Could the Doctrine of Total Depravity be Totally Depraved?

Over here at Not For Itching Ears we like to discuss issues that challenge our view of Christianity and the Church.   It is healthy to consider what one believes about the Christian faith and how we express that faith in our corporate church life.  If all we ever do is listen to ourselves, we can inadvertently become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about:  People who surround themselves with “teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.”  Today’s post is an attempt to counter that tendency among us as we discuss the Doctrine of  Total Depravity.  To do this, we turn to a passage from  “Reconsidering Tulip” by Alexander J. Renault.  It is written from an Orthodox perspective.

Like many of you, I have always assumed that Total Depravity was a doctrine universally accepted by the church of all ages.  But I was wrong.  It is a rather new concept.  In fact the early church fathers, categorically rejected the idea.  That troubles me a lot.  If Paul understood humanity to be totally depraved or to have a total inability, why did his disciples and the disciples after him flat-out deny it?  Calvinism doesn’t work without this idea, so I can see why we would hesitate to even discuss it.  It wasn’t until Calvin that this idea became the unquestionable doctrine it has become.

I don’t think this article settles the question, but the author does bring out some interesting things that most of probably have not considered.

So, let the Discussion begin…

“The immediate concomitant of the first sin was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul.” Louis Berkhof

The ontological problem with Total depravity is with the word “nature.” According to Total depravity, our very nature has changed. But what is a nature? In technical terms, “nature” refers to the essence of something—that which makes a thing a thing at its deepest level.

The early church Fathers used the term ousia for nature or essence. God is one nature (ousia) and three persons. Christ and the Father are of the same ousia. The incarnate Christ has two natures—human and divine.

So, if humans are intrinsically sinful in their essence (i.e. “sinful nature”), then God created sin. The Reformed will of course argue, “No, man was created with a good nature, but that nature changed.” But how can a nature change? A nature is the definition of a thing, and can only be defined by the one who creates the thing. What is the nature of a brick, for example? It’s a small, rectangular, hand-held fire-baked building block. If a single brick is broken, it doesn’t change the definition of brick nature. even if someone destroys every brick in the world, that still doesn’t change the definition of what a brick is. It doesn’t change brick nature. A man cannot change his nature any more than a brick could change its nature. Only God can change the nature/definition/essence of a thing. But to do so would make God the author of sin. . . . . . .

To take it to a more personal level, did God make you personally? Did He knit you together in your mother’s womb? If not, then God is not your creator, and I suppose it doesn’t matter what He thinks. But if He did create you, then what kind of nature did He create you with? A good nature, or a sinful nature? The answer that the church has historically given is that you are created with a good nature. You are created in the image of God. You are created to be an icon of God—a picture of God, here on earth.

But like a gold ring in a pile of manure, we are glorious creatures bound by sin and corruption. The nature or value of the gold ring doesn’t change, even if the environment does. Likewise, it is difficult for our true nature to be seen when we’re buried in a stinking pile of death and rot.

. . . . . Again, if sin is intrinsic to humanity, then Adam wasn’t human before he fell, nor will we be human when we’re in heaven, where there will be no sin. But if sin is foreign to our true nature, foreign to the image of god, then it makes little sense to say that we have a “sinful nature” . . . .

. . . . Another major problem is encountered when we confuse person with nature. What is a person? We might say that it is a unique manifestation of a nature. The early greeks used the term hypostasis for person and ousia for nature. Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two natures (ousia). The Trinity is one in essence, but with three persons (hypostases). There is only one human nature (or “humanity”) expressed uniquely in six billion different human persons. . . .

. . . The doctrine of Total depravity states that we are “utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.” This is because, as Berkhof says, we have depraved natures, and we only choose what our nature dictates. In other words, we cannot help but to choose sin, because we have a sinful nature. But is choice a function of person or of nature?  Do people choose to do things or do natures choose to do things? I believe it’s a function of person, not nature.

Think about this idea of person vs. nature with the Trinity: God is one divine nature (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). can “holiness” be separated from God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? No, because holiness is an aspect of God’s nature. It is a natural attribute. Can “incarnation” be separated from God the Father? Yes. God the Father was not incarnate, but the Son was. Thus, incarnation is a personal attribute of the second person of the Trinity, not a natural attribute shared by all three persons of the godhead. . . .

. . . . Likewise, sin is a personal attribute and not a natural/essential one. If our choice to act sinfully was from our nature, then that would imply that all of our actions are simply the result of what our nature dictates. But the problem with that line of reasoning is that God Himself couldn’t help but to create, redeem, etc., because it’s His nature and not His personal free choice. This would mean that God created the world not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. He saved us not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. I’m inclined rather to agree with St. Patrick of Ireland, who said that the lord “gladly and of His own free will pardoned me.”

We can begin to see how a confusion of person and nature leads to a very limited God with no free choice. . . .

. . . . of vital importance to the discussion on Total depravity, and unfortunately all but neglected by most Reformed in my experience, is the doctrine of the incarnation. This brings the discussion of human nature out of the simply anthropological realm and into the christological realm.

The crux of the matter is this: if Christ did not have a human nature, then He cannot save us. If Christ was fully human, but not fully God, then He cannot bring us up to God. If He is fully God but not fully human, then He cannot come completely down to us and bridge the gap between us and God. The first several ecumenical councils of the church all dealt with this issue.

It is generally agreed among the Reformed that Christ was fully God and fully human. Unfortunately, the implications of this are not always understood by the Reformed. For if Christ is fully human, then He must have a human soul, a human will, a human mind—in short, a human nature. And yet He was without sin. This tells us that sin is not an integral part of human nature, and that one is still human apart from sin. Otherwise, either 1) christ was just as sinful as we are, or else 2) christ wasn’t fully human and can’t really save us.

John 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Heb 2:11, 17 – For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren … Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.

This Hebrews passage is especially significant regarding Christ’s  human nature. It says that “in all things” He had to be made human.   And yet He was without sin. This would suggest that “sin nature” is in  fact foreign to true “human nature.”

For Another interesting discussion on a topic you may have always assumed could not be challenged, see our series of articles called “A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) or our series called “A Strong Argument Against Calvinism?”

About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on December 7, 2011, in Christianity, Contemporary Church Culture, Early Church History, The Christian Life, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. “This Hebrews passage is especially significant regarding Christ’s human nature. It says that “in all things” He had to be made human. And yet He was without sin. This would suggest that “sin nature” is in fact foreign to true “human nature.””

    gosh that last bit has me thinking- maybe one of you much more learned and experienced can help me? I may be very elementary so do bare with me. (these posts are great btw Jim!)

    I thought that yes He is fully human and fully God but that He did not have a biological earthy father for the reason of
    1. He was to be God and human in one therefore needing to be knitted together with both ‘dna’ but also
    2. the curse and the sins of the father(right back to original sin) comes carried through the father line and the father seed. Therefore He was born without the sin/original sin curse as He did not recieve the curse of the original sin in his forming in the womb through the father seed and then once born to the world and growing up in this fallen place He lived a chosen sinless life in a sinful world amongst sinners – in a human flesh, with a human everything whilst being God also


    • Hi Lisa,

      In response to your first point, I am not sure I would state it that way, Jesus divine nature and his human nature did not combine to make somekind of super nature. There is a name for this idea, and I don’t remember what it is. Mono something….
      In regards to your second assumption, this is what the reformers taught. This has always puzzeled me because Jesus was still carried in Mary’s womb. We now know that both the mother and father actually contribute to the genetics of their child, so it stretches reasonableness to say that the curse of total depravity comes through the father only. Scientifically this is wrong. But Biblically, where is the proof? Are we willing to say that today all of our children are born with a totally depraved nature only because of their fathers? I don’t think so. Where does that leave us? Hopefully Father John can chime in here and share the Orthodox perspective on this, it is truly worth contemplating. Everybody agrees that Jesus human nature was in no way depraved. Why that is, is debated.


  2. Jim, I’m still trying to digest the arguments from the last seven posts (daily mulling over FJ’s argument with Calvin), and now this?

    Thanks for stretching our minds.


  3. I woke up thinking about this. What occurred to me is that every really good lie is wrapped around the truth. Clearly there is a lot of truth in the concept of total depravity. Who of us has not agonized with Paul in Romans about what we do and do not. Even secular wisdom teaches our weakness is internal from Plato to the bumper sticker wisdom that “People Su….”.

    I know an old ditty taught to me by a very secular friend, “Everywhere I go, I go too, and spoil everything” (which is more about escaping our problems, but our internal problem is why that doesn’t work).

    Can we, by strength of will, fix that internal problem ourselves? I don’t believe it and neither do I believe the Church fathers thought that. Even if, by heroic means, we led a life of unmitigated goodness, our heroism would be vile in His sight.

    Is Goodness Righteousness? I don’t think so. I think the Unrighteous may behave well and the Righteous may behave poorly (as Paul said, by this I do not mean to encourage bad behavior). In all cases however it is just that “behavior”, the inside part is broken and only Christ can fix it. As I’ve told my nieces, “All men are pigs, try to get a well behaved one”.

    I guess my point here is our “ousia”, our inner thing that makes us one of what we are, may not be totally depraved, but it is at least depraved. It may recognize and want Goodness (and it can’t even manage that), but it needs Righteousness (which it can’t even recognize without external help).

    I woke up thinking about this, so Kudos to the blog.


  4. Total depravity is not just a Calvinist doctrine. It also forms a core part of Arminian doctrine. John Wesley also defended it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would day that Calvinists have a more tight definition of “Total”. An Arminian does not believe that you have to be born again or experience regeneration BEFORE you exercise faith in Christ.

      In that respect, they are different.


      • Yes, but an Arminian would say prevenient grace must need to cancel effects of total depravity before you can exercise faith in Christ.


        • That is true. But isn’t that what the Eastern and Western churches both teach?

          Liked by 1 person

        • Prevenient grace isn’t interpreted as strictly and the Western and Eastern fathers state we are born with free will whereas the Arminian says otherwise.


        • I think we agree on that. The councils have declared that we need God’s grace to come to Christ. Calvin and his followers believe that means you have to be born again before you can exercise faith in Christ. Arminians, the Orthodox, Copts and Catholics all reject that understanding. That is why I typically focus on Calvin. His view is extreme.


        • Here is a good forum on the concept of prevenient grace in Orthodoxy.

          Yes, Arminianism is better than Calvinism but I think that Arminianism is still equally problematic.

          We need God’s grace in order to become what he is by nature. This has been the Orthodox and Catholic soteriology–thus the sacraments confer this deifying or sanctifying grace. The Arminian may or may not agree pending but the difference is the interpretation of the Fall.


  5. Whew, I finally made it here! Thanks for the post, Jim. It’s a lot to think about. Because of the length of the post and the difficulty of answering point for point from my reformed perspective, I’ll pick just a couple of points to discuss.

    You mentioned that the reformed will argue that man’s nature has changed. I’m not aware of any reformed theologians who argue this point at any length. For me, I would no more argue that Adam’s nature changed than I would argue that the nature of God’s creation as a whole changed by the fall. If I were to take a glass of drinking water and put a few drops of poison in it, I wouldn’t argue that the nature of the water had changed. It is, after all, still water. If we were to apply the proper science to it we could extract the poison from it, leaving it just as it was prior to the contamination. It would once again be drinkable water. The nature was affected by the poison, not changed by the poison. I apply the very same argument to the fall. Sin entered into the world, but did not change the nature of the world or of man.

    No dancing around the subject: God, in full foreknowledge of what Adam would do, created Adam with the ability to sin. And Adam’s nature was such that at the very first chance he was given, he rebelled against God. He was unable to resist sin when it approached him. Sin did not change Adam’s nature, it exposed his nature. To argue against God creating man with the potential to be sinful is to argue against the foreknowledge of God.

    Next point: The hypostatic union between God and man, within Jesus, is something so foreign that we cannot possibly understand it. We have doctrines like impeccability that beg the question could Jesus have sinned when tempted? We simply have no other life to observe to answer these questions but Jesus’s life, and his too is the only life that ever could have been spoken of as fully God and fully man.

    You wrote: “For if Christ is fully human, then He must have a human soul, a human will, a human mind—in short, a human nature. And yet He was without sin. This tells us that sin is not an integral part of human nature, and that one is still human apart from sin.”

    While I see the logic of the assertion, the issue wasn’t what affect Christ’s humanness had on him, but rather, what affect Christ deity had on him. If he was tempted, then we have to believe that at the human level he could have sinned, but at the deity level he could not have sinned. To compare Jesus’s ability to resist sin to ours is nonsense; there simply is no comparison. But yet, he is familiar with our struggles having lived it, though having lived it as God-man and not man-man!

    “Otherwise, either 1) christ was just as sinful as we are, or else 2) christ wasn’t fully human and can’t really save us.”

    Now that gets a little tricky. God never called for human sacrifices. In fact, he was furious at Baal worshipers for practicing human sacrifices. So it isn’t that Jesus died as a human sacrifice to make propitiation for us. No, he lived a perfect life, fulfilling all the commandments, and then became a sacrifice (lamb) and shed his blood for the remission of our sins. The human part makes him a great priest but has no bearing on sacrifice part, even though he was human.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on The Blog of Phyllis Hopper, a.k.a. HopSez and commented:

    I have received some flack from my statement in my recent book that “I am not bad.” This post by “Jim” explains why I believe we are not intrinsically “bad.” The post is quite detailed, but is worth reading in its entirety.


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