A deconstruction of sin: putting Calvin on the couch

This is the final piece to the paper I wrote; and for a moment my final word on sin. Whenever I begin to explore strictly theological themes I run the risk of being obtuse or irrelevant. I have tried to explain my points clearly, in approachable language and concepts. However, theology, especially good sound theology is difficult. Easy theology runs a greater risk of being damaging to community in the long-run. Furthermore, developing a lived coherent theology is important because it helps us have a coherent worldview that accounts for what we see and experience. Theology is most often the result of our experiences in life and how we see God working through ourselves and others. Lest we forget, theology is finally an exercise in surmising the presence of God in our midst, or the lack thereof in the case of sin...


Deconstruction is a critical theory often applied to texts in a manner where the critic engages in "undermining, subverting, exposing, undoing, transgressing, or demystifying… traditional ideas, traditional limits, traditional logic, authoritative readings, privileged readings, illusions of objectivity, mastery or consensus, the referential meaning of a text, or simply what the text asserts or says" (Ellis, 1988, p. 261). Furthermore, through the deconstructive process the critic does not put forth a new interpretation of the text, but instead "The traditional idea is… retained in order that we can focus on the act of subversion itself which, however, does not constitute a final rejection of that idea" (1988, p. 262). Deconstruction thus subverts the authority of a text while at the same time holding the text as authoritative. It is therefore a multi-layered reading of a text that seeks the subtleties within the text that undermine its authority. However, if the authority of the text is not retained then there is nothing to subvert and the deconstructionist could do nothing more than offer a critical analysis (Ellis, 1988, p. 263-264). Finally, deconstruction is a process that "hopes to neutralize the system—not by erecting another truth in its place (which would only re-establish an opposition) but—by laughing at it" (Gall, 1990, p. 415). In order to deconstruct John Calvin’s constructions of total depravity and original sin, I will put him through a fictional psychotherapeutic session.

Putting Calvin on the Couch

I imagine the following conversation taking place between John Calvin and his therapist after the final version of the Institutes of Christian Religion was completed.

Therapist (T): John, welcome back. Please have a seat, tell me how life is treating you.

John Calvin (JC): It is a fine day, although I am having trouble enjoying it.

T: You're not able to enjoy the day? Tell me about that.

JC: It is the same things that have been bothering me since day one. I can't seem to shake this feeling that I am letting someone down. The guilt is totally overwhelming and I just can't shake it (McNeill, 1960, p. 253). It's as though every time I try and think about who I am and what I want to do, I get overwhelmed with despair at how selfish and corrupt I have become.

T: It must be difficult to continually beat yourself up on the inside. You have been working hard to get to know yourself and it makes you feel depressed. I was just remembering some of our previous sessions and I have to wonder what would happen if you were to let yourself remember some of the good things you have done, that tell others who you are. I know you have this desire to be honest about your faults, but can't you also be honest about your strengths? Even you have admitted that "knowledge of ourselves lies first in considering what were given at creation and how generously God continues his favor towards us" (p. 242). That means we should consider our gifts as well as our faults, right John?

JC: Yes, I did say that. However, I said that to contrast how depraved we have become since sin was introduced into the world. Sin is inescapable and it hides God gifts from me.

T: Let's keep the conversation focused on you, instead of everyone. I want to hear you use the term "I" instead of "we." Totally depraved is such strong word. Total implies everything, and yet John you are able to recall what your gifts are and how they can be used for good in the world. Doesn't that mean that there are parts of us that are less affected by this despairing sinfulness? How can we know what is good and right if all we are is totally sinful and corrupt? Moreover, to call yourself depraved means that you are full of evil or immorality. Yet the life you have lived includes many good actions and desire to love God. Are those the actions of a totally depraved individual? All of this talk makes me wonder what would it be like if you considered yourself to be a vessel of a number of good, bad or neutral qualities? Even you have admitted to a "primal worthiness" (p. 242) that is a part of who you are. Moreover, you have told me on a number of occasions that "the mind restrains itself from sinning… because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord" (p. 43). I interpret that to mean that we are capable of doing good things out of love for God, can you see those possibilities?

JC: Sure, buried deep within me might be some of those good qualities, but as soon as I try and recall them I am painfully aware of the value I place on my gifts and then I tend "to be unduly credulous about them" (p. 243). My arrogance about my gifts leads me to believe that "Nothing, however slight, can be credited to [me] without depriving God of his honor, and… falling into ruin through brazen confidence" (p. 255). I just can't escape this vicious cycle of sin. Even when I consider these good things I feel like I am letting God down by relying on myself. See what I mean about feeling totally depraved, it's like no matter what I do I can't escape the reality of my situation. It is so depressing.

T: What I hear you say is that while you often feel overwhelmed by the amount of sin in your life, but there are also moments when you are able to comprehend something good about yourself. Even though this might lead you to down a path of where you feel proud or arrogant, it does raise an interesting point that counters your ideas about depravity being totally consuming. John, what becomes apparent to me in our conversation is that you not only see the depressing parts of your life, but you also see a glimmer of something good. Otherwise you wouldn’t know that you were so depraved of in the first place. Therefore, maybe you and everyone else are not totally depraved but instead you might be mostly or predominantly depraved, leaving some room for goodness to spring forth from within.

JC: I hear what you are saying and I want to agree, but I am afraid that if I give in to the idea that there are some good things about me, I will no longer be dependent on God's goodness and grace to do good things in the world.

T: I thought I heard you say something to the effect that you and God work together for good in the world. Is that correct?

JC: In a sense yes. I am saying that God's grace works through me to do good things in the world (p. 306-307).

T: Tell me how God could choose to work through such a corrupted vessel.

JC: Well, actually it is the grace that does the work; I am merely a servant of grace. I don’t initiate the action; God initiates it and compels me to act on its behalf. I can’t say why God chooses humans other than we are the pinnacle of creation and have rational capabilities that allow us to recognize our depravity.

T: I am not sure if I understand how such a corrupted vessel could even hear or interpret the grace of God. Yet, I often see you doing things that embody the love and grace experienced in Scripture and in the life of Jesus. I am not sure if this makes sense to you, John, but I wonder if we might find a new way of describing the state of humanity. The word total just seems so black and white, all or nothing, when the actions of human beings occupy a space that seems grayer. Could you see yourself occupying a gray area of life?

JC: Well, maybe, if it weren't for original sin. I really feel like I was born this way, the offspring of corrupt flesh and blood. I guess a really dark gray might work if I factored in being endowed with good gifts by God and the grace and redemption through Jesus.

T: Original sin, what does that mean to you?

JC: It's simple really. Adam and Eve were disobedient to God. As a result, their good nature was corrupted and everyone since that time has been the offspring of corrupted parents, inheriting this depravity I keep obsessing about (p. 251).

T: Wow, you have really thought this out. First it's total depravity and then I come to find out it is a part of your nature, inherited from two mythic characters in the Bible.

JC: Blasphemy!

T: John, settle down. I am merely stating one interpretation of Adam and Eve. What I am trying to say is that their story is a metaphor for humanity's relationship with God. In the end, we come out with similar conclusions although we take a different path to get there. We both understand that something went wrong with humanity's relationship with God and we have felt some form of distance between us since that time.

JC: If I weren't paying you, I'd get up and leave right now.

T: John, think about it for a moment. We are arriving at a similar conclusion, just taking different paths to get there. Think about my path for a moment. If the creation stories are mythic and represent a way of imagining our relationship with God, how does that change your idea of original sin?

JC: Well, the relationship would still be estranged, right? And, sin would still be a part of humanity. Only, with your way original sin wouldn't be an inherited feature from the nature of the parents. I guess that it would have to be passed down through some kind of communication though. Otherwise, we would all get better at being good, and I know that isn't happening.

T: Great job John! That is a wonderful reframing of original sin. Rather than an inherited nature or disposition, there might be a communicated sense of sinfulness through family, culture and society. Furthermore, maybe the Original in original sin isn’t so original after all.

JC: Huh?

T: Well, think about it this way. If the features aren't inherited, then babies aren't born with pervasive sinful dispositions. Instead they are taught disobedience by those they grow up around. Which leads me to think that if there isn't a predisposition to sinfulness, then sinfulness is just the replaying of others sins; there is nothing original about it! John, it has been wonderful seeing you again, but our time is about up, don't be a stranger.

JC: It's been good to see you as well. I will think about what you have said, but I'm not sure that it is going to change anything. If there is anything that I know, it is how deep sin runs in my life. Black or white or dark gray, original or not it’s always there and I just can't forget it.


John Calvin's concepts of total depravity and original sin have informed the life of the Presbyterian Church for many years. Through careful biblical and theological analysis he lays out a case that beckons the reader to know themselves and know themselves as unworthy before God. Through Calvin, an understanding of our dependence on God becomes easy to see in light of the totality of our corruption. Four hundred and fifty years later through the writings of popular pastors/theologians, Calvin's message has been either watered down or forgotten. Thoughts about sin are watered down by believing that God's purpose is to give us purpose, or they are destroyed through the power of positive thinking. This unfortunate circumstance has created a vacuum whereby Christians and systems are rarely held accountable for the actions they commit. By putting Calvin on the couch, I attempted to deconstruct his view of sin, showing both its limits and authority. There is no denying the estrangement humans feel from God and the endless searches to discover why. Maybe, through a revamped Calvin we can understand the depths of our depravity and gain some insight into the love of our Creator.

grace and peace...


    This was a worthwhile read. I am studying both Calvin and deconstruction at my university, and this is an interesting interplay-- though it seems that you are trying to provide and alternate understanding of sin (aside from merely deconstructing).


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