Home > Brian's Blogs, Theology > The Canons of Dort Part 8: Total Depravity

The Canons of Dort Part 8: Total Depravity

Today we move to my personal comments on the Canons of Dort third main point of doctrine: total depravity.

Let me address one overarching issue up front. One of the problems with the famous acronym TULIP is that summarizing each main point of doctrine in one or two words can easily create confusion. In this instance, “total depravity” is often misinterpreted as “absolute depravity.” Let me be clear: total depravity does not equal absolute depravity. What is the difference? A lot!

Total depravity means that every aspect of our being (mind, heart, will, emotions, etc) is corrupted with sin. Every aspect of our being is stained with sin. For example, our minds are stained with sin. This means that they have been infected with sin and corrupted by sin so that our minds are no longer aligned with the mind of God and cannot return to God on its own.

Absolute depravity means that every aspect of our being (mind, heart, will, emotions, etc) is not just stained with sin, it is entirely sinful. Every aspect of our being is the complete opposite of how God created it. For example, our minds are completely sinful. This means that there are absolutely no good thoughts running through our minds, ever.

The Canons of Dort clearly present a picture of “total depravity.” Yes everything is stained with sin and this is severe (so severe, in fact, that we cannot return to God on our own), but this does not mean that the image of God in us has been annihilated. The Canons specifically state “there is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior.” In other words, the Canons are answering the question, “why do sinful people do some good things?” The answer: because even sinful people retain the image of God, “a certain light of nature,” even if it is distorted.

So to understand the third main point of doctrine appropriately is to say that every aspect of a person is stained with sin, but the image of God was not completely destroyed. In fact, the image of God sometimes shines through very clearly. The remaining image of God explains why non-Christians can be “moral,” but the staining of sin explains why no person can return to God on their own power.

The Impact and Spread of Sin

There is a wonderful literary parallelism in this section between creation and fall that I tried to bring out in my previous summary. It looks like this (by the way, this is similar to Arminius’s view of sin):

  • Created mind: “a true and salutary knowledge of his Creator and things spiritual.”
    • Sinful mind: “blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment.”
  • Created will and heart: “with righteousness.”
    • Sinful will and heart: “perversity, defiance, and hardness.”
  • Created emotions: “purity”
    • Sinful emotions: “impurity.”

The Pervasiveness of Sin

When the Canons speak of how sin is spread from one generation to the next, they speak of corruption. In other words, one person’s corrupt human nature begets another person with a corrupt human nature. What is interesting about this (for some people at least!) is that the Canons do NOT speak of inherited guilt (“I’m guilty because Adam and my parents were guilty”), they speak of inherited corruption (“I’m corrupt because Adam and my parents were corrupt”). In other words, the Canons do not speak of the “imputation of guilt” (Rom. 5) that many Calvinists speak of.

When speaking of this corrupt human nature, the Canons describe humanity as “neither willing nor able to return to God.” This is a key distinction between Calvinists and Arminians. Arminians agree that humanity is not “willing” to return to God, but the Calvinists emphasize that humanity is “not able.” This inability to return to God explains the need for unconditional election.

The Inadequacy of “the Light of Nature” and “the Law”

As I stated previously, the Canons clearly speak of “a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall.” I think there are two reasons why the Canons can speak of a certain light remaining in man. First, as I stated previously, the Canons adopt a view of “total depravity” not “absolute depravity.” Therefore, the image of God remains in man but is distorted. Second, the Canons seem to adopt a view of common grace. Common grace is the idea that there are some aspects of God’s grace that God bestows upon all people, Christian and non-Christian. A very simple example of common grace is this: sinful people are still alive. The fact that God does not annihilate the sinner at the first sin is an aspect of God’s common grace. Another simple example is found in the Sermon on the Mount: God provides rain for both the righteous and the unrighteous. So God’s common grace also enables the remaining image of God to shine through.

It is important to note that Arminians share the doctrine of common grace. They believe that there are some aspects of god’s grace that God bestows upon all people, Christian and non-Christian. What is the difference? The Arminian believes that God’s common grace includes salvific grace which enables all humans cooperate with God and choose salvation (this may also be called potential saving grace). Calvinists deny this aspect of common grace and emphasize salvation through unconditional election, not human will.

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