Total Depravity: A Biblical Defense

What is the exact meaning of "total depravity"? Here are the points it generally offers, which one will find repeated in various forms throughout works in favor of TULIP:

I have now concluded that all 4 of these points are true according to Scripture -- and therefore, I affirm that the T in TULIP is valid. However, I must qualify by saying that while it is valid, it is not supported by as many Scriptures as some are wont to think. Originally this essay was to explore the doctrine as expressed in the epistalory literature, but since it seems that "T" is clearly affirmed (in the first verse to be examined below) I see no need, at present, to proceed further.

Cites Used to Support the Doctrine of Total Depravity

John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

I will begin, therefore, with the verse that clearly does teach total depravity. Palmer [Palm.5P, 16] tells us, "Here is total depravity: man cannot choose Jesus. He cannot even take the first step to go to Jesus, unless the Father draws him." This is indeed total depravity, but there is a factor involved that looks to shift the matter back to individual choice. Jesus goes on to say in John 12:32, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." The Greek word behind "draw" in the two verses is the same. Note the connotation that this word can have:

Acts 16:19 And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers...
James 2:6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

This word has the connotation of being brought somewhere by force if needed, and against the wishes of the "draw-ee." This verse does indeed teach the doctrine clearly.

But once John 12:32 is thrown into the mix, something is indicated which may throw the matter back into human hands -- at God's sovereign directive and because of His actions. How are men drawn onto Christ? We know and all agree that the Holy Spirit is the "drawer" on men. But Jesus says that all men will be drawn unto him. So what does this lead to?

A logical syllogism: All men are drawn to Christ. The Holy Spirit works this function in all men. But clearly not all become Christians, and these verses only say that one cannot make the choice without the drawing first.

Even Yarborough, writing in favor of Calvinism in Still Sovereign, admits that this can refer to a "more general attraction that, say, renders persons accountable but not yet regenerate in other" and tries to make "all men" mean "all elect men" [as below] with no justification other than a pre-conceived application of Calvinism.

Therefore, practically speaking, while we absolutely must have God's prodding to come to Him, we are all getting that prodding -- just like you can't decide on a path without information on the path first. Geisler [Geis.CBF, 6], citing Sproul, observes that the question now is whether God gives the ability to come to Him to all men, and we discuss that more in link 1 below.

I should note one response to this verse, which says that "all men" means "men from all nations" rather than literally "all men." This seems an all too obvious contrivance to save the doctrine of irresistible grace; in the previous verse Jesus speaks of judgment of the kosmos and the prince of the kosmos. It is the burden of the Calvinist to prove that "all men" [in fact, only "all" is actually in the text; "men" is implied] means "men from all nations" or "elect men".

John 6:65 And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.

I would also note as well that John 6:65, which I previously included in the above, does not say that God enables people to believe -- I think that that is a Calvinist reading of the verse. Indeed the connection between belief and the Father's permission is not specified -- it's just as well to say that the Father has to act as an access-granter because people can and will join the movement under false pretenses that no man can discern, which would make much better sense under the client-patron relationship understanding.

Genesis 6:5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

No case for total depravity starts, so it seems, without this verse -- and it is here that I begin with a little groundwork.

Regular readers of this page know that I do not offer much solace for various Skeptics and critics of the Bible who remove verses from their social, literary, or historical contexts in order to prove a point. But this does not mean that Christians are clear to make the same kinds of mistakes in interpretation.

Critics are fond of quoting a verse shortly after this one, Genesis 6:9, which speaks of Noah being "perfect" and asking if this does not contradict statements elsewhere that all men sin. They are of course wrong in their understanding of this verse, as we have shown elsewhere (link 2 below), and in their understanding of similar verses like Job 1:1 and Luke 1:6 (see the same link) that describe various men as perfect, righteous, or blameless. I have answered these critics by noting that typically ANE literature used exaggeration for effect. Job, Noah and others were comparatively righteous, and are described as completely so for comparative effect.

I can honestly interpret Genesis 6:5 under no different principles. This is undoubtedly exaggeration for effect, for of course one cannot literally have thoughts of the heart that are continually evil (for we must all sleep sometime); certainly the hearts of these antediluvians were wicked and depraved, but whether this means that they were depraved to the extent that total depravity requires simply cannot be determined from this verse -- much less can it be said that this automatically applies to all men throughout history, although it offers persuasive evidence that it is so. Nor does this verse say anything either way about whether men were unable to behave otherwise.

Genesis 8:21 And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

This verse is also appealed to as showing that "man's depravity is not merely something that belongs to his maturity but characterizes his life from its beginning." [Camm.SBG, 35] And with this we do agree; however, this still does not address whether or not men can change or simply won't.

1 Kings 8:46 If they sin against thee, (for there is no man that sinneth not,) and thou be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy, so that they carry them away captives unto the land of the enemy, far or near...

The issue is once again the same: no one doubts that all men sin, but under what context of our "can't or don't" distinction? This verse is silent upon the subject.

Job 15:14-16 What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?

This passage, we are told, "reminds us that man's wickedness is as natural to him and as much a part of his life as drinking water." [Camm.SBG, 36] But again, like our other passages so far, it is silent on the important can't or don't" distinction.

It should be recalled, moreover, that this is said by Job's friend Eliphaz in the context of trying to convince Job that he did something to deserve his punishment.

Psalms 51:5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

This verse offers a standard Ancient Near Eastern exaggeration for the purpose of expressing a point: That we're sinners and we express it from even the youngest age; in this case, David expressing the utter depth of his own sin, in light of events with Bathsheba. While I in no way mean to imply that our sin is not serious or extensive, it is no more legitimate for the Calvinist to use this verse as they do than it is for the Skeptics (who make the same arguments using it), and the verse in no way says that we can't make a right choice.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

As we know, Jeremiah is known for his hyperbole for the sake of emphasis (link 3 below), as is quite the norm in an oral culture; moreover, this verse has the structure of a proverbial saying (link 4 below) and should therefore be read in that light. It cannot carry the absolute sense that a Calvinistic argument requires. (This also applies to two other verses from Jeremiah that have been used [Jer. 4:22, 13:23].)

One of the first NT verses used in this area is Matthew 7:16-20, a passage we have addressed relative to this subject in answering Edmund Cohen. Here I will merely repeat the same points offered previously.

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

I can see where Calvinists might think that this supports a certain view of predetermination and of the nature of man as totally depraved and unable to come to saving knowledge without help. But read with a nuanced eye, what I assume here to be a Calvinist interpretation is really rather an overreading. Trees do not literally bear "good" and "evil" fruit -- fruit has no moral compunction.

Moreover, as an agricultural society would know, this is a general principle and not a total absolute. The "good" tree will now and then produce an "evil" fruit; and now and then also does the "evil" tree make edible and wholesome produce, although that is very rare. But as a whole a tree will tend to produce fruit in line with the state of the main tree itself.

It is simply reading too much into this parable (which for effectiveness in oral transmission, we would expect, in societal context, to be expressed in absolute terms) to find in it a black-and-white delineation of the full nature of man.

The upshot of this for any sort of Calvinist interpretation is that, from this verse, it is not necessarily, utterly true that men cannot come to God without assistance from the Holy Spirit, although as I have initially argued, it appears that the Spirit works upon the hearts of all men to some extent at all times, so that the Calvinist assumption of this passage misses the point. And as it happens, this is more or less how most of the rest of the verses we will examine from the Gospels can be looked at as well.

Matthew 13:14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:

This verse offers the text of Isaiah 6:9-10 as being fulfilled in the actions and response of Jesus' hearers, in this case, the Pharisees. It is used as a pointer for total depravity, and is said to explain "why some theologians and Bible students can spend most of their lives studying the Bible and yet reject Jesus Christ as their God, Lord, and Savior. The cause of rejection is not in the clear testimony of God's Word. Rather, it is in the blindness, darkness, and hardness of their hearts. If a man is not regenerated, he cannot understand." [Palm.5P, 15-16]

With the first half of this assertion we agree; but from whence is the conclusion drawn for the second half? The progression of thought has gone from "don't" to "can't" with no justification.

Moreover, that these words are addressed to one particular group of people (the Pharisees) as an indication of fulfillment of a specific verse that predicts hardness of heart from one group of people, it is illicit to universalize from it.

The same may also be said of other verses commonly used this way, John 1:11, 8:43, and 12:37-9. Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that there were those who did see and hear (vv. 16-17). But the Calvinist view will point to some of our next verses as an answer to this.

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Palmer [Palm.5P, 17] points to this verse and argues:

A baby never desires or decides to be born. He never contributes an iota to his own birth. In the whole process from conception through birth, he is completely passive and totally unable to control his birth. In a similar fashion, the unbeliever cannot take one step toward his rebirth.

Though this relates to the "U" aspect of TULIP as well as "T", let's consider it now. I asked here at one point whether Palmer is getting his biological facts straight; I have never understood that a baby is a totally passive bystander in the birth process, but rather, does a little struggling of its own instinctually, which would rather reduce the impact of Palmer's analogy, since no one thinks instincts have anything to do with conversion.

As it turns out, a science-minded reader has told me that, indeed, Palmer is wrong: A baby even determines when it will be born, for it secretes a hormone that induces labor.

But I rather think the analogy Palmer draws is stretched anyway. The metaphor of new birth is appropriate; how else would the idea of a new creation be better expressed? In order for this argument to work, Palmer has to show that there was no better analogy available which would have illustrated both a new creation and a active choice behind the matter. Otherwise, he is simply stretching the analogy for his own purposes -- and we may next ask questions like, "What is conception analogous to?"

John 15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Calvinists take this verse as an indication of "total inability" [Palm.5P, 15] to do anything good, including choose Christ. But I find here the same mistake I have once found made a Skeptic, who argued against salvation by grace by saying that the "act of accepting by faith is a work itself." But acts of the will and mind were not considered "works" in this time. The Greek word indicates physical labor or toil, not an intellectual decision.

However, even if intellectual decision were included, the indication would be no more than what is indicated in our syllogism above; see moreover on the meaning of "faith", link 5 below.

Acts 16:14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.

Palmer tells us of Lydia, "Only after the Lord opened her heart was (Lydia) able to give heed to what was said by Paul. Until then, her understanding was darkened, to use Paul's description of the Ephesian Gentiles (Eph. 4:18)." [Palm.5P, 15]

Granting this -- for no such description is applied to Lydia at all by Luke -- I can see no reason why this cannot be an example of the paradigm I have outlined above whereby the Holy Spirit, drawing upon all men's hearts, now gives them what they need to make the decision of their own accord. If I may hypothesize a moment, it now appears that we will be leading into another petal off the TULIP doctrine -- that of Irresistible Grace -- and we found that to be lacking in link 6 below.

Conclusion

After all of this criticism of those who favor the doctrine of total depravity, I would remind the reader that I have indeed come to the conclusion that it is Scriptural -- just not found clearly in a majority of verses usually cited in favor of it. Those verses are perhaps persuasion, but only the one in John 6 that we began with, of those we have examined, is clear proof.

Links

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Sources

  1. Camm.SBG -- Cammenga, Ronald and Ronald Hanko. Saved by Grace. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing, 1995.
  2. Geis.CBF -- Geisler, Norman. Chosen But Free. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1999.
  3. Palm.5P -- Palmer, Edwin H. The Five Points of Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972.