Hereditary Total Depravity Pervades Denominationalism

By Phil Roberts

Throughout history man has sought to shift the blame for his sins onto someone else’s shoulders. The ancient Babylonians spoke of man being created out of the blood of a rebel god named Kingu. Naturally such a race could not help being rebellious itself. Even before the coming of Christ the Jews were speaking of the yetser ha ra, or “evil inclination” with which all men were born. It should not be surprising, therefore, to find that people professing Christianity have behaved pretty much like all other men in this respect. In the history of “Christian theology” this tendency has manifested itself in the development of the intertwined doctrines of original sin and hereditary total depravity. The doctrine of original sin affirms that all descendants of Adam inherit both the guilt and the consequences of his sin. The doctrine of hereditary total depravity follows with the declaration that all such descendants of Adam are so completely corrupted and depraved by it that they cannot, of their own free will, do any truly good work. They cannot, of their own free will, even turn to God.

Now this doctrine of total depravity is commonly thought of as a Calvinistic doctrine, and is especially associated with the Presbyterian Church here in this country. It is the purpose of this article to show that the doctrine in fact pervades most of the denominational world.

Augustine and Catholicism

The doctrine had its beginning among Christians in the early Patristic period. Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose all taught the whole human race somehow participated not only in the consequences of Adam’s sin but in the sin itself. Ambrosiaster claimed biblical support for the doctrine by translating Romans 5:12 “in whom all sinned” in reference to Adam. But it was Augustine of Hippo (commonly St. Augustine) who integrated the doctrine into a fully developed system of theology. And the writings of Augustine have shaped and influenced the thinking of professing Christianity more than the works of any other man since the time of the New Testament itself.

Augustine taught that the whole human race was present in the first man Adam, and thus, in his sin, we sinned. Each descendant of Adam and Eve is born just as much a sinner as they were. Not only that, but the impairment of their nature which God inflicted on Adam and Eve in punishment for their sin “became a natural consequence in all their descendants” (City of God, xiii. 3). Moreover, it is not just a corrupted physical nature that we have inherited from Adam, but our “human nature was so changed and vitiated that it suffers from the recalcitrance of a rebellious concupiscence. . . ” (Ibid.).

Augustine was not exactly a Roman Catholic, but only because he lived around AD 400 and Catholicism was still in the formative stage. But Augustine was very much a part of that formation, and his theology soon became the dominant theology of Catholicism. The doctrines of original sin and hereditary depravity were, therefore, deeply entrenched in Catholicism from the very beginning. From the time of Augustine to the Protestant Reformation, Catholic theologians debated the exact nature of the original sin and its transmission and the degree of totality in the inherited depravity. But these debates produced only minor variations and left the basic doctrine more firmly established than ever. In the meantime the doctrine had begun to generate such secondary doctrines as infant baptism (to remove original sin) and the immaculate conception of Mary (to protect her from contamination with original sin). But these matters are discussed elsewhere in this issue.

Total Depravity Pervades.

That the doctrines still remain as part of the theological foundation of modem Catholicism can be seen by consulting any standard Catholic reference work. In -The Teachings of the Catholic Church (1948), George Smith devotes thirty pages to a defense of the doctrine in even more rigorous terms than Augustine would ever have stated the matter.

The Protestant Reformation

The council of Trent (1545-63) was convened as a Catholic response to the spreading Protestant Reformation, and it pronounced an anathema on any who denied the doctrine of original sin. But the doctrine was hardly a bone of contention for the reformers. They considered themselves just as much heirs of Augustine as the Catholics did.

Of course the most rigorous statements of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity were made by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1560). Yet it is crucial to see that the doctrine was not limited to Calvin and his more direct spiritual heirs, but that it permeated the thinking of almost all the reformers and was enshrined in all the great creeds of the Protestant Reformation, and thus has been passed down in some form or other to almost every Protestant denomination in existence today.

Consider Martin Luther. Original Sin and Total Depravity are especially associated with Calvin while Luther is usually thought of as preaching about faith and grace. But one of the most influential works ever written by Luther was titled Bondage of the Will, the title reflecting the thesis of the book that man’s essential nature has been so depraved by sin that his will is entirely in bondage to sin and he is incapable of willing any good at all. Man is thus entirely dependent on a gracious gift of faith from God in order to be saved. Lutheranism no less than Presbyterianism is thus pervaded by the doctrine. Indeed, the Augsburg Confession (1530), subscribed to by virtually all Lutherans, declares that “all men begotten after the common course of nature were born with sin. . . “; that “man’s powers, without the Holy Spirit, are full of wicked affections, and are too weak to perform any good deed before God.”

Identical assertions are found in The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the German Reformed churches, the Belgic Confession (1561) of the Dutch Reformed churches, the Scotch Confession of Faith (1560) of the Church of Scotland, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19) which are accepted by the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America.

Especially important are The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571 and 1801) which declare for the benefit of Anglicans and Episcopalians that “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians so vainly talk); but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil. . . . ” These words have found their way into several subsequent creedal statements including the Articles of Religion which are still being printed in the Discipline of the Methodist Church. Similar affirmations are found in the creeds of the Quakers and the Congregationalists.

But the most influential of all Protestant creeds, at least in the English language, has surely been the Westminster Confession. Concerning the sin of Adam and Eve, it declares that “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 wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. ” Now, anything with the name Westminster is generally associated with Presbyterianism today. And the Westminster Confession was actually produced by the Church of England, and comes about as close as any English-language creed can to being a universal Protestant Creed.

The universal nature of the Westminster Confession can be illustrated by the Baptists. Baptists often claim to have no creed but the Bible. But the Baptist Confession of 1688 is basically just another edition of the Westminister Confession, with significant changes made only in the areas of church organization and subjects of baptism. Of course Regular Baptists and Calvinistic Baptists accept the Westminster confession also.

That Baptists generally accept the doctrine of original sin is also illustrated by The New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833), which has been printed in the Baptist Church Manual for American Baptists. It says that man was created in holiness, but sinned and fell, “in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners.” The wording of this confession is softer and more ambiguous than some creeds. But Baptist theologian A.H. Strong is not ambiguous at all: “The Scritpures represent every human nature as totally depraved” (Systematic Theology, 1896, p. 341). Indeed, though Baptists don’t advertise the doctrine of original sin all that much, the strength which the doctrine has in Baptist theology is clearly evidence by the very popular doctrines of Justification by Faith Only and Once Saved, Always Saved, which are derived from the doctrine of original sin.

Rumblings of Discontent

There have, of course, been periodic rumblings of discontent surrounding the doctrine of original sin and total depravity in Protestantism. The first major challenge came from the teachings of James Arminius (1560-1609), the critical points of which are summed up in The Five Arminian Articles prepared in 1610 as remonstrances to the various Dutch confessions mentioned above. But it must be noted that Arminius and his heirsnever denied ihe doctrine of inherited original sin itself.

The principle spiritual heirs of Arminius today are Wesleyan denominations such as Methodists, Nazarenes, and Pentecostals. Their discontent with Calvinism has centered around the exact extent of the consequences of original sin. Most especially, they are anxious to deny the related doctrines of absolute predestination and unconditional election. They affirm that man does have free will, and that saving grace can be resisted by the exercise of that free will. They likewise debate about the nature of the transmission of original sin. But the doctrine of original sin itself is never seriously challenged.

Methodist acceptance of the doctrine has been illustrated above by the fact that the statement on original sin and total depravity which is found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England has been incorporated verbatim into the Articles of Religion published in the Discipline of the Methodist Church. Acceptance of the doctrine among Wesleyan groups is further illustrated by Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley who says, “Not only are all men born under the penalty of death, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, but they are born with a depraved nature also” (Christian Theology, Vol. 2, p. 98). A few other groups, such as the Cumberland Presbyterians and the Free-Will Baptists, have likewise rejected the predestinarian implications of Calvin. But like the Wesleyans, they retain the doctrine of original sin without question.

Likewise, it may fairly be said that Arminians; do not really believe in total hereditary depravity. They generally affirm that some truly good works can be performed by unregenerate man. But in the long run that turns out to be an inconsequential distinction because they continue to affirm that man was sufficiently depraved for it to be impossible for him to believe and respond to the gospel apart from the assistance of a direct operation of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, the doctrine of original sin is intimately bound up in one of the most distinctive doctrines of Wesleyan churches – entire sanctification. According to their theology, the root of original sin remains in man even after he has been converted. It can only be removed by a second work of grace whereby man is thoroughly purged from every inclination to sin, and entirely sanctified – able from that point on to live without sin. But again, man can only achieve this state by a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit to overcome the last remnants of his depraved nature.

Several Protestant groups have sought other means of mollifying the consequences of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. For example, both the Methodists and the Church of the Brethren deny that children are born in sin (though the Methodists used to affirm this). But they do so without actually letting go of either original sin or total depravity. They would say that every child conceived does in fact inherit the original sin and depraved nature of Adam. But, they say, that original sin is immediately forgiven by the atoning act of Christ’s sacrifice.

I do not know of any major Evangelical Protestant body which unequivocally denies either original sin or inherited depravity. Even neo-orthodox theologians such as Karl Barth cling tenaciously to the doctrines. They are as systemic to Protestantism as is the doctrine of salvation by faith only. Of course we must remember that many of the individual members of these denominations may not believe the doctrines.

Modernism And The Spirit Of The Age

There is, however, an element of Protestantism which has rejected both doctrines, but not for reasons that we would like to see. Modernism, which has deep inroads into many Protestant bodies, and virtually controls some denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Christ, denies both original sin and inherited depravity. But this denial springs, not from a respect for Scripture, but from a total disregard for Scripture. They reject the biblical account of creation and they believe the story of Adam and Eve is just a myth. As theistic evolutionists they deny that there ever was an historical Adam. Thus they cannot believe in either original sin or inherited depravity.

Indeed, many such modernists deny, not just original sin, but virtually deny sin itself. They believe man is really good at heart, and needs only to be set free from oppressive and antiquated ideas of sin and guilt. And this affords me an opportunity to bring this article to a close with a warning. While it is surely good for us to probe the tragic errors of the doctrines of original sin and inherited depravity, let us not forget that the even more dangerous spirit of our age is to deny sin and depravity altogether. While denying that we inherit either the sin or the depraved nature of Adam, let us remember that we are, of our own will, sinners. And without blaming anything on Adam we must still confess that the heart of man is “deceitful above all things, and exceedingly corrupt” (Jer. 17:9).

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Author: jfm

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