Paul’s insistence in 3.9 that ‘no one is righteous, not one,’ a phrase that hearkens back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sodom, has been the cornerstone of the Calvinist doctrine of ‘Total Depravity.’ It’s the ‘T’ in Tulip acrostic of Calvinist theology.
Total Depravity holds that because we’re all under the power of sin every act and aspect of our lives is compromised by sin.
Even are good deeds are ‘like filthy rags’ because ultimately they’re motivated not by a desire to serve God or neighbor but to justify our own selves.
I’ve never been able to swallow total depravity hook, line and sinker. It’s always struck me as a doctrinal answer in search of a theological problem- a problem I don’t necessarily agree Paul was primarily addressing.
The notion of total depravity made me remember this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, a liberal theologian from the 20th century and one I’m not normally given to quoting in any positive way (save the title of this blog):
“Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion. While such deception is constantly directed against competing wills,seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, its primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but the self.
The self must at any rate deceive itself first. Its deception of others is partly an effort to convince itself against itself.
The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act.
The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity.”
Niebuhr’s point is that our self-deception itself presupposes that somewhere deep down within us we know that we’re not living out who we were created to be and that we disobey God. Even if this is only on the subconscious level it undermines the notion that we’re completely depraved in the Calvinist sense. It also suggests, contra Calvinism, that non-Christians as creatures of God still live their lives imbued with the grace of the imago dei.
Our guilty conscience, then, might be the best sign we have for hope.