Iustitiam Carnis and “Total” Depravity

Philiip Melanchthon identifies the hotly-disputed issue of free will as being “about the deterioration of human strength through sin, man’s inability to free himself from sin and death, and about the works that man is able to do in such a state of weakness.”:”(As excerpted from the Loci Communes (1521) in The Renaissance Reader, ed. Kenneth J. Atchity [New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996], pp. 131-134.)”: For Melanchthon, seemingly unlike for Luther, the deep questions of necessity and the relationship of God’s knowledge to human actions are “extraneous questions” that sidetrack the real issues. Free will is about the harmonious relations between man’s understanding, will, and heart. This harmony was lost in the Fall, and “man’s natural powers became very weak.”:”(Ibid., 131.)”:

Though corrupted by sin, man’s natural powers did not become utterly useless. So that God might recognize sin and be able to be punished for it, God ensured that some “knowledge remained in this ccorrupted nature, although it is dim and full of doubt and uncertainty about God.” The ability to have virtue toward God (love of God, trust in Him, and fear of Him) was lost, and man’s heart is “wretchedly imprisoned, impaired, and ruined.” However, this ruination does not extend to man’s ability to perform outward acts based on what he does understand of God and his situation as a creature: God “wants all men to have external morality, and thereby learn the distinction between powers that are free and powers that are bound.”:”(Ibid., 132.)”:

This is the freedom that St. Paul calls “the righteousness of the flesh” (iustitiam carnis), and it allows for man being able to move his external members “in the performance of the commanded works and duties.” Were this not still possible for fallen man, “then all worldly law and all education of children would be in vain.” But “it is certainly true that through worldly law and the education of children God wants to force men into honorable customs, and such pain and work are not totally in vain. For, as Holy Scripture teaches in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, the law was given for the ungodly to restrain them from becoming worse than they already are.” Further, the law is the schoolmaster that leads us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), and this means that “external morality is necessary, for in a life filled with dissolute, immoral, persistent adultery, gluttony, robbery, and murder there can be neither instruction in the gospel nor acquaintance with it.”:”(Ibid., 133.)”:

Two things stand in the way of (fallen) free will’s attempt to achieve the iustitiam carnis: “our own weakness and the devil’s activity.” Here Melanchthon approvingly cites the ancients: “if one does not want to fall into sin, he must turn away from the source” (vitare peccata est vitare occasiones peccatorum). “We should contemplate all this as a reminder to fear punishment and to live morally,” but at the same time, “Although it is certainly true that all men are obliged to live in external morality and that God earnestly punishes external depravity…we must also know that external morality cannot merit forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It is not a fulfillment of the law, and neither is it the righteousness by which a man is justified and received before God.” Salvation comes only through Christ’s merit.:”(Ibid., 134.)”:

There are some interesting similarities here between Melanchthon and the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity, but in light of some recent studies I’ve been doing, I am beginning to believe that the Reformed decision to use words like “total” and “completely” and “wholly” of the negative effects of the Fall has, in our day anyway, had some pretty serious distorting effects on theology and apologetics, not to mention Christian culture. Such language seems to encourage the Fundamentalist-like “Us vs. Them” mentality, wherein we are the Soldiers of Light and they are the Minions of Darkness, fit only for destruction. One of the first casualties of this sort of view is the older Reformed ability (seen in such worthies as Calvin, Hodge, Dabney, and Berkhof) to genuinely appreciate, and perhaps even to learn from, the good things done by unbelievers in their iustitiam carnis. Unbelievers are there to be mocked for their “inconsistencies,” to be blasted for their “autonomy,” to be the target of our all-or-nothing “culture war,” to be a foil for our own supposedly superior “worldview thinking.”

By contrast, it seems to me that Reformed sources from the Synod of Dort to the Westminster Confession to R.L. Dabney take a much more sober-minded tack to the issue in that they continually present the negative effects of the Fall as ethical and related only to salvation, and not as a destruction of basic human nature itself. Dort qualifies its own “total” depravity language by saying that the error it is rejecting is of those who say that “corrupt and natural man can make such good use of common grace (by which they mean the light of nature) or of the gifts remaining after the fall that he is able thereby gradually to obtain a greater grace – evangelical or saving grace – as well as salvation itself.”:”(Rejection of Errors in the Third and Fourth Point of Doctrine.)”: Question 25 of the Westminster Larger Catechism says that in the Fall man became “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually.” Dabney says it even more clearly:

[Depravity] is, in its origin, privative, and not the infusion of some positive quality of evil into the soul….native depravity is not a substantial corruption of the soul; i.e., does not change or destroy any part of its substance. For souls are, as to their substance, what God made them; and His perfections ensure His not making anything that was not good. Nor is there any loss of the capacities or faculties, which make up the essentia of the soul. Man is, in these respects, essentially what his Creator made him. Hence depravity is, in the language of metaphysics, not an attribute, but accidens of the human soul now.:”(Dabney, Lecture XXVIII, Systematic Theology, pg. 322.)”:

Let me hasten to say that I’ve never actually seen an orthodox Reformed writer say that the Fall metaphysically ruined man such that natural things are all bad and only spiritual things are good, but from where I sit there sure seems to be a disturbing trend of rhetoric that could be seen as a slippery-slope to such sub-Christian dualism. I think it’s better to go with the more restrained presentations of Melanchthon and the older Reformed sources.


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