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Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 2
August 26, 2013 Kurt Jaros

Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 2

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In my previous post, I explained how there is a need for a multilateral discussion on issues pertaining to the nature of man and the effects of sin/the Fall.  I also explained the distinction between believing that man is basically good versus essentially good.  In the following posts, I would like to explain my interpretation of certain choice passages which warrant doubts about the view of the effects of sin, chiefly, the doctrine of inability which are fundamental to a presuppositional apologetic framework..

In Romans 3:10-18, Paul includes excerpts from Old Testament writings which appear on their face to support the doctrine of Inability.  Yet Paul’s argument and summary points are merely that every person [with the implied exception of Jesus], who has attained conscious decision-making, has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection (3:9 and 3:23).   The thrust of his message is that falling short in the least degree is sufficient to incur God’s wrath and require the Savior to be spared that wrath (James 2:10).

In supporting his argument introduced at verse 9 and recapitulated at verse 23, Paul uses six quotations from the Old Testament here to illustrate his main point.  Do these supporting quotes stand for the proposition that all men are entirely evil? Or is Paul engaging in a polemic, even making use of hyperbole, in support of his overall argument that no man, who is capable of decision-making [except Jesus], is in fact morally perfect?  Considering the verses, which Paul is quoting, within their original context, is highly important.

Here is a chart that might help:

3:10-12      Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalms 14:1-3, 53:1-3

3:13           Psalm 5:9 & Psalm 140:3

3:14           Psalm 10:7

3:15-17     Isaiah 59:7-8

3:18          Psalm 36:1

Each of Paul’s excerpts from the Psalms references the “the wicked,” “enemies,” “the proud”, “the violent” or “the fool.”  But the original Old Testament passages make it clear that, Paul has selectively excerpted verses which refer only to the grossly sinful group, and that for each grossly sinful group mentioned in the Psalm there is also mentioned an opposing group of mankind, variously described as “the company of the righteous,” “the poor,” the innocent,” “the needy,” and “the upright.”    So, the whole of Scripture does not teach that all men are totally depraved; rather, there it teaches that there are at least two subsets of mankind.

One potential objection, before I continue on, is that there are some times when the NT authors take liberty with some OT verses for their own purposes.  I understand that this does happen; but I don’t think that is the case here.  Perhaps I will address this in another post some time.  For now, I am providing a viable interpretation of certain passages that apparently support the doctrine of Inability, which is fundamental to the presuppositional apologetic framework.  Now back to the correlating OT passages.

The writer in Isaiah 59:7-8 is referring primarily to the wicked of the nation of Israel yet even here there is reference to the existence of a second subset of mankind–the “innocent”–found in the phrase phrase “swift to shed innocent blood” (cf. 59:7). (Now, if we were to believe in doctrine of inherited guilt as most Protestants do, then there is no such thing as “innocent blood” since all men would be guilty before birth.)

So, why, in the excerpts from the Psalms and Isaiah, does the Apostle Paul only reference the evil subset of humanity, allowing an unstudied reader to conclude that the evil group indeed stands for all mankind?  The answer, I believe, is found in the very first Old Testament passage which is referenced by the Apostle Paul: Ecclesiastes 7:20.  This verse reads much differently than the excerpts from the Psalms and Isaiah:  “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” I believe the context suggests that the word “always” would be an appropriate adverb to connect with the verb “does” in the phrase “does what is right.” This verse does not teach the doctrine of total depravity but rather is entirely in line with, and therefore the basis for, Paul’s overall argument that everyone has fallen short–some a lot and others a little at sometime during their lives of conscious decision-making.  This verse alone — Ecclesiastes 7:20 — is sufficient on its own for Paul to prove, from the Old Testament Scriptures, his argument in Romans 3:9 and 3:23.

Having quoted from Ecclesiastes 7:20, Paul then proceeds to incorporate the additional Old Testament excerpts, I submit, as polemic and hyperbole to get his reader’s attention to the seriousness of sin and to the main of his argument in 3:9 and 3:23 (that all humans, both Jews and Gentiles, sin and fall short of the glory of God).  This interpretation of Paul’s argument reconciles the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, whereas the Calvinist interpretation puts them at odds.

Indeed, Calvin himself knew that his interpretation of Paul was suspect and admitted glossing over that weakness.  “I will not here labour to prove that the [Old Testament] passages [from Psalms and Isaiah] apply, with the view of removing the doubts of any who might think them quoted out of place.  I will take them as if they had been used by Paul for the first time, and not taken from the Prophets.”  (The Institutes, Book II, Chapter 3, point 2).  On the above interpretation, Calvin appears to be mistreating Paul’s intended purpose, argument, and use of the OT text; his dealing of this passage presents not only concerns over textual matters but also grave theological difficulties.

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