Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Total Depravity: Can’t We Come Up With A New Term?

I was talking with an ardent Calvinist about this article. He is firmly committed to “total depravity” as meaning that human beings are black, wicked and “dead” so far as God is concerned, devoid of any kind of goodness, light or value: utterly deplorable and despicable. I understand the misguided humility that drives him, but I don’t buy his argument, and I don’t like the term “total depravity”. I think it’s misleading. This is what I wrote to him:

The Meaning of “Death”

Before Adam sinned, God said that in the day he did he would “surely die”. But in a sense, an observer could argue that wasn’t true. Adam kept walking, continued to “live” after a fashion, and even had children after that — all of which, clearly, a corpse cannot do.

Likewise, we read in Ephesians, “And you, being dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you walked …”.

These “dead” people were walking. They also “worked” and “lived”, according to Paul, in the very same passage. How strange for dead people.

So whatever God was promising by “die”, or whatever Paul meant by “dead”, it would have to be a spiritual thing, not a physical thing. I would suggest that when we read in the Bible that people are spiritually “dead”, we have a good, scriptural reason to ask In what sense, and to what extent?

That’s not a rude question, or a non-literalist one; it’s one that the scriptures themselves require us to ask.

In contrast, physical death is a universal reality for everyone barring the Rapture; but it’s one that comes even to people who are said in scripture to be spiritually “alive”, such as the “dead in Christ”.

The Meaning of “Total Depravity”

The upshot of this, I would suggest, is that we have sound biblical reasons to be thoughtful about what is entailed by “death”. My thought would be that to interpret spiritual death as exactly the same as physical death, or even to draw too close a comparison between them, would not be what the Bible itself teaches us to do.

So I would doubt the line of thought that might lead us to conclude that “total depravity” (not itself a scriptural term) should be taken to imply “devoid of any good feature”. Human beings, even unsaved ones, are not devils (which are always kept distinct from the unsaved in scripture) nor are they zombies (which, of course, is also an unscriptural idea). They are something else: something fallen, to be sure; but something that was created originally by God and called by him “good”, but that has become corrupted through sin. Thus it would not surprise me at all to find out that such people had vestiges of leftover elements of their origin (God does not do bad work, of course), even though their employment of their potential is stained with sin.

“General Grace” vs. “Saving Grace”

Theologians distinguish between “general grace” and “saving grace”. Saving grace is what only the saved have or can have. But general grace is the kindness of God who not only holds off on wrath, “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”, but also “sends his rain upon the just and the unjust”, and thus gives benefits and advantages that even the wicked enjoy — at the present time — though they do not recognize him as God nor give thanks, as Romans tells us. I would suggest that God also gives graciously not just rain, but that he equips all men with good abilities and potentials, if only they will use them as they are intended.

If so, it’s right to say that unbelievers even experience the graciousness of God’s giving, though they do not, of course, enjoy “saving grace”. They have creative and inventive powers, powers of scientific discovery and mathematical reasoning, powers to build and to organize, and so on; and all of these, I would suggest, are “graces” from God to undeserving and unappreciative men. And if these lesser graces are gifts of God, then they are “good”, for he is the giver of good gifts. So it would not be wrong to call these gracious benefits “good”; in fact, to fail to do so would be unthankful, denying God the credit for giving the goods he has bestowed on all men.

Yet in no way do these “goods” contribute to salvation, for that requires “saving grace”, not merely “general grace”.

The Term “Total Depravity” Needs Revisiting

In short, I would drop the word “total”, because although it’s fine if we limit it to mean “across all categories in some measure”, it’s probably misleading if we take it to suggest “in all categories and in all ways”, or to suggest human beings are ever “utterly devoid of evidence of the workmanship or God”. There are gracious powers bestowed by God to all mankind, regardless of their salvation state.

Then I would drop “depravity” because it describes only a mental state, whereas the problem of sin is that it stains all our activities and motives, not just our intellect.

I think we need a new term. “Total depravity” is a poor coinage, and terribly misleading, I think. I would opt for a biblical term instead. However, “dead” won’t do, unless we keep remembering that it’s a metaphor, not a total reality. The danger is that we will take that metaphor farther than the Bible takes it — which is an error comparable to adding or subtracting from scripture.


  1. I believe that the Total Depravity term is to be interpreted as the extent rather than degree of human failure and sinfulness. It does not mean men are 100% devilish with out Christ. Rather it means, that every part of our being has been tainted with sin.

    1. I believe, Russ, that most people will not grasp your distinction between "extent" and "degree". They will think "extent" means "degree", as the fellow at the start of the post does. That's all too common an error.

      I believe we're far better to completely dump a term that:

      a) was never accurate in the first place ("total" being ambiguous) and

      b) was never Scriptural in any way, and

      c) nowadays makes people opt for wrong anthropology and errant theology.

      Honestly, I can't think of one good reason for keeping such an unhelpful and misleading thing around, no matter how many people may like it.

  2. Tom, I wonder if you really meant it the way it reads - "Yet in no way do these 'goods' contribute to salvation, for that requires 'saving grace', not merely 'general grace'. You suggest that "goods" here refers to the benefits available and bestowed through general grace.

    I would suggest a different interpretation based on a folksy wisdom like "you catch flies better with honey than with vinegar." In other words, God is probably not wasting his "general graces" but intends for them to affect man in a way that may open him/her up to change to become the recipient of "saving grace" as well. If that was not the case or even possible then you would suggest that our destiny is fixed (like a Calvinist thinks?), which opens up a whole can of worms concerning grace. The conclusion is therefore that "general grace" is also an aspect of "saving grace." See, I believe in a practical and not a dogmatic God who wishes that none should perish.

    1. Hi Q,

      Not trying to duck the issue raised in your comment, but since this post is IC's, he's probably better positioned to reply.

    2. Yes is mine.

      "General graces," like "total depravity" is not a Scriptural term. It has this advantage over the latter, though, that it may be consonant with Scripture. However, we should be careful not to build too much out of any term man invents.

      "Salvation" and "grace," are better than either of the former terms, in that they are fully Scriptural, and are thus a product of God speaking about God in words of His choosing, not merely of man attempting to describe what he thinks God's ways might be.

      Now, that what man calls "general graces" may be reasons for mankind to be grateful to God is certain, although they are not sufficient to produce salvation, just as the Scripture actually says (Romans 1:21). Rather, they just multiply the reasons why God's judgment against such an attitude is perfectly fair and deserved, as again the Scriptures say (Romans 1:18-20). But general graces do not send mankind to Heaven. In fact, as you can see, the recipients in Romans 1 simply become more hard-hearted.

      In contrast, saving grace (as in Romans 3:23-25) is specifically the unique product of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not merely of the experience of general kindnesses God shows to all men alike. Saving grace is also transformative, reconstituting people as children of God (1 John 3:1-2) and renewing the mind (Romans 12:1-2), so that thankfulness to the true Source for general graces becomes possible to us.

      But general graces do not save. The Bible makes no such claim.

      P.S. -- I'm not sure what your final claim entails, but I should point out two things: firstly, that the opposite of "dogmatic" is not "practical"; and secondly, that if we take the statement that "God wishes that none should perish," (which is a Scriptural truth) to imply that therefore none DO perish, we have contradicted Scripture. Not only that, but we have reimagined God as just as Deterministic as the Calvinist 'God,' but this time on the side of forced compliance instead of forced condemnation. In both cases, the free will of man has been steamrollered.

  3. Sorry about the mix up concerning who posted.

    I understand your points, IC, but don't think they addressed what I meant to come across.
    Let me restate then. What I suggest is that if you desire someone's friendship, or to maintain a friendship, it stands to reason that you treat them and the relationship well to produce that willingness to enter into and maintain that friendship. I therefore meant to imply that "general graces" serves that purpose. And, because of that attitude and treatment received through "general graces" one should hope for a potential for reciprocity, which can then lead towards an attitude deserving of "saving grace". I did not mean to imply that "general grace" constitutes "saving grace" but that it can be a precursor to it.

    Further, since the process generated by "general grace" in the human soul and psyche does not come about by a dogmatic rule or behavior but by God's genuine charity and caring, it implies practicality (on God's part) since dogmatism is inherently inflexible and therefore impractical (in the wider context of saving a human soul).

    1. I don't think we're disagreeing at all that "general graces" are among the demonstrations of the love of God that should woo us to Him. I also don't think we're disagreeing that it can serve as a precursor or signpost to saving grace. The distinction I'm at pains to note is that they are not simply of-a-piece, with "general graces" simply precipitating us into saving grace.

      "General graces" are just a way of saying "God is good," not "mankind is saved." As we saw in Romans, many -- in fact most -- of the beneficiaries of God's general graces harden their hearts and turn away from that (see also Matt. 187:13-14). So long as we're on the same page about that as well, I don't think we're disagreeing at all.

      I remain unclear, however, about what you mean by opposing practicality with dogmatism. Definitionally, they're not opposites, for sure. And flexibility is surely not equivalent to practicality either, for things may be both flexible and impractical (consider, for example, an inconsistent referee at a sporting event), while a sort of "dogmatic" firmness with rules is sometimes practical (consider a judge who remains blind to race, colour, gender and creed when handing down his/her equitable judgments).

      Of course, I'm not trying to defend any sort of dogmatism that is "inherently inflexible," as you put it, when it should not be -- who would? But I'm not sure what aspect or view of salvation you're calling "dogmatic" and what aspect or view you're wanting to say is "flexible" and "practical."

      But if you want to clarify, I'm all ears.

    2. I am just making a general statement about dogmatism and its effects and have no specifics in mind concerning salvation other then assuming that God is not limiting our salvation based on a human penchant for, and understanding of, religious dogmatism.

      That understanding is limited and can lead to problems. E.g., the judge in your example has a problem in that he is practical within a narrowly defined context of dogmatism. The context can of course be different, e.g., if he is a judge in the Third Reich. His flexibility in that case is narrow and limited by his constraints not to get himself into trouble. Therefore, once more, dogmatism reduces your flexibility. A reduction in flexibility reduces your available practical choices, e.g., letting a politically incorrect individual go free. I am convinced that God reserves for himself the greatest salvational options.