Saturday, December 01, 2012

“Depraved or not depraved, that is the question”

And the answer is, “I trust that these exchanges can help bring fuller clarity and precision about these things.”

We have an opportunity today that is unprecedented in the history of the Christian church. It’s an opportunity to discuss and resolve problems that would have (and did) cause major, long-term schisms in the past. And better, we’ve all just witnessed this in a circle of blog posts among three leading Reformed Christians, and it happened within the space of less than two weeks.

Tullian Tchividjian, Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, wrote the article Are Christians Totally Depraved? on November 19.

More recently, Rick Phillips (senior minister of the historic Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina. He is the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology) posted a significant response on Reformation21: Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved. He responds:

Tchividjian asks, "Are Christians Totally Depraved?" and answers, Yes. Regenerate believers in Christ are, he says, totally depraved. It is true, he admits, that Christians differ from unbelievers in that God's grace has enabled us to believe the gospel, yet total depravity describes both believers and unbelievers with respect to our inability to live so as to please God. He concludes his post with a punchy summary: "Because of total depravity, you and I were desperate for God's grace before we were saved. Because of total depravity, you and I remain desperate for God's grace even after we're saved."

Phillips picks up on something else Tchividjian says: “Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger, more and more competent. And although we would never say it this way, we Christian's (sic) sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work for us: we needed Jesus a lot for justification; we need him less for sanctification.” And he presses home the point:

Notice the dichotomy. To believe that in sanctification we are becoming stronger and stronger, and more spiritually competent, must mean we think that we no longer need Jesus and his finished work. Conversely, those who rely on Jesus should not expect to grow stronger or more competent.

This is contrary to the Bible's approach to sanctification…

More recently still, Michael Kruger, cites a work of his own from earlier this year, and then picks up on the Phillips article and comments:

… the problem is that we don’t talk as much about how a person’s dark heart is changed after regeneration. We don’t talk as much about the new man. Thus, we can begin to believe that no one really changes. No one can really be holy. Totally depravity becomes the unfortunate justification for declaring everyone is equally as sinful as everyone else…

… We are certainly still dealing with sin in the totality of our beings, but thank God that we are no longer totally depraved. Praise God that, as Paul wrote, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Tchividjian’s point is not, however, that Christians cannot make progress in sanctification. Just yesterday he popped onto Kruger’thjkmjhgfdfghjkl;s blog and commented:

A careful reading of what I actually said in that article reveals that Christians are not totally depraved in one sense and they are in another. I made it very clear that, as understood and articulated by theologians for centuries, the idea of “total depravity” means more than one thing.

In the sense that the phrase “total depravity” pertains to Christians, I make it clear that what I mean specifically is even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin free–we remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities, in the “totality” of our being. Even after God saves us, our thoughts, words, motives, deeds, and affections need the constant cleansing of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness that comes our way for free. This is what J.C. Ryle was getting at when he wrote, “Even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned.”

And Kruger responded, “Thanks, Tullian. Great to hear from you. And I appreciate your comments and clarifications. Thanks for explaining your original article more clearly. I agree that there are different senses in which total depravity applies to Christians. I trust that these exchanges can help bring fuller clarity and precision about these things.”

The whole exchange took about 10 days. Any perceived misrepresentations were clarified, in writing and in public, in a way that persists in a form that I can write about it here, and explain it to a whole bunch of people.

Consider, however, the saga of Nestorius and Cyril. These two provided a spark for the Christological controversies of the fifth century. Their feud led to the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), and culminated in what, according to Samuel Moffett “it irreversibly split the church not only east and west but also north and south and cracked it into so many pieces that it was never the same again”. These schisms arguably were worse than any others in the history of Christianity, geographically and in terms of sheer numbers. They weakened both the North African churches and the Middle Eastern churches, and paved the way for the expansion of Islam into these areas.

The disagreements themselves began with Cyril misrepresenting something that Nestorius said – to be sure he was following Nestorius’s line of thinking “to its logical conclusion”. But Nestorius wasn’t making that conclusion. Cyril ended up [through brute force] getting the best of the Council of Ephesus. Nestorius spent the rest of his life in exile, and had his name attached to a heresy that he was not responsible for. And yet, major scholars are concluding today, “Nestorius was not guilty of Nestorianism”.

Imagine if Cyril had posted his complaints on the Internet, and allies of Nestorius had shouted him down. Imagine if Luther and Zwingli had been able to hash out their arguments via email before things got too great.

We have opportunities today to explore all of these kinds of questions in great detail, in public. And quickly.

It’s good to see how these things can be, and are, working out.


  1. I agree with your perspective on theological controversy and the positive possibilities latent with modern technology.

    In regards to the issue under discussion I posted these comments at Michael Kruger's blog:

    As I read the full exchanges I think that Rick Phillips has some good points that Tullian needs to interact with in more detail. Tullian wants to argue regarding his blog post: “This was a blog post on how remaining sin means we never outgrow our need for God’s grace. That’s it.” Maybe that was Tullian’s narrow intention but Phillips puts that narrow truth into a wider framework. He talks of how traditional Reformed theology has understood total depravity (e.g., Berkhof) and then mentions Tullian’s larger tendency to collapse sanctification into justification. It would helpful to see Tullian interact with these points. Let’s agree that Tullian’s narrow point is acceptable the question is still one of emphasis. Does the NT portrait of life in Christ lead one to emphasize a perspective of total depravity or newness of life? Sure, both elements may be present but where is the emphasis, and does that emphasis find its proper emphasis in Tullian’s teaching?

    1. Hi Richard, I appreciate your thoughts here. You asked, both elements may be present but where is the emphasis, and does that emphasis find its proper emphasis in Tullian’s teaching? I'll have to say, I don't follow Tullian's work generally, but he did make some necessary distinctions, that "total depravity isn't utter depravity", that "Christian growth and progress involves coming to the realization of just how weak and incompetent we continue to be and how strong and competent Jesus continues to be for us". These are true statements. As well, he said, "This was a blog post on how remaining sin means we never outgrow our need for God’s grace."

      Phillips does make good, pastoral points: "Praise God that, as Paul wrote, 'if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.'" That is the larger picture. But in the midst of that, however, "you and I remain desperate for God’s grace even after we’re saved."

      You can't articulate complete doctrines in a blog post. Maybe he was preaching a sermon and our ongoing need for grace, not just in justification but through the process of sanctification, and the blog post was just a way to collect and summarize his thoughts. I don't know, I don't really follow him. But the fact that we can discuss those nuances in real time, rather than waiting months and years for communications to take place, after which time, tempers have a chance to molder, is very encouraging for me.

  2. John, interesting about the Total Depravity topic. It is good to have the consensus rather than the split over that doctrine.

    Can you tell me who the major scholars are who claim “Nestorius was not guilty of Nestorianism”? I think the disagreement over TD is not as dire as Christology. However, if Nestorius was railroaded at Ephesus.

    Good post. God's peace. †

    1. Hi David, what got things started between Cyril and Nestorius was that Cyril (and others) wanted to use the phrase "theotokos" (God-bearer) as a way of describing Mary; Nestorius wanted to use "christotokos" (Christ-bearer). He suggested this was more accurate, and that using "theotokos" would displace the emphasis from Christ to Mary. Well, that's precisely the thing that happened.

      Nevertheless, in 1994, Pope John Paul II signed a Christological statement with "the churches of the East" that removed the anathema from "christotokos". There is an OLTV video in which the Orthodox bishop Timothy "Kallistos" Ware just comes right out and says "Nestorius was not guilty of the Nestorian heresy". You can see the video here: (Look at "Plenary 1", I think)

      and read more about the dispute here:

    2. Actually yes, watch video 1 of Plenary 1. There's no video for the first few seconds, but the speaker is bishop Kallistos Ware.

    3. Thank you John! Will definitely take a gander at it. I had some interesting exchanges with some reformed friends when I became Lutheran. Some of them dislike the God bearer distinction in favor of the Christ bearer. Others are more along the lines of it means the same thing.

      I did not have the internet back then to hash it out over email and blogs. But no I was excommunicated. Well over that particular issue anyway.

      pacem domine. †