Total depravity

From Academic Kids

Total depravity is a theological doctrine primarily associated with Calvinism, which understands the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. According to the view, people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, 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 person's own imagination, passions, and will.

Total depravity does not mean that people are as bad as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which men intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no refinement of natural capacities that can finally correct this condition. In the Calvinist system, the logical corollary is that salvation is only possible because of the grace and mercy of God, and is not even partially owing to human initiative, or even man's cooperation (sola gratia).

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.

This understanding of human depravity is comparable in almost every respect to Martin Luther's view of man's state after the Fall. Lutheranism and Calvinism both appeal to Augustine of Hippo for their understanding of original sin. But they do incorporate the doctrine very differently, in their respective theological systems.

Objections to the doctrine

There are many Christian groups — Catholics and Protestants, even some Lutherans and in the Reformed churches — that disagree with this interpretation of both the Bible and of Augustine. Most prominently, the doctrine is one of the five points of disagreement raised by the Arminian Remonstrants in the Quinquarticular Controversy. Augustine's understanding of human depravity was not shared by his contemporaries in the Greek-speaking part of the church and is still not shared in Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is not to say that only Lutherans, or especially Calvinists, believe in human depravity. John Wesley for example, as the best known proponent of Arminianism, vigorously affirmed the notion that human nature is depraved to such an extent that it is rendered completely incapable of moving toward God or salvation, apart from the Prevenient Grace of God. However, God is fair, and grants this grace fairly to all persons, through which everyone is thus fully capable before it is too late — in spite of their depravity — to respond to the offer of salvation in Christ. Therefore, it is after all an issue of subjective receptivity to the gospel, and cooperation with grace on the part of the believer, that decides the difference between one person and another. In this respect, Arminians of Wesley's stripe do not affirm total depravity in its earlier sense; although it must be granted that their difference with it is subtle. It should rather be compared to the extreme distrust of human nature that characterized the Desert Fathers, whom Wesley admired so well. Similarly, Methodism is synergy between the willing believer and the willing Savior, God: a person must choose to cooperate in working toward holiness, or the grace of God is frustrated. In contrast, the idea that God can be frustrated leaves a believer in total depravity without any hope at all.

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