Monergism, Total Depravity, Creativity, and the Imago Dei


'The Scream' by Edvard MunchIf you’ve got grass to mow, I’ve got more—about nine acres.

Our house sits on 13.2 acres of rolling Ohio farmland. I suspect about four acres of that is wooded, but the rest is grass. Our orchard dots some of that grassland, but I still have to mow around the trees, so it counts. I’ll drop about one and a half acres of grass once we put in our vineyard. (We live in the Ohio Valley Viticultural Area, the largest wine-grape-growing region in the United States. You can put a lot of Napas in here.)

I’ve got a 35hp full-size Kubota tractor that pulls an 8′ finish mower deck. The whole grass-cutting process takes about 5 hours.

That gives me a lot of time to think. The great thing about having land is there’s nothing fast about it. Whatever you do to it takes time. Doesn’t take a lot of brainpower while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing to it, so the mind can concentrate on other things.

Today, a question trickled through my thoughts and I had some trouble reconciling it logically. That’s why I’m opening up responses. If you’ve got some insights, please comment.

Disclaimer: What follows is NOT a teaching. It’s a question I’m posing for my own benefit so I can better understand the issue. It should in no way construe any indication of questioning orthodox Christian belief.

Now for my tractor meditations…

I was thinking about the Imago Dei, the idea that Man is made in God’s image. Not that our physical appearance is like God’s, but that our spiritual state is. We reason, create, and appreciate beauty because God has those traits in Himself and has imbued us with them.

Total Depravity is the condition of Man after the Fall, unable to connect to God because of sin and spiritual death. (See 1 Corinthians 2:14; Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:10-11)

It should follow that as a result of the Fall, Total Depravity dealt a crushing blow to Imago Dei.

The problem begins when we ask how severe that blow was.

Since Total Depravity is truly total, one would think that the Imago Dei would not so much be damaged as utterly annihilated. If it is the spiritual state of Man that is the Imago Dei, then the spiritual death wrought by the Fall should have destroyed the Imago Dei altogether. Dead is dead, not semi-alive. If the root of sin is that deep, then Man would have nothing left of the Imago Dei, or at least have nothing of the Imago Dei that could remain to produce anything sin-free.

Even considering that view, four possibilities remain:

  1. Total Depravity is total; the Imago Dei was completely annihilated.
  2. Total Depravity is total; however, some of the Imago Dei remains pure.
  3. Total Depravity is total; however, the Imago Dei remains but is tainted in such a way that nothing pure comes from any of it.
  4. Total Depravity is not total; this explains why the Imago Dei remains.

All of those positions have problems, however.

#1 is problematic because it is clearly false. I still reason. The very act of me typing this post is a sign of reason—and creativity. I linked words together creatively.

#2 is problematic because it would insist that Total Depravity does not extend to all parts of fallen Man’s being. More on this one later.

#3 is problematic because one could argue that there are things that Man creates that are perfect—or at least profoundly good—that would argue against taint. For instance, in what way is Handel’s Messiah “imperfect” as a piece of music? Or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? One could say that in order to be perfect, those works would have to appeal to all men at all times in all places. But is that the true test of perfection? Yes, the instruments used to play those works may not be in perfect tune, but the idea of those works as they existed in the minds of those composers would mitigate that issue.

The other problem about #3 is asking the other side of the perfection issue: In what way are those works tainted by sin? Yes, their creators are tainted by sin. There’s no reason to believe that Beethoven was ever a born-again Christian, so this muddies the water further, since the Moonlight Sonata is sublimely beautiful. There is evidence that Beethoven wrote that piece in mourning for an unrequited love affair with a married woman, so his motives for writing it are questionable. But the greater question of the purity of the work as a work unto itself remains.

Lastly on #3, one must ask if a pre-Fall Adam could have composed a piece of music more perfect than the works mentioned.

#4 is problematic because it denies Total Depravity altogether.

The title of this post brings up monergism, that Man has no ability within himself to reach out to God in order to receive forgiveness and salvation. God’s grace through the Holy Spirit is irresistible and God’s use of it alone accounts for conversion. The counterpart to monergism is synergism: Man has within him the active ability to reach out to God and effect—with the grace afforded him by God reaching down to him—conversion.

Considering #2, one could argue that if parts of the Imago Dei remain pure, then those pure parts are the source from which Man can effect synergistic salvation. Obviously, monergists would reject that idea outright.

That #3 is a struggle, though, for other reasons. If the Imago Dei is a spiritual condition and Man is totally spiritually dead to the point that monergism is the only possible outcome, how then can any of the Imago Dei remain? This takes us back to point #1, which is clearly false. Nor does it answer the question about the possible perfection of things that Man creates.

If one argues that the spiritual state of man is dual in nature (that the soul exists apart from the spirit and that this allows the spirit of the unconverted to be dead while the soul—the part that manifests the Imago Dei—is still alive), then you’re arguing for a tripartite nature of Man (body, soul, and spirit), a position that most monergists don’t support.

A person arguing that common grace explains how fallen Men who do not know Christ can still create objects of beauty confuses terms. The Imago Dei is by nature; it is innate because it reflects God’s own nature in some form in Man permanently. Common grace is not innate in that none of it ever issues from Man, only from God. If the Imago Dei persists after the Fall, then its source is of innate nature and not common grace.

Others would argue for the neutrality of created things, whether they be created by God or Man. A cliff created by God may be a neutral moral agent, but if it falls on you, you’re still dead. Music or other arts also have no innate moral agency if you follow the line of thinking that many use, but this says nothing about their beauty and whether that beauty is perfect or not, or whether there are levels of perfection that might distinguish God’s work from Man’s.

Tough questions. If we divorce the Imago Dei from the question, then everything is easily answerable. But factor it in and the logic becomes more difficult to untangle.

Which of those four possibilities above do you most believe and why?