Total depravity

For the 2016 album by The Veils, see Total Depravity.
A Sistine Chapel fresco depicts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden for their sin of eating from the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Total depravity (also called radical corruption, or pervasive depravity) is a theological doctrine derived from the Augustinian concept of original sin. 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 as a result of their fallen nature and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered.

It is advocated to various degrees by many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, including those of some Lutheran synods,[1][2] and Calvinism.[3][4][5][6] Arminians, such as Methodists, hold to depravity, albeit not in the same way as the Reformed.[7][8]


In opposition to Pelagius, who believed that after the fall people are able to choose not to sin, Augustine of Hippo argued that since the fall all humanity is in self-imposed bondage to sin. All people are inescapably predisposed to evil prior to any actual choice, and unable to not sin.[9] Free will is not taken away in the sense of the ability to choose between alternatives, but people are unable to make these choices in service to God rather than self.[10] Thomas Aquinas also taught that people are not able to avoid sin after the fall, and that this entailed a loss of original righteousness or sinlessness, as well as concupiscence or selfish desire. Duns Scotus, however, modified this interpretation and only believed that sin entailed a lack of original righteousness. During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers took Scotus's position to be the Catholic position and argued that it made sin only a defect or privation of righteousness rather than an inclination toward evil. Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers used the term "total depravity" to articulate what they claimed to be the Augustinian view that sin corrupts the entire human nature.[11] This did not, however, mean the loss of the imago Dei (image of God). The only theologian who argued that the imago Dei itself was taken away and that the very substance of fallen humanity was sin was Matthias Flacius Illyricus, and this view was repudiated in the Formula of Concord.[12]

John Calvin used terms like "total depravity" to mean that, despite the ability of people to outwardly uphold the law, there remained an inward distortion which makes all human actions displeasing to God, whether or not they are outwardly good or bad.[12] Even after regeneration, every human action is mixed with evil.[13] Later Calvinist theologians were agreed on this, but the language of the Canons of Dort as well as the 17th-century Reformed theologians which followed it did not repeat the language of "total depravity", and arguably offer a more moderate view on the state of fallen humanity than Calvin.[12]

A form of the doctrine of total depravity, although not identical to the Calvinist position, was affirmed by the Five articles of Remonstrance, by Jacobus Arminius himself, and by John Wesley, who strongly identified with Arminius through publication of his periodical The Arminian and also advocated a strong doctrine of inability.[14] The Methodist Quarterly Review states that

It is not sufficiently known, we opine, that Methodists--the genuine Arminians of the present--do not entirely agree with this view of depravity. To what has been said, as being the Calvinist view of the total depravity of our nature, we do heartily assent, with the following exceptions:--First. We do not think that all men continue totally depraved until their regeneration. Secondly. We think man, under the atonement, is not, properly speaking, in a state of nature. He is not left to the unalleviated evils of total depravity. The atonement has not only secured grace for him, but a measure in him, by virtue of which he not only has moral light, but is often incited to good desires, and well-intended efforts to do what is perceived to be the divine will.[8]

Some Reformed theologians have mistakenly used the term "Arminianism" to include some 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.[15] 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. In particular, prevenient grace is seen in many of these systems as giving humans back the freedom to follow God in one way or another.


The term "total depravity", as understood in colloquial English, obscures the theological issues involved. Reformed and Lutheran theologians have never considered humans to be absent of goodness or unable to do good outwardly as a result of the fall. People retain the imago Dei, though it has been distorted.[12]

Total depravity is the fallen state of human beings as a result of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are, as a result of the fall, not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are wicked to God because they originate from a selfish human desire and are not done to the glory of God. Therefore, in Reformed theology, if God is to save anyone God must predestine, call, or elect individuals to salvation since fallen man does not want to, and is indeed incapable of, choosing God.[16]

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people have lost part of their humanity or are ontologically deteriorated, because Adam and Eve were created with the ability to not sin, and people retain that essential nature, even though the properties of their humanity is corrupted.[17] It also does not mean 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. All good, consequently, is derived from God alone, and in no way through humanity.[18]

The total reach of sin taught with the doctrine of total depravity highlights people's dire need for God. No part of the person is not in need of grace, and all people are in need of grace, no matter how outwardly pious.[19] Feminist theologian Serene Jones sees the concept of total depravity as helpful because, according to Calvin, sin assaults the person from the outside in and occupies the whole self, allowing women to see how deeply oppression has harmed them and become part of their self-understanding.[20]


The Roman Catholic Church maintains that man cannot "be justified before God by his own works, ... without the grace of God through Jesus Christ,"[21] thereby rejecting Pelagianism in accordance with the writings of Augustine and the Second Council of Orange (529).[22] However, even strictly Augustinian Catholics disagree with the Protestant doctrine of total depravity.[23] Referring to Scripture and the Church Fathers,[24] Catholicism views human free will as deriving from being made in God's image.[25] Accordingly, the Roman Magisterium condemned as heresy any doctrine asserting "since Adam's sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished".[26]

The Orthodox Church embraces the "semi-Augustinian" position of John Cassian and also defends Augustine of Hippo related to this doctrine. Seraphim Rose, for example, contends that Augustine never denied the free will of every human,[27] thus he never taught total depravity. Archbishop Chrysostomos has likewise asserted that Augustine's teaching might have been used and distorted in Western Christianity to produce innovative theologizing, and it is not Augustine's fault.[28] The Church affirms that the image of God upon man and his natural potential for good have not been erased or destroyed, although the divine likeness has been thoroughly corrupted by sin and must be restored in Christ.

See also


  1. Andreä, Jakob; Chemnitz, Martin; Selnecker, Nikolaus; Chytraeus, David; Musculus, Andreas; Körner, Christoph (1577), Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
  2. Melanchthon, Philip, ed. (1530), The Augsburg Confession
  3. Canons of Dordrecht, "The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine"
  4. Westminster Assembly (1646), Westminster Confession of Faith
  5. Westminster Larger Catechism,Question 25
  6. Heidelberg Catechism,question 8
  7. Arminius, James The Writings of James Arminius (three vols.), tr. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), I:252
  8. 1 2 George Peck, D.D., ed. (1847). The Methodist Quarterly Review. New York: Lane & Tippett. XXIX: 444. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. Kelsey, David H. (1994). "Human Being". In Hodgson, Peter C.; King, Robert H. Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. Fortress Press  via Questia (subscription required) . pp. 176–178.
  10. Kelsey, David H. (1994). "Human Being". In Hodgson, Peter C.; King, Robert H. Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. Fortress Press  via Questia (subscription required) . pp. 176–177.
  11. Williams, Robert R. (1994). "Sin and Evil". In Hodgson, Peter C.; King, Robert H. Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. Fortress Press  via Questia (subscription required) . p. 204.
  12. 1 2 3 4 Muller, Richard A. (2012). Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Ebook ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 51.
  13. Bouwsma, William J. (1989). John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Oxford University Press  via Questia (subscription required) . p. 139.
  14. Sermon 44, "Original Sin."; compare verse 4 of Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be".
  15. Demarest, Bruce (2006). The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-58134-812-5.
  16. The Westminster Confession of Faith,9.3
  17. Shuster, Marguerite (2004). The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans  via Questia (subscription required) . pp. 159–160, 182.
  18. Ra McLaughlin. "Total Depravity, part 1". Reformed Perspectives. Retrieved 2008-07-14. [Any person] can do outwardly good works, but these works come from a heart that hates God, and therefore fail to meet God’s righteous standards.
  19. Jones, Serene (2000). Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press  via Questia (subscription required) . pp. 102–103.
  20. Jones, Serene (2000). Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press  via Questia (subscription required) . p. 120.
  21. Council of Trent, Session 6, canon 1.
  22. Judgements of the Council of Orange
  23. Catechism of the Catholic Church Item 407 in section
  24. Catechism of the Catholic Church Item 1730
  25. Catechism of the Catholic Church Items 1701-1709
  26. Council of Trent, Session 6, canon 5.
  27. Fr. Seraphim Rose (1982), The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, ISBN 0938635123
  28. Blessed Augustine of Hippo: His Place in the Orthodox Church - A Corrective Compilation, Orthodox Christian Information Center

External links

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