EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS 

THIRD AND FOURTH HEADS OF DOCTRINE 

OF THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE MANNER THEREOF 

Article 2. Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature.

The above rendering of this article is faulty in the extreme, not only because it is far from literal, but especially because it leaves out entirely a very important phrase, “by the righteous judgment of God.” This omission is very serious because it also happens to be the one place in our confessions where the organic line is not followed exclusively in delineating the corruption of man. Here we have at least an indication of the judicial, or legal, ground of the depravity of the race, and it is omitted in the English version of our Psalter. We present, therefore, a more literal and correct translation below. 

Moreover, such as man became after the fall, such kind of children he also procreated, namely, a corrupt man corrupt children; the corruption having been diverted from Adam into all his posterity (only Christ excepted), not through imitation (as the Pelagians of old asserted), but through the propagation of an evil nature, by the righteous judgment of God. 

With this rendering the Dutch translation agrees. 

In this article the fathers set forth the truth concerning the corruption of the entire race, or the doctrine of universal depravity. Moreover, this paragraph sets forth at the same time the truth concerning the manner of this universal depravity, and that too, over against the Pelagian error. And finally, the article, evidently anticipating the Pelagian accusation that the doctrine of original corruption vitiates the truth of individual responsibility, points to the judicial-ground of this original corruption when it emphasizes that depravity has spread to the entire race “by the righteous judgment of God.” To these three elements of this article we shall briefly call attention. 

The main proposition of the article we find in its opening statement: “Such as man became after the fall, such kind of children he also procreated, namely, a corrupt man corrupt children.” Let us note, first of all, that there is a plain reference here to the preceding article. According to that article we maintain that man became corrupt in his very nature. Originally he had been endowed with the gifts of the true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness in his very nature. But by his own free will, at the instigation of the devil, man rebelled against God. And thus, he not only lost all the excellent gifts with which he had been endowed in mind and heart and will and affections, but he entailed upon himself the very opposite of these gifts, namely, blindness of mind, vanity and perverseness of judgment, wickedness and obduracy of heart and will, and impurity in his affections. The image of God in man was subverted into its very opposite. And when the present article says, “Such as man became after the fall,” it is to this corruption of man’s nature that it refers. Man became such that he was corrupt in his very nature and in all its part. And, so the article teaches, such as he was, such kind of children he begat. A corrupt man begat corrupt children. He procreated children, therefore, that were corrupt in their very nature. Children he produced who were characterized by blindness of mind, vanity and perverseness of judgment, wickedness and obduracy of heart and will, and impurity in their affections. 

Again, therefore, the article emphasizes a very crucial point, namely, that man’s sin is a matter of his very nature, and not merely a matter of the deed. The Pelagian denies this. He claims that sin is ever in the act only, never in the nature. A man is righteous only as he does righteousness, and he is wicked only as he commits wickedness. The Pelagian insists that no sinful deed can affect the nature of pan in such a way that the nature itself becomes corrupt. He will grant that through repetition man’s will becomes weakened, so that it becomes easier to do the evil and more difficult to do the good. He will also grant that sin can become habitual through repetition. But he is insistent that the nature itself cannot be corrupted by sin, and that the will of man always remains free to choose either for the good or for the evil. It is this error which, while it surely goes hand in hand with the Pelagian error concerning the imitation of sin, is nevertheless the more serious error. It is in this regard primarily that the Pelagian is individualistic in his doctrine. And it is over against this error that the fathers once more in this article posit the truth concerning the corruption of man’s nature. While in Article 1 they maintain this truth in regard to Adam, in Article 2 they follow through by maintaining that same Truth in regard to Adam’s children. In regard to sin, the truth is: like father, like son. And it is of prime importance that this be maintained. If it is not clearly understood and maintained, the truth that man is “incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil” cannot possibly be maintained any longer, and one can never arrive at the conclusion expressed by our fathers in Article 3 of the present chapter. If in any regard this severer sentence concerning the depravity of Adam’s nature and the nature of all Adam’s children is mitigated, one must be prepared to discard entirely the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. The second, and related truth taught by this article is that this universal, depravity of mankind is achieved by propagation of an evil nature. This is already maintained in the opening statement of the article when it says that man procreated, or begat, children like himself. And it is emphasized in the last part of the article over against the Pelagians. The latter teach that sin can be extended to mankind only by way of imitation. This is, of course, quite in harmony with their error that sin is only in the deed, never in the nature. It stands to reason that this is the only course open to the Pelagian to explain sin. The act of sin cannot be extended from one man to another, from one generation to the next, by propagation, by conception and birth. And if, then, the act of sin is the only sin there is, it must be that sin is learned. And thus the Pelagian maintains that sin is transmitted through imitation. Abel and Cain sinned because they had an example of sin in their parents. And every child sins because he comes into a world in which he is surrounded by a multitude of bad examples for him to imitate. Sin is a matter of the environment. From this point of view, of course, the modern philosophy that controls much of education today is not really modern at all, but as old as Pelagianism. And in this same regard, therefore, the instruction of our Canons is very much to the point, not only as respects matters soteriological but also as regards matters educational. The Reformed Christian cannot go along with a philosophy of education which teaches that the child is inherently good, or that this nature is at least inherently neutral, and that therefore a good environment will result in a good child. 

But let it be clearly understood as well, that the doctrine of a depraved nature cannot be maintained except on the basis of the doctrine of original corruption, or better, inherited corruption. No more than the Pelagian can maintain his doctrine that sin is only in the act of every individual except on the basis that the sinful act is a matter of imitation, no more can the Reformed man maintain his doctrine that sin is in the nature of every man, except on the basis that this depravity is transmitted to all men from Adam by way of conception and birth. The human race is an organic whole. There was in paradise not simply an isolated individual, Adam, with an isolated instance of a human nature, which stood entirely unrelated to all other instances of the human nature. But the father of the entire race was in paradise. His human nature was our human nature. And there is no instance of the human nature that is not out of Adam. And just as surely as every individual of the human race has received his nature from Adam by way of generation and birth, so surely is that nature acorrupt nature. No more than one can gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles, no more can one gather good men from the corrupt vine of Adam. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.” A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. 

To this rule the fathers admit only one exception, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is to be noted in this connection that the exception does not lie herein, that Christ did not belong to the posterity of Adam. To deny that would be to deny the real humanity of the Mediator and would be the denial of all possibility of salvation. But the fathers exactly place Christ in the line of the prosperity of Adam, excepting Him at the same time from the corruption of that posterity. This, as we know, is due to the fact, on the one hand, that Christ was the Person of the Son of God, and therefore exempt from the imputation of Adam’s guilt; and it is due, on the other hand, to the truth that while Christ assumed His human nature from the line of Adam’s posterity, from the virgin Mary, He assumed that nature by way of the conception by the Holy Ghost, and therefore assumed a nature that was absolutely holy and that could not possibly become defiled by the corruption of sin. 

We may also note that the fathers do not involve themselves in the old argument concerning the origin of the soul. None of the three views concerning the origin of the soul—creationism, pre-existentianism, and traducianism,—is treated in the article. We will therefore follow the lead of this article, and not take the time here to elaborate on these various views. Let it suffice to note that the fathers happily speak of the propagation of an evil nature. This must needs exclude both creationism and pre-existentianism, because the latter both deny that the nature is propagated. And it excludes traducianism, at least by implication, because it does not speak of the propagation of theperson, but only of the nature. The nature, both body and soul, is propagated; and it is propagated in sin. For a further elaboration of this subject we refer you to: H. Hoeksema, “In the Midst of Death,” pp. 153, ff. 

Finally, we must take note of the phrase, “by the righteous judgment of God.” Undoubtedly these words were inserted because the Arminians and Pelagians insist that the doctrine of inherited corruption removes the responsibility for sin from the individual. If, so they argue, a man comes into this world with a nature that is so corrupt that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil, then he cannot help it that he sins. If he is inherently evil, what else than sin, can be expected of him. But if he is by nature incapable of ought but sin, then he is not to be, blamed. God Himself, so they claimed, cannot expect more than a man is capable of. And therefore God cannot hold man responsible for his sinful deeds, let alone his sinful nature. Hence, if you would maintain the doctrine of original, or inherited corruption, you must discard the doctrine of human responsibility. The judicial ground, therefore, of this original corruption must be understood. The corruption of the nature ispunishment, one aspect of the punishment of death. And that punishment is on account of original guilt. But original guilt, it must be remembered; is notpropagated: it does not rest on the organic unity of the race. It is imputed. It is the guilt of Adam’s sin reckoned to the account of every member of the human race (again, Christ excepted). You ask how this is possible? The answer is that this truth of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to our account rests upon the legal and federal solidarity of the human race. The race is legally one, and Adam is not only father; but representative head. His guilt is the guilt of all his posterity. And the punishment of that guilt is death. In that death, to which belongs the corruption of our nature, we are all born. 

This solidarity of the race is not only a matter of the actual experience of men and nations, it is plainly the basis of the apostle’s instruction in Romans 5:12-18. The entire emphasis in this passage is ultimately upon that legal aspect both of sin and of grace. And if, then, it be objected that even thus the responsibility for sin on the part of the individual cannot be justly maintained, our answer is three-fold. In the first place, we reply that both this federal solidarity, and therefore the guilt it implies, and the responsibility for our actual sins, as they arise out of our inherited corruption, are simply undeniable facts of our experience. One can reason as he may, in actual experience escape neither the one nor the other. In the second place, we must remember that the denial of the federal solidarity of the human race in Adam will also force one to the denial of the federal solidarity of Christ and His elect. And that would make impossible any atonement and salvation. This is exactly the parallel that is drawn in the passage from Romans 5 cited above. And in the third place, if one seeks the reason for this legal solidarity of the race, ultimately that reason is to be found in the sovereign good pleasure of God. And to him who would object, “Why doth he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will?” the answer of the Word of God must be: “Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” Was it not the sovereign right of the Creator to form the entire race in Adam both organically and legally? And is it then not strictly according to justice that He imputes the guilt of the one man Adam to the entire race. And upon the basis of that guilt, is it not strictly according to justice that the punishment of death should come upon all? 

In conclusion, however, we must remark that the emphasis of this article is nevertheless not upon original guilt, but upon original corruption. And the reason is rather obvious: The fathers are in this chapter interested in the natural condition of the sinner in relation to the question whether his conversion is or can be in any wise his own work. 

H.C.H.