Total Depravity: Free Will

May 22nd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

There are two reasons why I don’t believe that depravity is total in extension but not in intension. First, I don’t happen to think that depravity is total in extension: it hasn’t quite corrupted the proper function of the will (a.k.a. the volition). Second, I do happen to believe that depravity is total in intension: it has completely corrupted human desire. It is nearly impossible to separate these two objections into two separate arguements because of the inseparable connection between the desire and the will, but we’ll start with the will.

The will is the faculty of the mind that makes choices. It takes desires for its input and gives choices as its output. Simply put, desire determines the will. Or, you do what you do because you want what you want. Occasionally, the will also heeds the input of “reason” (the faculty of the mind that senses the truth of some propositions by applying logic to other, known propositions, i.e. knowledge) to find the most suitable means by which to obtain the desired object. Then the will makes the immediately necessary choice to pursue that object. Again, desire determines the will. We always go after what we want.

Oddly, this idea of the will preserves human freedom and responsibility while abolishing a “free will.” (Wait, how can you have human freedom if humans don’t have a free will?) Freedom is the power or ability to do what one wants. Negatively, it is the lack of hindrance, impediment or coercion keeping one from what one wants. But the will isn’t the faculty of the mind that wants or desires (let’s call that the heart, appetite, or simply the desire.) The will cannot do what the will wants because the will doesn’t want. The will chooses. We should no more expect the will to desire than we should expect our sight to hear, reason to feel, or emotion to will.

However, it is this necessary connection between desires and decisions that make us morally responsible agents. Suppose that I fully desired (and had no opposing desires) to swim out to save a drowning person; it would seem utterly bewildering if, in spite of my desire, I decided not to swim out. Inversely, if I fully desired not to steal, it would be inexplicable for me to decide to steal. If something like that were to happen, we would know that something is wrong. Our choices must be tied to our desires if we are to have control of them. In these two examples, what would be the basis of the choice? Here the will seems utterly unhinged, arbitrary, and random, uncontrolled by the agent.

It should be self-evident and obvious that what we want (regarding the relation between our desires and our choices) is that we do what we want. A reality in which we do things that we don’t want would be incomprehensible and morally unintelligible. It is a good and desirable thing that our desires determine our will. This makes us free to do exactly what we want. Indeed, this very fact makes it possible for us to do what we want rather than having unhinged choices that go contrary to our desires.

Now, I don’t think that I have made a very strong case for our lack of free will or offered much evidence that this is the proper way for the will to function. I merely threw out some claims. If you are unconvinced, I can refer you to Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will. Good luck. What I have attempted to show, however, is that a free will—or rather, an unconnected will—is not really desirable. If desire does not determine our decisions, what does? A person whose choices are not firmly connected to his desires would be arbitrary, capricious, and random. Furthermore, when I introspect, I find that I always only ever do what I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hopefully this also lays some groundwork for human moral responsibility. If our choices are random, unconnected to our desires, and arbitrary, how are we—who have minimal (at best) control over them—to be held responsible? But if we are free, and (just as importantly) if our will is not, then we have grounds for human responsibility and accountability.

If these premises are accepted, it should be quite obvious the corruption of depravity is most deeply rooted: in our desires. The will—though it function flawlessly—is a Garbage-In-Garbage-Out system. If we see bad choices coming out of a properly functioning will, it is because bad desires are going in.

Next time, we’ll take a look at our desires and see that within the heart, the corruption if depravity is total in intension. Also, we’ll talk about how this means that humans really are as evil as we can possibly be (in our unregenerate state).

Total Depravity: Extension

May 13th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I consider myself, at best, to be an amateur theologian. But I think that is the calling of all of us, unless we are paid to be a theologian. But being an amateur does not mean that we are to do it poorly. Amateurs, being unpaid, engage in their hobbies for the sheer joy of it. Usually, there is no other motivation. I hope that can be our reason–and our only reason–for doing theology. Let us never forget that God is good clean fun. I do not mean that there is no pain or difficulty in getting to know God properly; I only mean that we should always remember the simple joy of knowing God. When we’ve forgotten that, we may have lost everything. Let us always be amateur theologians.

But any good amateur at anything wants to do it well. Any good thing (such as theology) is, by virtue of its being good, worthy of being done well. We may not be perfect, but we must do well. We must enjoy doing well, for doing well is good, and all good things are enjoyable. So any good amateur will find those who do better work and study from them. Even a budding artist planning to ignore all the rules and break out of all the forms goes humbly to whomever broached the last set of conventions so that she can learn all the methods for proper disrespect.

As an amateur theologian, I happen to be a staunch two-point Calvinist. I believe quite thoroughly in Total Depravity and Absolute Sovereignty. (The rest of the traditional five points flow directly from these.) These two points, then, are the two about which I’ve done the most reading (which isn’t saying much at all; after all, I have no pretensions to being more than an amateur.) And on the topic of Total Depravity, I have found myself much confused. Though I myself am more than sympathetic to the doctrine, I find no one able to satisfy my understanding of what the “total” means. Everyone seems quite close to having something worthwhile to say about it, but so many authors present such weak arguments for a strong view of the “total”, or else offer strong arguments for a weak view that ends up contradicting the rest of the Reformed Soteriology.

So I am here to take a stab at it, in all my amateurish glory, an attempt to draw pictures of what I think others fail to see in words. This is what an amateur thinks Total Depravity is.

First, let me clarify why this is even a problem. Despite the modifier “total,” we depraved folks do not not seem to be as wicked as we could possibly be. We are not all little Hitlers. Very few of us have participated in anything remotely resembling the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Only a small minority of our population is currently engaged in human trafficking, terrorism, and child pornography. Believe it or not, I do not spend my off hours roving the countryside looking for small children to torture and kill. Instead, we live (at least in America) in a country where many people donate a bit to small causes, where the fireman still call around raising money because it still works–people will give them money. Some people actually donate time. And every 501c3 that exists is actually run by real people, some of whom may care about what they do. We may not be very good, but we seem to be at least a little good. Of course, those of us that are sane will recognize that we are a little depraved, too. But very? Or totally? No, we are not that. So what does the “Total” mean?

Theologians have tried to solve this problem using the distinction of extension & intension. They claim that depravity is total in extension but not in intension. These are set theoretic terms often used in discussions of semantics. The easiest way to explain the difference between extension and intension is to draw pictures. Now, though I cling to the title of Amateur Theologian Extraordinaire, I have no pretension to being a good artist. But here goes.

Let us suppose that the human being were able to broken apart into components. No doubt this is impossible on some level, but for the sake of the example, bear with me. Let us suppose that humans had 5 components: the volition (or will), emotion, desire, reason, and flesh. Though no doubt entangled, logic is different than the body, and emotion is different than volition. Thus, though our being is almost inconceivably different than the drawing below, let us pretend that this is a picture of me.

A Bad Picture of the Human Being

In this picture, extension is the X-axis and intension is the Y-axis. So the extension of my depravity would be the set of parts of me that are depraved. Intension is the completeness with which any part of me is depraved. Another way to put it: extension is the breadth of the depravity (or the set of the things that are corrupted) and intension is the depth of the depravity (or the quality and completeness of the corruption) The following is a picture of what I look like if my depravity is total in extension but not in intension.

This picture (where depravity is represented by the gray) shows that depravity has touched every piece of me, but only partially. According to this view of depravity, sin has corrupted my body: this is why I get illnesses, etc. Sin has corrupted my reason. This is why I am imperfect at math and why some people completely fail to believe in God. Sin has corrupted my desire: this is why I want wrong things, even things that are bad for me and will not bring happiness. Sin has corrupted my emotion. This is why I do not respond properly to beautiful things but often enjoy that which is crude or base. And sin has corrupted my volition, which is why I often make terrible choices against all that I believe is good.

We find this view in such works as “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended & Documented” where we read, “When Calvinists speak of man as being totally depraved, they mean that man’s nature is corrupt, perverse, and sinful throughout. The adjective “total” does not mean that each sinner is as totally corrupt in his actions and thoughts as it is possible for him to be. Instead, the word “total” is used to indicate that the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption extends to every part of man, his body and soul; sin has affected all (the totality) of man’s faculties–his mind, his will, etc.” (2nd Ed., p. 19)

Or as Philip Johnson puts it, “So the word total in “total depravity” refers to the extent of our sinfulness, not the degree to which we manifest it. It means evil has contaminated every aspect of our being—our wills, our intellect, our emotions, our conscience, our personality, and our desires.” (

Now, this makes good sense logically. I understand what is appealing about this view. To put it much more strongly seems to be overdoing it. We are not, after all as evil as we can possibly be.

Next time, I’ll attempt to explain why I disagree with this view. Stay tuned for some more amazing artwork.

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