A Response to Dr. Paige Patterson’s Presentation on Total Depravity
[Read live-blog account of this presentation HERE.]
Dr. Patterson referred to his understanding of human sinfulness as “Total depravity” throughout his presentation, though at the end of his presentation he made it clear that his understanding of this doctrine differs from the Reformed understanding.
A great start, as all should agree
The first half (roughly) of Dr. Patterson’s presentation was one of the very best explanations of Total depravity that I have ever heard, to the point that thought, “If he continues like this, then I would like to have this sermon distributed to every Southern Baptist church as a clear explanation of this doctrine.” Dr. Patterson’s exposition of Romans 3:10-18 and Romans 5:15-18, with a cross-reference to Genesis 3, were particularly helpful.
A controversial point of the presentation
Dr. Patterson was clear in presenting the biblical truth that all descendants of Adam are, by nature, corrupted by sin. Dr. Patterson denied, however, that this corruption, which will inevitably lead to individual sin, actually brings guilt upon an individual until the individual consciously chooses to perform a sinful action. The difference being (if I understand correctly) between consequence and condemnation. The idea that people are corrupted by sin from conception, yet not guilty due to this corruption, is certainly controversial. The Abstract of Principles– the confessional document of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Dr. Patterson used to preside) and of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary- clearly states that the human nature we receive from fallen Adam places us “under condemnation” even before we become “actual transgressors” [in Article VI. “The Fall of Man”]. If the Abstract is in error at this point and should be amended, this should be demonstrated by a careful review of what the Scriptures say on this topic. This is where scholarly debate, which is almost entirely absent from Southern Baptist life, would be truly helpful.
What can a dead man do?
In his presentation, Dr. Patterson mentioned Ephesians 2, in which Paul explains to believers that we were once dead in trespasses and sins, but have been made alive by God. The Reformed exegesis of this passage asserts that this being made alive must happen (in its logical order) prior to faith. Dr. Patterson wished to explain that faith can precede being made alive by proving that a dead man can have faith. In support of this, Dr. Patterson turned to Romans 4:19, “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:” (KJV). As others have pointed out, reference to this verse conflates a a physical condition (number of years the body has lived, which is certainly no offense to God) with a spiritual condition of deadness that entails rebellion against God. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell tried to give a defense of Dr. Patterson’s presentation of this point during the Question & Answer session (Dr. Patterson could not be present for the Q & A session); readers can read the synopses of Dr. Yarnell’s answer as reported by me and johnMark and determine if his answer alleviated this problem.
Dr. Patterson also gave an illustration of a sailor damaged by an explosion, and cast into the sea. An admiral sees the sailor knocked into the sea and sends a helicopter to save the sailor. The sailor can barely hear, but faintly hears the whir of the helicopter blades, and he signals the helicopter, which saves him. Dr. Patterson says that we are like the sailor in the sea, God is like the admiral, and the whirring of the helicopter blades is the preaching of the gospel. We can barely hear the gospel due to our depraved condition, but if we respond to what we hear, we will be saved.
Dr. R.C. Sproul responds to such illustrations with the following counter-illustration:
[Sinful man] is not merely drowning, he has already sunk to the bottom of the sea. It is futile to throw a life preserver to a man who has already drowned. If I understand Paul, I hear him saying that God dives into the water [without being signaled, presumably, by the drowned man] and pulls the dead man from the bottom of the sea and then performs a divine act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He breathed into the dead man new life. [R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 116.]
Readers are invited to review passages such as Ephesians 2:1-10 or Ezekiel 11:19 (Ezekiel 36:26), which speaks of the Lord replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh and giving a new spirit, and to determine for yourself which of the above illustrations does better justice to the biblical presentation.