Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Total depravity

A discussion at a listserve to which I subscribe centers on "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?


amity said...

That is very well said. "they that are in the flesh cannot please God."

Anonymous said...

Imagine every human capability and action, and a 'goodness' scale for each--that is, some way to describe (from the divine point of view) how good that capability or action is. Furthermore, for each scale, imagine a 'passing' set point--if the measurement on the scale for a capability or action is at or above that point, then it is 'good enough,' from the divine point of view.

To simplify even further, imagine there is just one scale, running from 0 to N with passing grade M, which is less than or equal to N.

Given this setup, the doctrine of total depravity states that--for every human except Jesus--the measurement for each capability and action is less than M.

Some would say (I think) that everyone (except Jesus) would score 0 on every capability or action; but this is contrary to common sense and Scripture, with the possible exception of a binary measurement (that is, 0 or 1, with 1 a passing grade). Others would claim that M and N are very high numbers, and our scores are (very) low numbers. Perhaps. Others would say that the scales for some actions and capabilities are different from others; my ability to make moral decisions, for example, is especially broken, but my ability to (say) play tiddly-winks or tell a good joke or write elegant computer code or sing isn't especially broken. This seems most right to me, given Psalm 8 and Romans 3.

Jim1927 said...

First, theologians of all stripes have greatly differed on the question of original sin, the heart of total depravity.

Originally in Genesis, Adam is not a man, but all men. Adam is the federal head of all humankind. When the man, Adam, sinned he took upon all humanity and seminally passed on the fallen state to all humanity, who existed in Adam, the federal head of the human race. Romans 5:12, "death passed unto all men, for that all sinned..." As A.H. Strong states, "...death physical, spiritual, and eternal passed unto all men, because all sinned in Adam their natural head."
(systematic Theology, p.620) This is in essence the Augustinian theory or Adam's Natural Headship.

God did not impute sin upon man, past or present, but Adam natural passed down this plight, from which the only remedy is the Lord Jesus Christ and His imputed righteousness...."All our righteousness is but filthy rags..."

Now, man is not as evil as he can possible be, but has the propensity to sin, which takes him down the evil path, so even his own goodness counts as nothing in the eternal sense.

We fight all the time against our natural inheritance, even though we are twice-born in Christ. We see this all the time in the scriptures. Man fighting against the things he would do, as opposed to the things he ought to do.

When we resolve the question of original sin, we resolve the question of total depravity, at least in my mind.



amity said...

Will, I believe that all our actions are a zero on a scale of 0 to N.

Otherwise, why would we need a savior? We could just work our way into heaven. Do enough good and God would be obligated to let us in.

Romans 4:4-5 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

Anonymous said...


To say that all our actions are measured 0 on any scale is to deny *any* distinction in moral goodness; it is to say you'd just as soon your sister marry a mass murderer as a generally kindly man who sometimes loses his temper. Now that man's kindliness is not enough to make him good enough (still 'under M' in my analogy), but kindliness is better than murder--not good enough, I repeat; and murder is worse than anger--both bad enough, though.

Why would we need a savior? It's just because we can never be good enough on our own, no matter how hard we try.

At some level, we might as well as have a 0 as something better than 0 for all the good it does us (both are still 'under M,' the passing grade). This is, I think, what is behind Mt. 5:21-22 and similar passages in Paul and James. But, again, I'd rather have someone angry at me than try to kill me. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't God?

Besides, I think this gets things precisely backwards: because we are not good enough, we need a savior (not: we are not good enough because we need a savior). If we could--but we can't--be good enough, we wouldn't need saving. It wouldn't 'put God under obligation'--God would be glad to have us; we'd be good enough to stand being in God's presence.

But we're not--and cannot--be good enough; we sin, we die, and God weeps for it, and takes action, and sends a savior.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Will, part of what you say touches on what we've discussed on the listserve. On the "Calvinistic" end of the Baptist spectrum, the idea of total depravity is founded in "there is none good", etc., etc. Then what do we do with and how do explain what seems to be "good" in the unbelievers. Someone distinguished this with the terms "moral good" and "spiritual good". I'm not too sure I like the term "moral good", although I understand what is trying to be shown. I think I've decided I personally like the terms "relative good" or "comparative good". Although the individual may be unregenerate and all of his or her righteousnesses filthy rags in God's sight, humanly speaking there are degrees up and down the scale -- "relative good". By this I am trying to express exactly what you mention in this sentence -- "To say that all our actions are measured 0 on any scale is to deny *any* distinction in moral goodness; it is to say you'd just as soon your sister marry a mass murderer as a generally kindly man who sometimes loses his temper." All of us would pick the kindly guy who loses his temper once in awhile.

amity said...

Christ said we should call NO man good, right?

There has got to be a difference between doing the CORRECT thing, marrying a nice guy, and doing a GOOD thing. Christ said "without me ye can do nothing," but I don't think he meant marrying mass murderers when he said that. We can get into those sorts of scrapes all by ourselves.

All of our truly good actions are fruit of the Spirit. Doing a good wax job on our car does not count. Maybe the true definition of a good action is one which is in accordance with God's will. Does God's will cover everything we do? Or is some of it neutral territory?

amity said...

"Moral good" or that which seems good in human sight. God sees what is in the heart, which no human can truly see. If someone gives a million dollars to charity, are they doing it for notoriety, for the warm fuzzy it gives them, or to get into heaven? All of those are self-serving motives, which corrupt what outwardly looks like a good action.

Anyway, now on re-reading I noticed you addressed your question to Will, so I shouldn't have jumped in.

Anonymous said...

Robert, Amity,

I think the concept of "relative good" captures much what I was trying to say. But focusing on the scales of evaluation and the criteria for "good enough" seem like important concepts to add.

In addition, my understanding of "total depravity" includes not only that we are not only "totally depraved" with respect to our moral choices, but also all of our choices and actions. In other words, to use Amity's example, we can't even wax a car right as a result of this state of being. This is more evident in larger tasks and abilities. Say, for exmaple, our vocation; my sin takes its toll on my ability to be a programmer and researcher. Or, for exmaple, our ability to communicate: I have more difficulty than I should getting across my ideas.

But even waxing a car has its moral dimensions, including:

- What other things might we be doing other than waxing the car?

- Could we be taking this opportunity of waxing the car to spend time with family or others?

- Why are we waxing the car? Is it to puff ourselves up?

- In what spirit do we approach the job of waxing the car? Anger? Joy? Why?

- What assumptions am I making in waxing the car which are harmful--e.g., should I own a car in the first place?

- What 'world systems' am I caught up in that require car waxing--dependence on global-warming causing fossil fuels, e.g.? Were people exploited in the production of the car wax?

- Is it the Sabbath, and should I be doing car waxing now?

And so on. It's not hard to see how impossible it is for us to get even such a simple thing as waxing a car right. It's enough to make a person cry, "What a wretch I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

R. L. Vaughn said...

Amity, I think you may be referring to Matthew 19:17 - "And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God:"

Yet on another occasion the Bible itself records, "And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (Luke 23:50)"

I think there are times we must be careful to not take things out of context, or perhaps to wrongfully compare things that are in different contexts. There is no doubt that in an absolute sense there is NONE GOOD BUT GOD. Truer words have never been spoken. Yet Luke, writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, turns around and says that Joseph is a good man. IMO, the only way that we can keep all this sorted out and not contradict the doctrine of total depravity is to understand that things can be spoken of on an absolute level and on a human level. Otherwise, these two passages of the Bible contradict one another.

I assume you've read on the list our discussion of Luke 11:13 - "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" Some have opined that using good in reference to a person in any context is evidence that that person is regenerate. I haven't gotten a clear answer yet whether that then means that every father is regenerate who gives his son a piece of bread instead of a stone, or a fish instead of a serpent, or an egg instead of a scorpion?

Or we might take Proverbs 13:22 - "A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just." Is every man who leaves an inheritance to his grandchildren regenerate? Such seems to run into nonsensical theology to me, when it is obvious that we recognize good on a human level, whether we admit it theologically or not. And the Bible taken as a whole certainly has room to speak to the human condition.

Will this then contradict James 1:17 - "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." In what way can an unregenerate father give his son a piece of bread and it be from God? Is this possible? Can it be harmonized? I think simply enough. While we recognize ALL of the nature of man is depraved, there must be some things inherent in the nature of man for the survival of the species -- that mothers tend to have a natural care for their infants, that fathers tend to fulfill their role of protector and provider, etc. To me those are not evidences of regeneration, but rather something that God has created as part of the nature of the human species. But even those things are depraved and every day there is a father who walks away from his family rather than provide for them, or a mother who aborts her infant rather than bringing it to birth. These things -- to provide for the family or to give birth rather than abort -- are still filthy rags in God's sight and commend no persons to His favour; but as far as the human condition is concerned, it is "good" for a woman to bear a child rather than abort it, or a man to support his family rather than abandon it, whatever the motives for such actions might be. Else we seem to arrive at antinomianism through the back door.

Lots of rambling there; maybe some of it will make sense.

amity said...

Okay, I have (possibly imprudently) decided to drag myself into this again. If Matthew 19:17 states that none is good but God, then isn't Luke 23:50 a reference to the indwelling Holy Spirit in Joseph, rather than a description from a relativistic human point of view?

R. L. Vaughn said...

While I wouldn't doubt that Joseph had the indwelling Spirit, he nevertheless was not God. To conclude that Joseph was indwelt by the Spirit of God does not follow from Matthew 19:17. The statement in Matthew 19 is absolute -- there is NONE GOOD BUT GOD. We are either God or we are not. If we are not (and obviously we aren't), we cannot be good in the sense of Matthew 19. To adopt "good" as an identifier for the indwelling Spirit in a person, though it could be a possible interpretation of Luke 23:50, wouldn't fit consistently throughout the Scriptures. For example, I've mentioned Luke 11:13 (If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?).What does Jesus reference contra to their giving good gifts? Being evil, not being indwelt by the Spirit. Or back to Proverbs 13:22 - "A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children:" That doesn't seem to be addressing anything about spirituality. We would understand it if someone made that remark to us at our house. I don't mean to "despiritualize" the Word of God, but sometimes we can make it excessively hard. To understand that writers are simply using the word in a common way we use the word "good" will often make sense.

I don't see any Biblical reason to reject the idea of "relative good", or to think it is contrary to depravity. It seems the Bible takes up such considerations:

1 Kings 16:25 - But Omri wrought evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did worse than all that were before him.

Jeremiah 7:26 - Yet they hearkened not unto me, nor inclined their ear, but hardened their neck: they did worse than their fathers.

1 Timothy 5:8 - But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.