You are hereThe Total Depravity of Calvinism
The Total Depravity of Calvinism
by John McPherson
One of the Calvinist doctrines I find most opposed to the clear language and teachings of the Scriptures is the "Total Depravity" of man. The Calvinist belief that unregenerate man is "utterly helpless and spiritually destitute apart from divine intervention in his heart and mind" is simply unsupportable, Biblically, and I intend to demonstrate this to be the case in this article.One of the Calvinist doctrines I find most opposed to the clear language and teachings of the Scriptures is the "Total Depravity" of man. The Calvinist belief that unregenerate man is "utterly helpless and spiritually destitute apart from divine intervention in his heart and mind" is simply unsupportable, Biblically, and I intend to demonstrate this to be the case in this article.
To begin, it is advantageous to consider the actual teachings and propositions of John Calvin himself, the originator of the doctrine of "Total Depravity" in its formalized, codified form.
(Man's natural endowments not wholly extinguished: the understanding, 12-17)
12. Supernatural gifts destroyed; natural gifts corrupted; but enough of reason remains to distinguish man from brute beasts
I feel pleased with the well-known saying which has been borrowed from the writings of Augustine, that man's natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn; meaning by supernatural gifts the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity. Man, when he withdrew his allegiance to God, was deprived of the spiritual gifts by which he had been raised to the hope of eternal salvation. Hence it follows, that he is now an exile from the kingdom of God, so that all things which pertain to the blessed life of the soul are extinguished in him until he recover them by the grace of regeneration. Among these are faith, love to God, charity towards our neighbour, the study of righteousness and holiness. All these, when restored to us by Christ, are to be regarded as adventitious and above nature. If so, we infer that they were previously abolished. On the other hand, soundness of mind and integrity of heart were, at the same time, withdrawn, and it is this which constitutes the corruption of natural gifts. For although there is still some residue of intelligence and judgement as well as will, we cannot call a mind sound and entire which is both weak and immersed in darkness. As to the will, its depravity is but too well known.
Therefore, since reason, by which man discerns between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be entirely destroyed; but being partly weakened and partly corrupted, a shapeless ruin is all that remains. In this sense it is said, (John 1: 5,) that "the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not;" these words clearly expressing both points, viz., that in the perverted and degenerate nature of man there are still some sparks which show that he is a rational animal, and differs from the brutes, inasmuch as he is endued with intelligence, and yet, that this light is so smothered by clouds of darkness that it cannot shine forth to any good effect.
In like manner, the will, because inseparable from the nature of man, did not perish, but was so enslaved by depraved lusts as to be incapable of one righteous desire. The definition now given is complete, but there are several points which require to be explained. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2)
Typically, as can be seen above, Calvin relies heavily on the thinking of the ECFs, and their theorizing concerning man's "fallen state". John 1:5, the one verse cited by Calvin in the development of his ideas, is ripped out of its context, and made to mean something other than its originally intended, contextually-established interpretation. The "light" shone in WHICH "darkness". It was the "light" of WHICH "men"? John 1 deserves better, more careful treatment than this.
In John 1:10,11 we read the following: "10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him."
We find strong, clear evidence of rhetorical parallelism in the verses, above. John essentially equates "the world" with "His own", establishing his usage of "world" as a reference to the Old Covenant "world" of "God's own People". Tracing this contextual usage in reverse, we find that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God" does NOT necessarily refer to the Genesis account of God's creation of the physical planet, universe and natural system of things. In all probability, in fact, it refers to the creation of the Old Covenant "world" at Mt. Sinai, in the giving of the Law to Moses. Christ Jesus was YHWH of the Israelites, who met with Moses and personally delivered the Law to him. "All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made". Christ Jesus dictated the creation of "all things" pertinent to the structure of the civilization/society known as Old Covenant Israel. "In Him was Light and that Light was the Light of men." YHWH appeared to the ancient Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He was known to dwell in unapproachable light (1Tim. 6:14-16). In other words, we arrive at verse 5 with the understanding that the Light of Christ Jesus' Truth shone in the darkness of ISRAEL'S spiritual lack of understanding and rejection of their own God - and they did NOT "comprehend" Him. They didn't recognize or acknowledge Him as their own Messiah.
It can be seen, therefore, that John Calvin has launched his ideas on exegetically shaky ground.
Earlier in his treatment of this issue, Calvin makes these statements:
Having seen that the dominion of sin, ever since the first man was brought under it, not only extends to the whole race, but has complete possession of every soul, it now remains to consider more closely, whether from the period of being thus enslaved, we have been deprived of all liberty; and if any portion still remains, how far its power extends. In order to facilitate the answer to this questions it may be proper in passing to point out the course which our inquiry ought to take. The best method of avoiding error is to consider the dangers which beset us on either side. (1) Man being devoid of all uprightness, immediately takes occasion from the fact to indulge in sloth, and having no ability in himself for the study of righteousness, treats the whole subject as if he had no concern in it. (2) On the other hand, man cannot arrogate any thing, however minute, to himself, without robbing God of his honour, and through rash confidence subjecting himself to a fall.
To keep free of both these rocks, our proper course will be, first, to show that man has no remaining good in himself, and is beset on every side by the most miserable destitution; and then teach him to aspire to the goodness of which he is devoid, and the liberty of which he has been deprived: thus giving him a stronger stimulus to exertion than he could have if he imagined himself possessed of the highest virtue. How necessary the latter point is, everybody sees. As to the former, several seem to entertain more doubt than they ought. For it being admitted as incontrovertible that man is not to be denied any thing that is truly his own, it ought also to be admitted, that he is to be deprived of every thing like false boasting. If man had no title to glory in himself, when, by the kindness of his Maker, he was distinguished by the noblest ornaments, how much ought he to be humbled now, when his ingratitude has thrust him down from the highest glory to extreme ignominy? At the time when he was raised to the highest pinnacle of honour, all which Scripture attributes to him is, that he was created in the image of God, thereby intimating that the blessings in which his happiness consisted were not his own, but derived by divine communication. What remains, therefore, now that man is stript of all his glory, than to acknowledge the God for whose kindness he failed to be grateful, when he was loaded with the riches of his grace? Not having glorified him by the acknowledgement of his blessings, now, at least, he ought to glorify him by the confession of his poverty.
In truth, it is no less useful for us to renounce all the praise of wisdom and virtue, than to aim at the glory of God. Those who invest us with more than we possess only add sacrilege to our ruin. For when we are taught to contend in our own strength, what more is done than to lift us up, and then leave us to lean on a reed which immediately gives way? Indeed, our strength is exaggerated when it is compared to a reed. All that foolish men invent and prattle on this subject is mere smoke. Wherefore, it is not without reason that Augustine so often repeats the well-known saying, that free will is more destroyed than established by its defenders, (August. in Evang. Joann. Tract. 81.) It was necessary to premise this much for the sake of some who, when they hear that human virtue is totally overthrown, in order that the power of God in man may be exalted, conceive an utter dislike to the whole subject, as if it were perilous, not to say superfluous, whereas it is manifestly both most necessary and most useful.(Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2)
Calvin's shortcomings involve both a failure to treat the Scriptures directly with any sense of exegetical, contextual integrity and accuracy coupled with an obsessive need for unachievable "humility" (humanly speaking) in our consideration of God and His relationship to man. An individual who is so focussed on such a need, viewing it as over-riding all other considerations, has (in all likelihood) issues with vanity and pride in his own heart and mind. It is highly possible that Calvin held his own views, beliefs and self in rather high esteem, and realized that nothing of such a self-opinion would be appropriate in any examination of God's perfection vs. man's imperfection and limitations. Unfortunately, Calvin's obsession with the need for "humility" (or at least the sensed need for the perpetual PORTRAYAL of such an attitude) warped and distorted his understanding of the Scriptures relevant to this discussion.
Going back to Genesis 4, we find a fascinating discussion between God and Cain providing us with tremendous insight into the TRUE nature of man's innermost being.
6 So the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it." (Gen. 4:6,7)
First of all, note God's rhetorical question in v.6. The correct, intended response is YES - if you DO WELL (that which is pleasing in God's sight), YOU WILL BE ACCEPTED BY GOD. Remember, Cain was NOT "spiritually regenerated" in the New Testament sense of that phrase, at this time. He was in a "fallen" state, and yet God is communicating with him and has specific EXPECTATIONS of him, based on certain inherent, created qualities within his heart, mind and will which were clearly still functional and active.
The final statement to Cain, above, sets Calvin's arguments to rest completely. It nails the coffin shut on his view of mankind's supposed "total depravity". Cain had the LEGITIMATE OPTION to "rule over" the bias toward sin within him. He COULD over-rule his own, sinful tendencies and still do that which was pleasing to God AUTONOMOUSLY. No other interpretation of those verses is either tenable or supportable, when the language and context are given their due weight.
In John 6:28,29 the Jews asked Christ Jesus an intriguing question, and His response is highly informative.
28 Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" 29 Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
In effect, the "work of God" was that which the Jews were capable of "working" IN AND OF THEMSELVES - AUTONOMOUSLY. Christ's words actually indicate that this "work of God" (faith in Christ Jesus) did not have its SOURCE in God, but rather was the ONLY "work" they were capable of that would meet with His approval. In other words - they were capable of exercising SAVING FAITH, autonomously.
Romans 10:9-17 provides us with a detailed description of the mechanics of saving faith.
"9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."
12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."
Note v.17 in particular. NOWHERE in this description of the process of the awakening of saving faith within one's heart and mind is there ANY indication that GOD confers saving faith through the sovereign, supernatural imposition of it upon the individual's heart and mind. NOWHERE do we see any evidence of this activity on God's part WHATSOEVER.
Again, Calvin's doctine falls demonstrably short of the Truth. Calvin and the exegetes who adhere to his views, consistently misappropriate Biblical texts to suit their predetermined conclusions, utterly ignoring the clear context.
John G. Reisinger exemplifies this approach rather well.
What does the phrase "total depravity" mean?
I. Negative. Let us note what we do NOT mean by "total depravity."
A. We do not mean that man is without a conscience or any sense of right or wrong.
B. Total depravity does not mean that every sinner is devoid of all the qualities that are both pleasing to men and useful to society when those qualities are judged only by a human standard.
C. We are not saying that every sinner is prone to every form of sin.
D. We do not mean that every sinner is as intense as he can be in his sin.
II. Positive. What we DO mean by "total depravity." What DOES the Bible itself teach?
A. Every sinner, including you and me, is destitute of, or without, that love to God which constitutes the fundamental and all-inclusive demand of God's law.
B. Total depravity means that every sinner is guilty of elevating some lower affection or desire above regard for God, His Law and the Gospel.
C. That "something else" that all men love is an idol called "self" or "me."
D. Every sinner is possessed with a nature, inherited from Adam's fall, that is completely hostile toward God.
E. By total depravity, we mean that every part of man's being and nature has been affected by sin.
F. Man has a nature that will not permit him to choose God or righteousness.
Note that point F in particular directly contradicts the Scriptures I have cited, above. For these points, Reisinger provides no textual support.
Reisinger goes on to amplify upon these points as follows:
Doctor Bible is going to examine seven individual faculties of the sinner. In each case the result will show total inability. Here are seven things that God says a sinner cannot do. It is essential that we see that the Holy Spirit uses the word "cannot" in all seven instances. To say, "Well, the sinner really can do these things if he only wants to," is to not only misunderstand the Bible, it is to flat out contradict it! As we shall see later, man's "will not," or his refusal to repent and believe the gospel, is the direct effect of the "cannot" of total depravity. More about this in a moment.
First, the man is totally BLIND.
A lost man CANNOT see! "I tell you the truth, no one CAN SEE the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). The "see" means to realize, or to experience, or to appreciate. Christ is saying that man does not have the spiritual ability to even desire the kingdom of God until he is first "born again."
Reisinger universalizes John 3:3 with no attention given to the fact that this private discussion between Christ and Nicodemus was focussed exclusively on the spiritual economy of the Isralite "world" of THAT day. IF there is any, secondary application of this principle of "seeing" the Kingdom BEYOND the pre-AD 70 era and spiritual experience, it must be established through parallel Scriptures elsewhere verifying this fact, through clear, relevance and application to OUR era signified within their immediate contexts. The JEWS were unable to RECOGNIZE the Truth of the gospel in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom apart from spiritual rebirth. Is that true for mankind as a whole? That is an open question if we rely solely upon John 3:3.
Second, the man is mentally deranged.
He CANNOT UNDERSTAND a single thing that is spiritual. "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither CAN he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor 2:14). Again we must notice the cause and effect. The word "because" in this text is very important. The natural, or unregenerate man, cannot understand spiritual things because those things are spiritually discerned and the lost man does not have the Spirit until he is "born of the Spirit."
Note Reisinger's abuse of the phrase "natural man", failing to address Paul's usage of that terminology, and its TRUE, First Century significance.
In Romans 11, Paul uses the term "natural" to refer to the "elect Jews/Israelites" who were grafted OUT of the "vine". The emphasis in 1Cor. 2:6-16 is upon the "age" associated with the Old Covenant "world". Within THAT "age" and "world", the "natural man" was the Israelite/Jew who had not yet responded in faith to the gospel of Christ Jesus and remained uniquely "darkened", spiritually, in adherence to the Mosaic Law alone.
To attempt to make a case for the "mental derangement" of unregenerate humanity on the basis of 1Cor. 2:14 is utterly fallacious and an outright abuse of the Scripture, particularly in view of the contextually established, exclusively FIRST CENTURY intent of that text.
Third, the man is stone deaf.
He CANNOT HEAR any spiritual truth. This is verdict of Christ Himself. "Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word" (John 8:43). Again we have the same cause and effect relationship. Jesus is more emphatic this time and adds the word "even." Why did the Jews not understand our Lord's words? He said it was because ye cannot. Just as the ability to see is the gift God, so is the ability to hear. All men are not given that ability. See Matthew 13:9-18.
Reisinger jumps from the application of Christ's words to the JEWS, above, to a UNIVERSAL APPLICATION of His words to ALL OF HUMANITY, WITHOUT contextual justification or warrant of any kind whatsoever. Once again, Reisinger typifies the Calvinist approach to the Word of God.
Fourth, the man is completely powerless.
He CANNOT even want to receive spiritual help. A comparison of two verses of Scripture will establish this awful fact. The first verse shows us why a lost sinner cannot receive truth and grace.
Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (John 14:17)
John 14:17 is inaccurately and unjustifiably universalized in a false treament of the NT term "world". Rather than a planetary, global term encompassing all of humanity, its TRUE intent involved an exclusive focus upon the JEWISH "world" of the pre-AD 70 First Century era of history. Thus, this text really has NO application to the spiritual state of mankind as a whole. Reisinger once again drops the ball here.
I could go on and on evaluating text after text, comparing Scripture with Scripture and consistently finding the Calvinist case falling short of an accurate exegetical treatment of those Scriptures.
Full Preterism dictates that we address both the TEXTUAL and HISTORICAL contexts of any Scripture we endeavor to anlyze in order to determine its ORIGINALLY INTENDED meaning. Calvin and those who have followed in his footsteps interpretively, have mistreated and misapplied the Word of God, thereby misdiagnosing the human condition apart from God.
I find that unregenerate, non-Covenantal man is FULLY CAPABLE of acknowledging God's Truth as valid and desirable, APART from any sovereign imposition of enlightenment and "saving faith" upon that "fallen" individual's heart and mind. Man has the inherent, CREATED CAPACITY to respond favorably to God's requirements and Truth AUTONOMOUSLY. Hence, the name for my particular soteriological position - AUTONOMISM. I find the Scriptures fully in support of this view, except where the uniquely "darkened" spiritual state of the pre-AD 70 Israelites/Jews was in view.
From my own, personal experience furthermore, I find that non-Covenantal people show an interest in spiritual things and truths related to God the Creator and this realm of reality He has created, provided those things and ideas have some rational, objective basis for them. For the most part, people turn to mysticism and denial of a rational framework for spiritual things due to disillusionment over the misapplication and misinterpretation of the Truth so characteristic of mainstream, futurist Churchianity.
As Preterists, let us set a much higher standard than the Calvinists and futurists have done, by choosing to remain rigorously contextual in our handling of the Word of God, as it shapes our beliefs in ALL areas.
Serving the Truth,