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.
- 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?