A discussion on a listserve I'm on centers around "total depravity", so I thought I'd blog on it to get you thinking and to try to get your thoughts. The majority of Christians seem to agree on some kind of depravity, but that is usually where the agreement ends. In a dialogue with Allan Turner, Reformed Baptist Patrick Quick sums it up nicely, "Most evangelical Christians agree that men are sinners. Where the disagreement comes, is to what extent."
First, let me attempt a definition of total depravity, which in itself will necessarily give my point of view. The doctrine of total depravity seems to include the following : (1) that all men are sinners, (2) that this sin affects the entire life of all humans (that is, it affects totally rather than partially), and (3) that all human beings are wholly unable to save themselves. Put another way, depravity or sin impacts every man.
For another definition, perhaps from a more neutral point of view, the Wikipedia online encyclopedia states, "Total Depravity is a theological term primarily associated with Calvinism, which interprets the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. In other words, a person is not by nature inclined to love God with his heart or mind or strength, rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor. Put another way, even with all circumstances in his favor a man without God can do nothing but work for his own destruction; and even his religion and philanthropy are destructive, to the extent that these originate from his own imagination, passions and will."
The term "total depravity" has fallen out of favor in some circles, considered by some to confuse as much as it clarifies. Terms such as "radical depravity" and "radical corruption" have been suggested as substitutes, but haven't really caught on. This discussion of terms mostly revolves around trying to distinguish what most (but not all) hold concerning depravity -- that totally depraved is in extent rather than degree. That is, the fallen sinfulness of man extends to every part of his being -- mind, body and spirit. Few would argue that we are totally depraved in degree that every individual is as depraved as he could possibly be, that every act committed is as bad as it could be.
In his article T.U.L.I.P (The Deadly Flower), Gregory O. Baker writes, "I believe in total depravity, but not in total inability. God has given all men enough light to make them responsible to choose. He holds all men responsible for their choices." Some might refer to this as general depravity -- men are depraved, but not to the extent that they are unable to choose or believe in God. On the far end of the spectrum is the Church of Christ/Restorationist position. If I am not mistaken they, in their doctrine, would agree with Pelagius, who taught every baby born into the world is born without sin. As soon as infants or toddlers begin to sin, then they become sinners.
The following quotes represent two varying positions within the group of those who hold the doctrine of total depravity.
"Depravity means 'a depraved condition; corruption'. All people are born in a state of depravity, which affects every part of a person's being - body, soul, intellect, will and affections. Because it affects all parts of a person's nature, the depravity is referred to as total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that one has no conscience, or that a person is as bad as s/he could be (that would be utter depravity.) Total depravity does not mean one will indulge in every form of sin; nor does it mean that a depraved person will not perform actions that appear good to men. Total depravity refers not so much to what one does, as to what one is. Everyone is born with a sinful nature. Since every part of a person is affected by sin, there is no spark of good in the person that would make him seek God or try to improve his condition. Such a person has no understanding of the things of God; no desire for the things of God; and no ability to seek the things of God. In spiritual terms, that person is dead." (Primitive Baptist Church, Jacksonville, FL)
"We insist, on the basis of the Scriptural passages quoted earlier, that man is by nature completely dead in sin. Apart from Christ man can do no good whatsoever before God. Man can not do any 'natural' or 'civil' good on this earth. Nor can any man exercise his will to 'accept' Christ -- for also his will is bound by sin and death.
"Some have objected that men of this world, those who are outside of the church, do also perform many good deeds. Man, apparently, is not always so completely depraved. A certain wealthy man may give a million dollars to build and maintain a hospital to help the poor and suffering of mankind. Is this sin -- or is it good? Your neighbor may not go to church nor pray -- but he has a wonderful relationship with his family. Is this good -- or is it evil? A man saves a fellow-man from drowning at the risk of losing his own life. Is that good -- or evil? These questions arise, and with it, the question: is the sinner actually totally depraved?
"In light of Scripture we must still maintain that any man outside of Christ sins in everything that he does. We must be so careful not to mistake what we might think is good as good in God's sight. Man either loves and serves God or he does not. He is either with Christ or against Him. He either does something in true faith and to God's glory, or he does it in the service of man and to his own glory. There is no in-between. It makes no difference if the man gives a million dollars to found a hospital or whether he has a nice family life, or saves drowning individuals -- in all of this, natural man walks not by faith but in sin and corruption. God judges his every action to be sinful.
"Though all men are totally depraved, though all of their actions performed by nature are sinful -- yet there are obviously variations seen in men. All men do not sin in the same degree or in the same manner. In the first place, the type and degree of man's sin is determined by the age in which he lives. Obviously today, with our radios, television, and automobiles, man can sin in many ways that his forefathers could not. Secondly, sin is limited to a large degree by environment and circumstances. A rich man has the means to sin in many more and different ways than does the poor man. But both sin in all that they do. Thirdly the degree of sin is determined by a person's age. The little child does not sin in as many ways as does the adult. Finally, the degree and type of sin in a man is often times regulated by his own self-esteem -- his own selfish pride. Why does a wicked man live in a peaceful, pleasant relationship with his family? Not because God's law requires it, but because he understands that it is to his own benefit, for in this way he lives in a decent relationship with his fellow-man." (Rev. Gise J. Van Baren)
What say ye?