Hereditary Total Depravity: Examining the Old Testament Proof Texts

by Melvin Curry
via Guardian of Truth, January 1, 1987

Hereditary total depravity is generally associated with Augustinian and Calvinistic doctrine. John Calvin, following in the footsteps of Augustine, taught that all men sinned in Adam, and, consequently, every human being, except Jesus Christ, possesses from birth a totally corrupt sinful nature. Calvinists are saddled with a grave inconsistency in their position on original sin. They believe, on the one hand, that the guilt and depravity of the human race are ordained of God, while they argue, on the other hand, that God must not be accused of making men corrupt, To put the matter another way, how can human beings who are hell-bound sinners because they inherit a corrupt Adamic nature be held responsible as willful transgressors for deeds they are automatically programmed from birth to perform?

Does the Bible teach hereditary total depravity? The burden of this article will be to consider some alleged Old Testament proofs that Calvinists use in support of the doctrine by examining several classical texts (Genesis 6:5; Psalms 51:5; 58:3-4; Isaiah 1:5-6; Jeremiah 17:8-9). The evidence adduced from these passages, however, is not as overwhelmingly convincing as Calvinists insist. If the doctrine of hereditary total depravity is not presupposed when such passages are studied, they are subject to alternate explanations which fall short of the Calvinistic position.

If I may be permitted to switch to the New Testament evidence for a moment, this tendency to assume more than the evidence warrants is nowhere more apparent than in the interpretation of Romans 5:12. William F. Bruner says, "This is the locus classicus of the whole doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin to the race" (Children of the Devil, 22). And George Eldon Ladd affirms, "It is quite clear that Paul believed in 'original sin' in the sense that Adam's sin constituted all men sinners" (Theology of the New Testament 403-404). But listen to Ladd's comments on Romans 5:12, "Grammatically, this can mean that men died because they have personally sinned, or it can mean that in Adam, all men sinned." Ladd appeals to the surrounding context in order to support his interpretation of Romans 5:12, but, according to his own admission, his interpretation is far from conclusive. Moreover, what is true of the interpretation of Romans 5:12 is also true of the Old Testament texts. All of them together do not sustain the Calvinistic doctrine of hereditary total depravity.

Genesis 6:5

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

There is no question that this passage teaches the depravity of man. The word "depravity" itself means "very crooked." It is derived from two Latin terms: de, an intensive particle, and pravus, "crooked." But Charles G. Finney observes that the depravity of man is not to be taken "in the sense of original or constitutional crookedness, but in the sense of having become crooked. The term does not imply original mal-conformation, but lapsed, fallen, departed from right or straight. It always implies deterioration, or fall from a former state or moral or physical perfection" (Systematic Theology 164). Sin is defined in the Bible as "transgression of the law" of God (I John 3:4). Adam and Eve lived in a state of perfection in the Garden of Eden, but, when they transgressed God's law, they were driven out from God's presence as well as from the tree of life. This constituted a fall and resulted in their depravity; indeed, this was the original sin. But sin does not necessarily imply a sinful nature. If it does, how does one account for the sin of Adam and Eve? Their sin may be explained on the basis of free will and temptation without implying that they had a sinful nature. And the same thing is true with respect to that of their posterity.

Adam and Eve did not sin because they had a natural appetite for sin; Eve craved to eat the fruit and to possess knowledge, Adam partook with her of his own free will. Finney's description of their sin is entirely sufficient: "It was simply the correlation that existed between the fruit and their constitution, its presence exciting their desires for food and knowledge. This lead to prohibited indulgence. But all men sin in precisely the same way" (Systematic Theology 182). "The consent to make self-gratification an end," continues Finney, "is the whole of sin" (182).

Thus Genesis 6:5 states that human sin was the result of deliberate choices within the human heart, which God clearly "saw," and human depravity was of such magnitude that God's judgment was completely just. But Calvinists go beyond the evidence when they argue hereditary total depravity from this context; indeed, the doctrine of inherited sin is not taught here.

Psalm 51:5

"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."

"The Bible in this and other places," writes John Calvin, "clearly asserts that we were born in sin, and that it exists within us as a disease fixed in our nature" (Commentary on Psalms 2:290). But he adds: "David does not charge it upon his parents, nor trace his crime to them, but sits himself before the Divine tribunal, confesses that he was formed in sin, and that he was a transgressor ere he saw the light of the world" (290). Calvin concludes that David's depravity is total as well as hereditary: "his nature was entirely depraved" (290), "destitute of all spiritual good" (290), and "sin cleaved by nature to every part of him without exception" (291). This is true because David, like all men, sinned in Adam. When Adam "fell, we all forfeited along with him our original integrity" (291). Martin Luther goes even further: "Thus the true and proper meaning is this: 'I am a sinner, not because I have committed adultery, nor because I have had Uriah murdered. But I have committed adultery and murder because I was born, indeed conceived and formed in the womb as a sinner.' So we are not sinners because we commit this or that sin, but we commit them because we are sinners first" (Works 12:348).

But the clear intent of David in Psalm 51 is to assume the blame for his own sin: "Have mercy upon me" (v. 1); "blot out my transgressions" (v. 1); "wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (v. 2); "I acknowledge my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me" (v. 3); "against thee, thee only, have I sinned" (v. 4). John T. Willis says: "It does not make sense to understand the king to mean that his mother sinned (by adultery or fornication) when she conceived David, or that she was a sinful woman when he was conceived. It is clearly David's sin that is meant here. The best explanation is that the poet is using an Ancient Near Eastern idiom meaning that he, like all human beings, was prone or inclined to sin from his youth up because he was constantly surrounded by sin and temptation" (Insights from the Psalms 2:60). The fact that David was "surrounded by sin and temptation" from his birth made David painfully aware that he was not the only sinner. Nor was he the first sinner; that dishonor is reserved for Adam. Even if the passage teaches that David's mother was, in some sense, a sinner at the time of his conception, there is nothing here that suggests that she possessed a corrupt nature, or that her corrupt nature was transmitted to her infant son. Such a doctrine must be assumed to be true on other grounds and forced into play in the interpretation of this text.

Psalm 58:3

"The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies."

If Psalm 58:3 is pressed literally, the simple but absurd conclusion is that newborn babies are liars. In the first place, however, David is speaking particularly about a special class of "wicked" men as distinct from the whole human race or from saints. And, secondly, these wicked men are described in highly figurative poetic language. The admission of Albert Barnes, a staunch Calvinist, is to the point: "Strictly speaking, therefore, it cannot be shown that the psalmist in this declaration had reference to the whole human race, or that he meant to make a universal declaration in regard to man as being early estranged or alienated from God; and the passage, therefore, cannot directly, and with exact propriety, be adduced to prove the doctrine that 'original sin' appertains to all the race, - whatever may be true on that point" (Psalms 2:138). Furthermore, he comments, "It is only, therefore, after it is proved that men are depraved or 'wicked' that this passage can be cited in favor of the doctrine of original sin" (138). A more honest appraisal of the passage could not be made. Even if one grants that the passage teaches that children lie as soon as they speak at all, "this would not prove," writes Finney, "that their nature was in itself sinful, but might well consist with the theory that their physical depravity, together with their circumstances of temptation, led them into selfishness, from the very moment of their moral existence" (Systematic Theology 179).

Isaiah 1:5-6

"Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it."

Although some expositors have adduced this passage in support of the doctrine of original sin, such an interpretation is wholly out of harmony with the context. Isaiah is speaking about the punishment which God has heaped upon the nation of Judah because it has rebelled against him: "Ali sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity" (v. 4). Nothing at all is intimated about how sin is transmitted by heredity. The "wounds and bruises" (v. 6) have been received because of willful transgressions. Even John Calvin recognized that the corruption of the nation was the result of "hardened impenitence" (Commentary on Isaiah 1:47).

Jeremiah 17:9

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

This passage provides an opportunity to sum up my remarks. I affirm that men are depraved, in the sense that I defined this term above, and that the effect of sin leaves the human heart "deceitful above all things." Thus I have no quarrel with Calvinists over the fact that depravity is total or pervasive in an individual, i.e., that "the whole of man's being has been affected by sin" (Steele and Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism 25). I deny, however, that man is totally depraved in the sense that he cannot exercise his free will in conversion and must be granted faith as a supernatural gift. My disagreement with them is over their position that man's corruption is inborn, inherited at birth from Adam; and, therefore, that man "can do nothing pertaining to his salvation" (Five Points of Calvinism 25).

Not one of the passages discussed in this article affirms anything about man's inborn, corrupt nature or his spiritual inability. The doctrine of hereditary total depravity is not taught in these Old Testament texts.

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