Reforming Calvinism, pt. 4: Total Depravity

After having laid the necessary foundation in previous parts of the series Reforming Calvinism, I now want to begin to recast the actual five points of TULIP in an Evangelical Calvinist light. In this post I will consider the first of these points, typically designated as “Total depravity”. Before I do, however, I need to preface what follows with two introductory remarks.

Totaly-Depravity-AVATARFirst, as with subsequent posts in this series, I will include a brief description of how each point is classically construed for the sake of clarifying the position that I am seeking to revise. I will borrow these descriptions from R.C. Sproul who has written about them over at the Ligonier blog, for I find Sproul to be clear and concise, not to mention the fact that he is one of the foremost exponents of Reformed theology today.

Second, it is important to remember that the five points were not originally intended to be a comprehensive explication of what ‘Calvinism’ or Reformed theology as such entailed. Rather they are the product of the seventeenth-century controversy in which the Synod of Dort sought to defend in particular these five issues against the Arminian Remonstrants. It must be said, therefore, that ‘Total depravity’ does not provide an ideal starting point for constructing any theological system. This is why I endeavored in the previous three posts to fill in some of the missing preparatory material. Nevertheless, this is where TULIP usually starts, and so it is where I will begin myself. So without further delay, here is an excerpt from what Sproul has written about ‘Total depravity’ classically conceived:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity…It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

There is much to commend in this definition. As an Evangelical Calvinist, I find myself to be more or less in general agreement with the view articulated here. Total depravity, as I understand it, does not mean that people are as evil as they possibly can be. It means that all human beings post lapsus – after the fall narrated in Genesis 3 – have been corrupted by sin in every facet of their being and existence. Nothing about humanity remains untouched by the destructive effects of sin. We are dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen. 3:19). The radical consequences of sin do not involve a subordination of the human intellect (somewhat less affected) to the passions, neither do they consist in a wounding of nature that can simply be healed and perfected by grace (contra Thomist/Roman Catholic thought). Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 that we were dead in trespasses and sins. We are not imperfect people needing assistance or moral improvement. We are dead people in need of resurrection. This is important, for how we diagnose humanity’s fundamental problem will largely determine how we will define the necessary solution.

I do not, however, want to leave this exactly as it stands. I am attempting, after all, to reform all five points of Calvinism. There are, in fact, two modifications that I would like to propose that may seem to be somewhat inconsequential, but as we will see moving forward in this series, they will have significant ramifications, especially for how I will reconstruct limited atonement. I will provide the first of these modifications here but will postpone the second to the next post for the sake of space.

The first modification has to do with the means by which we arrive at our understanding of total depravity. I argued in previous posts that our knowledge of who God is and who we are as human beings made in his image must be grounded primarily in who Jesus Christ is. Jesus is the revelation of who God is antecedently and eternally in himself, but he is also the revelation of who human beings were originally created to be as well as who they will ultimately be in the consummation of redemption (1 John 3:2). This means that our knowledge of who we are as humans must derive from the knowledge of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said, we can only truly find ourselves when we lose ourselves in him (Matt. 16:25). He is the true imago Dei and as such, he is the brilliant light that reveals how great is the darkness that presently pervades us down to the roots of our being. As John 3:19-20 states: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed”. In other words, those who live in utter darkness and in whom darkness utterly lives do not realize the depth of that darkness until they are confronted with the resplendence of the light that shines in the face of Christ.

Why is this way of recasting the doctrine of total depravity so important? Can we not simply read off the pages of Scripture that our condition is such? Karl Barth clearly explains the reason when he writes:

[O]nly when we know Jesus Christ do we really know that man is the man of sin, and what sin is, and what it means for man…It is irrelevant and superfluous to seek for a normative concept by which to measure sin, to construct such a concept from biblical or extra-biblical materials, to learn about it either openly or secretly in our own self-communing. More than that, it is misleading and futile to do so. It is indeed a form of sin (perhaps the main form). Why? Not because we can find and produce another and better method, the christological, but because Jesus Christ Himself is present, living and speaking and attesting and convincing; because in this matter we need not and cannot and should not speak to ourselves; because the man of sin and his existence and nature, his why and whence and whither, are all set before us in Jesus Christ, are all spoken to us directly and clearly and incontrovertibly: Thou art the man! This is what thou doest! This is what thou art! This is the result!

We hear Him and we hear this verdict. We see Him, and in this mirror we see ourselves, ourselves as those who commit sin and are sinners. We are here inescapably accused and irrevocably condemned. There is nothing that we can bring in our favour. We have to acknowledge that we are wholly unrighteous. We have to see that we not only do unrighteously and are in unrighteousness, but that we are unrighteous. We find our competence to work out the standard by which to measure ourselves denied. We are no longer permitted to parley and come to terms with ourselves about ourselves. We have simply no room or breath for fine distinctions between evil deed and evil being, proper and improper sinfulness, the feeling of guilt and all the rest, let alone for the even finer syntheses between creatureliness and sin on the one side and sin and redemption on the other. We are arrested, marched away and locked up. There can be no pardon attained by our own devices, no explanation and interpretation of sin and the man of sin, when we are confronted by Jesus Christ and hear the Word spoken in His existence. We are simply there as this man…There can be no question of any thought of redemption which we can manipulate, any capacity for redemption which we can put into effect. There is no stay or comfort in the idea of a freedom and capacity (which are finally and effectively ours) to look at ourselves as the man of sin from without, to take ourselves by the hand and to re-interpret and change ourselves. Knowledge of sin at this point consists in the knowledge: I am this man. To this extent it is the knowledge of real sin. [1]

In short, Barth says that only in Christ can we truly understand the depths of our depravity, for all other sources of knowledge will ultimately concede us a measure of wiggle room for some form of denial or self-justification. Only in Christ can we see our hopeless condition for what it truly is, and only in this way can truly begin to appreciate the utter graciousness of his grace.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark, pp.389-390