DialoguesEastern OrthodoxReformedTheological Anthropology

An Ex-Calvinist’s Tiptoe Through TULIP – Total Depravity

While Tiny Tim’s song may be quite catchy, the following tiptoe through TULIP series is no light-hearted matter since, depending on how Christians respond to this Calvinist framework, our understanding of who God is and how we are saved can end up in radical opposition.  I was a five-point Calvinist from high school until my time at an Evangelical seminary, but subsequently, one-by-one I began to drop letters of the TULIP complex from my theology until I realized that I could no longer espouse any of the five points and remain in union with early Christendom.

I would like to make an important clarification initially, that the term “Calvinism” is used in a restricted sense with regard to the TULIP acronym, for this acronym deals only with John Calvin’s soteriology [doctrine of salvation]. Modern “Calvinists” today are referred to as such because they embrace this soteriology.  But the soteriological aspect of Calvin’s views is only one tenet of true Calvinism, and most are not even aware of Calvin’s surprising perspectives on other ideas such as ecclesiology, Mariology, and many taboo doctrines that would scandalize modern Evangelicals.  I will, however, continue using the term “Calvinism” in the common sense of endearment towards Calvin on his ideas only of soteriology.

After having come to Orthodox Christianity, I did not possess a systematic alternative to the TULIP acronym in my theological toolbox with which to replace these teachings, because historically the Christian East never became so meticulously scholastic and philosophical on these matterssystematizing the knowledge of God into intellectually neat, contained, and invariable tenets.  Rather, the East retained the mystical and sacramental nature of Christianity as central to relationship with God.  But despite the absence of such a methodical substitute I will do my best to describe the paradigm from which the Orthodox are operating as they reciprocate with Calvinists today.


Let us begin with a review of what John Calvin taught on the human condition after the Fall of Adam and the possibility of return to communion with God, the first item in the TULIP construct: Total Depravity.  He contends in his commentary on Genesis:

“. . . we must reflect upon our lamentable condition; namely, that the image of God being destroyed, or, at least, obliterated in us, we scarcely retain the faint shadow of a life, from which we are hastening to death.”[i]

And also on Gen. 3:1:

“In this chapter, Moses explains, that man, after he had been deceived by Satan revolted from his Maker, became entirely changed and so degenerate, that the image of God, in which he had been formed, was obliterated.”[ii]

Calvin’s favorite early writer from which he drew on quite frequently in an effort to display the historicity of his views on the extent of man’s fallenness and depravity was Saint Augustine of Hippo.  Saint Augustine, while considered a saint in the Eastern Church, is believed by nearly all Orthodox to have written very harshly in his articulation of the condition of mankind. The reason for these writings was due to Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius, a figure who had quite an optimistic outlook on the human condition and contended that a human being could potentially overcome his fallenness and attain salvation of his own will entirely apart from Divine grace.  Conversely, Augustine taught that,

“Because of the inherited depravity and corruption of sin . . . fallen humans are not free not to sin: ‘A man’s free will’ he wrote against Pelagius, ‘avails for nothing except to sin’. . . How can this be?  Augustine defined free will simply as doing what one wants to do . . . The Fall has so corrupted their motives and desires that sinning is all they want to do apart from God’s intervening grace.  Thus they are sinning ‘freely.’  Pelagius and his followers would almost certainly reject this idea of free will and argue that a person is only truly free if he could either sin or not sin.”[iii]

Augustine had been philosophically trained in a type of Persian paganism called Manichaeism prior to his conversion to Christianity, and it is often stated that he was probably lapsing into this dualistic philosophy that degraded the created order and its creatures as altogether evil when he violently reacted in his writings to the ideas Pelagius had put forth.  Whether or not this be the case, Augustine’s anthropology is not a good representation at all of that of the Orthodox Church, and his writings were rebutted with exact quotations by an Eastern saint named John Cassian, whose writings on the subject can be found here.  However, as we will see during the course of this series, Augustine’s writings did not make assertions as far and extreme as Calvin’s on many points.

Most non-Calvinist Evangelical Protestants do not take such a severe view of humanity, and are usually referred to as “Arminians,” [although Jacobus Arminius himself held to the doctrine of Total Depravity[iv]].  They instead use the term “sinful nature” in reference to the human condition.  This term has become so prevalent in America that it has unfortunately found its way into many English Bibles to translate the Greek word sarx meaning “flesh.”  While users of this term do not believe humanity to be completely depraved to the core and unable to commit or even conceive of anything righteous whatsoever, they do contend that the human being is generally evil by nature rather than only by choice.


In contrast to this defeatist outlook on the human will and nature, I would like to spend some time considering how other prominent early figures of the Church approached this topic.  Irenaeus, a pupil of Polycarp who was discipled by the Apostle John, contended,

“Therefore, the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power to do so . . . [after reciting numerous Old Testament Scriptures] All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man, and at the same time the counsel which God conveys to him, by which He exhorts us to submit ourselves to Him, and seeks to turn us away from [the sin of] unbelief against Him, without, however, in any way coercing us.[v]

Theodoret of Cyrus states in his commentary on Romans,

“We do not sin from necessity or by compulsion; rather we are overcome by desire and do things which in principle we detest.”[vi]

Consider also the words of Saint John Chrysostom writing on Romans 7:20:

“Here Paul clears both the flesh and the soul from responsibility for sin, putting all the blame on the actions themselves.  For if the soul does not want to sin it is cleared of guilt, and if it does not perform the action itself the body too is let off the hook.  Everything may thus be blamed on the evil moral choice.  The essence of the soul and body and that of choice are not the same, for the first two are God’s works and the third is a motion from within ourselves which may go in whatever direction we choose to let it.  Of course, willing is natural and God-given, but willing in this way is from us and depends on our own mind.”[vii]

I believe this is why Christ said that the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,[viii] not totally incapacitated; the flesh does not prevent our spirit from nonetheless being willing, desiring the good even though the consequences of the fall make the good action much more difficult.

Further, if it is not possible for human beings to ever avoid sin and instead choose obedience to God, it quickly becomes confusing as to how people can be judged in the end – either with reward or punishment – for lifestyles they had no control over whatsoever.  Cyril of Alexandria explains:

“It may be that someone who is forced to act against his will cannot be blamed for it, but at the same time no rational person will praise him for his godliness and righteousness either.  For why should somebody be praised for doing things against his own will, even if he is forced to do so by a power over which he has no control?”[ix]


I quoted Calvin above on the teaching that the image of God, in which humanity was created, was totally obliterated by the Fall.  The Apostle Paul talks about how creation is groaning because it has all been infected with the vicious disease of sin, [Rom. 8:19] but when we look at nature we still see the goodness that God created and called “good,” although we also see the consequences of the sin contagion played out in that good, beautiful nature.  God created humanity in His image, but if evil were to completely consume that good creature such that they could no longer be called “in His image” then they could not even be called “human” because they would no longer contain any trace of the good thing that God made.  But evil cannot consume what is good, it can only damage and contaminate it.  Evil has pervaded all things, but has not replaced them.  Paul in fact states in Romans 8:20-21 that all creation is in bondage and slavery to corruption, but that it will one day be delivered into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  If evil swallowed up everything good that was left in humanity, however, it could not simply be set free from sin and death; it would have to be completely demolished and remade from scratch.  Yes, there is no part of us (heart, soul, mind, or body) that is left without the sickness of sin and its child, death.  But because every part has been infected does not mean that the virus has replaced what it infects.  If that ceased to exist, so would the virus.

The Greek word “image” is eikon where we get “icon.”  When Steve Jobs decided to transform the computer world by using icons in the operating system, this saved people from having to type in all that computer data because one click on the icon directed the computer to all that data which it represents.  We are literally icons of God, an icon being a representation that stands in the place of a greater reality.  The word “tree,” for example, is meaningless in its actual linguistic properties, but it is given meaning by those big plants outside to which it points.  To call a human being totally depraved with nothing good whatever about them is therefore not only to disrespect the dignity of something God created, it is disrespectful to God Himself since He is the greater Reality to which our very existence and nature point.

Tertullian wrote:

“The corruption of our nature is another nature having a god and father of its own – namely, the author of corruption.  Still, there is a portion of good in the soul, of that original, divine, and genuine good, which is its proper nature.  For that which is derived from God is obscured, rather than extinguished.  It can indeed be obscured, because it is not God.  However, it cannot be extinguished, for it comes from God . . . Thus some men are very bad, and some are very good.  Yet, the souls of everyone are all of one nature.  Even in the worst person, there is something good.  And even in the best person, there is something bad . . . Just as no soul is without sin, so neither is any soul without seeds of good.”[emphasis mine][x]

Athanasius, champion of the faith in the Arian controversy of the first Ecumenical council explained:

“For the Lord aforetime hath said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you’. . . If we abide as we have been made, we are in a state of virtue, but if we think of ignoble things we shall be accounted evil. If, therefore, this thing had to be acquired from without, it would be difficult in reality; but if it is in us, let us keep ourselves from foul thoughts. And as we have received the soul as a deposit, let us preserve it for the Lord, that He may recognize His work as being the same as He made it.”[xi]


Hebrews 2:17 states:

“Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation [a “covering” or “mercy seat,” not an appeasement but quite literally a “healing” for the consequences of sin] for the sins of the people.” [emphasis mine]

The fact that Mary gave birth to the God-Man in time is of utmost importance because it means that when the Holy Spirit impregnated her He did not simply create a fetus ex nihilo, out of nothing, but Mary is actually genetically responsible for Christ’s human nature.  If Joachim and Anna (Mary’s parents) were totally depraved by nature, they would have passed this depravity on to Mary and she by necessity would have had to pass it on to Christ because she is in fact genetically related to Christ Himself.

Let me return to the term sarx, which I mentioned many Evangelicals are calling the “sinful nature” of human beings.  This word in Latin is carnewhat we use in describing Christ’s becoming human, the “incarnation.” In the Evangelical view, this would mean that Christ assumed and united Himself to what the NIV Bible calls a “sinful nature.” This entire total depravity matter simply comes down to this: do we truly believe in the Incarnation?  This is the very center of our faith as Christians and it is impossible to be too careful or overly meticulous in how we understand and articulate this very nucleus of the Gospel itself.  We are not Gnostics.  Clearly, if Christ is “incarnate” such that He is of the exact same nature as the rest of us, then the terms “total depravity” and “sinful nature” are not the proper understanding of humanness, of that which Christ assumed.

What exactly it is that Christ “assumed” was central in every Ecumenical council, as heretical teachings emerged with some new nuance that somehow made Jesus something less than God or something less than human; usually the latter.  At the sixth Ecumenical council, when heretics were contending that Christ had both a human and Divine nature but only a Divine will, the official canon of the council’s conclusion responded: “What is not assumed is not healed.”

What Christ is serves as the quintessential model of what humanity was originally intended to be, such that if He differs in any minute way from what true humanness is, then we are not saved.  It cannot be clearer.  Our hope of salvation is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into what Christ is, what He redeemed by assuming in His person. Therefore,  if being “human” is a state of total depravity, then we simply cannot get to Christ because “Immanuel” is not the case; God is not with us.  In contrast to this view, Christ exemplifies what humanness actually is so that we can abandon our dehumanization and join Him in glory, becoming truly human, the perfect image and likeness of God Himself.

        As 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it,

        But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

Stay tuned for further tiptoeing through TULIP.

View Sources
Joseph Green

Joseph Green

Joseph is committed to reading, writing, and meditating on, as well as experiencing the infinite love and wisdom of God as He has revealed Himself within the Christian Church. Having obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies at Regent University, he went on to complete a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Columbia International University in 2013. In his last semester of seminary he began investigating Orthodox Christianity and the ancient Church, and after much research, prayer, and attendance at the closest Orthodox parish an hour and a half away, he was received into the Orthodox Church in America. Joseph currently lives on his family’s farm in South Carolina and works as a videographer. His website is www.framedandshot.net.

Previous post

The Divisive Fruit of the Reformation

Next post

On Lutheranism as "Reformational Catholicism"