Total providence or total depravity? (John Cassian as a remedy for Augustinian nihilism)

In a recent post, John Meunier writes, “You cannot speak intelligently about Wesleyan theology if you discard the doctrine of Original Sin.” He shares a statement in the Book of Discipline which says, “We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.” I agree that we need to know we’re sinful in order to recognize our need for Christ. But is the Christian gospel really unintelligible unless we believe that every non-Christian around us is “destitute of holiness and inclined to evil”? I wanted to offer a different way to narrate this, with the help of 4th century saint John Cassian. I ultimately think a doctrine of total providence is more faithful to John Wesley’s vision than total depravity.

My response to John’s claim depends on the range of meaning you give to the term “original sin.” If you mean the historical doctrine of Augustine that God punishes every human being in history with an utterly wicked and depraved nature because a historical figure named Adam ate a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden, then no, I don’t think you have to believe that for Christianity to be intelligible. If on the other hand, “original sin” means more broadly that all of of us are born into a world of sin which the grace of Jesus Christ uniquely liberates us from, then yes, I agree that this is a necessary foundational principle of Christianity.

Now I do find the quote from the Book of Discipline to be very troubling, because the assertion that apart from Christ, people are “destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” seems like it could easily be interpreted to justify what I have called the doctrine of the total depravity of everyone else. If I think that as a Christian who “has” the grace of Jesus Christ, I am categorically morally superior to the non-believers around me, then I don’t have to take their views seriously when we have a disagreement because they’re not supposed to make any sense.

Christianity should give us the opposite attitude. It’s not supposed to make us presume wickedness on the part of others, but to recognize our utter dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ and thus have a profound humility as our disposition in every conversation we have so that we are proactively sympathetic and eager to hear and understand others. The way that I would modify the Book of Discipline statement (if it’s even something that can be modified) would be to write something more along the lines of what fourth century saint John Cassian wrote:

The initiative not only of our actions but also of good thoughts comes from God, who inspires us with a good will to begin with, and supplies us with the opportunity of carrying out what we rightly desire: for “every good gift and every perfect gift cometh down from above, from the Father of lights,” who both begins what is good, and continues it and completes it in us, as the Apostle says: “But He who giveth seed to the sower will both provide bread to eat and will multiply your seed and make the fruits of your righteousness to increase.” But it is for us, humbly to follow day by day the grace of God which is drawing us. [The Conferences of John Cassian XIII.III]

What John Cassian is saying is that God is always the author of every good that has ever been accomplished. It’s a doctrine of total providence, instead of total depravity. It’s no different than total depravity in terms of the sovereignty given to God’s grace, but the focus is on God’s goodness rather than humanity’s wickedness. Nothing good has its origin in me. Everything good that I do has really been accomplished by God working through me. The more that this is how I narrate my life’s accomplishments — as unmerited blessings from God for which He deserves glory, the more joyful gratitude I gain as a result. John 3:21 seems to speak of this when it says “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done through God.”

The original sin of Eden is to eschew dependence on God’s goodness for a delusional insistence on our self-sufficiency. We all go through a mysteriously inherent “fall” into this delusion of self-sufficiency and thus gain the imprisoning burden of self-justification, the need to prove ourselves right in everything we think and do. This burden, which Augustine referred to as “humanity curved inward upon itself,” corrupts our perception of reality as well as our ethical standards, since we continually make allowances and excuses for all of our unjustifiable behavior. This is why the most fundamental need we have in order to live in freedom and gratitude is to be justified decisively by someone with the authority to do so in a decisive enough way to convince us that it’s safe to be wrong and to ask for forgiveness and healing.

The difference between me and a non-Christian is not that I’m more virtuous. I imagine that there are many non-Christians who are less gluttonous, greedy, lazy, easily angered, and arrogant than I am. The difference is that I consider all of my achievements to be God’s accomplishments, which means that they are not a reason why I should be honored or compensated, but a reason why I should be grateful that He was gracious enough to use even me.

I credit the accomplishments and virtues of others to God as well, independent of whether or not they recognize God’s prevenient grace moving through them. As Cassian writes, “When His goodness sees in us even the very smallest spark of good will shining forth, which He Himself has struck as it were out of the hard flints of our hearts, He fans and fosters it and nurses it with His breath” (XIII.VII).

I don’t need others to be utterly wicked for my Christianity not to fall apart. I don’t see myself surrounded by people who are “destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.” I see myself surrounded by people who are utterly dependent on God’s grace, some of whom understand this rationally and others of whom perhaps know it in their hearts even without all the correct doctrine. I see myself surrounded by icons of God who radiate His light in varying degrees according to the degree that they trust and give glory to God in everything. This is why I fully expect for God to speak and minister to me even through people who don’t know Him. I believe in His goodness more than our wickedness.

18 thoughts on “Total providence or total depravity? (John Cassian as a remedy for Augustinian nihilism)

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  3. I much prefer this way of viewing our brokenness / separation. I’ve been struggling internally with my understanding of what the doctrine of depravity means and I hadn’t coherently processed the ‘why’ behind my thoughts.

    This paragraph really clarified my thoughts – “If you mean the historical doctrine of Augustine that God punishes every human being in history with an utterly wicked and depraved nature because a historical figure named Adam ate a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden, then no, I don’t think you have to believe that for Christianity to be intelligible. If on the other hand, “original sin” means more broadly that all of of us are born into a world of sin which the grace of Jesus Christ uniquely liberates us from, then yes, I agree that this is a necessary foundational principle of Christianity.”

    I don’t believe that “God punishes every human being in history with an utterly wicked and depraved nature because a historical figure named Adam ate a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden” and hadn’t quite been able to grasp why not, but i think you are right that our legitimate sense of justice leads that line of inquiry.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I’ve got some more thinking (lots!) to do on what this all means and it’s a joy to be privy to other trains of thought that are part of considered reflection and study. I do love this form of conversation and especially appreciate the comments and subsequent responses to the comments. It’s a great way to learn!

  4. In our last church in our Spirit Study group, one of the members focused on what she described as Original Blessing, not Original Sin. After discussion, she and I came to a very similar spot, that we are capable of both sin and blessing and that Christ’s grace is upon us whether we acknowledge it or not. The Book of Discipline does ascribe to Original Sin in fairly clear language. It led me to really having a hard time with a particular pastor’s sermons which were denying original sin, as merely us growing up in the garden.

  5. Morgan, I’m confused where you see the “everyone else” in the language from the Book of Discipline. You seem to think the language some how is creating two classes of people, but I simply cannot see how you come to that conclusion.

    And I’m not sure where you get the description of Augustine’s view of original sin that you do. I’ve been reading The Confessions and have his work on Free Will on deck. Where do you get your summary of what Augustine meant by free will?

    • Re: Augustine, City of God, and his writings against Pelagius. I’m actually a huge Augustine fan apart from this particular issue. Re: Book of Discipline, “apart from the grace of Jesus Christ” can be interpreted to mean non-Christians as a category as opposed to Christians without the empowerment of God’s grace. What makes me nervous about the way it’s written is that it seems to deny the existence of Prevenient grace which is the most important Methodist doctrine to me (unless “the grace of Jesus Christ” is prevenient and not just justifying grace). If United Methodism ever goes Calvinist to the point of ditching Prevenient grace altogether which is the direction it seems to be heading, I’ll probably go Pentecostal. Other than these particular questions, what did you think of the overall concept of total providence as a different way of framing the same need for grace than total depravity?

      • I do think that see two ways of saying the same thing, which is part of why I struggle with the way you describe total depravity. To my understanding, Cassin is starting the doctrine of total depravity in a positive form, but the same meaning is there in either the positive or negative formulation.

        • I agree that the same basic meaning is there, but I see an advantage to putting it in the positive form as a general statement about humanity. It’s useful to think about it in the negative form insofar as it contributes to my own personal humility. And I think it’s more accurate to say that people without Christ aren’t wicked per se but lack the recognition of God’s providence and the freedom gained in Christ’s justification, both of which of course have an impact on our moral capacity.

          • I can’t, of course, fault you for what is useful for you. But I don’t have a problem including myself in the category “all.”

          • The quote you included sure does, but I do not hear in him the opposition to Augustine that you do. Maybe this shows my ignorance.

          • Maybe it’s better to say that Cassian helps clarify Augustine than that he opposes him; my title could probably be tweaked. I think Wesley would prefer total providence to total depravity though of course he wasn’t squeamish about naming sin. I’m honestly trying to do what you challenged us to do at the end of your post: find a way of speaking about our condition and our need for Christ that doesn’t unnecessarily alienate. The only beef I have with Augustine is when he says that Adam incurred a penalty that was imposed on us since that drives people crazy not because they’re politically correct liberals but because they have a legitimate sense of justice. I see the “death” from Adam’s trespass Paul refers to in Romans 5 as a consequence not a penalty.

            I prefer to say that Adam’s story illustrates the mystery of our innate brokenness despite the fact that God creates only good things. That’s the essential theological affirmation, I think. We also do inherit the consequences of our ancestors’ choices; nobody gets to be a tabula rasa. Life isn’t fair; but we have to take responsibility for our brokenness even if it’s the product of others’ sin; otherwise there would be no end to the long chain of mitigating circumstances. But we’re not broken because God is still punishing us on account of somebody literally eating a fruit at the beginning of time.

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