Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Total Depravity and Parental Discipline

From time to time I hear new parents say that they did not believe in original sin until they had children. Although this is meant partially in jest, it is also meant as a theological claim. It ought to be considered as such, for at least some parents either explicitly or implicitly draw disciplinary implications from this claim. Children are born totally depraved and therefore parents may and must execute harsh discipline, or so the argument goes. Is this a legitimate practical inference from the doctrine of total depravity? I contend that it is not, because said inference betrays a misunderstanding of the meaning of total depravity.

What does depravity mean? The term comes from the Latin verb depravare which means to bend or make crooked. Augustine used the term for the universal human inclination toward evil. More precisely, humans are bent or inclined toward misuse of the good, to use God and God's creatures for the enjoyment of one's self rather than to use one's self and other creatures for the enjoyment of God. To be depraved, despite its contemporary connotations, merely means to be bent or inclined towards one's self at the expense of God and others. So, for my son to be depraved doesn't necessarily mean his intentions and actions are sinister, but rather that he has a bent-ness or inclination towards himself at the expense of others.

But what does total depravity mean? There is a long Christian tradition that goes back at least to the fourth century of distinguishing between different aspects of the image of God in which humanity was created (e.g., moral image, intellectual image, volitional image, etc.). These distinctions served, among other things, to identify which aspects were affected by the fall and in what sense. So, for instance, we lost the moral image but retain our intellectual or volitional capacities. The notion of "total" depravity found in some radical Augustinian traditions emerged as a critique of such a use of this tradition, claiming that all the aspects of humanity have been tainted by the fall. So the "total" in total depravity is extensive not intensive. It's not as though we are as bad as we possibly could be, but rather there's no "safe" part of us that we can count on as innocent and good over against our fallen parts. We are bent as wholes. So, for my son to be totally depraved doesn't necessarily mean that he is as bad as he could possibly be, but rather that he as a whole person has an inclination or bent-ness toward using others for his own enjoyment.

So, does total depravity underwrite harsher discipline of children? No. Total depravity refers to a general inclination toward disorder that affects the whole person. And so a totally depraved child is not necessarily sinister in every intention or as evil as he or she possibly could be. An argument for harsh discipline cannot be made on this ground alone. One could in fact argue the reverse: that the inclination toward self-seeking at the expense of others will be fed by the threat of harsh discipline. A totally depraved child would require caution and care as much as if not more than force and discipline. Furthermore, one could argue that the universality of total depravity would function self-critically to call into question the purity of parental disciplinary intentions. Could it be that much of what passes for disciplining is actually self-serving? If the doctrine of total depravity is true, parents have as much reasons to question their own motives as they do their children's.

But one would not need to make these further moves to at least accept that total depravity alone does not warrant harsher discipline. That's the bottom line of this argument: the doctrine of total depravity does not in itself justify harsher discipline of children. In making this contention I do not claim to have defended the doctrine of total depravity, nor was that my design. Rather, I merely intend to block an illegitimate (and dangerous!) practical inference. This blockade is aimed both at those who might act out this unfortunate inference and at those who would object to the doctrine on account of its deleterious effects. So, the purpose of my argument is that those who affirm total depravity ought not execute harsh discipline on account of it and that those who reject total depravity ought not use this so-called practical implication as an argument against it.

Any Thoughts?
  • Have you heard someone make the connection between the doctrine of sin and methods of parental discipline?
  • Have I described the doctrine of total depravity correctly in terms of its classical sense?
  • Do you find the extensive/intensive distinction helpful?
  • What kind of parental implications might flow from the doctrine of total depravity rightly understood?
N.B.: For clarity's sake, please keep original guilt and total depravity conceptually distinct for the sake of discussion despite their intimate relation. In other words, do not presume an objection to one applies automatically to the other.


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Dru - it's been a while since I tried to answer any of your questions. TD is a phrase I hear from time to time from people who should not use it in the context it is used in. I usually don't go back to such a place. It has been used by some to mean that there is no fix for some people - once an x always an x. A kind of gratitude for not being an x. There is no arguing that I like about such so I don't bother. But the term sticks - it has a referent to our potential deceptiveness in all our doings. Your recognition of its roots is helpful. I have 4 children - 2 with serious brain damage - one from birth and one from an accident. I am myself a difficult person to rule over. I ignore what I can, avoid what I can, and prefer convenience to conversation sometimes. What will my Lord do with such a person as me? He will give me problems of sufficient complexity that it is more convenient for me to face them than to run away. And when I have faced the simplest, he will gradually increase the difficulty showing me all the while how to use the exceeding grace of his death for me. Such teaching leads me to listen to my children - whether they are cooperative or nor, whether they 'believe' or not, and whatever their disabilities are. I do not approve of parental violence of force applied against those who are weaker and have no recourse. The Father of lights does not use such techniques. Instead he through the Spirit teaches the self-giving of the Son by incarnation in us. What that does for our totality is to be discovered. We should give no easy answer to hard questions. Such teaching as I can receive works in me a greater acceptance of difference than I had in the days of my certainty, and it stops me from judging others. The doctrine of TD should not at any time let us think that we are able to be certain of our judgments of others.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I haven't taken the opportunity to congradulate you on your "new one". Congrads..

This is an important "warning", as the distinction you make about total depravity and original guilt was not understood by me or by most. And because of that, I believe that if I spared my children by giving them grace, then they would be spoiled and disobedient. Obedience was a sign of respect for authority, which was the primary task of the parent. I ended up being a policeman to children who were not guilty (at least in the cupable sense) nor understanding the differences in their temperaments, so that it gave leeway to their "bent". And yet, I read a lot of material on parenting, but only in certain types of circles.....I no longer adhere to these doctrines. And I have asked forgiveness. They tease me now about some of my former convictions...I am so glad that there are those like you who are taking the time to inform and educate others about this important issue. But, will the fundamentalists listen to, liberal :)?

Keith Drury said...

Good post... I've always pondered this: If depravity is a "bent to self" can right parenting straighten this bent (or is it bent forever inward on self)... beyond that, to what extent is God's grce able to straighten the bent-to-self, or even bend one the other way--bent to others?

But, of course you know I have pondered this...

Glen Robinson said...

Great post!

I've always understood total depravity to mean that there is no part of us that is good enough to choose or want to choose (or to use your language - "to be bent towards") God. We are bent towards ourselves by default.

It's difficult to talk about total depravity aside from the Gospel, because the practical implications for disciplining my child comes from answering the question, "How will they come to understand their need for God? How will they come to realize they need a Savior?" Obviously the Spirit does this, but I think that discipline teaches obedience.

We see this all the time with parents of rebellious teens who can't even get them to sit down and talk with mom or dad. They are so out of control, but why? Because obedience and respect was not instilled from the beginning.

My goal is to get my child to hear and respond to the Gospel, but they won't listen to me if they don't respect me or obey me. They won't trust what I have to say.

So initially, at a young age, the goal of discipline is obedience. Not for them to obey as robots, but for them truly to understand the condition of their heart. This can only happen when the parent communicates along with discipline as to the "why" of their disobedience.

Ultimately, I don't discipline for my benefit. I discipline because they are disobeying God when they disobey me or their mother. And they need to see that deeper reality that their disobedience is against God first and against their parents second.

A great tool is "Shepherding a Child's Heart" by Tedd Tripp. He talks a lot about discipline and the Gospel.

Aaron Perry said...

I am not sure I have ever heard one affirm harsh discipline solely on the ground of total depravity, and I haven't seen it modeled without care and caution being part and parcel of this approach.

It seems possible to me that a bent-ness toward self as a whole could be part of the argument one could form to warrant harsh discipline, but that would also necessarily include the possibility of reform in the individual, and would therefore need to be individualized to the child.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I must respond to this, as I think I have made so many mistakes in my parenting.

The parent should be in the business of helping the child develop their "self". Self identity is not the problem, it is the limitations and poverty of intellectual exposure to "issues" that hinder their development of their own values and commitments. Therefore, the break-down of the family through divorce, or neglect is the cause of much "demandingness" and selfishness" that we see today...

I believe that children that are cared for, say, in "secular" world, can be altruistic or committed to certain values that are beyond selfishness, because their sense of "self" is centered and defined by their struggle in knowing the issues that clamour for attention, which will they commit to and why? What one'd ideology is matters a lot in behavior. So, I think being "turned in on oneself" is not "sinful" in the child, as that is the proper behavior of the child in developmental terms!

Bob MacDonald said...

I as a parent am always intrigued by what other parents consider the one important thing about child rearing. I don't think it is self-esteem. For me it is independence from the parents! So I value disobedience because it shows guts, develops character, and teaches consequences, and is the prime enabler of independence. I call it a holy stubbornness. It must not be met with corporal or psychological punishment particularly since it mostly meets with such for the convenience of the parent or because the parent or parents think they know best.

I know now what I did not know as a new parent - that God similarly values our independence. The greatest gift a child can give to a parent is this presence once maturity has taught the child sufficiently. Perhaps this is not the Total Depravity issue - but it is here where TD loses its value as a premise.

I suspect I am a product of my time but there it is for what its worth.

vanilla said...

The conflicting positions taken in these responses typify differing psychologies of child-rearing. If indeed enlightened self-interest is the wellspring of altruistic behavior, then the "bent" to self-interest is less TD than it is a useful tool for one's own survival and well-being.

Personally, I agree with drulogion and do not represent this position. Grace extended from God us-ward is, in my opinion, a model for extension of "grace" to the recalcitrant child. But as the Spirit chastens us, so must we chasten the child.

Russ Veldman said...

I have not heard parents make a connection between total depravity and a method of discipline, but between it and the necessity of discipline.

How does parental discipline affect total depravity in a child? Hm... While it may not change the heart, it is hard to argue with the fact that some parents are more effective in their discipline than others as evidenced by how their kids behave and turn out as adults, and that some grown children will testify that their parents' discipline truly guided them to better behavior, even somehow shaped their way of seeing and valuing. Maybe good parental discipline can be a conduit of God's shaping grace. Maybe good parental discipline helps a child, with God's help, access or tap into the prevenient grace that can direct behavior to the good.

And yes, your discussion about the extent of total depravity is very helpful.

Rachel said...

John, I found your blog today, and I love this post because it ties in directly to my field ed final appraisal paper. I work with youth, and they can sometimes be SO frustrating that I do often return to the doctrine of TD. However, my frustrations turn to mercy when I understand that I am no farther along than they are, and that to assume so would be a great error.

So thanks for the field ed inspiration!

Rachel L.