On the Depravity of Man (Part 1): Introduction

by Jeremy Peters

Through the course of this study, we will be looking at the following content:

  • Why Does a Discussion on “Total Depravity” Matter?
  • What are the Pertinent Presuppositions?
  • What Have Been the Historical Positions?
    • Pelagian
    • Semi-Pelagian
    • Arminian and Wesleyan
    • Augustinian and Calvinist
  • What Are the Implications of Each Position?
  • Conclusion

Why Does a Discussion on “Total Depravity” Matter?

The doctrine of man (“anthropology”) sits within the complex interrelated system of Christian theology. Not one doctrine of theology can be developed, or understood, without effecting every other doctrine within that system at the same time. Then, in a narrower focus, there are specific facets within each doctrine which effect the entire doctrine…which again, effect the theological system as a whole. It’s like the many cuts on a diamond, creating faces that reflect light in its magnificent variation. To zoom in on one facet, and perhaps alter the angle of that one facet, is to alter the reflection of light extruding from the diamond as a whole. Therefore, one’s anthropology has a direct effect on his doctrine of God, Christology, eschatology, and so on. Most importantly, it has a great impact on understanding the gospel. How one views the nature, the state, and the purpose of man, immediately influences how one views salvation.

The degree of man’s corruption after the Fall, necessarily determines the degree of man’s desperation for salvation, which also identifies the degree of God’s intervention required to save sinners. Answering the question, “How depraved is man?” sets the direction for the other areas of Christian doctrine, especially concerning salvation. In this paper, the focus will be specifically on the extent of man’s fall into sin. This is basically an engagement with the historical debate over “total depravity,” which has been ongoing for millennia. There are some presuppositions that must be openly expressed in the first section. Then, the historical positions will be presented. And, the implications of each position will be considered and explained. Which will result in some concluding comments. The goal of this paper is not to exhaust the topic, nor to be exclusively scholarly. Rather, the true goal is to bring this topic to the level of understanding for the typical church member. To demonstrate the importance of considering such a doctrine, and even to point out some of the dangers found in three if the four views to be examined.

What Are the Pertinent Presuppositions?

As suggested in the introduction, there are some presuppositions that should be openly expressed. The goal here is not to lay out every underlying incentive, but to present those that are most pertinent to the discussion of man’s depravity, and are not inherently assumed by all alike. To begin with, terminology such as, “the Fall” or “fallen state,” can have different definitions to different people. Not everyone within evangelicalism believes in an historical Adam, or historical reading of Genesis 1–11.[1] But, the position taken here will assume it to be both literal and historical. The Fall was an actual event, when the first created humans, Adam and Eve, ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in disobedience to God’s command (Gen 3:1–7; cf. 2:16–17). They were made perfect, having the ability not to sin, but also to sin.[2] When they did sin, they immediately fell from their estate of innocence, and became fallen.[3] This event has been referred to as “the Fall,” ever since the early church fathers.[4]

Then, one of the first things evident from the introduction of this paper, is that the Fall had some impact on the rest of mankind. There is a consequence of “original sin.”[5] While there have been disagreements over this, it seems pretty clear that ever since, people have been tainted by sin even before their birth (Ps 51:5; Eph 2:1–3; Rom 5:12–21). Even in Genesis 3, there’s an expectation set that mankind will be greatly effected by Adam’s sin.[6] In further revelation, particularly in Romans 5:12–21, it’s explicit that man has received both a propensity to sin and the guilt of original sin.[7] There would be no need to discuss the extent of man’s fall, if there were no lingering effects inherited by every human being after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (Gen 3).[8] Therefore, it is presupposed in this paper, not argued for. The focus here is to what extent man has been affected by original sin.

In the next article, we will begin to look at the different historical positions regarding total depravity.

[1] For example, even within one evangelical institution there are varying views on this issue: “BioLogos has not taken an official stance on a historical Adam. We affirm common ancestry, and we are persuaded by the science that it is unlikely that there was a single couple from whom all humanity descended. But there are still several options available for dealing with Adam and the origin of sin. Some among us think there are legitimate biblical and theological reasons for believing there was a real Adam in history who served in a representative capacity for all human beings. Science has nothing to say about that; it’s just not a scientific issue. Others in our community think the relevant biblical texts are best understood as symbolic, and they can marshal evidence for why that is the best interpretation of Scripture regardless of what we learn from science. And still others here are undecided, preferring to let the discussion play out a bit longer.” Jim Stump, “NT Wright on the Historical Adam,” BioLogos, July 10, 2018, accessed October 11, 2019, https://biologos.org/articles/nt-wright-and-the-historical-adam.

[2]Posse non peccare et posse peccare,” stated by Augustine: “Man’s original capacities included both the power not to sin and the power to sin. In Adam’s original sin, man lost the power not to sin and retained the power to sin––which he continues to exercise. In the fulfillment of grace, man will have the power to sin taken away and receive the highest of all, the power not to be able to sin (non posse peccare). “Augustine’s Doctrine of the Bondage of the Will,” Monergism, accessed, October 11, 2019, monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/augustinewill.

[3] “Our first parents fell from their glorious state of innocence. ‘God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions’ (Eccl 7:29). Adam was perfectly holy, he had rectitude of mind, and liberty of will to good; but his head ached till he had invented his own and our death; he sought out many inventions.” Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, reprint (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 137.

[4] Even Clement of Alexandria, influenced by Greek philosophy, saw Genesis 3 historically as Adam’s “Fall.” But, he rejected it being universal, which pertains to the next discussion. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 4.25, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts et al., vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 439.

[5] “Original Sin,” Latin: peccatum originale. Theologians use this term in a generic sense, to refer to the event of Adam and Eve’s first sin in Genesis 3. But, this term has taken on a more technical sense, to refer to the sinful state and condition that has been passed down from Adam and Eve to every single person since. This is the base for man’s depravity and corruption by sin from birth. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 461.

[6] “Original Sin,” Latin: peccatum originale. Theologians use this term in a generic sense, to refer to the event of Adam and Eve’s first sin in Genesis 3. But, this term has taken on a more technical sense, to refer to the sinful state and condition that has been passed down from Adam and Eve to every single person since. This is the base for man’s depravity and corruption by sin from birth. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 461.

[7] The “propensity to sin,” is known as the, “sinful nature” or “fallen state,” inherited by man in the Fall. The understanding of original sin presupposed in this paper is the “Federal Headship” view, also known as “Representative Headship.” It was popularized by Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). The basic tenet of the position is that Adam was a representative for all of mankind and, when he sinned, his sin was imputed/credited to all of mankind. This is argued from a few texts, like Joshua 7 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. But the primary text for this view is Romans 5:12–21, in which the imputation of Adam’s sin to all humanity is set in parallelism with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to many. There are some difficulties to consider, such as the responsibility for each person’s sins being placed solely on one’s self, which is based on texts like Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20. Therefore, how is it right for God to impute the guilt of Adam’s sin upon others. Still an exegetical look at Romans 5 suggests such an imputation. If you remove the right of imputation from Adam, you remove the right of imputation from Christ. This demonstrates the special role, of representation, that Adam played universally for mankind and that Christ later played for the redeemed. Other views include: unexplained solidarity, bad example, inherited sinful nature, and realism. See, MacArthur, Biblical Doctrine, 461–66.

[8] But, there are some theologians who would argue that this is a wrong place to start. Pelagius, the primary representative, denied that there is any relationship between Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and people today. The semi-Pelagians moved a little further, recognizing that there is some sort of relationship, including corruption by sin. The most concrete connection was made by Augustine and John Calvin, who saw an inheritance of both corruption and guilt by all of mankind at the Fall. Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 342.


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