Why I Don’t Believe In Total Depravity . . .

(this is a repost of a blog series I wrote last year for another website)

To begin with, I believe human beings are horrendously depraved and prone to all manner of evil.  I agree with these words from St. Paul with every fiber of my being:

“all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:  ‘None is righteous , no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.’  ‘Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.’  The venom of asps is under their lips.’  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know.’  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:9-18, 23)

I believe all of creation is in bondage to sin, and is experiencing corruption, decay and death, as a result of the Fall.  (Gen. 3, Rom. 8:19-23)  It is my contention that, from conception, man is born into sin (Psalm 51:5); he is deeply influenced by the sins of his parents, by a world system opposed to God’s will, and manipulated by evil spirits; he is subjected to spiritual corruption and decay, and suffers from various biological and physical effects of sin as well; he is born in the image of fallen Adam (Gen. 5:3) and is estranged from God (essentially, suffering the consequences of being expelled from Eden).

Having said all of this, you are probably wondering how it is that I reject the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  After all, the bleak picture of human existence I just painted sounds . . . well, totally depraved.  Allow me to explain this apparent contradiction.

The Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches that there was an ontological shift in the nature of humanity as a result of the Fall.  According to this view, man is now, by nature, a sinner.  In other words, sin is an essential part of what it means to be a human being.  Naturally, the idea that man has a sin nature is notoriously difficult to reconcile with the Bible’s teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  While traditional Reformed theology has never denied the image of God in man (in an abstract theological way), there is a strong tendency among Reformed thinkers to downplay the image of God or even disregarded it.

A prime example of this is when Martin Luther compared humanity to a pile of dung.  According to him, the Fall had so corrupted and distorted man that he was no better than a heap of steaming animal droppings.  When I was in Seminary I had several Reformed friends who held this belief.  In my ethics class I remember one of them making the bold assertion that human beings were utterly worthless and were no better than a heap of garbage.  To this I replied:  “So, you’re arguing that the Father loves worthless piles of garbage?  He sent His Son to become a worthless pile of garbage, and to die for worthless piles of garbage?”

As these examples demonstrate, the doctrine of total depravity, which depicts man as a worthless pile of dung or a trash heap, construes a picture of reality in which the image of God in man seems entirely snuffed out; which logically leads to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic value or worth to man because of his sin nature.  If this view is correct, if man is totally depraved, if man is utterly worthless and valueless, and incapable of doing anything good, it is hard to understand why God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  What exactly does God love about the world?

This brings me to my first problem with the doctrine of total depravity:

(1) If man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.

A creature who is totally depraved, who is a sinner by nature, who can’t help but sin, who always chooses sin, who has no intrinsic value or worth, who is essentially a piece of worthless garbage is not lovable.  The Psalmist declares:  “For thou art not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with thee.” (Psalm 5:4)  St. John affirms that, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5).  Over and over the Scriptures attest that God is Holy and Righteous; that God detests evil and darkness; that God is pure and has nothing to do with wickedness; that God abhors injustice and the shedding of innocent blood.  How, then, could God love a creature whose very nature was wickedness, darkness, and evil.  How could a Holy God truly love a creature that was totally depraved?

The answer, of course, is that He wouldn’t.  Therefore, if we are to take the numerous passages of Scripture seriously, which teach us that God loves the world, and that He especially loves man, we must reject the notion that man is totally depraved.  There is something lovable about human beings.  After Moses’ first account of the creation of man he says this: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Human beings are good because they are made in the image of God–no matter how twisted and warped they become because of sin.  Even the most depraved man reflects, however poorly, the image of his creator.

The other two problems I have with total depravity are as follows:

(2) If man is by nature a sinner then Jesus, who was without sin, was not really a man.  

This problem is rather significant.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ is one person with two natures; that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  This point was vigorously defended by both the Apostles and the Early Church Father’s and its truth is of primary importance.  Who we understand Christ to be has a drastic impact on everything we believe and do.  My aim, however, is not to explain the importance of the incarnation or to lay out the ramifications of denying the full humanity of Christ (I have written on this elsewhere if you are interested).  The point is, if you are an orthodox Christian, no matter what tradition you are coming from, the full humanity of Christ is of crucial importance.

With this in mind, it is terribly disturbing that total depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  According to the Scriptures, the eternal Word of God took on the full nature of man and lived and dwelled among us.  The Bible also teaches that Jesus never sinned and that he never gave into temptation.  But, if sin is a part of what it means to be human, if we are by nature sinners, if sin is an essential part of our being, as the Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches, then we are forced to draw one of two conclusions: (1) Jesus did not take on the full nature of man (i.e. he was not fully human), or (2) Jesus was not sinless.  Both of these conclusions are unacceptable.  Hence, it cannot be true that sin is a part of the nature of man.

(3) If man is by nature a sinner, then sin is a virtue and to sin is to align oneself with the Good.

This problem is significant as well.  The Good of something is directly tied to its nature and purpose; its telos.  For example, the purpose of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter.  It is not intended for or designed for cutting metal or cleaning your ears.  One could attempt to use a butter knife for these tasks, but would find it extremely difficult and inadequate.  The Good of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter; hence, a butter knife is only functioning properly, i.e. acting in accordance with its nature, when it is being used for this specific task.

The same is true for people.  If we believe that human beings are made in the Image of God; then we believe that man’s nature and purpose is to be like God; and that the Good of man is to conform himself to God’s image; to be in good fellowship with the One who created all things.  If, however, the image of God has been entirely snuffed out, if man is totally depraved and sin is an essential part of his nature, then we have major problems.  Suddenly, to sin is simply to act in accordance with one’s nature.  In other words, sin is the Good.  A totally depraved human being who sins is simply acting in accordance with his nature and is, therefore, functioning properly and achieving his purpose.  Strangely, sin, for the totally depraved human being, becomes a virtue!

If this were true, how could God ask His creatures to do anything but sin?  And why would God be upset with His creatures for acting in accordance with their nature—for functioning properly?

From this standpoint, the idea that human beings are totally depraved is terribly disturbing and, obviously, at odds with Scripture, which teaches that man is made in God’s image and likeness, that man is to be Holy as God is Holy, and that man is to conform himself to God’s will.

While I accept that we live in a desperately fallen world, that man is estranged from God, that men have a strong propensity to sin, and that all men do, in fact, choose to sin, I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity. I do not believe man has a sin nature; rather, I believe sin is completely at odds with man’s nature being made in the image of God; and that when man sins he misses the mark.  Sin is a corruption of and degradation of man; it is a lack of Good; it twists the image of God into something ugly and dysfunctional; it leads to death or non-Being.  Sin goes against God’s intentions and purposes.  It comes about when man, by his own free will, turns from the Good (God) and fails to live in accordance with his own nature.  For this reason sin is abhorrent, destructive, and leads to death.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe In Total Depravity . . .

  1. Good work, Josh. I read this on the Watershed a while back, and I can sign off on this for the most part. You know me: I’m not completely comfortable defining virtue and vice in purely Aristotelian terms, but it serves you well here. I do have some questions though:

    1. Is man ontologically altered by the Fall in any way?
    2. If not, what is the significance of “taking off” the old man and “putting on” Christ? Is this an ontological shift? If you say that it is not, then is redemption truly a death and rebirth or is it merely a restoration of the imago Dei?

    Thanks again, brother. Well put.

    • Cory, you always have such great questions . . . I miss hanging out!

      I’ll do my best to answer them (with the understanding that I’m not taking a “diehard” stance on any of these issues 🙂

      1. I would say that the only “ontological” thing happening with the fall, and with man’s subsequent sinful choices, is creations (man included) gradual shift from being to non-being. Being, in the truest sense, is found when creation is aligned with and in fellowship with the source of all Being Himself. St. Athanasius and the early church Fathers would argue that the fall has subjected creation to corruption and hence to move towards a state of non-being (physical death being one dramatic example of this). Of course, due to God’s grace, nothing in creation ever ceases to exist (even souls subsist after death and there will be a new heaven and a new earth). The ontological shift, however, is a result of man’s free choice to sin; not due to the existence of some substance (like the substance of “evil”).

      2. I think the imagery of “taking off” the old man and “putting on the new” is primarily an ethical statement–nevertheless, one with major ontological consequences (because ethics is deeply tied to ontology). The problem is that man in the fallen world, made in the image and likeness of fallen Adam, is subject to corruption and continuing down a path from being to non-being. So, there are profound ontological consequences to being a sinner in a fallen world. Putting on the new man–walking in the Spirit of Christ, dying to self and being made alive in Christ, seeking to be holy and righteous–is the beginning of a process (that of restoring the imago Dei) and having a share, through God’s grace, in the divine nature (i.e. glorification). Ethics is tied to ontology because what is good is tied to our nature, which is ultimately tied to God’s nature . . . does this get at the heart of the point you were trying to make?

      I hope some of what I said makes sense 🙂

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