Sinfulness is Accidental
Recently, Kristen Rudd wrote about the overwhelming nature of grace in opposition to our being "good people." One of her comments got a small amount of flack as she said that human nature was inherently "good." In a theological climate of increasing indiscriminate "Calvinism," the idea of human nature being "good" seems to many to go against the idea of Total Depravity.
I have been preparing a post on Calvin the Christian Humanist, but I feel like I need to take a part of that post to demonstrate how Calvin responded to the accusation that his theology demonized human nature. Make no mistake, Calvin fully acknowledged the sinfulness of mankind. But in stressing that position, Rome took the chance to accuse Reformed theology of a more sinister heresey—that human nature was inherently sinful. Against this, Calvin pulled from Aristotle to explain the difference between what was essential and accidental to human nature.
To get down to the fancy, J. Todd Billings summarizes the position of Calvin in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will by saying:
"The substance of human nature is good—it is created good by God and remains good in this fallen world. However, with the Fall, this good substance is joined with the accidental characteristic of sinning. Sin makes humans less than who they were created to be. It separates them from God, from neighbor, and from their true selves. Nevertheless, the primal human nature is still good after the Fall." (The Catholic Calvin, Pro Ecclesia 20, no. 2 (2011), pg. 126)
This is a bold statement. And it is defensive of Kristen's point. Though Billings is perhaps overstating Calvin's position, I would state that it is accurate enough and that the principal point is present in a number of Calvin's writings:
"Those who say that [human] nature must be healed differ greatly from the Manichees, because it could not be healed if the evil was eternal and unchangeable, as in Mani's dreams. Those who say that evil is accidental to our nature are greatly opposed to the Manichees, who assign it to its substance. Those who teach that [human] choice is free only to do evil, but at the same time acknowledge that it originated from that which is not evil, are not at all close to the Manichees, but powerfully refute this error. But which of those doctrines have we not always taught?" (The Bondage and Liberty of the Will, pg 48)
"They argue that sin is not attached to his substance; we too affirm the very same thing, but we add that the first man, after he fell from his wholeness, underwent the corruption of his good nature and passed this on to all of his descendants." (The Bondage and Liberty of the Will, pg 84)
That man's nature is not inherently corrupt and evil means that regeneration into the image of Christ is a restoration of the nature God gave us. This means that the Christian witness to the image of God in others is to acknowledge it and seeks its restoration. Everything here supports that Calvin sees the fall and sin as being less than the substance God originally created. It is a deformity that places mankind into the bondage of sin.
And yet, there remains the "substance”—the being made in the image of God—that impacts Calvin's perspective of how to deal with fallen man. For Calvin, we must always address each other as those made in God’s image even if we have corrupted it. So let's return with Calvin to understand the image of God's important applications to a Christian worldview of science, forgiveness, and general well-being of mankind.