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Total Depravity

by Tim O'Hearn

This is the first of a series of articles about Calvinist doctrines commonly called by the acronym TULIP. It should be noted that even followers of Calvin use that mnemonic. The five points are: Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible grace; and, Perseverance of the saints. While these are considered distinct doctrines, nevertheless there is some overlap between them. Nor is it simply the acronym that gives them their order, since each builds on the previous doctrines. In each article, the Calvinist position will be given, using quotes from their believers, as is only fair. Then the biblical position will be given to support or refute each doctrine.

In 1956, Patty McCormack was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the movie The Bad Seed. In the movie, her character’s mother (Nancy Kelly, also Oscar nominated) suspects, correctly, that she is a psychopathic killer. As the movie’s title indicates, she is considered a “bad seed.” Since the mother was the daughter of a serial killer, she suspects that her daughter has inherited her murderous tendencies from her. Freudians might give an interpretation that the mother was correct, but that it was not necessarily genetic. Catholics If there is any goodness in mankind, it proves the glory of God. might attribute it to the doctrine of Original Sin. While Calvinists reject much in Catholic doctrine, they accept Original Sin, calling it Total Depravity. Thus the “bad seed” is an extreme example of the state of all mankind.

Total Depravity

In the late 300s, Pelagius posited the doctrine of free will. In this he did not differ from what had been orthodox doctrine to that time. Where Pelagius went wrong was that he was accused (perhaps falsely) of saying that because man had free will, he could be saved by choosing to do good and not to sin. This was interpreted as meaning that mankind could save themselves through their own deeds. Augustine (upon whose writings much of Calvin’s doctrine was based) went to the other extreme, saying that while Adam was created perfect, after the Fall mankind inherited sin and could do nothing of their own will to prevent sin. The Council of Carthage in 418, called by Augustine, condemned Pelagius as a heretic and codified Augustinian doctrine (including the necessity of baptism of infants).

John Calvin held that the Catholic Church had gotten away from the doctrines solidified by the Council of Carthage. He proposed that “our nature is not only devoid of all goodness, but is so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8) Accepting the doctrine of Original Sin, he declares that man is, by his corrupted nature after the Fall, totally depraved. “That is what death is. Death and total depravity are synonymous.” (Herman Hanko, The Five Points of Calvinism, © 1976, Chapter 1)

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned; even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom. 5:19–21)

If salvation comes through the grace of God by Jesus Christ, the argument goes, then sin and death come from Adam in a similar way. Or conversely, as Calvin expresses it, if sin and death come by imitation of Adam’s sin rather than direct inheritance, salvation would come through imitation of the righteousness of Jesus. This would mean that a man who lived without sin would save himself.

If man retains anything of goodness in him, then God is lessened. “To the extent that good is ascribed to man, glory is taken away from the only adorable God.” (Hanko, Ibid) The problem with this idea is that it does not necessarily follow. The opposing argument is that if there is any goodness in mankind, it proves the glory of God. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16) The counterargument is that it is the good works of the saved that cause men to glorify God. But is not glorifying God itself a good work? If man is totally depraved, then Jesus should have said to let your light shine before saved men, because unsaved men are incapable of seeing even a glimmer of light.

Some would argue from observation that people cannot be totally depraved because they do good things all the time. A person may yield the right of way to another driver; a person may give money or food to the homeless person on the street corner. Calvin and his followers contend that, apart from those who have been chosen for salvation, there is no altruism. Everything the unregenerate man does is based on self-interest.

Hence, how much soever men may disguise their impurity, some are restrained only by shame, others by a fear of the laws, from breaking out into many kinds of wickedness. Some aspire to an honest life, as deeming it most conducive to their interest, while others are raised above the vulgar lot, that, by the dignity of their station, they may keep inferiors to their duty. (Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 3, para. 3)

Thus God allows mankind to do what appears to be good, but man only does it for what he can get in return. The person who yielded the right of way did so to avoid a collision or in the hope that someone else will afford him the same courtesy. The person who gives to the beggar does so only out of fear that he may one day be in the same situation. There is no “art for art’s sake” or goodness for goodness sake.

The Biblical View

While arguments over free will may have precipitated the Augustinian/Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, the scriptures supporting free will are best left for other points of doctrine. There are other arguments against it that fit better here.

Total depravity as a doctrine did not exist before Augustine. None of the church fathers before him ever presented it as a doctrine. In fact, Pelagius had been cleared of heresy by a Council of Carthage just three years before the one that declared free will to be heresy. (Remember, it was Augustine that called that latter council expressly because the earlier one had not gone his way.) The doctrine is an extension of Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that all physical existence was evil, in spite of God declaring it good in Genesis 1. They taught a dual nature summed up as “Matter bad; Spirit good.” While Calvin never went so far as to say that all material things were bad, he did say that after the Fall, all mankind was totally and irrevocably bad.

If Calvin taught total depravity as an opposition to minimizing the sinfulness of sin, he failed miserably. Rather than emphasizing sin, the doctrine leaves the idea that sin is the normal state of man. Sin is routine. If man is totally depraved he cannot even recognize sin, and God does man a disservice by making him aware of sin. If sin is so utterly bad (which it is), then a loving God would want everyone to come away from sin. But the doctrine also says that God elects only some to receive enlightenment. Everyone else is no better nor any worse off than when they started. How can I miss what I can’t conceive? And if I can’t conceive God without his direct intervention, what difference does it make if I sin? If my sin is mitigated by self-interest, at least it is mitigated.

But that is merely an argument from logic. If I am totally depraved, my logic is faulty. Instead we have to look at scripture. And there the Augustinian/Calvinists run into a problem.

Is Jesus Christ God, or man, or man and God? The doctrine of total depravity runs afoul of any of these three options. What if Jesus was entirely God? If so, then he would necessarily live a sinless life. But what would be the point? If God could save without Jesus dying on the tree, then his time on earth was a waste. If his sacrifice was essential but he was in no way human, how does it differ from animal sacrifices? They were sinless, and inefficient. Paul says Jesus had to be human to save humans.

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

The other two options require that Jesus was human. If Jesus was human and all humans are totally depraved, then he must have shared in that depravity. As the previous passage indicates, he was “made of a woman.” Paul further asserts that he was “made in the likeness of men.” (Php 2:17) The writer of Hebrews goes further.

Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:17)

He had to be made human in order to makeIf Jesus was completely God, then he would live a sinless life. But what would be the point? reconciliation for sin. That means he had to be in all ways human. The next verse says he was tempted. If he was not one of us, he could not be tempted; but if he could not be tempted he could not be our High Priest. He was “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) But if total depravity is a true doctrine, he was born with sin. So either the doctrine is wrong, or the writer of Hebrews is wrong.

Furthermore, the scriptures indicate sin is an action. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph asked how he could perform an act “and sin against God.” All of the sacrifices of Leviticus 4 are for sins which were “committed.” Jesus told people to “sin no more,” (Jn 5:14; 8:11) implying a choice and an action. The writer of Hebrews says, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” (Heb 10:26) Sin is a willful act. Calvin said that a child who dies without being baptized is condemned forever, even though the child could not willfully commit sin. How does that compare to the scriptures.

The doctrine of total depravity is the foundation of Calvinist theology. If it fails, and it fails miserably, then the other doctrines expressed in TULIP are based on a faulty premise. A conclusion based on a false premise is not necessarily true. It is not necessarily false, either, so in later months we will look at the remaining elements of Calvinist doctrine.