This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

So Much for Total Depravity

St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

"Human beings do not merely have an inclination to evil."

Hearing this out of my Augustinian/Calvinist background, I assumed it meant that what people have towards evil is more than a mere inclination.  But Gregory clearly means something rather different.  He continues:

"Were this so, it would be impossible for people to grow in good, if human nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary."

Thus Gregory is saying that we have inclinations to good or evil.  Contrary to the "total depravity" ideology, Gregory holds that we may grow in goodness.  

"The finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; and this capacity for improvement transforms the soul, as it changes, more and more into the divine."

Were human beings totally depraved, were the image of God completely obliterated in us by the fall, there would be no inherent possibility in us for growth in good.

Gregory concludes:

"Let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3.18), and thus always improving and becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection.  For that perfection consists in our never stopping n our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation."
From On Perfection

I mention this small example to show that what normally passes for Orthodoxy among those of us who were raised in the Western church is not necessarily the whole story.  It is not our liberal, permissive bent that has a problem with a doctrine like Total Depravity, but people as central to the Orthodox tradition as Gregory of Nyssa would not have used such a formulation either.

Total Depravity is supposed to be a pillar of Calvinism, and yet it may be argued that it is a doctrine foreign to the Orthodox tradition.  It is at best sectarian and at worst heresy.  Most certainly it is not in any way "essential."  If it were we would have to excise many great Christians from the church.  


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