Friday, August 10, 2007

Total Depravity

Part of a series on the Five Points of Calvinism
[Introduction] [Total Depravity] [Unconditional Election] [Limited Atonement]

The first of the five points is, of course, Total Depravity: the idea that sin touches every aspect of our lives and makes us naturally incapable of doing anything at all that is good in God's sight. This does not mean, of course, that we do not do anything good (more below); but, when applied to the soteriological question, we cannot do anything that merits our salvation. The most straightforward Biblical statement of the doctrine, it seems to me, is Romans 8:7-8 (ESV):
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
As with many doctrines, there have been major misunderstandings of Total Depravity by those who don't hold it. One of the foremost that comes to mind was that of one of the men God has used in my life: C. S. Lewis. Lewis said:
"The doctrine of Total Depravity -- when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing -- may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship" (The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins edition 2001, p. 29)... "I disbelieve that doctrine partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature. (ibid, p.61)
I cannot begin to explain the extent of influence Lewis has had in my life for the better - it was his writings that largely led me to intellectually accept the truth of Christianity - but I cannot agree with his statement here. Lewis is begging the question in a subtle, unstated way. The doctrine does indeed mean that sin affects every part of us, including our moral judgments. However, Lewis judges the doctrine based on a synergistic understanding of salvation: the doctrine says that our depravity causes us to be unable to respond to God, which (in his view) makes believers power worshipers or, at best, robots. In other words, Lewis is using an Arminian understanding of salvation (that sinners can freely respond to God) to judge a non-Arminian doctrine. Naturally, if Arminian soteriology is true, then Total Depravity is to be rejected.

However, just you don't judge a football game according to the rules of baseball, you don't take an Arminian assumption and use it to judge Calvinism. The Arminian assumption is that we can choose to follow God, which negates the doctrine. However, the Calvinist understanding is based on the idea that we cannot choose to follow God: that sin has so infected our spirits that none of us wants to follow God. In other words, using Arminianism to argue against Total Depravity is begging the question. Total Depravity must not be determined by Arminian presuppositions - or Calvinistic, for that matter - but rather Biblical support. (There's lots of support, of course: see comments by John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Herman Hanko, and many others. My main purpose here is not to defend the doctrine per se, but to relate my own thoughts on the subject.)

The last part of the quote above, that there is "much goodness in human nature," is also a question-begging assumption. The assumption seems to be that human nature, per se, contains much that is good. But that assumption is simply a negative statement of Total Depravity. In fact, I believe that the Bible does support the idea that in my flesh there is nothing good; all good things come from God Himself. It is not our nature that causes us to do good things, but rather God, who causes rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust. If we are thoughtful and caring towards our fellow-man, there's only one reason: God's grace, poured out on us though we don't deserve it.

Among those who demur from the Arminian position, Total Depravity seems to me to be among the most popular of the five points. People sometimes claim to be one-, two-, three-, or four-point Calvinists (a former pastor of mine called himself a three-and-a-half pointer), but it seems that the one they always include is Total Depravity. This seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding as well. In fact, the five points of Calvinism are not things you can really pick and choose (same for the five points brought forth first by the Remonstrants). The five points of both are the constituent parts of the appropriate Biblical understanding. If you do not have the basic Biblical understanding, you almost certainly do not subscribe to any of the parts.

In fact, in a very real sense, Total Depravity is not just one of the five points: it is THE foundational point. Sin has completely permeated our being: mind, soul, and spirit. It has made us spiritually dead, unable to initiate love towards God (such as the Pelagians would say) or even respond to the love God shows us (such as the Arminians would say). If you really believe in Total Depravity, it seems to me that you cannot believe in any form of synergism. God loves us, but due to our depravity, we cannot respond to His love; we are dead in our sins and trespasses.

The idea that I am able to respond to God's love in such a state seems to negate the idea of Total Depravity, as well as (more importantly) the Biblical analogy of being dead. Lazarus didn't reach out and accept the resurrection Jesus was offering him - he was unable to do anything until Jesus brought him back from the dead. So, it seems that if one wants to reject Total Depravity, one should reject it; but to cling to the idea of Total Depravity and reject the other soteriological tenets of Calvinism makes no sense to me.


cawoodm said...

Formulated thus...

all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures would seem that the doctrine teaches that salvation follows choosing to follow God but that the choice itself is impossible. This does not resonate with my experience nor with my understanding of the Bible.

Instead the choice is something we must do, it is the stretching out of our hands for help, the calling on the name of the Lord. This step is volitional but does not constitute salvation. Salvation, the new life, is the gift which the Father then pours out. In His faithfulness rejects no one who does call out. This faithfulness might lead the convert to believe he or she chose salvation or accomplished it themselves, but this is just a silly mistake and we don't need something as radical as Total Depravity to counter it.

God, as viewed by a TD proponent saves people arbitrarily whilst condemning others to the fires of Hell - surely a deficient view of Him who is Justice and Love. A TD proponent must surely deny any sort of personal will and view the deeds of sinners as morally neutral and essentially unavoidable and pre-determined.

Daniel said...

I think it is important to remember that the Arminian view doesn't reject the doctrine of Total Depravity. In our natural state we are unable to do any good. However, by God's Prevenient Grace we are enabled (though not forced) to respond to God in faith.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

No, of course you're correct that Arminians have a form of Total Depravity, as laid out in article IV of the articles of remonstrance. However, to say we cannot respond on our own naturally, but then to say God has made it so that any of us CAN NOW respond on our own, seems to me a distinction without a difference. Why bother talking about total depravity if God has negated it for all people, elect or not?

Gabe said...

Thanks for putting together a very conciliatory and rational argument forward. It is, unfortunately a rare thing to have rational and peaceful and polite discourse. However, I wouldn't be posting if I only agreed 8-). I do have to disagree with one statement you made. You said, "However, just you don't judge a football game according to the rules of baseball, you don't take an Arminian assumption and use it to judge Calvinism...Lewis is begging the question in a subtle, unstated way. The doctrine does indeed mean that sin affects every part of us, including our moral judgments. However, Lewis judges the doctrine based on a synergistic understanding of salvation:" That is not what I see in his quote at all. I don't see him judging total depravity based on prior assumptions. I see him questioning the veracity of total depravity on purely logical grounds. He says, as you so rightly quoted, "I disbelieve that doctrine partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved..." This is FAR from question begging. Quite the contrary, this is a valid logical rebuttal that is asserting that if the doctrine of total depravity were true, we would be too depraved to know we were depraved...thus it is logically self refuting. Formally speaking, the fallacy of question begging has the following structure (P and Q are propositions):

1. Q only if P.
2. P.
3. Therefore, Q.
4. (unspoken) P only if Q.

Lewis is not making this error. His understanding of soteriology actually has nothing to do with his logical attack on total depravity. His argument may be spelled out formally as follows...

1. Total Depravity so significantly warps the mind that apart from God's intervention, we are not able to rightly think about God.
2. If we were so significantly depraved, we would not be able to judge that we were so significantly depraved.
3. We do, in fact, know that we are significantly depraved.
3a. In fact, many self professed non-Christians are very aware of this significant depravity.
4. THEREFORE, our depravity must not be total.

You may argue with any of the premises...indeed I have intentionally left much room to do so. However, to accuse him of question begging is simply not accurate in this instance.

Keep up the good work and the good thinking. May God bless us all as we try to unravel the mysteries of His grace.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Gabe, thanks for the kind words and the rational thoughts, put no doubt far more cogently than I could have. However, I question whether you have made my point for me. According to wikipedia, petitio principii was defined by Aristotle as "... If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue."

My point was that the conclusion and what you call point 3/3a are essentially the same proposition: that unregenerate man is not totally depraved. Now, there may in fact be an equivocation here between "totally depraved" and "significantly depraved." But since 3 is used in your proof, then it seems to me that "significantly" must be the same as the "totally" in the conclusion. Thus, I think this is a petitio.

Now, as you say, there are also grounds to argue with other premises - in particular premise #2. You're right, that is a horse of a different color.

Thanks for stretching my thoughts about logic - it's been awhile. (Perhaps I am rusty? I don't think so - but I've been unpleasantly surprised before.)