Thomas Torrance describes, for us, John Calvin’s doctrine of sin. You will notice, as Torrance describes it, that for Calvin, we can never have a proper doctrine of sin without first placing it in its proper dogmatic context relative to grace (and its intensity). Here is Torrance,
Calvin refuses to enunciate a doctrine of sin apart from the doctrine of creation, and except in the context of grace. To think of man as he is within the confines of pollution would lead to the contempt of man and to slander against the Creator. The doctrine of depravity is properly a corollary of the doctrine of grace, an inference from the Gospel of a new creation. Just because the Gospel speaks of man’s salvation in total terms, the doctrine of depravity must be enunciated in total terms. This applies also to the doctrine of the imago dei. Since the Gospel speaks of a new creation, and tells us that man can be restored to a being in the image of God only by going outside of himself to Christ, the express image of God, it follows that in himself man is bereft of that image, while, if anything of it remains, it is but a fearful deformity. The total terms required by the Gospel of a new creation provide Calvin with a problem. On the one hand, Calvin admits that the image has been wholly defaced from man, and the he is utterly dead in trespasses and sins. In this sense one cannot speak about a portion of the image remaining in fallen man. However, Calvin makes a distinction between the spiritual gifts, and corrupted in his natural gifts, and that means the corruption of his whole nature. While he is completely despoiled of the spiritual image, that does not mean that his natural gifts are polluted or destroyed in themselves, though it is through the natural gifts, such as the mind, that the spiritual image is reflected. Sin does not mean an ontological break with God, for Calvin does not hold a doctrine of evil as the privation of being. Sin does mean, however, a total corruption of the whole person in a spiritual sense, which is quite consonant with the fact that man’s natural gifts, while impaired, are still maintained in being by the will of God. This doctrine of Calvin is formulated under the concept of perversity. By this he means tha the original order of grace upon which the imago dei was grounded is utterly perverted, though that does not mean that God’s gracious intention has been set aside by sin. As far as man himself is concerned, therefore, the imago dei has been totally perverted, and if there is a remnant of it, it is now a dishonour to God, inasmuch as it can no longer image the divine glory. Three facts emerge here: (a) Any remnant of the image must refer to man’s natural gifts, which indeed are used in the reflection of the spiritual image, but which are not in any sense the spiritual image or part of it. There is not a shred of the spiritual image left. If the distinction between good and evil remains, it has no relation to the spiritual image. (b) God does not let go His original intention in regard to man, ie, the imago dei as grounded in the objective act of grace. Yet He disowns fallen men as His children, for He will not be Father of the children of disobedience who have turned His image into dishonour. ( c ) Nevertheless, some light and a seed of religion have left in man, but in the nature of the case these partake of total perversity, so that from the very start they are turned into the fountainhead of superstition. The light that is in man is turned into darkness, and the truth is held down in the form of falsehood. This remnant of truth turned into a lie can never be a predisposition for faith, or a basis for the knowledge of God. [T. F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, 83-4]
This raises all kinds of questions and foci. A few that have stood out to me, pace Torrance’s accounting of Calvin, (1) the desire on Calvin’s part to maintain the integrity of creation, by placing his doctrine of sin within a doctrine of God, (2) the note that Torrance makes about Calvin not holding to a privatio definition of sin (at least alone). I find this compelling because this dovetails with Augustine’s doctrine of sin as something beyond privatio (or absence of, or simply a negative); as concupiscence or self-love. So that sin has its own evil life, a distorted life that feeds off of the good resources of the life that it inhabits (much like my gross cancer that I once had!). (3) It is instructive to note that Calvin places his discussion of the imago dei, into the matrix of God’s grace in Christ. It is here where we start noticing the place that Torrance himself constructively lifts some of the contours of Calvin’s seminal thinking on this, and develops this full force into a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (not in this book, per se, but in the rest of Torrance’s theologizing). It doesn’t seem as if Calvin presses the category of the vicarious humanity of Christ in the naked way that Torrance ends up doing. There are other things here; like the fact that obviously Calvin’s doctrine of sin require a doctrine of election (at least) that attends to the fact that the ‘elect’ are the ones who go beyond the state of “natural gifting,” but in fact are endowed with the presence of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s grace; in a way that they alone can respond in faith to God’s call of salvation.