I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of C.S. Lewis’ books. I’m not overly enamored with his work, but his writing is thought-provoking and quite helpful in many areas. In other areas, however, he’s not so helpful. One of those areas is the doctrine of sin and depravity. Here are some quotes from an otherwise decent book, The Problem of Pain.
“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 (p. 29).”
“This chapter [on human wickedness] will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature (p. 61).”
I think it is safe to say that Lewis did not rightly understand the doctrine of total depravity. What he is reacting against is not total depravity, but absolute depravity. While hyper-Calvinists may teach some form of absolute depravity, the Reformed creeds and confessions do not teach it. Lewis mixed the two up. Here’s how the Reformation tradition describes this aspect of total depravity:
“There remain…in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Canons of Dort, III/IV. 3).
“[Through Adam’s sin man] has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof…” (Belgic Confession article 14).
In other words, the “total” of total depravity means that sin has spread to the entire person – mind, heart, body, soul. “Total” doesn’t mean that we’re as sinful as we possibly could be. Romans 1:18ff is important here. Total depravity doesn’t mean everyone is absolutely depraved in such a way that they have absolutely no idea what is true and good; it doesn’t mean man has absolutely lost the image of God. But it does mean that our “total” selves are infected with sin in such a way that we fight against the truth and goodness God has clearly shown us.
C.S. Lewis misunderstood this. He got it wrong. He wasn’t really a theologian – much less a Reformed theologian – so we can charitably disagree and use this occasion to remember the right definition of total depravity.
rev shane lems