Total Depravity Part 1

The five points of Calvinism are generally known by the acronym TULIP, which stands for T – Total Depravity, U – Unconditional Election, L – Limited Atonement, I – Irresistible Grace, and P – Perseverance of the Saints.

Total depravity means that as a consequence of the fall of man and original sin, every person is enslaved to sin.  We are inclined by nature to serve our own self interests and not to love God or neighbor as we are required.  Also, left to our own faculties, we are unable to change this.

There is not a lot in that definition that Catholics would disagree with.  The issue seems to be what is meant by the word “total.”  Also, there seems to be a disagreement among Calvinists about what “total” means.

In more traditional Calvinism, “total” is viewed that man is totally corrupted, our nature is totally evil, and there is a total absence of goodness from the person who has not been regenerated, or born again.  Consider this from the Westminster Statement of Faith, written about a hundred years after the death of John Calvin.  It is speaking of Adam and Eve and their sin:

“By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.  They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.  From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.”

Rather than believing that man is “wholly inclined to do all evil,” there seems to be a more recent trend among some Calvinists that “total” does not mean that every person is as evil as they could be, or is “wholly” defiled, or totally incapable of doing good.  Rather they view “total” as meaning that sin affects every part of a person (body, soul, spirit).  While the more traditional Calvinist view of total depravity would be contrary to Catholic teaching, this view is much more compatible.

“Total depravity” is not a term used in Catholic theology.  We would agree that every aspect of our human nature has been wounded by original sin, and we certainly believe that we cannot heal ourselves of this wound.  However we would not agree with the idea that people are totally depraved and wholly inclined to do all evil unless they have been regenerated (born again).  The image of God breathed into humanity was wounded by original sin, not destroyed.

We do agree with Calvinism in that the original sin of Adam and Eve is passed on to their descendants by propagation.  We do not agree that we are guilty of their sin.

The catechism speaks to the Catholic view of original sin:

CCC397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command.  This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. 

CCC399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience.  Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness.  They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.

It is easy to see the damage done by sin simply from reading the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis Chapter 3.  The wounding happens not just to Adam and Eve and their relationship with God, but also to the original harmony and order of creation.  There is an instantaneous fracturing that occurs:

  • In verse 7, Adam and Eve recognize for the first time they are naked. The harmony between their soul and physical body has been wounded and become distorted.
  • In verses 8-11, rather than enjoying their fellowship and relationship with God as they had in the past, we see Adam and Eve choosing to hide from God. Their relationship with God has become wounded and distorted.  As the catechism says, “They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.
  • In verse 12, we see Adam blaming Eve for what’s happened. In verse 16, we see that man is now to “rule over” woman.  The relationship between the two of them has become wounded and distorted.
  • In verse 16, we also see that Eve will experience increased pains in childbirth, a wounding between parent and child.
  • In verses 17-19, we see the ground itself has been cursed. A world that has generously provided for their needs now would require labor and toil to bring forth fruit.  The harmony between people and nature was wounded.
  • In verse 20 we see that animals are killed to cover their nakedness. The first blood is shed, and the harmony between people and the animal kingdom is wounded.

The catechism says that “All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.”  Sin continues to wound and fracture our world, and all Christians seem to be in agreement that man is not capable of healing the damage caused.

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