Friday, November 2, 2012

Why I Am Not a Calvanist: Some Thoughts on Total Depravity


This if the first of several posts that I intend to write regarding the five points of Calvinism (TULIP). This is within a larger series that I am working on explaining why I am not yet a Calvinist and hopefully doing something to encourage those who are of a similar mind but might feel intimidated by the tact of their reformed acquaintances. A greater explanation of my motivations can be read in the introduction here. I am not going to attempt to prove a definite alternative view to Total Depravity. Calvinism is a positive assertion, and as such the burden of proof is on the Calvinists. I am only explaining why I have yet to be convinced by their arguments.

Total Depravity puts the "T" in TULIP. It is, by broad opinion, the foundational point of the five. Calvinism is an internally consistent system and if you agree with the first of the five points, as it is distinctly articulated in Calvinist theology, you arguably have to then hold to the other four points (and also conclusions beyond those) if you are to be logically consistent. You probably didn't gasp at that last sentence, but that is potentially a very controversial statement itself since many a sincere and devoted Calvinist claims to hold to only four (or less) of the five points. Usually the one that drops out is Limited Atonement, but I'll address that in due time.

Now I mean no offense by alluding to a logical inconsistency on the part of "4-point" Calvinists; perhaps my perception of their insufficiency is our first evidence of human depravity, whether it is on their part or on mine. My previous comment about the logical necessity of taking all 5 points together would be in total agreement with someone like 7-pointer John Piper. However, that's pretty much the only place him and I might agree as far as Calvinism is concerned--not that he would lose any sleep over the fact.

So Calvinism is internally consistent and TD is the first premise in the line of reasoning. Notice I did not say, though, that Calvinism is consistent with scripture or that it is philosophically necessary. I only mean to point out that, within itself and as general theology, Calvinism is not self-contradicting and one point necessarily flows from the other.

Now it is common to come across broad definitions of TD with which it is hard for anyone to disagree. Definitions like, "Sin affects every part of us" or, "Nobody is capable of saving themselves" are surface-level concepts that anyone with moderately conservative theology is going to get behind. This is why it is important to note what parts of Calvinist doctrine are truly distinctive--the points of each idea that are held only by Calvinists. This is something I have found many people to be confused about. They might think, in this instance, that to deny the Calvinist articulation of TD is to say that we can in fact save ourselves or that we aren't all hopelessly sinful from the start. While it is true that to believe the latter would be to reject TD, many Christians who reject TD do not also reject those other things. This is a problem of not being able to distinguish where one's own theological positions end and where commonality with others begins. It is a problem of being ignorant to any understanding other than your own. It is not by any means a problem unique to Calvinists, but wherever it is found it is a wholly uncharitable and counterproductive deficiency. I sincerely hope that it is not presently to be found in this very argument.

The main part of the Calvinist expression of TD that is particularly distinct is the idea that a person is incapable of choosing or even desiring anything to do with God unless God first "enables" them to do so. The term "enable" here comes with the caveat that, once such an occasion happens, a person cannot choose other than to seek for God--but that is getting ahead of myself. In regard to TD this is the main point where I am unconvinced.

The passage that I have heard most appealed to in defense of TD is Rom 3.10-18. Most other passages used to defend TD are supplementary to this. That is, they do not themselves explicitly outline the doctrine of TD, but can be seen as supporting it once such a doctrine is established. It is from this passage that many get the idea that no person since the fall has been capable of even desiring to make a move toward God. Therefore, the passage in question is the crux of the teaching. Ascertaining the meaning of this passage should go a long way to upholding or deflating TD.

Now to understand what Paul is getting at in Romans 3, we need to first try and understand something about the passages Paul quotes in verses 10 through 18. There are some common themes in almost all of these. First, each one contrasts the wicked with the righteous--the unjust with the just. Second, they are mostly occasional—within a context of a specific people and time. This is expressly clear with the Isaiah and Jeremiah passages. The psalms that are referenced are also quite likely in the context of David's early plight with Saul or his later one with Absalom, and the first (Psalm 14 and 53; ESV) is perhaps as specific as the incident with Nabal (1 Sam 25).

This means that the verses referenced did not originally intend to convey anything about the absolute condition of all mankind for all time since they contrasted the then present wicked with the then present righteous within the context of history. That is not to say that all people are not in some sense wicked, since we are mortally affected by Adam’s transgression and all men sin (Rom. 5.12; 1 John 1.8), but only that a slightly different sort of subject is in few with these passages. However, for the current subject, this only really matters with one part of one of the references: “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3.11). This is the crux of the crux. If this means that everyone for all time is incapable of seeking or desiring God in any sense, then the Calvinist version of TD holds up. However, as discussed in the previous paragraph, that conclusion is not supported by the context.

The “no one seeks for God” bit is quoted from Psalm 14 (and Psalm 53, they are basically identical passages). As I mentioned already, this psalm might be as specific as to refer to David’s interaction with Nabal (Nabal literally means “fool” and “the fool” is identified as the subject in the first verse of the psalm). When you read this passage, it is quickly apparent that David could not be making a statement about all people at all times. Verses 2 and 3, from which Paul quotes in Romans 3, must be understood hyperbolically because the rest of the psalm does not allow for an absolute, systematic rendering. Verse 4 presents a clear juxtaposition between the “evil doers” who “do not call upon the Lord” and “my people”. Verse 5 then introduces the “generation of the righteous” which is likely meant to be connected to the “my people” of the previous verse. This makes it almost impossible to read the “children of man” who don’t “seek after God” as referring to all men everywhere for all time since even within the scope of this passage there is a “generation of the righteous” who are being exploited by those “evildoers”.
So then is Paul using something that is not making a point about TD to yet make a point about TD? No, he’s actually in the middle of an entirely different conversation. The verse introducing the section in question asks, “What then? Are we Jews any better off [than Greeks]?” He answers his own question with, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” followed by the section in question (Rom. 3.9). The explicit subject, then, is the status of the Jews and Greeks as two groups in respect to one another and God. This is exactly in line with the direction of Paul’s argument through the first 11 chapters of the epistle. What we should have thought as suspicious was the idea that Paul was here digressing from his own argument to make a random statement about systematic theology.

So we see that Paul’s message was also occasional. He was appealing to these OT passages in support of his position that there is now no distinction between Jew and gentile. Something about the passages quoted are suppose to prove that point. From reading the original quotes we know that what was being said was not that everybody is evil, therefore both Jew and gentile are evil. Rather the actual passage compared the righteous with the evil, showing that the two existed in juxtaposition. I believe that Paul was appealing to those passages specifically to show the Jews that they themselves had a very muddled past. David was chased down with murderous intentions by his sons and brothers and Israel was destroyed for their spiritual whoredom. Paul was saying, “this is your past…it’s twisted and polluted…so don’t think your heritage in God’s memory is any better than that of the Greeks.” This makes sense of not just this particular section of Romans 3, but also of the overall message of Romans and the original passages there quoted. The Jew’s already knew that the Greeks came from damaged stock, what they needed was to also be put in their proper place as a people—equal with their Greek brothers. 

So we see that Paul wasn’t addressing TD and neither are the passages he referenced. “No one seeks for God” isn’t a statement about everyone for all time, but a rhetorical expression regarding particular people David had to deal with. This is similar to when we say something dramatic like “nobody notices me” or “they are all losers”. It is therefore a logical leap to conclude from this passage that it is impossible for someone to desire God because of depravity. That doesn’t mean it is not true, but does mean that it remains to be proven. I am not yet convinced. 

There are many other passages that are used in support of the idea of our inability to want God. Notable in my mind is Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins...” This is often quoted to argue that obviously dead people can’t choose things, so we who are depraved cannot choose God. I don’t think the problem here is difficult to perceive for anyone who wants to be honest about the matter. The fact is, we don’t really know much at all about what it means to be “dead” in whatever sense Paul here intends, other than that it is a bad thing that desperately needs correcting (and has been corrected, praise God!). Yes it is true, physically dead people do not make choices. They also don’t fart, but the spiritually dead still seam capable enough of that. It is a completely arbitrary parameter to just claim out of thin air that we are limited in exactly that sort of way. However, if it were already proven elsewhere that we are incapable of desiring God then it would be much less of an issue to see a connection here. Yet, it remains to be proven.

I could spend all night addressing all of the passages that are brought up in defense of TD, but that is unnecessary. As I said in the beginning, I do not have to prove the doctrine false, the burden of prove is upon those who assert it. If it is going to be proven, there is a near endless list of challenges that must be addressed. When trying to prove a doctrine, you cannot merely list those verses that seem to be for it over and against those that seem to be against it and hope that the scales are in your favor at the end of it all. If we are to respect the idea of the Bible as a total, self-consistent, non-contradictory expression then we must find an understanding that satisfies all relevant scripture. The doctrine of TD seriously fails at this point. In my experience, Calvinist expositors tend to lean very heavily upon their proof-texts while mostly ignoring or blithely dismissing the legion of areas that seriously challenge their conclusions. To be fair, this is another shortcoming that is certainly not unique to Calvinists and one of which I have also been guilty. 

One of the passages that seems to be irreconcilable with the conclusions of the Calvinist version of TD is found very nearly at the plum beginning of it all. Four chapters in we find God interacting with Cain. In regard to Cain’s anger over God’s rejection of his sacrifice, God tells Cain explicitly that, “’If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’” Now this must all be very queer from the Calvinist perspective. According to their doctrine, Cain absolutely could not have done “well” without God allowing (making) him do well—so it wasn’t actually an option. Supposedly it was literally impossible for spiritually dead Cain to obey what God was saying--or even want to obey. But yet here is God presenting him a choice between doing well or not. Here is God imploring him to “rule over [sin]”. If that was a flat impossibility, then God was apparently being less than forthright in communicating that Cain had two options before him (some people call that lying). I don’t see how Calvinist doctrine survives sections like this. I’ve looked, but I have yet to find it successfully harmonized.


How about passages like this:


  • And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Joshua 24.15

  • “And those who had set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the LORD, the God of their fathers.” 2 Chron. 11.16

  • “Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” 2 Chron. 19.3

  • “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.” Prov. 28.5

  • If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you” Job 8.5-6

  • “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Amos 5.14-15

  • “’Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” Jonah 3.8-10

As far as I can see, these are all situations that are not possible or commandments that simply cannot be followed according to the Calvinist understanding of TD. Nineveh could not have chosen repentance. Jehoshaphat could not have had “some good” in him and he could not have “set [his own] heart to seek God.” These are just some examples. Calvinist doctrine when thoroughly applied does not harmonize with the majority of scripture.

This is why I am not a Calvinist. I do not see, and I’ve not found anyone to show me, how the Calvinist version of TD is evident in scripture, and how such a perspective can actually be harmonized throughout. The philosophical challenges aside, if the scriptural argument were thoroughly sound then I would be compelled to admit it. I will admit, however, that
when read by a mind already acquainted with certain assumptions, several passages seem, on the surface and in absence of having to reconcile with scripture in total, to be an open and shut matter. However, it is clearly not that simple. Whatever conclusions we come to on the subject absolutely must make sense out of the entirety of the scriptural witness, not just a collection of verses selected in isolation from across the breadth of the bible. If that can be done, then I will gladly accept TD and be on my way to becoming a good adherent to reformed soteriology.