It is often said of the Calvinist that his view of God is high and his view of man is low. Of course, in a sense this is true but in another it is not. The Calvinist actually has the highest view of man. From the days of Thomas Aquinas the Roman Catholic Church has taught that man was created with a natural desire to satisfy the lower appetites of this world (called concupiscence) and needed a super added gift of original righteousness (the donum superadditum). Man was granted this gift but lost it in the fall bringing man back to his original state though now by conception and birth tainted by original sin. Among Protestants, Lutheran theology teaches that man lost the image of God entirely through sin. The vast majority of modern evangelicals, under the sweeping influence of Arminian theology in general and Charles Finney in specific, would understand man to have been created neutral with no inclination to good or evil. Every man, as I understand Finney, comes into the world with a choice because of his neutral state: he may follow one of two examples, that of Adam and plunge into sin, or that of Christ and follow after righteousness. For this reason he believed he could persuade men to make the right choice through the new measures he introduced in his itinerant ministry .
The Reformed hold that man was made in the image of God, created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Man was not created in a neutral state, but upright (Ecc. 7:29). Genesis one closes with God crowning his creation with the making of man in his own likeness and image and blanketing all he had made with these words, “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). If we are to ever understand total depravity, we must begin here when man was first created in God’s image. This is where John Calvin began, and this is why his view of man was so high and his view of depravity so low. Man’s condition in sin is so horrid because of the heights from which he fell. The sin and brokenness we clearly see in this world then is not the gnostic notion of matter being evil but rather a corruption of the good. We find ourselves as broken people in a broken world, a world that we know needs to be fixed. We are looking into a shattered mirror with blurred vision. We see the trace of beauty and glory, the beauty and glory that is supposed to be seen, but the images we see are distorted and marred as we look hard and long to see them as we want them to look, the way they were made to be seen. This is often one of the greatest paradigm shifts as one comes to Reformed theology. For example, I grew up in a tradition which seemed to view potentially evil things as inherently evil; music, movies, dancing, and alcohol among other things were the problem and thus one had to keep one’s distance to be holy. However, seeing sin as essentially a corruption of the good (the dark exchange of Romans chapter one) shows us that the problem is within just as much if not more than it is without. The former leads to a list, though often unwritten, of particular evils to stay away from -the longer the list the holier thou art. The latter helps us to deal with the real issue at hand, the tainted hearts we all live with which corrupts what God created for our good and his own glory.