon, who would corrupt even paradise.

    Or, take the nice old church lady, born in Minnesota in 1922, who has never so much as killed a mouse or tortured an ant. Assume she was born instead in Munich (let’s assume raised by the same parents and in a similar Lutheran or Catholic church). Might she, by 1944, have found herself working at a concentration camp in some capacity – as did so many other nice young Germans?

    Rather than contrasting the “vilest criminal” and “the sweetest, kindest neighbor” – though neither has any chance of saving himself – maybe Total Depravity means that even on a human level, there’s not as much difference between the two as we would like to think.

    • Thanks for your comment. The capacity of great evil is definitely also a part of it. I like that you bring up the different circumstances issue, because sometimes people hear that claim and think that old lady as they currently know here could make the lightning switch to evil, maniacal torturer. No, she probably couldn’t right now. But, everyone has the potential given the right circumstances.

  8. If you are correct to write “there is not a single area, or part, of our nature that has not been subject to sin’s corrupting influence; though created good, not our mind, will, reason, bodily instincts, or anything else that could be singled out, remains untouched by the Fall.” then Total Depravity must have a depraved effect on our concept of what is Good.

  9. Derek,
    I enjoyed the article. Did you mean to include the authors of the Gospels in your statement about reading critically?

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  11. C.S. Lewis got the God’s sovereignty and man’s “Free Will” screwed up in the screw tape letters as well

  12. I know this is late, but I thought I would offer up the point that the acrostic T.U.L.I.P. is an early 20th century construct. It’s earliest referenced use is in 1905 and it didn’t become popular among Calvinists until the publication of Loraine Boettner’s “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.” I just bring this up since so many in the Reformed tradition view this mnemonic as almost sacrosanct.

    Good post!

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  14. FYI: I think that nobody, including such a great thinker as Lewis did,
    Was realize what Lewis did correctly in ‘problem of pain’ in his opening statement of his argument (e.g. He deconstructed the words ‘impossible’ and ‘goodness’ etc), HE FAILES TO DO WITH TOTAL DEPRAVITY (I.e. what is done correctly with ‘impossible’, is NOT DONE WITH THE WORDS ‘total’ and ‘depravity’), something any Calvinist does every time and every puritain made clear.

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  17. Derek,

    Thank you for this well thought-out post. As a fellow C.S. Lewis fan, I have to admit, I enjoy running across the instances that he was perfectly human.

    How does your explanation of total depravity fit into Calvin’s quote below (which I’m sure is familiar to you).

    “Let it stand, therefore, as an indubitable truth, which no engines can shake, that the mind of man is so entirely alienated from the righteousness of God, that he cannot conceive, desire, or design anything but what is wicked, distorted, foul, impure and iniquitous; that his heart is so thoroughly envenomed by sin, that it can breathe out nothing but corruption and rottenness; that if some men occasionally make a show of goodness, their mind is ever interwoven with hypocrisy and deceit, their soul inwardly bound with fetters of wickedness.” Institutes of the Christian Religion.

    I have been a member of a reformed church for years now, and we too often complain about the “caricatures” of TULIP – primarily total depravity. Unfortunately, I do think we should take some ownership of our own roles in creating those characterizations. To the layperson (proud member), it is difficult to read the quote above and read any significant degree of common grace or virtue into mankind.

    By the way, I hope this post does not come across the least bit adversarial. I greatly enjoyed your post and look forward to reading your thoughts. Thank you.

    • John,

      This is an excellent question. Briefly, I’ll make two points:

      1. Much as I love Calvin, he isn’t the only fountain of Reformed theology at this point. So more broadly-conceived, the doctrine of total depravity is formulated with more than just his articulations of anthropology in mind.
      2. This statement should be balanced with other more positive statements in Calvin’s corpus as well. If I had more time, I’d find them and point you to them.

      Thanks again for engaging!!

      • To me it seems logical to assume that Calvin’s beliefs were not all true. Posted on the web is Calvin’s commentary on Genesis. It may be instructive that in the introduction and/or in his commentary on Chapter 1, he denies that the solar system is sun centered and affirms that it is earth-centered.

        The integration of what has been learned about how the human brain develops from conception to adulthood with Calvin’s teachings does not seem to be very easy or simple.

  18. Recommend you look at Arthur Custance web site on Sovereignty. Good stuff and biblically based with references, unlike this article. infected, and man is in this sense totally depraved. It is not that we cannot do any good, but rather that in every good thing we do there exists this taint of evil.
    Napoleon, so it is said, observed that man will believe almost anything — so long as it is not in the Bible. While scholarly dignity nods assent (albeit reluctantly) to these insights into the nature of human nature, it has been customary to overlook biblical statements on the same topic. But the Lord far antedated Freud when He declared (Mark 7:21-23):

    Out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within. . . .

    This is acknowledged at times where one might least expect it. Thus David Lack, a Fellow of the Royal Society, admitted it: (52)

    The nature of the Fall has been variously interpreted in different ages. . . . Whether a more literal or more allegorical view is taken, the doctrine of the Fall is basic to Christian belief. The statement by Darwinists such as G. G. Simpson (The Meaning of Evolution, 1951) that man has risen, not fallen, misses the point.

    He then pointed out that even so great an antagonist of Christianity as T. H. Huxley acknowledged: (53)

    . . . it is the secret of the superiority of the best theological teachers to the majority of their opponents that they substantially recognize these realities. . . .
    “The doctrines of . . . original sin, of the innate depravity of man . . . of the primacy of Satan in this world . . . of a malevolent Demiurgus subordinate to a benevolent Almighty who has only lately revealed Himself, faulty as they are, appear to me to be vastly nearer the truth than the liberal, popular illusions that babies are all born good, and that the example of a corrupt society is responsible for their failure to remain so; that it is given to everybody to reach the ethic ideal if he will only try . . . and other optimistic figments.”

  19. Herein lies the great foundational divide between what scripture says and what Calvin “thinks” –
    Calvin on Genesis 3:1
    “In this chapter, Moses explains, that man, after he had been deceived by Satan revolted from his Maker, became entirely changed and so degenerate, that the image of God, in which he had been formed, was obliterated.”[ii]
    Please consider:

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