There’s a lot to say about chapter 2 of Michael Horton’s book “For Calvinism.” The chapter is about the human condition (the T in TULIP stands for Total Depravity). It makes some sense to divide my response into 3 sections. I’ll deal with anthropological, polemical, and philosophical issues (in that order).
First, I want to respond to Horton’s anthropology. Calvinists sometimes come across as if they believe that humans are just utter scum. What does Horton mean by TOTAL depravity? He does a good job of avoiding the potential excesses here. Reformed anthropology starts with us being made in God’s image, not with The Fall. Early in the chapter he states, “Calvinism teaches that human beings are basically good in their intrinsic nature.” What’s more, The Fall “has not destroyed the will any more than it has destroyed the mind, the senses, or any other faculty. Rather, it has corrupted every faculty.” According to Horton, the “total” in “total depravity” refers to its extensiveness, not its intensiveness.” All of this is well said! I think Horton has offered, here, a necessary corrective to pop-Calvinism.
Second, I want to respond to Horton’s polemical rhetoric on this issue. It was quite difficult to discern when (if ever) he was critiquing the Arminian perspective on anthropology (and using a straw man) or only intending to dialogue with semi-Pelagianism (and doing a good job of it). For instance, Arminians don’t believe that “our will is left sufficiently uncorrupted to choose good.” We believe that the will is included in the fall (as is everything else, note above agreement). Nor do Arminians agree with “the popular notion that God simply holds out his hand in an offer of pardon to those who turn themselves toward him – and that this constitutes the grace of God in regeneration.” I agree with him that a mere offer made to fallen creatures would never result in a ‘good’ choice. Horton has done a good job of exposing the error of semi-Pelegianism, but I can’t even begin to see where any of this is a critique of Arminianism.
Third, and finally, I want to address Horton’s philosophical beliefs. A lot of this comes down to the dispute between compatibilism and libertarian free-will. Horton is a compatibilist (though he seems to avoid that term in the book). In his own words, “our choices are determined by our nature; we choose what we desire and we desire what is most consistent with our nature. If we are bound by sin… we can only choose sin and death, and we really do choose it.” In other words, compatibilism does not include the ability to choose otherwise (even after conversion), but only the ‘freedom’ to choose your desires.
I’m no expert in philosophy, but from the very first time I read about compatibilism, it didn’t make sense to me (and before that, I would have never even thought of such a theory). Oddly enough, it sounds very much like what atheists believe about free will. Free will, in both systems, seems like a myth. Any theory of free will that begins with the phrase “our choices are determined” isn’t really a theory at all. Of course, my response to compatibilism will have to be much abbreviated for the purpose of this review, but suffice it to say, I think Horton is wrong at a philosophical level.
To use Horton’s categories, I believe we have the natural ability to choose either good or evil, but since The Fall we only have the moral ability to choose evil. We are not free, we are slaves to sin. But we are not left to our own abilities. God comes, gracefully, to woo and transform our fallen wills. He restores our freedom. He does not coerce. He is a gentleman. We find ourselves dealing with desires in conflict. We either, assisted by grace, choose to yield to God’s love or, otherwise, rejecting grace, choose to hold on to self and continue in slavery.