A Response to Dr. John Compton’s “What is Calvinism?” : 1a. Total Depravity

[Introduction]

1. Dr. Compton’s Definition of Calvinism
In defining Calvinism, Dr. Compton reviews the traditional five points of doctrine summarized in the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Though more could be written, I would like to draw readers’ attention to Compton’s presentation of two of these points in particular, namely: a. Total depravity, and b. Irresistible grace.

a. Total depravity
Compton explains the doctrine of total depravity with the following statement:
“[Total depravity is] the total destruction of God’s image in a human being, so that they are rendered incapable of responding to God.”
A major problem with this explanation is that when Calvinists define the effect of Man’s Fall into sin, we consistently and explicitly deny that this Fall totally destroyed God’s image in human beings. To illustrate this point, I direct readers to two sources that are very influential among Calvinistic Baptists: i. James P. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology, and ii. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

i. That the image of God within Man was not totally destroyed by the Fall, according to James P. Boyce
That James P. Boyce, the first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, held to the Bible doctrines commonly known as Calvinism may be demonstrated through his teaching on Limited atonement [see especially pages 339-340 of James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006)]. Boyce taught Total depravity (referring to this doctrine as “total corruption” [Abstract, 245]), writing that, “This corruption [brought about by Adam's Fall into sin] extends to every affection of the heart and mind” [Abstract, 243]. Yet Boyce was clear in his denial that God’s image was totally destroyed in the Fall, writing, “That the whole image was not destroyed by the sin of Adam, appears from the fact that man is spoken of as in that image subsequent to the fall and before the renewal. See Gen. 9:6; James 3:9; 1 Cor. 11:7″ [Abstract, 214].

ii. That the image of God within Man was not totally destroyed by the Fall, according to Wayne Grudem
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is used in seminaries across the U.S. Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has an endorsement for this book on the back cover of the 2000 edition. Grudem’s “Calvinism” can be demonstrated in his teaching on Limited atonement, in which Grudem writes, “In conclusion, it seems to me that the Reformed position of ‘particular redemption’ [the term for this doctrine that most Calvinists, including myself, prefer over 'Limited atonement'- Andrew] is most consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture” [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. 600). In discussing the "Calvinism" of both Grudem and Boyce, I have turned to their teaching on the doctrine of Limited atonement, because this doctrine is the most apparently controversial of the "five points," and adherence to this doctrine indicates adherence to the other "points," almost without exception.] In a section of his work titled, “The Fall: God’s Image Is Distorted but Not Lost,” Grudem explicitly affirms that Man remains in God’s image after the Fall, even as he affirms the doctrine of Total depravity [Systematic Theology, 444].

Conclusion
When Dr. Compton claims that the doctrine of Total depravity indicates the total destruction of God’s image within a human being, he is incorrect according to how Calvinists themselves define this doctrine. The only way in which Dr. Compton’s definition could be vindicated is if he were to argue that the ability to make moral choices apart from the overwhelming influence of sin (an ability that has been lost in the Fall, according to the doctrine of Total depravity) is fundamental to what it means for Man to be made in God’s image, and thus the idea that God’s image is totally destroyed would be implicit within Total depravity, even as Calvinists explicitly teach that this image remains. Apart from this hypothetical argument, however (and Dr. Compton certainly makes no such argument in his presentation, but rather seems to imply that he is defining Total depravity as Calvinists themselves would define it), Dr. Compton’s statement is simply false, it should be either amended or retracted by Dr. Compton, and should not be repeated by anyone who is trying to give an accurate representation concerning what Calvinists teach about Total depravity.

-Andrew Lindsey

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One Comment on “A Response to Dr. John Compton’s “What is Calvinism?” : 1a. Total Depravity”

  1. genembridges Says:

    Andrew,

    You wrote:

    The only way in which Dr. Compton’s definition could be vindicated is if he were to argue that the ability to make moral choices apart from the overwhelming influence of sin (an ability that has been lost in the Fall, according to the doctrine of Total depravity) is fundamental to what it means for Man to be made in God’s image, and thus the idea that God’s image is totally destroyed would be implicit within Total depravity, even as Calvinists explicitly teach that this image remains.

    1. Actually, it could be vindicated if he cited some representative works (which he did not) that said that very thing, in order to prove to Calvinists, not just his immediate audience, that our doctrine today is either misrepresentative of Calvinism qua Calvinism or, a weaker thesis, that it has changed.

    2. Consequently, Dr. Compton is arguing a straw man and therefore arguing not against Calvinism or Calvinists but himself.

    It’s sad to see this sort of thing still cropping up. But perhapps I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a lot of hooey floating around these days. Take a look at Triablogue…we’ve been visited by the kinists lately. I was set to retire from blogging for about a year until they showed up. There’s little more that reeeeeally grinds my gears than racism in the Church, particularly when it tries to fly St. Andrew’s Cross next to the Stars & Bars…


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