Tax, total depravity and why I disagree with R.C. Sproul Jr.

As you will gather from the above embedded tweet, R.C. Sproul Jr is a man with whom I have a lot in common theologically. Yes, we differ on the issue of baptism and we would see things differently regarding polity. Beyond that, we’re not far apart theologically. And, as he has helpfully pointed our here, we ought to weigh the views and advice of those from different church cultures and theological backgrounds. Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, we should learn to take the good and leave the bad. In all of that, I am total agreement with him even though, of course, we will differ slightly on what constitutes the good and bad (1).

While we are (broadly) theologically on the same page, politically we are poles apart. No doubt there are areas of agreement (2) but when the man considers Barack Obama as far away from him on the political spectrum as one can get, I dread to think how he would categorise one such as me! Which leads me on to a short conversation I recently had with him on twitter.

It was this I wanted to dig into.

As I have previously commented here and here, the doctrine of total depravity tells me that a society built on philanthropy, charitable giving and the economics of ‘trickle down’ will not work in the interests of most. The capitalist model is predicated on greed as a motivator. Unfortunately, greed being deemed good is entirely antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. Moreover, if greed is the motivating factor in creating wealth – and if greed is deemed good by society as a result – we can hardly be surprised when that greed extends to seeking to keep as much money to myself as I possibly can. A society that functions on ‘trickle down’ or philanthropy as a principle for helping the poor fails to account for the base desire to hoard wealth. Examples of companies and individuals using tax loopholes and avoidance schemes serve only to underline the point. The rich – who become so by being told their greed is good – merely take that view to its logical conclusion and do all they can to keep their amassed wealth and do very little for the poor.

For some on the left, more often than not the secular left – though I may often (but not always) agree with their outcomes – there is far too much confidence in the inherent good of man. Total depravity tells me their optimism is more than misplaced, speaking against the reality of what we see in the human heart and the world all around us. I do not see a world full of people who naturally help each other at great cost to themselves (3). For those on the right, more often than not the Christian right in America, they see through this optimism in the inherent good of man. However, they then presume, despite man being inherently selfish and sinful, those individuals who generate wealth will be philanthropic and generous. They motivate individuals through greed – recognising that sinful human nature can be harnessed this way – but with a ludicrous sleight of hand simultaneously argue these same sinful people will suddenly become generous and philanthropic despite having been motivated to amass their wealth through greed and monetary motivation. It makes no sense and doesn’t speak to the reality of a world in which the very rich do all they can to maintain and hoard their wealth.

It would be my contention that because the human heart is sinful we cannot rely on the generosity of rich and wealthy individuals. It is precisely because I believe in the doctrine of total depravity that I cannot see how a low tax system, that relies on philanthropy and trickle-down economics, can possibly work for the good of all. Rather, it makes more sense to recognise that people are inherently sinful. That sinful nature does not suddenly disappear upon the generation of vast amounts of wealth. Therefore, to have a system that imposes redistribution on wealthy individuals seems a far more sensible approach. This allows people to amass wealth whilst simultaneously recognising they are unlikely to share their money for the benefit others.

This brings me back to my twitter conversation. My response to R.C. Sproul Jr’s view of economic systems being beneficent if they let you keep your money was this: why not emphasise total depravity and selfishness and assess an economic system by its redistributive effects? His answer was illuminating: because no system can undo total depravity or selfishness entirely we shouldn’t even bother trying to mitigate them.

Now, this was surprising. One could argue, using the same logic, that because no system will ever undo total depravity or murder then we shouldn’t bother assessing any system based on its efficacy of limiting and preventing murder. He and I share a view on abortion. We would both support a system that limited the proliferation of abortion on demand. But, by his logic, the system shouldn’t interfere because it won’t undo total depravity or the desires of some to abort children. Unless we can wipeout total depravity and the sin that underlies each and every outworking of it, we must ignore it and allow it to continue. As we can’t undo total depravity, and the sins of greed and selfishness, we shouldn’t bother to mitigate them and, in fact, should press on with a system that not only allows them but  actively encourages them to thrive. This is madness. As Martin Luther-King said: “morality may not be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless”. To paraphrase another comment by the man: it may be true that the law cannot make a person generous, but it can keep him from the sinful outcome of his selfishness and greed, and I think that’s pretty important.

One may seek to argue that it’s not the same. One may argue that in allowing selfishness we are allowing state theft with a system that steals from its citizens (4). But this strikes me as a weak argument. Jesus and Paul are both clear enough that taxes do not equate to theft (see Mk 12:17 and Rm 13:6f). They are a legitimate part of governance and cannot be equated with sin – unless of course Jesus and Paul were trying to encourage us into sinful behaviour by telling us to pay them! The selfishness and greed inherent in the capitalist system cannot be deemed anything other than sinful; taxes inherent in almost every system are evidently not forms of state sin.

For me, it is my view of total depravity and sinful human nature that tells me we require a system that does something for the poor and needy. Left to our own devices, there would be no measures in place for them at all. In fact, God himself seemed to recognise this tendency and put such measures into the civil law of Israel. Without such laws, human nature was unlikely to ever come up with any sort of solution (or, dare I say, truly care about it). When the Early Church in Acts 2 were living as they ought under the gospel, we don’t see amassed wealth and no giving. We see something much closer to an uneforced version of Socialism. But we must recognise that those who aren’t under the gospel, who aren’t regenerate and don’t have the Spirit of God dwelling in their hearts and changing their desires, aren’t going to act like this voluntarily. Hoping that they will is simply pie in the sky. It is for that reason I believe the state is duty-bound to redistribute wealth through a fair system of taxation.

None of this is to turn anyone away from R.C. Sproul Jr – I really do hope this doesn’t come across that way. I honestly did mean what I said at the beginning. R.C. Sproul Jr. is a man with whom I agree on so much. I find his blog helpful in many ways. On lots of theological and church issues I think he often gives good counsel. I, frankly, wouldn’t engage with him at all were that not the case. I see this as an example of the very principles he outlines here. Only, now, we’re not talking specifically about theological and ecclesiastical issues, but political ones. Nonetheless, I suspect if we ever were to meet and become friends, he and I would agree not to “get [our] eschatology from [our] dispensational friends” but I would certainly be the friend from whom he wouldn’t get his political or economic insights.

Notes

  1. For example, I favour congregational polity, independency and credo-baptism. But on the doctrines of grace, the ordo salutis, soteriology and any number of other theological areas there would almost certainly be a great deal of agreement. I read his blog and often find it very helpful.
  2. He and I share a definite and clear view on the issue of abortion, for example.
  3. Whilst there are individuals like this, they are often notable because of their scarcity
  4. This is an argument R.C. Sproul Jr. has made before (see here)

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4 comments

  1. I could not agree with you more Stephen. I live in the USA and and I argue very similar causes to my fellow christian brothers. I always have to be careful when I use the word socialism but never questioned when speaking the words capitalism or conservatism. If you are conservative you must be biblical and socialism is heresy. I strongly believe that the economic system we follow in the USA redistributes wealth from the poor to the ruling elite. I sometimes wonder if Adam Smith could return from the grave if he would be proud or would it grieve him to see what is being done in the name of capitalism. Jack

    Like

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