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Why I am No Longer a Calvinist, Part 4: Total Depravity – Some Cursory Thoughts

“Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience.” – Martin Luther

The irony of using someone’s words who would have accepted most, if not all, of the “Doctrines of Grace” should not be lost on anyone. Of course I don’t mean to imply that my observations come close to the scope, the importance, or even the learnedness of Martin Luther’s fight against the errors of the Church in his day. Rather, I am simply reflecting on the fact that there is an appropriateness to revisiting issues of interest and concern in light of Scriptures teachings – for the Christian, this is not only appropriate, it is necessary. Starting today I will begin addressing the primary elements of Calvinism, commonly identified as the 5 points of Calvinism. As I have previously stated, I understand that they work together and lean on each other. I understand that different Calvinist’s will address these issues differently as well. What I am attempting to engage are the perspectives of these points as I held them, as I commonly hear them presented, and as some of the major proponents of the views held them.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY/HUMAN INABILITYAlready in the modern rendition of the doctrine (“Human Inability”) this point has undergone some softening in expression, though the undercurrent of its purpose and position is still present. The doctrine, at first glance, appears to be built upon some almost ill-refutable evidence – the verses that relate to man’s utter sinfulness, the necessity of drawing for response, and the enmity between God and man are too numerous to even begin to list here. But do these passages amount to a support of Total Depravity as described and defined by Calvinism?

The Synod of Dort Canons, from which the 5 points get their organization and definition, explain Total Depravity as:

All people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.
 The statement is plain enough and the general bent of the statement can hardly be disputed. Yet, there are specific elements of the doctrine that I believe go beyond the biblical evidence. Furthermore, in discussions about this doctrine, certain texts are either ignored or minimized which I believe are devastating to the position.

“Conceived in sin and born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good”
This statement can be said to be the classical expression of the doctrine of original sin. Though this doctrine has been expressed to varying degrees as a marker of orthodoxy, there is actually a wide variety of expressions concerning it that span the history of Christianity. In essence, the question centers on the relationship of humanity to the sin of Adam. Generally speaking the positions can be divided into three groups (these groups are not original to me and can be found in a number of sources): Influence, Infection, and Inclusion.

The group whose belief is best represented as “Influence” argues that the relationship of Adam’s sin to ours is merely one of influence and that any connection beyond that is largely imagined or over-stated. Pelagius (branded as a heretic by the Council of Carthage [418]) essentially argued this position. The full extent and nuance of his teachings are not known because we only know of him from his enemies and such people can hardly be counted on to fairly express nuance in an argument. Still, one would have to argue that there doesn’t seem to be anyway one can read passages such as Romans 5 and argue that this position (as it has come down to us at least) is consistent with the biblical expressions of Adam’s relationship to the rest of humanity.

The group whose belief is characterized by the word “Infection” generally argues that humanity has been infected with a sin nature because of Adam’s fall. This infection so influences mankind that all will sin and, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, will gravitate toward sin at all times. Regarding the sin in a human, this group would state that all humanity shares in the influence of Adam’s sin, but not the guilt of his sin.

The final group can be described adequately as the “Inclusion” group. This group argues that all humanity (from the time of conception on) shares not only in the influence of Adam’s sin but that all humanity was in fact present in a sense at the first sin and is included in the guilt of Adam’s sin. This clearly is the group to which the Synod of Dort belonged (and to be fair, much of Christian history has belonged).

“Inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin”
There is little one could really argue against this position, except perhaps some important arguments over what “dead in their sins” would mean. Obviously the phrase is a biblical one and so on the surface might seem like a non-negotiable. I would argue that as a status it is indeed non-negotiable; however, the implications of that status is where I will depart from classical Calvinism. When Paul talks about being “dead in sin” does he mean that humans are completely incapable of any response to God? The writers of Dort did not think so, they observed:

“There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him–so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.”

The theologians of Dort were far more careful than their modern counterparts in how they phrased their statements – terms go undefined and there is a broadness to their expressions that allows them to work in a variety of contexts. When, however, these expressions are taken in context with the doctrine of Irresistible Grace/Effectual Call one comes away with a perception of “dead in their sins” and “slaves to sin” that goes so far to suggest that even the good people do is sin and a transgression against God. One finds even some of the foremost modern Calvinists making arguments that twist texts like Romans 14:23 “whatever is not from faith is sin” to apply to the human condition, even though Paul in this passage is clearly talking to Christians about the reasons they do things and not with the issue of man’s nature. Indeed, this is the crux of where I eventually separated from Calvinism. Often to argue for the system, I found myself (and those who believed like me) applying texts in directions the biblical writers never intended them (more on this below).

“Regenerating Holy Spirit”
This phrase also has wide appeal within Christianity. Who could argue against the need for the Holy Spirit to regenerate the dead man and make him alive to salvation? NO ONE! But the problem comes in here in the order of events. For the Calvinist sold out to the doctrine of Total Depravity as described in their system, this regeneration MUST PRECEDE fai
th. In other words, a person must be brought to life in order to then find life. To be fair Calvinists will distinguish between regeneration (bringing to life) and justification (declaration of salvation) and so those who argue against the position are often misrepresenting the argument because they are treating the two as one. Kept separate, I can certainly see the logic in the argument; however, I don’t see anything in Scripture that would distinguish the two realities to the degree that Calvinism does – especially as it pertains to the matter of being made a new creature, alive, and one in Christ are almost always put into the singular work of justification.

Some concepts that I couldn’t ultimately answer:
In my journey out of Calvinism, there were certain issues I never could answer. Certain biblical concepts related especially to the doctrine of Total Depravity that didn’t measure up.

The Inclusion View of Adam’s Sin and Humanity’s Sin – As I looked at Church history and the theological arguments of proponents of this view, I never have been able to reconcile this belief with the person of Jesus. If we are going to argue that to be HUMAN is to be under the guilt of Adam’s Sin and to possess that sort of separation, then there is indeed a problem with a belief in the complete humanity of Jesus. Catholic theologians recognized this and developed the concept of the immaculate conception in which Mary’s birth was of such a nature that she was separated from the taint of Adam’s sin and could therefore bare the Christ child without passing on the guilt to him. Other’s have sought to find other means with which to deal with this matter, but from where I sit, all of them result either in a fictitious order of events not represented in Scripture or in some way rejecting some portion of Christ’s humanity.

Dead in Sin­ – The position of Calvinism that all that man is capable of is rebellion prior to regeneration does not seem to me to mesh with Scripture. First of all, I think it ignores the fundamental doctrine of Imago Dei – that is, that man was created in the Image of God. Though we would certainly have to admit that the Image has become distorted to a great degree, the image still persists according to Scripture (Gen 5) and man is still capable of choosing right and wrong (God’s instructions to Cain seem abundantly clear on this matter Gen 4). It seems to me that Paul’s discourse is indeed talking about a status, but without ever going to the full extent of the implications of that status that Calvinists generally appeal to.

What I believe On this Matter:
Man is totally helpless regarding salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that man won’t seek God (I think both history and Scripture bare out that he will), but that he will mess up that search and will be unable to reach any sense of truth apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. I believe that truth comes from the word of God – “faith comes from hearing.” I believe that God moves through the revelation His word to the heart of man; that man responds as the Holy Spirit works – partially under compulsion but also because the revelation relates to man that for which he has always been longing due to the Image of God present in his being; and that this revelation by the word of God, drawing by the Spirit of God, and compulsion by the Grace of God are the means by which salvation comes as a gift – man’s role is simply that of acceptance.

Two charges likely to be made:Semi-Pelagianism – no doubt my view will be characterized at least in the mind of some as Semi-Pelagianism. Such monikers were of the sort that I once cast towards individuals who held a position similar to mine. What is interesting is that such a title really has no basis in history. Someone could technically call someone a semi-Augustinian as much as they could a semi-Pelagian. But the latter carries with it the stigma of being associated with a branded heretic and so is a crafty tool for those who would seek to first alienate and then discredit their opposition. To be certain, the belief I have espoused is as distinguishable from that of Pelagius as it is from that of Augustine/Calvin. So such appellations mean little to me.

Works Salvation – because I suggest that there is a role to be played by humanity in salvation, Calvinists will typically say that I am therefore setting up a works salvation. But again, just because an assertion can be made, doesn’t mean it is necessarily accurate. My view of what God accomplishes in salvation is grand enough and big enough that I can’t imagine how my acceptance of it or participation in the relationship comes anywhere near “purchasing” even a smidgeon of it. In other words, as I see it, the grace of God and His work of salvation is so magnificent, awesome, and overwhelming, that my participation amounts to little more than an afterthought in the entire scheme of things. Salvation is from the Lord.

Such observations are what they are, my limited understanding of a work beyond my comprehension. To God alone be the Glory

© 2009 – 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.

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