The Blog of Jack Holloway

Friday, September 6, 2013

Grace, Part I: Is the Doctrine of Total Depravity Totally Depraved?

I chose this picture because nothing says
'grace' like Grace Kelly
The relationship between God’s providence and the human will has been the subject of much theological debate throughout Christian history, particularly as it regards to salvation. If God’s work “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:6) and if it is true that grace does not depend on works (11:6), then how can we say that humans choose God out of their own volition?(1) How can we say that the choice is ours when we are told that “it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)? Calvinist doctrine states that we cannot, that salvation is not at all based on the human’s response to God but solely on God’s choice of whom to save—his elect. Furthermore, it states that humanity is totally depraved and unable to choose God, and that it is God’s grace alone which brings the elect to him.

I, on the other hand, contend that the most balanced and accurate response to the question states that the human’s free choice to enter into a relationship with God is a manifestation of the reality of grace, because God equipped the human with everything necessary in order to walk freely to him—and that this divine equipment was a bestowal of grace, and thus, everything accomplished by its work finds grace as its origin.

Humanity in the Pre-Cross and Post-Cross Periods

We must begin with a discussion of what occurred at the Fall, so that we can understand what occurred on the Cross. With these, we can more accurately discuss the nature of grace and human will, and their roles in salvation.

Jonathan Edwards describes well the view of the Fall I wish to oppose here:
When man sinned, and broke God’s covenant, and fell under his curse, [the divine principles of the Spirit] left his heart: for indeed God left him; that communion with God, on which these principles depended, entirely ceased; the Holy Spirit, that divine inhabitant, forsook the house.(2)
Thus, Edwards believed the Fall made us totally depraved. Greg Forster defines the doctrine of total depravity in the following way:
Calvinism says that everything in our fallen nature is hostile to the perfect goodness of God--to 'goodness' in the absolute sense. This is not because our nature contains nothing that is good in any respect, but because everything in us is spoiled by our sin. In other words, Calvinism is saying that we are born as slaves to Satan. . . . We are born with every part of ourselves participating in, and hence defiled by, a state of freely chosen rebellion against God.(3)
Thus, to Calvinist doctrine, the Fall left us completely unable to move toward God without him doing all the work. Such is the Calvinist understanding of the Fall, and the doctrine of total depravity. This interpretation, however, runs counter to the Hebrew understanding of God’s ruah. God breathed his breath into Adam’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7), which was very significant to ancient Hebrew anthropology. Harold Knight provides that this “essential quality of the divine” was “the acceptable explanation of all that was striking or unusual in human conduct,”(4) such as, wisdom.(5) It meant that “God’s Spirit [is] in the human person”(6) and was understood to be a “permanent indwelling in man”(7) and “a core human characteristic.”(8)

Therefore, to the ancient Hebrew mind, the Spirit of God did not forsake the house, as Edwards put it. Rather than making humans totally unable to move to God, the Fall made humans conflicted; it assured that they would thenceforth be engaged in a constant inner battle between good and evil. The Fall established that life would be a long stream of existential choices between stepping towards God or stepping towards total depravity. Humanity’s constant movement towards depravity is what made the Cross more and more necessary.

What strikes me as odd about the doctrine of total depravity is that it is maintained even after the Cross. Christ brought us salvation, but Calvinist doctrine says that it can only be obtained by those upon whom God has bestowed it. Since humanity's corruption makes us unable to move to God, we cannot choose salvation; it can only be given by God’s irresistible grace.(9) 

The predicament in the pre-Cross period was not that humanity was rendered incapable of moving to God, but that the seed which God had planted in humans became perishable in the Fall (1 Pet. 1:23). In the event that humanity strayed far enough from God, that seed would cease to exist. If humanity chose to follow depravity long enough, we would eventually lose our ability to choose God at all, for we would have trapped ourselves in a depraved mind. Thus, if salvation was going to spread throughout the world, it was going to require further action on God’s part.

Enter Jesus Christ, who came to undo what Adam and Eve did (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–49). The Cross re-established the image of God that humanity was created to be, and planted an incorruptible, imperishable seed in humans (1 Pet. 1:23). He placed inside us the Holy Spirit, God’s indwelling presence (Rom. 8:23; Jn. 14:17). Therefore, humanity is not in a state of total depravity. On the contrary, Christ perfected humanity’s state of being (Heb. 10:14), and created all people anew (2 Cor. 5:17). In this state, humanity is not doomed to slip into total depravity, but, as Karl Barth says, “[all of humanity’s] mistakes and confusions and sins are only like waves beating against the immovable rock of his own proper being.”(10) Sin no longer has the power to destroy the image of God and the seed of the Holy Spirit held within us.

Origen beautifully states that, “God has given human beings all the desires and all the impulses with which they can work towards virtue and make progress, and also planted in them the power of reason with which they can recognize what they ought to do and what to avoid.”(11) Christ established in the hearts of humans everything we needed in order to choose God and be saved. As Vernon Grounds puts it, “God working through Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit enables a man to be and do what otherwise tantalizes him as merely an impossible possibility.”(12)

Grace and the Supernatural Existential

What, then, of the choice? Is it our own? Norman Geisler provides that the general Calvinist response to this question is that “if God’s choice to save was based on those who chose him, then it would not be based on divine grace but would be based on human effort.” He sensibly states of this claim that it “flies in the face of the whole biblical teaching on grace.”(13)

The simplest definition of God’s grace I can think of is divine help. And for all of human history, we have been in need of it. H. Wheeler Robinson states, “It is emphatically recognized that man is totally incapable of good without grace, and that no element in him can be, so to speak, isolated from the corruption of his fallen nature.”(14) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoes this understanding, stating that, “for all our aspirations we remain spiritually blind unless we are assisted. Without [God’s] love, without His aid, man is unable to come close to Him.”(15)

Karl Rahner
There is truth to the doctrine of total depravity, but human depravity is not “total.” We are, as I said above, in a constant state of existential conflict between the Spirit of God and our sin nature. Because we are faced with a constant barrage of evil influence, and because we have been made frail by our choice of sin, we have always needed the assistance that Heschel spoke of, that divine aid, that grace. And this grace is not only expressed transcendently in what God does for his creatures, but it is expressed immanently in what God does within his creatures. There is in human nature a divine immanence at work, which Karl Rahner referred to as the “supernatural existential,” imparted to humanity by God’s grace, as God’s grace.

This grace, Rahner explains, “makes it possible for [the spiritual movement of mankind] to reach God in himself. Naturally, therefore, grace divines man and bestows upon him a share in the holiness of God.”(16) He further describes grace as the self-communication of God, and that this self-communication “stamps and determines man’s nature.”(17) Such is the supernatural existential. Henri De Lubac describes it as the “divine element which man’s effort cannot reach . . . but which unites itself to man, elevating him . . ., penetrating him in order to divinize him, and thus becoming as it were an attribute of the ‘new man’ described by St. Paul.”(18) It is “God’s gift [that] has been implanted in the depths of man’s nature.”(19) This supernatural existential, this divine immanence, paved the way for humanity to freely enter into relationship with God. The Cross altered human nature, restoring the image of God. Christ breathed God’s breath back into humanity, and solidified his Spirit inside all, making it forever possible for us to reach God.

Rahner goes on to say that the Cross made humans “subject to the universal salvific will of God, . . . redeemed and absolutely obliged to tend to this supernatural end. This . . . is an objective, ontological modification of man, added indeed to his nature by God’s grace and therefore supernatural.”(20) The Cross established an objective reality: the reconciliation and perfection of all of humanity. Christ has made us his own (Phil. 3:12); though we sin, we have been deemed saints (Rom. 1:7).

Thus, Christianity is about subjectively experiencing this objective reality: “We, then, who are perfect, let us think on that!” (Phil. 3:15);(21) “Let us live up to what we have already obtained” (v.16, NIV). This subjective experience can be described as the affirmative response to God’s initiative, to his Spirit dwelling inside us: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21). In our subjective experience of salvation, we make ourselves vulnerable and malleable to the Spirit. The kingdom of God is within us (Lk. 17:21), and we must say ‘Yes’ to the Spirit’s work so that the kingdom can be manifested in our lives.(22) 

Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). He also said that “No one can come to me except drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44). And he also said that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself (12:32). No one can come to the Father except through the Son; no one can come to the Son except by being drawn by the Father; and the Son is in the business of drawing all people to himself, through the work of the Spirit, who resides in us (Jn. 14:17; 1 Cor. 2:10–13).


(1) Scripture quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
(2) Jonathan Edwards, “God is Not the Author of Sin,” in Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., ed. Hugh T. Kerr (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 203-204.
(3) See Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God's Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 35-39.
(4) Harold Knight, The Hebrew Prophetic Consciousness (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947), 9.
(5) Tremper Longman III states that “wisdom [was not understood as] the result of human effort, but rather [as] a gift . . . the gift of the spirit of God.” See “Spirit and Wisdom,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament., eds. David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 109. John Levison echoes this understanding, stating that, to the ancient Hebrew mind, “wisdom belongs to the providence of the spirit within, of the influx of life that all humans receive.” See Filled with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 66. He adds that “the language of filling [with the spirit] is not about a particular experience at a particular moment with an eye toward a particular task. . . . [Rather], filling is actually about fullness, about the expansiveness of the spirit within.” See 65–66.
(6) Richard E. Averbeck, “Breath, wind, spirit and Holy Spirit in the Old Testament,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament., eds. David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 36.
For more on an Old Testament understanding of the Spirit of God, see Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, eds. David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), Wilf Hildebrandt, An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit, Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), and Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing the Holy Spirit through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
(7) Knight, 31.
(8) Levison, 67. Also see p. 81.
(9) For a more thorough overview, see R. C. Sproul, “Humanity’s Radical Corruption,” in What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 117–138. Also, Edwin H. Palmer, “Total Depravity,” in The Five Points of Calvinism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 11–28, and, David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, “Total Depravity or Total Inability,” in The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 18–26.
(10) Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. 4.1:57-59 of Church Dogmatics, eds. G.W. Bromily and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromily (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 89.
(11) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 195.
(12) Vernon Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1975), 24.
(13) Norman Geisler, “God Knows All Things,” in Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, eds. David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 66.
(14) H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, 3rd ed. (Edingburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1926), 194.
(15) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), 129.
(16) Karl Rahner, Experience of the Spirit: Source of Theology, Vol. 16 of Theological Investigations, trans. David Morland (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 40.
(17) Karl Rahner, “Anonymous Christians,” in Vol. 6 of Theological Investigations, trans. Graham Harrison (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972), 394.
(18) Henri De Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature & Grace, trans. Richard Arnandez (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 41.
(19) Ibid., 85.
(20) Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, ed. Cornelius Ernst, trans. Richard Strachan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 161.
(21) This is Karl Barth’s translation of the verse. See his Epistle to the Philippians, 40th anniversary ed., trans. James W. Leitch (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 111. I believe it to be the most accurate translation given the message of the context and the statement in the following verse.
(22) See Rahner and Vorgimler, “Grace,” in Theological Dictionary, 196.

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