Monday, January 26, 2009

Total Depravity?

(Image from Wikipedia)

I heard a sermon a couple of weeks ago on "total depravity," and the preacher was for it. Of course, he was also against it.

That nexus of views is unsurprising. Surprising was the fact that I heard the sermon from the lips of a former Methodist turned Southern Baptist. The former denomination stems from Arminius, who emphasizes a prevenient grace that restores free will in humanity, and the latter denomination speaks so little about total depravity that I've never otherwise heard a sermon on this topic in a Southern Baptist church.

To my further surprise, given his break from Calvinism, Arminius himself seems to have accepted the doctrine, for I've found him cited as accepting it in volume 1, page 252, of The Writings of James Arminius, translated by James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956). Not having seen the actual words of Arminius, I infer that he means that individuals are totally depraved outside of the effects of prevenient grace, but since everyone receives this sort of grace, which restores free will, then no one remains totally depraved.

John Calvin, on the other hand, argues that everyone remains totally depraved and that no individual can freely choose to accept salvation. Perhaps someone can set me straight on this point of Calvinist theology. Does "total depravity" refer only to the will?

I ask because the expression itself seems to imply far more -- a total depravity of every aspect of every human being. But that seems to me to be empirically falsifiable, so I must not understand the term, for people naturally seem often to respond positively to "the good" and negatively to "evil."

As an example of "total depravity," the preacher whom I referred to above told of an alcoholic who had forgotten his 9-year-old daughter in his truck outside a bar in extremely cold weather while he drank for hours inside, only to find her later so severely frostbitten that she lost fingers, toes, and ears. The man attempted to push this experience from his memory, but when later confronted with how he had destroyed his daughter's life, he broke down into tears of bitter regret.

But if this man were totally depraved, as I would most naturally understand the expression, then he would have been indifferent to what he had done . . . so my natural understanding must be wrong.

I'll need to look into this point more closely, but perhaps some generous reader could briefly clarify the point.

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At 12:31 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

Total depravity is usually explained as meaning that there is no part that is not in some way depraved (will, intellect, etc.), rather than that every part is totally depraved; so the idea is that there is no aspect of our lives that is wholly insulated from the corruption. The will, however, is the big issue: the corruption of the will is taken to indicate that no one can genuinely convert by choice (see Westminster Confession 9.3 for a summary of this). Arminians in the strict sense are basically Calvinists who disagree with ordinary Calvinists about predestination and the resistibility of grace (as laid out in the 1610 articles of Remonstrance); they hold that everyone is totally depraved -- grace doesn't eliminate this but compensates for it. But they do hold that grace is given liberally and may be freely rejected. There are, however, lots of Arminians in various looser senses of the term.

At 2:09 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

You ask tough questions.

Having watched my one child grow into his teen years, I recall how sensitive he was to the feelings of his peers when he was a toddler -- even as he was as self-centered a a child could be. I have noted this in other children as well. Their self-centeredness is a manifestation of (original) sin, yet their sensitivity toward others who are hurting suggests that there is much that is good within them.

I consider myself a Calvinist, but I have problems with the more draconian views of some Calvinists.

At 2:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even some in the secular world think believe in some form of depravity in the human race.
I don't have the actual quote, but I read somewhere that J. Edgar Hoover made the comment that he believed that every citizen has the capability to commit any crime, under the right circumstances.
The Bible states that by one man {Adam} sin entered into the world, and so death has passed upon all men. How this comes about is not clearly defined, but somehow we all have received this nature.
Kenneth Weust, in his book: Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. III, in the section labeled Great Truths To Live By, commenting on 1 John 1:8, says:
In the first place, the believer must recognize that he still has the totally depraved nature in him, although he is not in it in the sense that he is not in its grip (v.8). This is the way John puts it in his Greek: "If we up and say that sin we are not constantly having, ourselves we are deceiving, and the truth is not in us. The word "sin" herr is without the definite article, and does not speak, therefore, of acts of sin but of the sinful nature. There were some in John's day, as thereare now, who assert that the nature is completely eradicated in the believer sometime in his Christian experience. John is combating this falso teaching. Paul is clear in Rimans VI to the effect that when God saves a person, He breaks the power of indwelling sin. But nowhere in Scripture is there any hint that this nature is removed during the earthly life of the believer......John says that the believer who denies th fact of the indwelling sinful nature, only deceives himself, nobody else. Everybody else can see sin in that person's life....(pp. 106-107).

It seems that when a person is saved, he receives a new nature, but this old body still has the same sinful desires, and there is a constant struggle, which can only be won by relying on the Lord's help.
Romans chapters 6 through 8 deals with this problem.

At 2:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Follow up:

This belief does not deny that there are good things in a person, and even with this nature, someone can love, have good thoughts, perform kind deeds, enjoy good and pleasurable activities.
It does mean that every person has a sinful nature that can only be changed by turning to God, confessing our sins, and trusting in the finished work of Christ, who paid the penalty for our sins.
One writer put it this way:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Not of works, lest any man should boast.
For we are his workmanship, created in christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them: (Ephesians 2:8-10).

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brandon, does the Westminster Confession imply that the corruption of the will disables free choice only on the point of conversion, or that the will is generally unfree?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Denis, thanks for your observations about children, which parallel my own observations.

My personal response to the sermon that I heard was to say to myself, "But that doesn't prove anything about 'total depravity'!" The story told of a man's inadvertent evil toward his daughter, his self-deception, and his resistance to the truth, but it also revealed that he was not beyond self-reproach.

But my reflections led me to suspect that I don't fully understand what is meant by "total depravity" . . . thus leading to this blog entry investigating the issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I guess that one of the issues for me is that of the freedom of the will, a freedom necessary for moral responsibility, and since the so-called "total depravity" impairs the will so as to preclude freely choosing the offer of salvation, then two questions arise.

1. Is the will totally unfree, or merely with respect to choosing salvation?

2. Does the will's impairment, however understood, reduce human responsibility?

I would think that to the degree that we are unfree, we are correspondingly less morally culpable, which seems to me to raise some major problems that I'll leave unspecified for the moment (partly because they seem fairly obvious).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These questions and others have been debated for generations, and I certainly don't have the answers.
But the Bible does say that man has a choice, and is held responsible for how he chooses.
I have struggled with some of the same questions for years, and have come to the conclusion that I may never know all the answers (or even questions) in this life.
When I teach, I say that God made a way of escape through his Son, and offers mankind a choice, and holds him responsible.
That's the best I can do.
I apologize for my previous typos.
And also for my ignorance.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I hope that I don't have to apologize for my own ignorance, or I'll be apologizing all day.

The only ignorance that I ever feel compelled to apologize for is my ignorance of what was on my wife's mind because I should have known already without having to be told!

The Bible does, as you note, insist on human responsibility, and as such -- or so I think -- it presupposes freedom of the will, without which, moral culpability does not exist.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:10 AM, Blogger Brandon said...


Strictly speaking, the Westminster Confession only says that we can never, from our own free will alone, do what is good and pleasing to God (there is always something in our action that falls short of what is good and pleasing to God); it is because of this that we are unable to contribute to our own salvation in any way. It states explicitly that "God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil," but this can be interpreted in a number of ways. E.g., one can interpret it as applying only to those before the Fall. Most Calvinists I know personally read it in a compatibilist way: that is, they hold that there is some sense in which we are free, and that whatever we could do could be otherwise, but hold that this does not mean that any of our actions are free in the sense of not being predetermined -- i.e., it just means it's not impossible for us to do differently (e.g., if God decrees differently) and we're not coerced to do what we do.

It's the question of how much of our salvation depends on us that makes the issue a matter of dispute between Arminians and Calvinists. Those who are Arminians in the strictest sense are just like Calvinists except that they hold that we can resist grace and that all those who are damned are those who have resisted grace; Calvinists in the strict sense deny both of these, holding that grace is irresistible and that all those who are in hell were 'reprobated', i.e., refused grace by God. Neither of these strictly require any particular view of free will, as far as I can see, but obviously they do suggest such views, and so Calvinists tend to be theological determinists and Arminians tend to think we have a will that is not wholly predetermined by its causes.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brandon, thanks for the quote from the Westminster Confession:

"God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil."

To me, this statement seems more consistent with a belief in free will, but much -- as you say -- depends upon interpretation.

I find compatibilist views problematic, for I cannot see how either causal determinism or theological predeterminism is consistent with free will.

Not that specifying precisely how free will operates is an easy intellectual task...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:06 AM, Blogger David C. Innes said...

Jeffrey, I have not left a comment in some time but I happened upon this discussion of Calvinism. Adding briefly to the foregoing, total depravity means that every faculty (mind, will, emotions, whatever) is compromised by sin. Furthermore, while people are capable of "civil good" (most people are kind and decent), no one is capable on their own of ANY spiritual good. Nothing we think, say or do merits God's favor. Go to Romans 3 for a litany of condemnation. Also Isaiah 64:6 - "All our righteous acts are as filthy rags." As for what appears to be good in people, (a) it is only civil goodness, and (b) even that is made possible in sinners by God's common grace, sometimes called his restraining grace. Thus not even the worst sinner is as bad as he could be. So of course no one can choose God apart from his saving grace in the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Lydia Acts 16. That's the Lord's mercy. As for free will in general, that is a larger philosophic problem that is not restricted to Christian theology. FYI, I am a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as well as a politics in NYC.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

David, I was hoping that you would offer a comment, for I knew that you were a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (but what is "a politics in NYC"?).

Anyway, thanks for the explanation -- and for the specific citations. I'll take a look at them.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:54 AM, Blogger David C. Innes said...

"What is a politics in NYC?" That is a question without an answer. I had to rush the end of my comment because my wife announced that dinner was on the table. I meant to say that I am a politics professor in New York City.

I mentioned Lydia in Acts 16. "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message." Acts 5 says that God exalted Christ "that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel." (He says the same of the Gentiles at 11:18.) God calls us to repent, then gives the repentance. Total depravity means salvation is all the work of God's grace, and thus he gets all the glory. God is a rightly jealous God, and will not share his glory with any creature (Is. 42:8; I Cor. 1:29). Lazarus in the tomb is a picture of salvation. He is stone dead, just as the sinner is "dead in trespasses and sins." Thus, Christ has to initiate his resurrection to life. "Lazarus, come out!" And he responded to the life giving word. So does the sinner. The dead are unresponsive to the words of the living. But the Lord's word imparts life. That's grace. As you're a friend of literature, you will recall John Newton's account of his experience of God's "amazing grace" in Christ: I once was lost/ but now am found/ was blind, but now I see.

Free will? Are you familiar with the Fourfold State of Man? It is certainly in Thomas Boston (Human Nature in Its Fourfold State; 1720, Banner of Truth 1964) but it is said to be originally formulated by Augustine. I have not found it in this form, however.

State of Innocence - posse peccare (able to sin)
State of Sin - non posse non peccare
State of Grace - posse non peccare
State of Glory - non posse peccare

In this understanding, natural man is unable not to sin, dead in sin, by nature at enmity with God, unable to respond to the gospel without the efficacious work of God's Holy Spirit. (On that last point you MUST look at--and highlight, if you haven't already--Ez. 36:24ff. and Jer. 31:31ff. Marvelous and beautiful OT accounts of God's saving work to come.)

As for the will considered from a natural standpoint, I find Jonathan Edwards has the most compelling account of what exactly happens when we will something. He understands it in terms of one's chief love or desire at the moment of decision. Of course, he gets it from Augustine. Of course, if the will is under the dominion of the desires, where is the "freedom" of the will? If freedom is autonomy, there is none because the desires are shaped by a thousand influences from one's nature to one's family to one's lunch. If freedom is the ability to be and do what one was created to be and do, the in sin one's will is hopelessly enslaved, whereas in Christ and most fully in glory one's will is entirely free (again Ez.26/Jer.31).

Well, I know you read a lot, so there's a little more. I hope it's worthwhile.

I would look for better explanations in Calvin and Edwards.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger David C. Innes said...

Arggh! Messed up that the end again.

"...the in sin one's will is hopelessly enslaved, whereas in Christ and most fully in glory one's will is entirely free (again Ez.26/Jer.31). Well, I know you read a lot, so there's a little more,"

should actually read:

"...then in sin one's will is hopelessly enslaved, whereas in Christ and most fully in glory one's will is entirely free (again Ez.36/Jer.31). Well, I know you read a lot, so I've given you a little more to read."

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again, David. I hadn't been sure if you meant "politics professor" or "politician" in NYC -- though I thought the former more than I suspected the latter.

Thanks for the extra reading. I'll get to it after this week's grading.

Jeffery Hodges

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