Calvinism, Part III: Is Man Totally Depraved?

April 11, 2009

The first of the so-called five points of Calvinism is Total Depravity.  As noted in the first article, total depravity describes the desperate condition of fallen sinners apart from the grace of God.  Sin has affected every facet of human personality to such an extent that we are incapable of doing good or loving God as we should.  Our thinking is distorted, our emotions are deceptive and out of proportion, and our desires are unruly and misdirected.  In this condition, we are bent on rebellion and evil and are completely unwilling to submit to God and His perfect will.  Consequently, we deserve only God's wrath and eternal punishment.  Sinners in this condition are so utterly helpless that they are accurately described as "dead in their transgression and sins (Ephesians 2:1).  So pervasive and deadly is the effect of sin that they can no more respond to God or do His will than a dead man could respond if commanded to get up and walk.

On the matter of total depravity, Calvinists are in essential agreement with believers in many other Christian traditions.  The differences arise when one asks how God deals with sinners in this desperate condition.  The Arminian and Wesleyan answer is that the death of Christ provided grace to all persons through the Holy Spirit to counteract the influence of sin and to enable a positive response to God (John 15:26-27; 16:7-11).  The initiative here is entirely God's; the sinner's part is only to respond in faith and grateful obedience (Luke 15; Romans 5:6-8; Ephesians 2:4 & 5).  However, it is possible for sinners to resist God's initiative and to persist in sin and rebellion.  In other words, God's grace enables and encourages a positive and saving response for everyone, but it does not determine a saving response for anyone (Acts 7:51).  Moreover, an initial positive response of faith and obedience does not guarantee one's final salvation.  It is possible to begin a genuine relationship with God but then later turn from Him and persist in evil so that one is finally lost (Rom 812-13; 11:19-22; Gal. 5:21; 6:7-10 and Hebrews 6:1-8).

Arminians and Wesleyans both believe in Total Depravity!  But the difference between their understanding of this is very much different from that of the Calvinists.  Because of the fall, every aspect of human nature is tainted by sin.  Jacob Arminius' view of the human fallenness could hardly be stronger if he had been a full-blown Calvinist.  He declared that because of Adam's fall all humanity has come under the dominion of sin and that

In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent and weakened (attenuatum); but it is also imprisoned (captivatum), destroyed and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.

Arminius continued in his description of the result of the Fall by extending it beyond the will to the mind of the human person (dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and ...  incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God), to the heart ("it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves to pursue what is evil"), and to any power to perform the good ("utter weakness to perform that which is truly good").  Finally he declared that "nothing can be spoken more truly concerning man in this state, than that he is altogether dead in sin."

So what is the difference between Calvin's view of total depravity and the Arminian-Wesleyan view?  The first thing to note while answering this question is that Arminius' understanding of total depravity denies that God is or was in any way the cause of the first sin (Adam's sin), and he believed that so-called "high Calvinism" cannot avoid imputing such to God because of God's claimed foreordination and withdrawing of necessary grace.  Rather, the efficient cause of humanity's fall is humanity itself as stimulated by the devil.  Arminius and the Remonstrants taught that God merely permitted the fall and is in no way guilty because "He neither denied nor withdrew any thing that was necessary for avoiding this sin and fulfilling the law; but He had endowed him (Adam) sufficiently with all things requisite for that purpose, and preserved him after he was thus endured."  Arminius agreed with Calvinism that one result of Adam's fall is the fallenness of his posterity.

The question arises between the two opposing views as to how the human condition after the fall affects man's ability to choose.  In the Augustinian-Calvinist theology, man is incapable of a choice in any way or manner regarding a relationship with God.  To the Calvinist, the "image of God" referred to in the previous article was destroyed in man and that God's image is no longer a part of the human race, until God imputs it "back" through His effectual call (election).

The image of God (imago dei) is the one thing that separates man from animals!  It is not that mankind have souls and animals don't, but that man was made in the image of God.  Calvinists say the image of God left Adam at the fall and what is passed on to his descendants is a corrupt soul - totally depraved and incapable of making responsible choices.  This, logically, leads to the concept of determinism.  Without the image of God, man is locked in and cannot make choices unless they be initiated by God.  What follows is a logical progression of determinism which leads to a misunderstanding of election and predestination.  Logically, if man and his actions are determined (or predetermined) then this weakens, if not altogether rules out, personal responsibility. And if man is not responsible, then how can he be punished, much less rewarded, with anything?

In my next article, I will address the second point of Calvinism Unconditional Election and, with that, the concept of predestination.  Keep in mind, the issue of predestination always revolves around the question of "What" or "Who" was predestined?  To the Calvinist, all people are predestined.  It is a matter of a "Who?" than a "What?"  Also, keep in mind that if all of mankind is totally depraved in the understanding of the Calvinists, i.e. the image of God is destroyed and man cannot make a choice on his own, then it follows that God makes the decisions for man.  We ask the question, what factors does God use to determine which person's He wants to enter into Heaven and which one's He doesn't?  Is it an arbitrary choice, or is it a game?  Does God flip a coin or does He play enne-meenie-miney-moe?

These articles are not intended to poke fun at or in any way make a slam toward Calvinists.  We merely want to point out the logical progression and repercussions of a theology which is grounded in 4th century Greek Neo-Platonism.

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