Total, Absolute, or Partial Depravity?

In the controversy between the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) over common grace, a strange doctrinal distinction has surfaced. The distinction originates from the side of the CRC and is used by Christian Reformed theologians. It is the distinction between “total and absolute depravity.”

The distinction concerns the teaching of the second and third points of the doctrine of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924. This is the teaching that there is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit in unregenerated men and women restraining sin in them and enabling them to perform good works in the sphere of everyday, earthly life. When the PRC object to this teaching as a denial of the biblical and confessionally Reformed doctrine of total depravity, the CRC accuses the PRC of holding a doctrine of absolute depravity. With its teaching of the good of the unregen—erated by common grace, the CRC claims to maintain the doctrine of total depravity.

The odd result of this strange distinction is that the PRC, which deny any good in the unregenerate, are made out to oppose the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, while the CRC, which affirm good in the unregenerate, come off as confessing the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.

This strange distinction comes up in the reconsideration of the third point by Christian Reformed theologian John Bolt in the November 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal. Bolt only refers to the distinction. He does not use it himself. He writes: “It is an open question whether Hoeksema here conflates the distinction between total depravity and absolute depravity” (“Common Grace, Theonomy, and Civic Good: The Temptations of Calvinist Politics [Reflections on the Third Point of the CRC Kalamazoo Synod, 1924”], p. 216). This editorial does not take issue with Professor Bolt. It takes occasion from his reference to the distinction between total and absolute depravity to address this Christian Reformed distinction.

It is high time that this strange distinction be exposed for the ploy that it is. It must be buried in the sea of utter theological forgetfulness. No progress in the discussion of the third point of common grace can be expected as long as this distinction plays in the minds and writings of the theologians.

The PRC deny, absolutely, the charge that they hold “absolute depravity.” They do not now hold, and never have held, a doctrine of “absolute depravity.”

The PRC repudiate the distinction itself. It is not biblical. It does not appear in the Reformed confessions. It is not part of the Reformed tradition. Heppe does not use it in his summary of the Reformed tradition. Turretin does not mention “absolute depravity” in his treatment of the extent of fallen man’s depravity. Even Louis Berkhof does not use the phrase “absolute depravity” in his treatment of man’s depravity in his Systematic Theology, although Bolt is correct in noting that Berkhof suggests the distinction.

As Dr. Bolt points out, Herman Hoeksema does offer an explanation of the phrase “absolute depravity” in his Reformed Dogmatics (see pp. 252, 253). But his explanation does not allow the distinction “total and absolute depravity” any place in the consideration of the extent of the sinfulness of the unregenerated. Hoeksema’s recognition of the legitimacy of the phrase “absolute depravity” is grudging. The impression is left that the repeated use of the phrase by his Christian Reformed foes caused him to cast about for some orthodox explanation or other of it. He should have renounced the phrase as such.

Where did the distinction “total and absolute depravity” originate?

I suspect that it was invented by Christian Reformed theologians for the express purpose of deflecting the deadly serious accusation by the PRC, that the Christian Reformed doctrine of common grace denies the doctrine of total depravity. At the same time, by tagging the PRC with a novel, radical doctrine of “absolute depravity,” the theologians of the CRC could carry out their largely successful program of painting the PRC as “hyper.”

As Bad as He Can Be?

To Hoeksema’s charge that the second and third points of common grace in particular are Pelagian in that they ascribe good to the unregenerated, Louis Berkhof responded with a counterattack on the theology of Hoeksema concerning the natural man. The counterattack was implied in Berkhof’s description of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity: “The doctrine of total depravity, according to the Reformed confession, does not maintain that man is as bad as he can possibly be” (De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd, p. 54, emphasis added; my translation of the Dutch). The words “absolute depravity” are not used, but the idea is there. Down the years, the defenders of common grace have charged against the PRC that they teach that every unregenerated sinner is “as bad as he possibly can be.” The PRC, it is alleged, confess “absolute depravity.”

This description of the doctrine of the PRC regarding the extent of the depravity of the unregenerated immediately puts the Protestant Reformed doctrine in a bad light, if it does not automatically expose it as erroneous. Who can doubt that some unregenerated sinners are far worse than others? Who does not see both in Scripture and in experience that unregenerated people develop in wickedness?

The description of the doctrine of the PRC as teaching that men are “as bad as they can possibly be”—”absolute depravity”! — is ambiguous. The description could refer to the extent of depravity, in which case it is orthodox Reformed doctrine. But it can also refer to the development, intensity, and expression of depravity, in which case a church that confesses that every unregenerated man is as bad as he can possibly be is witless. Because the description is ambiguous, to employ it against the PRC is theologically irresponsible and, finally, ethically wrong.

The PRC confess total depravity. Of an “absolute depravity,” we know nothing.

Confessing total depravity, we deny that there is any ethical good that remains in fallen, unregen—erated humans, or that they can do any good works by a grace of the Spirit working in them.

To the ambiguous charge from the defenders of common grace that this implies that every unregenerated human is as bad as he can possibly be, we respond: “Every unregenerated person is as totally depraved as he can be.” He is utterly without any good, or ability for good. He is completely corrupt. He is completely under sin’s dominion. He is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1ff.). The decent pagan is as totally depraved as was Judas Iscariot when he betrayed our Lord. Adolf Hitler at three years old was as totally depraved as he would be in his 40s and 50s when he unleashed his horrors upon the world.

Degrees and Development of Depravity

This biblical, creedal doctrine—total depravity, not “absolute depravity” (which we do not know)—allows for degrees of evil among those who are totally depraved. The totally depraved Capernaite, who rejects Jesus Christ, is worse than the totally depraved Sodomite engaging in his sexual perversion in the days of Abraham (Matt. 11:23, 24). The explanation is not that the Sodomite is partially good, whereas the Capernaite is wholly bad. But the badness of the Capernaite is worse than the badness of the Sodomite. All sin is wicked. Some sin is more wicked than other sin, depending, among other things, on the degree of knowledge that one has and on the nature of the sin itself.

Today, the baptized young man from a covenant home and a Reformed church who abandons the faith is far more wicked than the drug-using, homosexual young black in the Chicago ghetto. Both are totally depraved.

The biblical, confessional doctrine of total depravity allows for real development of sin in the totally depraved person. I choose Adolf Hitler once more, not because I think that he was virtually the only totally depraved person who ever lived, nor because I think that he was the most evil man who ever lived (although he must come close), but because even the foes of total depravity will grant that there was little common grace good in that monster.

Adolf Hitler as a small boy of three or four, loving his mother, running playfully in the yard, and petting small animals, was as totally depraved as he would be when he plunged Western civilization into darkness in the 1930s and 1940s. When he finally put the gun to his head in the Berlin bunker in 1945, he was not more totally depraved than he was when he was conceived and born. How would that be possible? Everyone is conceived and born in sin, that is, depraved totally from conception (Psalm 51:5). At three as at fifty-six, he was completely sinful. Every part of his being was completely wicked.

But Adolf Hitler developed his corrupt nature. He fanned his hatred of God and his neighbor, especially his Jewish neighbor, to a white-hot flame. And then he struggled his way to power in Germany and in the world, so that he could express and spread his hatred to a nation and the world.

Hitler’s development in sin was not a backsliding from good to bad, not even from partial good to complete badness. It was an advance from bad to worse. It was a vigorous, thorough working out of depravity to its extremest possibilities. It was the intensifying of depravity, not the spreading of the extent of depravity in him.

The figure that illustrates the development of sin in a totally depraved person—a figure that is solidly biblically based—is not that of a sick man who gradually dies. But it is the figure of a dead man who increasingly decays, rots, and stinks more and more.

There is a similar development of sin in particular societies and nations.

There is a similar development of sin in the ungodly world throughout history. The wicked world of the ungodly does not move from a partial love of God to a complete hatred of God. Nor is the history of the world this, that the world degenerates from good to bad as common grace gradually fails. But the world steadily fills up the cup of its iniquity. The world explores, develops, and perfects with tender, loving care the possibilities of sin, the possibilities of life apart from and in rebellion against God.

Partial Depravity

The alternative to the doctrine of total depravity as the PRC confess it (with other churches) is a doctrine of partial depravity.

This is the doctrine of the CRC in its theory of common grace, especially the second and third points. The unregenerate man is partially good by virtue of a gracious operation of the Spirit within him restraining sin. Since he is only partially depraved, he does many works that are good—good in the judgment of God, whose grace produces these works.

Many Reformed and Presbyterian churches freely acknowledge that they are one with the CRC in its doctrine of depravity. They too maintain a doctrine of partial depravity.

So far has this theory of partial depravity developed in the CRC that Christian Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema has rejected the phrase itself, “total depravity,” as the description of the condition of the unregenerated man. His reason is exactly that by virtue of common grace the unregenerated man is partially good and capable of doing good. Hoekema proposes instead the phrase “pervasive depravity.” This, he defines as depravity that “extends to every aspect of human nature: to one’s reason and will as well as to one’s appetites and impulses” (see his Created in God’s Image, Eerdmans, 1986, pp. 149-154).

Man is merely partially depraved! Part of his will, part of his mind, and part of his affections are depraved.

Part of his will, part of his mind, and part of his affections are not depraved!

Partial depravity!

The issue between the PRC and the CRC over depravity has absolutely nothing to do with any teaching by the PRC of an “absolute depravity.” The PRC have never taught such a thing, do not recognize such a thing, and do not know what such a thing is.

The issue is very simply this: Is the unregenerated man completely depraved in all aspects of his being, or is he only partly depraved in all aspects of his being?

Total depravity or partial depravity?

Say it like it is. — DJE