Total depravity

From New World Encyclopedia
A portrait of John Calvin from the University Library of Geneva. Calvin was a proponent of the Protestant Reformation's doctrine of "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] Arminianism, and Calvinism.[3] It is the 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 efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to accept salvation as it is freely offered.

The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, as God requires, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Therefore, in Reformed Theology, God must predestine individuals into salvation since man is incapable of choosing God.[4]

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil 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. Thus, even acts of generosity and altruism are in fact egoist acts in disguise.

Nonetheless, 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, 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. The differences between the solutions to the problem of total depravity revolve around the relation between divine grace and human free will–namely, whether it is efficacious grace that human free will cannot resist, as in Augustinism, or sufficient or prevenient grace enabling the human will to choose to follow God, as in Molinism and Arminianism.

Purported Biblical support for the doctrine

A number of passages are put forth to support the doctrine:

  • 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."[5] Psalms 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
  • Ecclesiastes 7:20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3: "This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead."
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"
  • 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."
  • Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
  • John 3:19: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil."
  • John 6:44: "[Jesus said,] 'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.'"
  • John 6:64-65: "[Jesus said,] 'But there are some of you who do not believe.' (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, 'This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.'"
  • John 8:34: "Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'"
  • Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God."
  • Romans 8:7-8: "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."
  • 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."
  • Ephesians 2:1-3: "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."
  • Titus 3:3: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another."

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 condemned 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. Moreover, 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 Orange,[6] 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"[7] 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."[8] 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."[9] 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 of man's inability, the necessity and efficacy of divine grace ("efficacious grace"), and election was quite close to that of Augustinism but was condemned as heretical by the Church.

The doctrine of total depravity was affirmed by the Five articles of Remonstrance, Jacobus Arminius, and John Wesley, who strongly identified with Arminius through publication of his periodical The Arminian, which advocated a strong doctrine of inability.[10] The term Arminianism has come to include those who hold the Semipelagian doctrine of limited depravity, which allows for an "island of righteousness" in human hearts that is uncorrupted by sin and able to accept God's offer of salvation without a special dispensation of grace. Although Arminius and Wesley both vehemently rejected this view, it has sometimes inaccurately been lumped together with theirs (particularly by Calvinists) because of other similarities in their respective systems such as conditional election, unlimited atonement, and prevenient grace.

Some oppose the doctrine because they believe it implicitly rejects either God's love or omnipotence arguing that 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 people 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 Rom. 9:18-24; Job 38:1-42:6). Some particularly dislike the Calvinist response because it leaves the matter of God's motives and means largely unresolved, but the Calvinist sees it merely as following Calvin's famous dictum that "whenever the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, [the student of the Bible] also desists from inquiry."[11]


  1. The Book of Concord, "The Thorough Declaration of the Formula of Concord," chapter II, sections 11 and 12; The Augsburg Confession, Article 2 Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  2. See the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, Articles 9 and 10, and the Methodist Articles of Religion, Article 7. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  3. Canons of Dordrecht, "The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine"; Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 6; Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 25; Heidelberg Catechism, question 8 Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  4. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 9.3 Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  5. Quotations are from the ESV except where noted.
  6. Judgements of the Council of Orange Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  7. "Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo" from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  8. Item 407 in section Emphasis added. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  9. Council of Trent, Session 6, canon 5 Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  10. Sermon 44, "Original Sin"; compare verse 4 of Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be".
  11. Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.21.3 Retrieved June 24, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Clymer, R. Swinburne. 2006. Why Total Depravity Comes Only from Living a Depraved Life. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1428679108
  • Hezekiam, Benjamin. 2003. Total Depravity and Free Will. King & Associates. ISBN 978-0974173009
  • Hubbard, Elbert. 2006. Total Depravity. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1428695566
  • Reisinger, John G. 2000. Total Depravity. New Covenant Media. ISBN 978-1928965053

External links

All links retrieved May 1, 2023.


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