Church columnist: The doctrine of hereditary total depravity
Before we get into a discussion of hereditary total depravity we need to make sure everyone understands what it is we are talking about.
Doctrine simply means teaching. Hereditary refers to something that is an inherited trait or characteristic. Things like hair color, eye color, body type, etc., are hereditary traits. Total means completely, thoroughly, absolutely. Depravity refers to things that are depraved, i.e., evil or wicked.
So, hereditary total depravity is a term referring to the idea that people inherit the wickedness or sinfulness of Adam and are, therefore, born completely sinful. It is a very old doctrine that traces back to Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). Even though he was born over 300 years after the establishment of the church and the writing of the New Testament (33-68 AD), the majority of the religious world holds to his extrabibilcal teachings on the nature of man and sin.
Protestant denominations brought the doctrine of hereditary total depravity with them out of the Catholic Church.
Augustine said, “each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration” *1 [emp. mine NSF].
So Augustine believed and taught that “all born of Adam” are “condemned stock … evil and carnal.” According to him, we are born sinners because we came from Adam. He, and those who follow his teaching, use Romans 5:12, among other passages, to support their claim.
However, the spiritual death that Paul talks about in Romans 5:12 is the penalty for sin that comes upon all “because all sinned.” Paul doesn’t say that all die because they inherited Adam’s sin. He says they die because they sin (cf. Rom. 3:23).
Babies that die physically do not die as the penalty for inheriting Adam’s sin. They die innocent – sin free – because of the consequences of Adam bringing sin into the world. Man was separated from the Tree of Life and began to die physically.
That is a consequence of sin, not the penalty for personal sin. There is a big difference between the physical death, resulting from living in a sin sick world, and the spiritual death (Eph. 2:1) resulting from our personal sin.
Paul said “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Wages are something we earn or deserve. How could someone who had never sinned personally have earned a wage for his or her personal sin?
Various forms of the English word “inherit” are found 34 times in 33 verses in the NKJV New Testament. Not once do they refer to inheriting Adam’s, or anyone else’s, sin. For the sake of thoroughness, none of the various Greek words translated inheritance ever refer to sin either.
The Bible never teaches that sin is something that is inherited. To the contrary, the Bible teaches consistently that people are personally responsible for their own sins. God does not hold us accountable for anyone’s sins but our own.
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Sometimes people will try to use passages like Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 58:3 to show that people are “born sinful.” However, neither of those passages, or any other, teaches that sin is inherited. In the case of Psalm 51:5, David is using the literary device of hyperbole to emphasize his own guilt and sorrow over his personal sins committed in connection with his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba (cf. Ps. 51:title).
Over and over again, David expresses his guilt and heart break for choosing to transgress against God, always referring to it as my sin, my transgressions.
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight” (Ps. 51:3). Hyperbole is a figure of speech where the writer uses an absurd exaggeration to emphasize his point. It is like when we emphasize our forgetfulness by saying something like, “if my head wasn’t attached I’d forget it at home.”
We don’t literally mean that we can leave our head behind. Neither does David literally mean that he was born a sinner.
The same figurative speech is used in Psalm 58, also written by David. It is even more obvious there that David is not speaking literally when he says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb” (Ps. 58:3).
If this is not hyperbole and should be taken literally to say that babies are separated sinners from God right out of the womb then it is also literal when it says that their teeth should be broken out of their mouth (Ps. 58:6), and that they speak lies as soon as they are born (Ps. 58:3).
Really? Are we honestly to believe that David taught, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that babies are not only born sinners but that they are born speaking and with teeth? And those little evil sinners need to be punched in the mouth to have their teeth knocked out?
Really? Who could believe such a thing! David is clearly speaking figuratively, using a figure of speech to emphasize how wicked the grown sinners were that he was writing about (Ps. 58:10, 11).
When people try to justify a man-made doctrine by Scripture then they will run into contradictions. Truth cannot contradict truth! So, if David and Paul were actually teaching that people are born sinners then Ezekiel must have been a false prophet.
Ezekiel goes into great detail about our own personal responsibility for our own sins. He gives the children of Israel a rebuke for misusing a proverb to teach that they were being punished for he sins of their fathers and not their own (Ezek. 18:1-3). The rest of the chapter (Ezekiel 18) says over and over again that the son does not bare the guilt of the father.
Hereditary Total Depravity says the son does bare the guilt of the father and uses the passages previously mentioned to justify their claim. That creates a contradiction between Ezekiel and those passages, as well as other contradictions (viz. Isa. 59, et al).
Again, truth cannot contradict truth. If your understanding of one passage creates a contradiction with another passage then you need to restudy the issue because the problem is with you, not the Bible. When you properly understand those passages and throw out the man-made doctrine then there are no contradictions.
Hereditary total depravity is a man-made doctrine that must be thrown out!
*1. Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 284.