For the Reformation: Natural Humans’ Absolute Inability to Please God

Now into the final part of my series responding to Rocky Munoz’s critique of Calvinism on his Almost Heresy blog, we have reached his post focused on the first point of the five in Calvinism: Total Depravity. Let’s start by examining Munoz’s own description of the doctrine:

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.

He starts with this definition, even though he later grants that he might not be defining it correctly, because he truly believes that this is the most appropriate and genuine description of the Calvinist view. He quotes directly from John Calvin’s Institutes to establish this precedent:

…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).

Looking to this text, Munoz notes that Calvin goes beyond just saying “human actions are corrupt” and rather insists that “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.” Munoz then shows John Piper to say something similar, and he offers the following response:

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.

Although I will grant Munoz’s point that human beings are capable of carrying out acts of goodness even apart from God, all Reformed theologians will readily admit the same thing. What Munoz doesn’t appear to consider, however, is the unavoidable fact that charity and kindness—or whatever other beautiful deeds someone might name—are still fundamentally tainted by sinfulness when performed apart from a reference point toward God. For several examples of this principle in Scripture, we need only consider the following passages:

“All who sin apart from the Law will also perish apart from the Law, and all who sin under the Law will be judged by the Law. For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the Law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do by nature what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law, since they show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them. This will come to pass on that day when God will judge men’s secrets through Christ Jesus, as proclaimed by my gospel.” (Romans 2:12-16)

 

[In the context of doing something carelessly and thoughtlessly that might harm another’s faith, e.g. eating unclean meat in front of them]: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23b)

 

“And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6)

 

“If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” (James 2:8-11)

On the simple face of it, these passages are communicating two essential ideas. First, even those who have not been acquainted with the particulars of God’s law instinctually follow it in some instances. However, a second truth is that good deeds done apart from a reference point toward God are futile and mired in sin, as the Romans 14 and Hebrews 11 passages intimate.

Thus, even if a well-meaning agnostic were to devote her entire life to giving food and water to the destitute, volunteering for crucial causes, showing love to others, or being hospitable to strangers, she is still openly violating the first of the two greatest commandments: “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). That this principle is in force is clear from the above passage in James: Even if you don’t commit murder or lie or steal, but still don’t worship God, “you have become a transgressor of the law” (v. 11). Transgressing the law is sin, and the just consequence for sin is death.

An illustration of something similar to this outside of theology, specifically in the realm of politics and economics, might clarify what I mean.

Since I first read Peter T. Leeson’s book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, I’ve been fascinated by this little-known history of 17th and 18th century pirates. They were literally, like Romans 2 says, “a law unto themselves.” Pirates had incredibly moral and upright systems in place for keeping things like theft and violence at bay. They had early systems of workman’s comp, had notable levels of social equality, and had constitutional democracy in force at least 50 years before the United States did. As a political anarchist myself, I’ve frequently cited their example as an incredible case study of a voluntaryist, free-market economy successfully existing outside of the state.

In spite of all this, though, every good and moral thing that pirates did was technically tainted by a single (but vital) fact: they were all rebels against some ruling government.

The natural human without God is in the same condition, albeit under a ruler whose kingship is absolute and unquestionable, unlike the governments of England or Scotland or the American colonies or wherever else. As we’ve already seen, the apostle Paul and James say the same of those without God who still do good works. Aquinas gave such acts the moniker of “splendid vices.” Augustine, too, differentiated between “the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity” and others with what are “specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.).”[1]

Munoz, then, has failed to offer a true rebuttal on this point. The Calvinist is not saying that humans cannot do anything good apart from God, and neither is the Reformed position that absolutely every tiny thing that a person does is an evil action. The Reformed concept, rather, is that even visibly good deeds are overridden by an essential lack of submission to or acknowledgement of God.

Furthermore, there is the crucial concept of enslavement to and inclination toward sin, which Munoz never even addresses. It is indisputable that the entirety of the biblical narrative bears out this idea, that humans are not just neutral decision-makers when it comes to sin. When Jesus affirms that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), he reasserts an idea that is already prevalent throughout the rest of Scripture regarding sin’s dominion over the natural person. Without this understanding, it is impossible to make any sense of Jesus’ declaration directly after this that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36). What does Christ save and set anyone free from if not bondage to sin?

Since Scripture also affirms that the heart itself “is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), and that the heart is the very seat from which “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] blasphemies” emerge (Matt. 15:19), how can it be reasoned that a wicked heart can be naturally overcome or even tamed by a naturally oriented person? Is Munoz suggesting that there are people born with Original Sin who do not have wicked hearts?

Another passage from Paul touches on this idea of “the natural person” versus someone in whom the Spirit of God resides:

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:11-14)

Would Munoz still have us believe, contrary to this, that people outside of God are still somehow capable of comprehending, accepting, and responding positively to things that pertain to spiritual life? This represents a serious problem that remains with his position.

Munoz continues, with an end in view of describing Total Depravity as accurately as he feels he possibly can:

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.

Munoz may not have considered the necessary conclusion of his argument here either, which is this: If basic goodness and an inclination toward righteousness does exist in natural humans, and God’s choice of His elect were made on that basis, then it would be a meritorious election and would thereby make salvation dependent on human accomplishment. There is no avoiding this.

The thrust of the Reformed teaching on Total Depravity is that sin has so much worked its way into our bodies, minds, and souls that we are completely incapable of saving ourselves, preparing ourselves to be saved, or making ourselves worthy recipients of salvation. It is from this point, of course, that the idea of an unconditional election must be drawn—from the understanding that no one ever has any ability to contribute anything meaningful to their salvation over and above any other person.

What is fascinating to me is that Munoz never discusses the most crucial passage from which Calvinists even derive the idea of human inability—John 6:

The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. However, there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him.) Then Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless the Father has granted it to him. (vv. 63-65, emphasis mine)

This is one of the most basic statements in Scripture centered on this idea: no ability exists for anyone to come to Christ unless the Father does something first—that is, granting that it can happen for them in the first place. The fact that this granting is not universally given to every person is patently obvious. This is the very reason that Jesus would even be talking about exceptions among individuals.

In the same chapter, Jesus also says that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v. 44). Thus, anyone’s coming to Christ requires a prior, enabling act of God before they can even come to Him. Logically, too, this verse describes how the one who is drawn and comes and is eventually raised up is the same individual. This understanding of the verse and its essential meaning is inescapable.

Not only this, but Jesus assures his original hearers and us that “Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from Him comes to Me” (v. 45b). There is no exception mentioned here, as though there are some who hear the Father and learn from Him and yet still refuse or fail to come to Him.

How, then, does Munoz approach the Bible to refute such a clear presentation? He explains:

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.

While Munoz’s opinion may still be that Total Depravity is not an idea clearly presented in Scripture, the number of people who affirm it across various denominations is irrelevant. Suggesting that Total Depravity is likely untrue just because it’s not a popular doctrine is nothing more than an argumentum ad populum (bandwagon appeal) fallacy.

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.

My opponent’s assessment of Augustine’s theology on this matter is erroneous, plain and simple. In reality, Augustine’s contribution to Reformed theology is extensive, so much so that many proponents of the Doctrines of Grace have favored calling this set of beliefs “Augustinianism” rather than “Calvinism” to avoid certain negative connotations.

And in fact, contrary to what Munoz claims, Augustine did teach the idea of mankind’s radical inclination toward committing sin, as well as every human’s absolute inability to obey God’s law apart from grace and deliverance from enslavement to a sin nature. This is no different than the Reformed doctrine dubbed “Total Depravity.” Throughout Augustine’s writings, he stresses that—because humans are slaves to sin—humans cannot freely avoid sin without God’s grace and direct assistance. Take, for instance, Augustine’s statement on the “destroyed” (!) free will of humans in his Enchiridion:

“But now, can that part of the human race to whom God hath promised deliverance and a place in the eternal Kingdom be restored through the merits of their own works? Of course not! For what good works could a lost soul do except as he had been rescued from his lostness? Could he do this by the determination of his free will? Of course not! For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life–so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. ‘By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave.’ This is clearly the judgment of the apostle Peter. And since it is true, I ask you what kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin?

He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then, is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept. (emphasis mine)[2]

Clearly, the same concepts that were taught by the Reformers are found just as clearly articulated in this fifth-century treatise of Augustine. These words are virtually indistinguishable from those we would see from Calvin, Luther, Knox, and so forth. Total Depravity as a doctrine is found quite explicitly in the writings of Augustine.

Moving on, Munoz looks at “three of the most foundational passages used for the doctrine of Total Depravity,” reminding his readers that he is “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?

What Munoz says regarding poetry and its often-non-literal nature is true. But his argument would be saying too much, since we would likewise have to apply this rule to other passages that also cite poetry for emphasis. For example, we might have to argue that John 19’s description of the crucifixion is non-literal because these events’ “predictions”—like the Messiah thirsting and having his clothing divided up by lots—are drawn from another work of biblical poetry, Psalm 22.

That aside, however, he continues:

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.

Far from being an effective argument against Total Depravity, the fact that there is a “generation of the righteous” mentioned here who obey God (v. 5) is precisely the Calvinist point. Those who are called unrighteous and corrupt are described as “the children of man” (as opposed to “children of God” or “sons of God,” which John 1 says only those regenerated in Christ have the right to become). They are also said to have no spiritual knowledge or interest in calling on God (v. 4). Thus, even a simple reading of this passage reinforces the idea that Scripture shows some distinction between those who are followers of God and those who are not.

I’ll admit that this passage doesn’t have a clear, positive statement to the effect that every human being is born entirely corrupted. But neither does it have a statement that they aren’t born entirely corrupted, despite what Munoz suggests.

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.

There’s that “context” thing again. But what has been missed in Munoz’s assessment? The thrust of the Reformed argument on this passage is that Paul brings up this Psalm in a specific manner to establish a specific point: everyone, Jew and Gentile, is guilty of sin. And this is precisely what Paul says verbatim in Rom. 3:24-25, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

As we’ve already examined, it’s biblically inconsistent to consider any deeds done apart from a reference toward God—even “good” deeds by all appearances—as righteous or a credit to God in any sense. Because we have a nature that enslaves us to sin in private thoughts, spoken words, and tangible actions, the sin that traps us and keeps us from obeying God is pervasive. This is the meaning of Total Depravity, which because it extends to all humans is the way that we know sin is no less pervasive for the Jew than it is for the Gentile. If it were, then one class or the other could legitimately lay claim to a righteousness procured by works. Communicating this is Paul’s very intention in saying what he does!

Munoz’s next response is his most problematic so far:

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. (emphasis mine)

With all due respect, this argument is preposterous. The verse in question clearly says that it is the Christian who is “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” because “the Spirit of God dwells” within him or her. To have this communicate what Munoz suggests it does—that those “set on the flesh” can stop being set on the flesh on a whim—we would have to affirm that non-Christians can temporarily have the Spirit of God dwelling within them in an off-and-on sort of manner. Yet the testimony of Scripture is that Christians, and Christians alone, are the only ones empowered by the Holy Spirit to cease in their hostility toward God, submit to His law, and be pleasing to Him. On what grounds can anything other than this be affirmed?

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.

Whether this passage even speaks about election is, honestly, neither here nor there. But the irony in this case is that interpreting the passage in the manner Munoz suggests actually supports the Calvinist doctrine even more strongly, i.e. that anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not follow Christ’s teachings or display His character! No one, in other words, can do the good that God requires apart from the Spirit of Christ—which is precisely what the Reformed position teaches.

Another passage, Titus 2:11-14, provides an even more explicit statement concerning the necessity of God overriding human nature’s extreme propensity toward evil:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)

There are several ideas clearly present here. First, we see that God’s grace is the only thing that exists which makes anyone capable of “renounc[ing] ungodliness and worldly passions” (v. 12). Only the work of God’s grace through the enabling of the Spirit is effective in “training us” to do this.

Secondly, Paul asserts without question that the purpose of Christ’s death and atonement was “to redeem us from all lawlessness”—that is, to actually turn us back to lawfulness—as well as to “purify for himself a people … who are zealous for good works” (v. 14). Cleansing human beings from ungodliness, the type of works which are said to be born from the default position of those outside of Christ, is an essential part of this.

And third, it is obvious that such people who are “zealous for good works” simply don’t exist apart from God’s enabling work; if they did, there would unquestionably be no need whatsoever for God to do anything. If anyone can be zealous for good works—by which I mean Scripturally defined good works that are actually a product of the Spirit—apart from the grace and cleansing work of God, then salvation by works is indeed theoretically possible.

But to say this, dear reader, would be pure Pelagianism. It is a denial not only of an inherited sin nature but also the necessity of grace through Christ.

Finally, Munoz focuses on another basic proof passage in the mind of many Calvinists:

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.

This response is particularly worthy of attention, since it is merely a deflection disguised as an open-and-shut rebuttal. What we continually see Munoz doing is denying a certain interpretation of a passage and then neglecting to deal with parallel passages that are usually much clearer, and often much more explicit, in establishing the theological concepts in question. This passage is obviously an example of this, since the term “God’s wrath” or “the wrath of God” in particular is mentioned in at least several other places, and it is always used in relation to those who are unsaved, unregenerate, unspiritual, and so forth.

Just a few examples:

“But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.” (Romans 3:5-8, emphasis mine)

“For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:5-6, emphasis mine).

“Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.” (Col. 3:5-7, emphasis mine)

Focusing instead on the relevance of the term “by nature” with regard to those who are recipients of wrath, Munoz continues:

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.

There is a difference, of course, between the Reformed idea that humans are incredibly inclined toward sinning and Munoz’s characterization of an idea that humans are evil through and through. Again, I cannot stress enough how much of a false caricature of Calvinism this is.

But even beyond this, we have yet to see Munoz truly advance an argument regarding the essence of what a “sinful nature” or “sinful flesh” even means if the Reformed understanding is false. Yet if we look to a passage like Galatians 5, there’s no question at all that a human’s natural state produces one outcome and a regenerated, Spirit-filled believer’s state produces another outcome:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (vv. 16-26)

There is not a single iota of suggestion in this passage that it is possible to gratify or fulfill the desires of the Spirit in a natural position that falls outside of active submission to God. It is also logically fallacious to claim that the inverse of Paul’s positive statement is true, such that any display of love or self-control or peace means someone is living by the Holy Spirit. The only way that we could maintain such an idea is to argue that there exists something like a passive obedience to God on unbelievers’ parts. Yet where is this taught in Scripture?

Furthermore, if submission to God’s commands is entirely possible for anyone without the indwelling, trans-formative work of the Holy Spirit, then Christ died for nothing. Paul’s insistence on the work of the Spirit in producing sanctification and holiness in anyone’s life would also have to be called baseless and superfluous.

But Munoz would object: Isn’t the image of God still existent in humans, such that every person can always act like God if they choose to do so? He writes:

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

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.

Not only do Reformed theologians disagree with this, but I would argue that the writers of Scripture do as well.

If the image of God is still completely intact in the natural human, then why is one of God’s primary purposes in redemptive history to have believers “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29)? There is clearly a profound difference between humans before the Fall and after the Fall, and this difference is spiritual in nature (Gen. 2:17).

Without question, this concept fits alongside the consistent account in Scripture that our reflection of Christ, who is “the very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), is damaged and in need of divinely initiated repair. We see this expressed in other passages as well:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:1-10, emphases mine)

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20-24, emphasis mine)

As many Reformed theologians have insisted over the centuries, Calvinism is not teaching that unbelieving humans are as wicked or degenerate as they could possibly be. Neither does Calvinism teach that humans have no image of God in them whatsoever. Instead, the idea is that the spiritual death that clearly resulted from the fall of Genesis 3 manifests itself in a profound tendency toward rebelling against God’s commands.

In his final argument against specific Biblical passages that might be said to teach total depravity, Munoz writes the following:

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.

Yet here, again, he misinterprets the argument that’s even being made by the Calvinist position. The idea of being “dead in our transgressions” is a metaphor, to be sure. But the meaning of the metaphor plainly has nothing to do with physical inability to do anything in any capacity. Instead, the metaphor refers to a spiritual inability to truly do what is pleasing to God.

As a result of every natural human’s enslavement to sin, nonspiritual actions in line with spiritual death are carried out all the time. Galatians 5, which I cited earlier, includes descriptions of a hell of a lot of activities on the part of spiritually dead people.

Moving beyond biblical passages, Munoz next focuses on some of the supposed practical effects of believing in Total Depravity, one of which is total misanthropy:

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.”

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.

Context, context, context! It’s funny how Munoz expresses this mantra so often but doesn’t apply it consistently to everything. What we don’t hear, of course, is that Edwards’ main intention in this sermon was to warn his hearers about a legalistic striving toward holy and moral living apart from the gracious work of God. And any Bible reader will know that this “scum of the earth” phraseology is taken straight from 1 Corinthians:

“To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” (1 Cor. 4:11-13)

So there is a passage in Scripture itself where Paul himself calls suffering Christians, I kid you not, the “scum of the earth”?!

Still, I ask: why is this noted by Munoz to begin with? Even the briefest of visits to this Scum of the Earth Church’s website would show that their intention is not to communicate their devotion to the doctrine of Total Depravity, but to identify themselves with the type of Christ-followers whom Paul describes. In fact, I would invite anyone to demonstrate how the church’s parent denomination, the Alliance for Renewal Churches, has a Reformed soteriology in any sense. As an emergent church, they’re actually more on Munoz’s own side than mine in this regard! Yet he is still suggesting that this church’s name is a product of Calvinist theology by including it as a point, is he not?

We can’t end the discussion on this point, of course. So where else can we find this Calvinist misanthropy? Munoz continues:

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.

What is the Scriptural perspective on this? What are the limits of humankind’s inherent value once humankind is considered alongside a transcendent, perfectly holy God?

And how does Munoz’s suggestion that God has non-exclusive love square with Scripture’s description of the Lord who “tests the righteous” and whose “soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5, emphasis mine)? David adds that “the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (v. 7). That God shows mercy to the ungodly and unbelieving all the time, as the Reformed person will readily affirm, does not in any way mean that He loves all in the same way without exception.

The onus is on Munoz to show from Scripture that God loves every single individual, regardless of their ever being reconciled to Him, in exactly the same manner. If this is the case, then why does the Father only grant the rights of sonship to those who believe, and not to everyone? Why does God only sanctify those who are in Christ, and not everyone? How can Jesus reject someone he loves, saying “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity,” and consign them to any kind of punishment? How can we possibly claim that he loves them in the exact same manner?

Okay, so that’s a more difficult point to maintain. Well, what about John Calvin? Doesn’t he show a contempt for humans in no uncertain terms? Munoz writes:

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.

This is all certainly questionable and reprehensible writing from John Calvin regarding women. However, we ought to recognize Munoz’s unfair fixation on this one individual to the exclusion of other—and especially non-Reformed—theologians of the same medieval period. To single Calvin out, and tacitly suggest that these statements are reflective of a belief in Total Depravity, is to completely ignore the cultural context as well as the uniquely polemic nature of writing from the period.

Take, for example, this gem from Saint Albertus Magnus, a Dominican theologian writing in the 13th century:

Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.[3]

Or Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century:

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.[4]

Or Friar Cherubino of Siena, in the late fifteenth century, instructing husbands on how to treat their wives:

When you see your wife commit an offense, don’t rush at her with insults and violent blows, scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn’t work, take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body, then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul, so that the beating will redound to your merit and her good.[5]

Or Jesuits Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, in their book Malleus Malificarum:

What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours …

It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”[6]

Clearly, misogynistic theology is not something limited to or born exclusively out of a Calvinist soteriology, and it is not even limited to Protestants. But Munoz sees something far more sinister evident in Calvin’s brief discussion of infants:

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)

The whole nature of these babies, too young to have committed any sins of their own, is odious and abominable to God?

This is an interesting objection. Does Christ’s atoning work, then, not extend to any humans who are below a certain, unspecified age because they simply are incapable of sinning? And is this not a limitation on the extent of the atonement?

I freely admit that this suggestion of Calvin’s could be understood as insensitive or even appalling to some. But I still have to ask—what is the Scriptural basis for objecting to it?

And what, also, is the Scriptural basis for Munoz’s apparent claim that infants are not inclined toward sin from birth? Are infants instead inclined toward God and Christ from birth? Are they completely unaccountable and free from sin, even in thought and mind, until they commit a sinful deed?

We’re never told. Where Munoz does move, though, is toward discussing Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Spanish theologian Michael Servetus. This is said to be a practical manifestation of the Calvinist system’s theoretical violence:

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).

Munoz’s bringing this incident up, as though it is actually related to the doctrine of Total Depravity in any way, results in a conclusion that is completely non-sequitur: that Servetus’ fate was the result of Calvin’s belief in any or all of the Five Points of Calvinism.

Historically and theologically speaking, it is clear that Calvin’s consenting to and/or participating in the execution of Servetus in an ecclesiastical context was not related to the issue of Calvin’s endorsing Total Depravity in any way. First of all, Servetus was not imprisoned or executed for denying any of the Five Points of Calvinism, let alone Total Depravity. He was accused of endorsing and preaching non-Trinitarianism and denying the validity of infant baptism.[7] We may quibble with the importance of one or the other of these theological beliefs, but there’s no denying that these were the actual charges—not Servetus’ being opposed to Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity or anything of the sort.

But secondly, and even more importantly, Calvin was drawing from a sacralist tradition that had the civic religion of Christianity entangled with the ruling government. Ironically enough, while Calvin believed in putting heretics to death, so did Servetus! This was the standard medieval view when it came to the application of jurisprudence in the context of a state church. It was certainly not an innovation of Calvin. [And clearly, since only a very small minority of Calvinists today are theonomists, there is no reason to insist that the logical end of Reformed theology is always sacralism or even a state church].

Calvin, in fact, is known from history to have spoken at length with Servetus prior to his execution, directly using the opportunity to insist that Servetus change his views in order to spare himself from death. How does this reflect any sort of supposed misanthropy, especially the type that Munoz claims had permeated Calvin’s character? It shows quite the opposite, actually—it is more an example of pastoral love and consideration for another’s well-being.

In a letter he once wrote personally to Servetus, Calvin stresses:

“I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you, but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.”[8]

In truth, at least, it also has to be acknowledged that historians have frequently pointed out Servetus’ particularly arrogant and disrespectful tone toward others when advancing his beliefs. Even the Roman Catholic Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, who once directly opposed John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination to his face, called Servetus “a very arrogant and insolent man,” as well as a “monstrous heretic.” Even Bolsec called for Servetus’ death.[9] So, I find it interesting how Munoz never hints at the actual inter-denominational opposition (even more than this, Protestant and Roman Catholic opposition) that existed toward Servetus, an opposition that was clearly based on issues unrelated to Reformed theology.

Munoz closes with a final point:

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.

As my response to Munoz’s post has hopefully shown, the idea that Calvinism is centered on or leads to any of these things is highly debatable. And when the concept of Total Depravity is misunderstood and characterized as falsely as it is in Munoz’s rebuttal, it is that much easier to make Calvinism appear so laughable that denying Calvinism appears the only reasonable response.

Yet the problem that remains for one who denies Total Inability and its implications is this: the opposite view would be to argue that faith, repentance, and new birth can always occur at any time for a person who is in his or her natural state and is remaining there. And what this inevitably means is that the Holy Spirit’s work in conviction, regeneration, and sanctification for the Christian is completely unnecessary, even superfluous. We never see Munoz dealing with this enormous blow to the paradigm laid out in the Gospel.

In my next post, I’ll respond to Munoz’s final thoughts on Calvinism as well as tie everything together that I’ve discussed here. I will finally address head-on what our critic calls “the practical perils of Calvinism,” seeking to instead the present the case for Reformed theology’s historically positive, soteriologically assuring, and theologically Christ-honoring implications.

Notes:

[1] Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960), p. 69.

[2] St. Augustine. Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. Chapter IX, 30-32. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm#C9.

[3] Quaestiones super de animalibus. XV q. 11.

[4] Summa Theologiae. I q. 92. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1092.htm

[5] Quoted in Statsky, William P. (2016). Family Law. 6th ed. Cengage Learning. 502.

[6] Malleus Maleficarum. Part 1, Question VI. Internet Sacred Text Archive. http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/mm/mm01_06a.htm

[7] Holt, Mack P. (2017). “Calvin and Reformed Protestantism.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations. Ed. Ulinka Rublack. 1st ed. Oxford University Press. p. 222.

[8] Downton, R. Keelan (2004). An examination of the nature of authority…. Chp. 3.

[9] Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec (1577). Histoire de la vie … de Jean Calvin. Chps. 3-4.

 

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2 thoughts on “For the Reformation: Natural Humans’ Absolute Inability to Please God

  1. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    “Do not go beyond what is written.” 1Cor. 4:6
    Tell you what Calvinist that law Paul is referencing isn’t what you think it is.

    1. Theodore – I’m not sure I understand your meaning. The “law” that Paul is referencing in Romans 2 is clearly the Old Testament moral law, what Romans 2:20 calls “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” and is also described as containing statutes against stealing (v. 21), adultery, and idolatry (v. 22), among other things.

      To consider this law to be anything else, ironically enough, would be the exact definition of going “beyond what is written.”

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