Total depravity

Total depravity (also called total inability and total corruption) is a theological doctrine that derives from the Augustinian doctrine of original sin and is advocated in many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, including those of Lutheranism,1, Anglicanism and Methodism,2, and especially Calvinism.3 The doctrine interprets the Bible as teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin and, apart from the grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to accept salvation as it is freely offered.


* 1 Summary of the doctrine
o 1.1 Biblical evidence for the doctrine
* 2 Objections to the doctrine
* 3 See also
* 4 Footnotes
* 5 External links

Summary of the doctrine

The doctrine of total inability teaches that people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, as he requires, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are destructive to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passions, and will.

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as bad as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which a person may intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no mere refinement of natural capacities that can correct this condition. Although total depravity is easily confused with philosophical cynicism, the doctrine teaches optimism concerning God’s love for what he has made and God’s ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, it is argued that God overcomes man’s inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him, though the precise means of this overcoming varies between the theological systems.

Biblical evidence for the doctrine

A number of passages are put forth to support the doctrine, including (quotations are from the ESV except where noted):

* Genesis 6:5: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
* Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV): “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
* John 6:44a: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
* Romans 3:10-11: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
* Romans 8:7-9: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
* Ephesians 2:3b: “[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
* 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Objections to the doctrine

There are many Christian groups that disagree with this interpretation of the Bible and of Augustine.

Writing against the monk Pelagius, who argued that man’s nature was unaffected by the Fall and that he was free to follow after God apart from divine intervention, Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin and, Protestants contend, the doctrine of total inability. Augustine’s views prevailed in the controversy, and Pelagius’ teaching was condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus (431) and again in the moderated form known as semi-Pelagianism at the second Council of Orange (529). Augustine’s idea of “original” (or inherited) guilt was not shared by all of his contemporaries in the Greek-speaking part of the church and is still not shared in Eastern Orthodoxy. Also, some modern day Protestants who generally accept the teaching of the early ecumenical councils (for instance, followers of Charles Finney) nevertheless align themselves more with Pelagius than with Augustine regarding man’s fallen nature.

Catholicism registers a complaint against the Protestant interpretation of Augustine and judgements of the Council of Orange4, and they claim that they alone have been faithful to the principles taught by Augustine against the Pelagians and Semipelagians, though they freely admit to some “gradual mitigation”5 of the force of his teaching. Their doctrine, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.”6 At the Council of Trent they condemn “any one [who] saith, that, since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with only a name.”7 Thus, in the Catholic view, man is not totally unable to follow God apart from divine influence. The Jansenist movement within Catholicism held a very similar interpretation of Augustine compared to the Protestants, and the Jansenist view man’s inability, the necessity and efficacy of divine grace, and election was quite close to that of Calvinism but was condemned as heretical by the Church.

The doctrine of total depravity is also one of the five points of disagreement raised by the Arminian Remonstrants in the Quinquarticular Controversy against the Reformed churches. The Arminian doctrine was condemned at the Synod of Dordrecht, but today it can be found in many evangelical churches and denominations. John Wesley, often identified as an Arminian, actually departs from the Remonstrants on this one point and advocates a strong doctrine of inability.8

Some Protestants oppose the doctrine because they believe it implicitly rejects either God’s love or omnipotence. That is, it is posited that if God is loving and omnipotent, then either he would not have allowed mankind to become totally corrupt or he would have immediately restored humanity to its original state. Thus, the argument goes, if the doctrine of total inability is correct, God must either be not loving or not omnipotent. Advocates of total depravity offer a variety of responses to this line of argumentation. Wesleyans suggest that God endowed man with the free will that allowed humanity to become depraved and he also provided a means of escape from the depravity. Calvinists note that the argument assumes that either God’s love is necessarily incompatible with corruption or that God is constrained to follow the path that some men see as best, whereas they believe God’s plans are not fully known to man and God’s reasons are his own and not for man to question (compare Romans 9:18-24).

See also

* Five points of Calvinism
* Free will
* Original sin
* Prevenient grace

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