If you haven’t had the chance yet, I’d recommend catching up on the earlier posts in this series before reading this one.
We are now on the final, and most fundamental point in the five-point doctrine of Calvinism: Total Depravity. This is the belief that humanity is entirely evil, that there is nothing within us that is capable of choosing goodness or God. Hence why the rest of Calvinist theology logically follows. As I’ve mentioned before, if humans are utterly incapable of choosing God—whether because we lack genuine free will and so can’t, or because we are just so wicked that we never would—then for anyone to be saved, God must be the only one doing anything.
Often you will hear Calvinists say something to the effect of, “G. K. Chesterton once said that the doctrine of Total Depravity is the only doctrine that can be proven empirically.” What they are probably thinking of is this quote attributed to British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge:
“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”1
Which is apparently being conflated with this quote, which actually is from Chesterton:
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”2
Notice that Chesterton is not talking about the doctrine of Total Depravity, but rather original sin, which is a separate and different doctrine unto itself. Moreover, Muggeridge’s quote doesn’t seem to be about Total Depravity either, at least not the “Total” part.
But maybe we’re not defining Total Depravity correctly. Maybe what Calvinism means by Total Depravity is not that each human is completely depraved through and through, but simply that all humans are at least a little depraved. And if that’s what we’re talking about, well okay then. I can get behind that. As the great theologian Hannah Montana once said, nobody’s perfect. I think even a lot of Calvinists feel uneasy with the idea that humans are completely and absolutely corrupt, and so want to make the move toward this softer view on the doctrine of Total Depravity.
But is that what we’re talking about? For a couple reasons, I don’t think so.
Two Types of “Total”
First, this does not seem to be the sort of thing that John Calvin is talking about. In his most important work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes:
…our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence have used an expression not improper, if it were only added, which is far from being conceded by most persons, that everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence. (Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8)3
Calvin is clearly not saying simply that nobody is perfect. Likewise, he is not merely saying that human actions are corrupt. His claim is much more ontological than that. In Calvin’s view, humans are depraved to our core, our very nature is bereft of goodness. Everything about us, even our bodies and our very souls, are polluted and consumed by the most carnal and base desires. In short, we ourselves are nothing but vulgar cravings.
Calvinist theologian John Piper affirms this view of Total Depravity when he writes:
In summary, total depravity means that apart from any enabling grace from God, our hardness and rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.
Get that? Everything we do is sin. There is no goodness in us at all, not when we show compassion on others, not when we act as agents of healing toward others, not even when we love our children. All of those things are deluged in sin according to the doctrine of Total Depravity.
Second, I don’t think Total Depravity can be taken to simply mean that nobody is perfect, since that definition doesn’t necessitate the other four subsequent points in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym. Remember, each point of Calvinism logically builds on the previous one. The doctrine of Unconditional Election teaches that God chooses His elect based on absolutely no criteria whatsoever, which must be the case if (and only if) the prior point (Total Depravity) is true, that there is not any goodness within humans for God to base such an election on.
If we take a soft approach to the doctrine of Total Depravity—saying not that people are completely wicked, but simply that all people are at least somewhat wicked—then we can simply forego the rest of Calvinism… which I’m personally okay with. But then we’re not really talking about Calvinism, are we?
But what about the Bible?
But doesn’t the Bible teach the doctrine of Total Depravity? Isn’t the biblical portrait of humanity one of utter corruption and sinfulness?
To hear some Calvinists talk, you’d think that the doctrine of Total Depravity (or Calvinism as a whole) was the clear and obvious perspective presented in the Bible, and that opponents of this theology really have to do some mental and hermeneutical gymnastics to get around it. The funny thing is most Christians would be Calvinists then, and yet that’s simply not the case. In truth, the largest denominational subset of Christians across the globe are clearly Roman Catholic (50.1%), who are very much not Calvinists, and who together with the Eastern Orthodox Church (11.9%) make up almost two-thirds of Christians worldwide, with Protestants (37.7%), of which Calvinists are only a further subset, filling in most of the rest.4 Similarly, most Calvinists I have met seem to forget (or perhaps never realized) that their theology is a relatively recent development in the Christian tradition (c. 1536). I mean, sure Augustine had his doctrine of original sin back in the fourth century, but that’s not at all the same thing as Total Depravity.
Anyhow, for the sake of both space and simplicity, let’s take the time to examine three of the most foundational passages used for the doctrine of Total Depravity. As we do, please keep in mind that I am not arguing against general human sinfulness, but merely the Calvinist teaching that humans are altogether entirely sinful.
The first passage comes to us from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. (Rom 3:10-11)
I am beginning with this bit of Scripture because, when talking with my Calvinist friends, it seems to be the go-to passage for defending Total Depravity. I mean, Paul seems pretty absolute here, right? And were these words original to Paul and his letter, we might be within reason to read them as such. But we have to remember that Paul is quoting the Old Testament here. More specifically, Paul is quoting a lyric that appears in two of David’s songs (Pss 14:1-3; 53:1-3). Right off the bat, we should be alert to the fact that we are reading poetry, which is, by its very nature, not meant to be taken too literally. Rather, poetry is often illustrative, metaphorical, and hyperbolic. Nobody thinks Justin Timberlake actually intends any of his ex-lovers to cry him a literal river, so why would we take David’s lyrics so literally?
Moreover, even though Psalm 14 says, “There is no one who does good,” in verses one and three, verse five says that the wicked “are in great dread, for God is with the righteous generation.” Wait a minute. If none are righteous, then how can God be with an entire generation of righteous people? If you read either of these songs in their entirety, you’ll see that the psalmist is not saying that all human beings in the world are unrighteous, much less that they are unrighteous to their core; rather, that the rest of humanity is indicted for their unrighteousness because they are set in opposition to Israel and their God, both of which are cast by the psalmist as being righteous.
Along those lines, a literal reading of Romans 3:10-11 quickly runs up against all the times Scripture explicitly says that someone is righteous (Gen 6:9; Deut 18:13; Job 1:1; Ps 37:39). On top of all this, Paul is not speaking about the righteousness of individuals so much as people in general. To be precise, Paul is addressing gentiles and Jews as distinct people groups within the early church, highlighting that neither side has the moral high ground over and against the other. Much like the psalmist from whom he is quoting, Paul is speaking corporately about the children of Israel and their neighbors. All of this combines to show us that taking Romans 3:10-11 as a prooftext for Total Depravity fails to take into full consideration the single most important principle in biblical interpretation: context.
The second passage also comes to us from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
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. (Rom 8:7-9)
This one honestly doesn’t seem that hard to see past when it comes to the doctrine of Total Depravity, largely because the elements that make it not so Total Depravity-ish are in the quote itself. First of all, being hostile to God, not submitting to His law, and incapable of pleasing Him are descriptions of “the mind that is set on the flesh.” But nowhere does it say in either this passage or its context that everyone’s mind is always set on the flesh.
Second of all, a significant portion of whether or not we can interpret this passage to support Calvinism in general, and Total Depravity in particular, depends on what we think it means to belong to Christ. If we assume a priori that belonging to Christ means that God chose us before the creation of the world to be His possessions, then I suppose we could accept the Calvinist interpretation. But that would be begging the question. What’s more, language about being of Christ or belonging to Christ is simply a way of talking about those who follow Christ’s teachings and display his character. This would be like if I said, “I am of the opinion that…,” or “I belong to the Jedi order now,” or “he’s a regular Freddie Wilson, that one.” None of these phrases have anything to do with being unilaterally chosen, and everything to do with fitting into a certain mold. In fact, we see Paul use this same sort of language in another letter where it most definitely cannot mean being unilaterally chosen (1 Cor 1:11-12; 3:4). But I digress.
The third passage we’ll examine comes from (drum roll, please)… a letter that Paul wrote. In his letter to the Ephesian church, he writes:
[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph 2:3b)
There are tomes of scholarship to be written (many of which have been written) on the topic of God’s wrath. I happen to think that we take that metaphor too literally (I’m starting to see a trend here) when we imagine it as God getting angry and smiting people. Moreover, the passage doesn’t necessarily say that the wrath is God’s. In fact, given the context of this verse—wherein Paul reminds his readers of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness (1:19-23) which puts an end to the division between Jews and gentiles (2:11-22)—it seems reasonable to conclude that the wrath is that of demonic forces, or at the very least of warring human factions.
But, regardless of how we understand the wrath part, I think we can all agree that there is nothing in this passage that necessitates a belief in Total Depravity. The passage says that Christians, along with the rest of humanity, prior to the saving work of Christ were children of wrath “by nature.” Now that word “nature” in Greek (physis) can be taken a couple of different ways. On the one hand, it can mean something ontological, as in an olive tree by its nature produces olives (Rom 11:17-24, esp. vv 21, 24); on the other hand, it can mean something that is common or customary, as in women having long hair (1 Cor 11:14). Again, there is a library of literature on the subject, which I encourage you to explore. But, for the sake of the topic at hand, let’s go ahead and agree with Paul that sinfulness, particularly wrathful tribalism, is part and parcel to the universal human experience, while having the wherewithal to recognize that this doesn’t mean each and every human being is ontologically degenerate.
In addition to these and similar passages, which certainly expound humanity’s sinfulness (though not Total Depravity), we find scattered throughout the Bible themes of human goodness and our inherent value. In one of David’s own songs, we writes:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty! (Ps 8:3-5)
Even if David is somewhat skeptical about the goodness of humanity, he at least recognized that God holds humans in high esteem. Moreover, in the first creation story in Genesis 1, we read that “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). Humanity is unique in all of creation as the image-bearers of God. It’s built into us. Now, scholars and theologians are not in total agreement on what exactly that means, but most would probably agree that even in the fall (Gen 3) humanity did not entirely lose its image-bearing status. You would be hard pressed to find a biblical scholar or theologian who can make that argument with any kind of force or cogency. So unless God’s image itself can fall under the umbrella of Total Depravity, we have good grounds for concluding that humanity’s depravity is not total.
Before we end the explicitly Bible-oriented portion of this post, I’ll just say a quick word about all the passages that talk about us being “dead in our transgressions” (Eph 2:1, 5; Col 2:13). Often I will hear Calvinists argue that being dead in our sins means that we were incapable of doing any good (including choosing Christ), since being dead means that you are a corpse and corpses can’t do any good. But, of course, corpses can’t do any evil either. So that whole line of reasoning falls on the end of its own sword, which should help us see that we might be taking Paul’s metaphorical language here a bit too literally.
Don’t be a hater
Ultimately, the underlying problem of Total Depravity, and by extension the rest of the Calvinist doctrines, is that it is fundamentally misanthropic. Misanthropy, in case that word is new to you, simply means a strong disdain or hatred for humankind. And this is the fatal flaw, the Achilles heel of Calvinism—its foundational doctrine is misanthropy.
This is what blogger and author Rachel Held Evans calls pond-scum theology:
At the heart of pond-scum theology is the premise that human beings have no intrinsic value or claim to salvation because their sin nature makes them so thoroughly disgusting and offensive to God that he is under no obligation to pay them any mind. It’s the view that inspired Jonathan Edwards’ famed “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, in which Edwards told his trembling congregation, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”5
It sounds crazy, right? I mean, surely no Christian pastor would ever say such things. And yet, Edwards’ sermon is engraved in the annals of American religious literature. Okay, you’re probably thinking, But that was an old timey puritan preacher. Pastors today know better than to call people scum. And I thought so too, I really did. Interestingly enough, not long after reading Evans’ book, I was sitting in a Calvinist church listening to the sermon when the preacher said, quite emphatically, “We are scum! We are the scum of the scum that eats the scum of the earth!” There is even a church in my own state of Colorado called, I kid you not, Scum of the Earth Church.
If you’ve ever heard former mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll preach on the wrath of God, you know what I’m talking about. Especially this little gem of a sermon clip, wherein Driscoll proclaims, “Some of you, God hates you… He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone else. He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”
I don’t know if you could find a more misanthropic theology, and yet this is the foundational principle of Calvinism. Remember, Calvin’s own words, “man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence.” This is supposed to be God’s perspective, that humanity is nothing but loathsome slime on the bottom of His shoe.
Far from being a harmless theology expressed only in abstract terms, Calvinism leads one to have a misanthropic view of one’s fellow humans. This comes across in the writings of John Calvin himself. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes regarding the fact that Jesus appeared first to women rather than men:
I consider this was done by way of reproach, because they [the men] had been so tardy and sluggish to believe. And indeed, they deserve not only to have women for their teachers, but even oxen and asses… Yet it pleased the Lord, by means of those weak and contemptible vessels, to give display of his power.6
Weak and contemptible vessels, he calls the women at the tomb, comparable to oxen and asses. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin writes, “all women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior in consequence to the superiority of the male sex.”7 There is plenty of patriarchal chauvinism and misogyny in Calvin’s words, to be sure. But, as stark and heinous as it seems to the sensibilities of common decency, such language is fitting with, and a natural outflowing of Calvin’s misanthropic view of humanity in general, of which women are (in his view) a menial portion.
Even babies aren’t safe from Calvin’s rampant hatred toward humans. Accordingly, he writes of reprobate infants:
For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. No, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God. (Institutes, 2.1.8)8
The whole nature of these babies, too young to have committed any sins of their own, is odious and abominable to God? It would have been bad enough if Calvin’s misanthropy had remained confined within the pages of his writings, but they couldn’t stay there. Such violence of the heart eventually becomes manifested in action. Just ask Michael Servetus, the Spanish scientist and theologian who was executed by Calvin, largely for having had the spine to point out the flaws in his theology. Even worse, Calvin’s compulsion to have Servetus killed was a premeditated act, something he admitted to have planned in advance.
In a letter to a friend, Calvin wrote:
Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.9
Servetus was burnt at the stake on October 27, 1553. Despite having called for his death, Calvin did have the decency to unsuccessfully request that he be beheaded. So… there’s that (for what it’s worth).
There you have it. Calvinism, at its very core, is built on a doctrine of hatred and contempt for people. It is evident in Calvin’s own writings, it is repeated throughout the claims of his followers, and it manifests itself in violence.
In the next post, I’ll wrap up this series with some concluding thoughts. And if you aren’t yet convinced of the practical perils of Calvinism… well, just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins. Just you wait.
1: One of the frustrating things about this quote is that, although it is quoted in several books, nobody seems to want to give a citation for it. It seems to be traceable back to Ravi Zacharias (who also doesn't give a citation) in either of the following: Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002); Ravi Zacharias The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 68.
2: Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009), 12.
3: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen (Presbyterian Board of Christian education, 1936), emphasis mine.
4: "Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population," Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life, last modified December 19, 2011, accessed April 15, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/.
5: Rachel Held Evans, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions (Zondervan, 2014), 116; Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Wikisource, the Free Library, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Sinners_in_the_Hands_of_an_Angry_God (accessed September 2, 2009).
6: John Calvin, commentary on the Gospel of John from Calvin's Commentaries (Baker Books, 1974).
7: Calvin, commentary on 1 Corinthians from Calvin's Commentaries.
8: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 153.
9: Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: The Reformation (The Book Service Ltd, 1957), 481.